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In a slump? Try the Substitution Solution

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insanity noun in·san·i·ty | \ in-?sa-n?-t? – Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result

When it comes to slumps, the yips, and other mental blocks, one of the most effective solutions is often the most obvious – what I like to call the Substitution Solution.

Now, the familiarity of habits, routines, and sticking with the tried and true can definitely have its place in playing good golf, but when things go south, making a change isn’t necessarily just a band-aid fix, but can often be the path to a long-term solution. And, as much as there are specific scientific reasons for why it works, most players instinctively gravitate to this method without even considering whether or not there is any actual evidence to back it up.

The Substitution Solution is the simple act of replacing whatever you do with something new. This may mean a new routine, a new technique, a new way of thinking, or even a new implement for the one that is currently so ill-designed for the purpose. And the aforementioned definition of insanity is a big part of why it’s the first thing we try when we’re in a slump of some sort. But, before I get to all the scientific mumbo-jumbo for why substitution might be the path to a solution (even if only temporary), let’s take a look at some of the ways in which it’s done in case you need some new ideas.

New Routines

If you’re in a slump the first thing you should try changing is what you are doing in the moments immediately leading up to the problem. Do you currently have an actual pre-shot or pre-putt routine? One of the biggest reasons players in all sports get so involved and ritualized in their routines is to take their conscious mind off of what they are doing.

Twenty-five years ago, long before it was in vogue to have a mental game coach, I knew PGA Tour player who loved to say “focus on the process, not the consequence.” It was his way of trying to get so wrapped up in the process of repeating his routine, down to the most minute detail, that it crowded out all the negative type of thinking that he wanted to avoid. So, if you don’t have a routine, adopt one. And if you do, is it so habituated that you can perform it without thinking?

If you can’t tell someone right now exactly what you do every single time you walk into a shot, you need to start paying attention, and then ritualize that process. If you can, but it’s not working, then it might be time to change it up. The act of changing your routine, or consciously adopting a new one, does one very important thing. It forces you to get in the present, and there is a reason they call it the present, it’s a gift. An often particularly important gift to those of you whose games or at least an element of your game has gotten mired in a rut.

New implements

Trying a new driver or putter is likely the most obvious starting point for those whose games, or an element of their games are suddenly in a bad place. And this approach, while it should be used in moderation unless you’ve got more money than sense, does have a bit of merit. A new Driver, especially if the one you have is out-dated or ill-fit, might not just add a few yards, but can do wonders for your confidence if it suddenly starts finding more fairways.

With the advent of launch-monitors and the myriad of options for adjustability, that today’s equipment has there is really no reason not to be fit correctly, but many still aren’t, so if your driver can remember hitting balls covered with balata then it’s long since time you traded ol’ Bessie in.

With putters, the investment can be even less. Most of us have an old putter (or twelve) sitting around in the garage, and a quick visit there may reveal one that you’d forgotten about that holds at least a few memories of better days. Don’t like any of your relics? Head to the golf shop then, and ask the pro to try out the latest and greatest. A putter that is more face-balanced, counter-balanced, has an insert, or a higher MOI can really offer quite a different feel and get you started down a different road.

You can even change the grip to a much larger one, helping to quiet those small motor muscles in your hands and giving you a steadier stroke. As the legendary Bagger Vance once said, “a man’s grip on his club just like a man’s grip on his world.”

New techniques

The third thing we instinctively do when problems arise is change our technique. Now this can be a very slippery slope, reinforcing the bad habit of never being quite committed to what you do, but sometimes, it’s just time for a new technique.

Outside of putting, you may want to take that oh’ so painful trip to the lesson tee and see your local professional about what may be going on mechanically that has led to your current state. Sometimes mental blocks are just mental blocks, but very often they’re rooted in mechanical flaws, and the revelation that you’ve got some issues with your technique that can be corrected can be, in and of itself, quite a relief. Having something physical, instead of mental, to explain/blame all those wayward tee shots, chili-dips, or terribly pulled putts can actually take a lot of the pressure off, especially once you’ve taken steps to correct it.

New thinking

This final one is a bit more esoteric in nature, but poor ways of thinking are often the biggest culprit when it comes to the yips and other mental blocks. You can’t be walking into the ball with thoughts of how embarrassed you will be after missing yet another short putt, or hitting a third tee shot in a row right in the lumberyard.

Positive thinking may have you feeling a bit like a Pollyanna and you’ve never been one to be delusional, but really, when you think about it, you’ve made way more short putts than you’ve ever missed, and hit far more balls in play than not. Unless you’ve gotten to the point where you need an 18-pack of the inexpensive top-rocks just to get around or your taking more putts on the course than actual golf shots, then your perception of how bad things are is likely far worse than it really is.

Get back to reality and take a little cue from the Zen Buddhists and learn a bit about the idea of impermanence. The game of golf, our golf games, and life itself are an ebb and flow. You never stay down as long as you think you will, nor do you stay on top forever. Things not only aren’t ever as bad as you build them up in your mind to be, but neither likely is the pain of any related consequence as unbearable as you have come to convince yourself of. Understand that, accept less, and you’ll likely get more.

So now that you’ve got a handful of things to experiment with, let me explain in layman’s terms why these are the first things you should try when some element of your game is in a rut, and why (scientifically) they actually work.

First of all, changing anything, whether it be our routine, our technique, our thinking, or the offending implements, forces our minds into the present. Once something becomes familiar, or habitual it is much easier for our brains to drift into faulty ways of thinking since we don’t really need to actually think about what we’re doing while we’re doing it. In performing a habitual act, like a putting routine and stroke in the same way we always do, our minds are freed up to wander to past mistakes, future unwanted consequences, or the type of negative self-flagellation we should all realize by now is less than productive.

Secondly, when we do something different, or start using different tools for a task, it puts our brains temporarily back into learning mode. Mental blocks like the yips often arise once we’ve become reasonably proficient at doing something, and by putting our brains back into learning mode it circumvents the area of the brain where the faulty pattern resides. And, while we can’t actually remove the old pattern completely (it’s in there), we can build new neural pathways related to the new skill or way of being required. These new pathways, especially if they’re anchored by some new-found success, can start to re-build the confidence we’ve lost, which is the biggest culprit when we find our games in an undesirable place.

So the next time you’re in a slump, try the Substitution Solution. It can and does work, in golf and in life, and because just doing the same thing over and over again is…well, you know the rest.

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Mike Dowd is the author of the new novel COMING HOME and the Lessons from the Golf Guru: Wit, Wisdom, Mind-Tricks & Mysticism for Golf and Life series. He has been Head PGA Professional at Oakdale Golf & CC in Oakdale, California since 2001, and is serving his third term on the NCPGA Board of Directors and Chairs the Growth of the Game Committee. Mike has introduced thousands of people to the game and has coached players that have played golf collegiately at the University of Hawaii, San Francisco, U.C. Berkeley, U.C. Davis, University of the Pacific, C.S.U. Sacramento, C.S.U. Stanislaus, C.S.U. Chico, and Missouri Valley State, as men and women on the professional tours. Mike currently lives in Turlock, California with his wife and their two aspiring LPGA stars, where he serves on the Turlock Community Theatre Board, is the past Chairman of the Parks & Recreation Commission and is a member of the Kiwanis Club of Greater Turlock. In his spare time (what's that?) he enjoys playing golf with his girls, writing, music, fishing and following the foibles of the Sacramento Kings, the San Francisco 49ers, the San Francisco Giants, and, of course, the PGA Tour. You can find Mike at mikedowdgolf.com.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. geohogan

    Feb 26, 2019 at 10:05 am

    Johnny Miller had a label for , Substitution Solution.
    He called them WOOD…”works only one day”

    Call it placebo effect or insanity, substitution solution only contributes to the frustration of golfers.

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