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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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Instruction

Stickney: Sit on it (for a better backswing)

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As we know golf, is a very tough sport and one that involves many moving pieces. Whenever something overreacts or moves too much on the way back, you end up playing catch-up on the way down. One of my favorite things to watch is how the head moves or doesn’t move on the backswing. Sure, you can have some movement, but you can’t have too much or you put yourself behind the eight ball.

I have charted the head position of a tour player at address and we can see that this is a very normal set up position. It is one that looks positioned to do great things.

However, en route to the top, you can see that this player has put himself into a position where his rear knee straightened too rapidly off the start of his backswing. When this occurs the pelvis “runs out from under” the upper body on the backswing the hips will react and begin to slant downward. (You can see a -10 degree tilt versus 3 degrees the opposite way at address for you number people.)

This causes the head to move out in front of where it was at address. This is not a bad position for the irons but for a driver we have a pending issue. If you don’t make a compensation from here then the player will have an angle of attack that is too much downward through impact with their driver.

As the player moves into his transition, the hips have leveled as the rear shoulder lowers the club into delivery but the head and pelvis are still too far out in front of the ball. The only thing you can do from here is fire the lead side upwards and hope that your head falls back into the correct position. If so, you will have the correct angle of attack, if not, you will chop down on the ball causing your launch conditions to be faulty.

And as we see here that this is precisely what this player did at the very last minute…not the easiest way to swing the club but it is functional IF you make the right correction. So, now that you understand how simple things like the action of the lower body can cause your head to move and your angle of attack to become faulty, what is the secret to controlling your lower body?


Just “sit” on the rear knee flex slightly longer during the backswing as you see here. This will slow down the tilting of the pelvis on backswing and thus your head will stay more in position en route to the top.

Personally, I teach both flexion and extension of the rear knee to the top, depending on what the player is wanting to do, so it really does not matter. However, what does matter is the rate at which it begins to straighten for those of you who do allow it to lengthen. I try to make most of my students hold the most of their address flex until the club moves between belt and chest high, any sooner and you risk the faulty pivot we saw above.

Therefore, take it from me and “sit on it” slightly longer for more quiet head motions as well as a more balanced backswing—your angle of attack will thank you!

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Instruction

Davies: Training the trail elbow in the golf swing

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Alistair Davies shares with you how to get the correct trail arm and elbow action in the downswing. He shares some great drills that can be done at the range or at home to help lower your scores.Get the correct training for the trail arm here today!

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The important lessons you can learn from Peter Senior’s golf swing

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He may not be a household name in the United States, but Australia’s Peter Senior has a swing for the ages. At 60 years old, Senior has 34 worldwide professional wins including the 2015 Australian Masters beating a competitive field with several top-ranked players in the world. Turning professional in 1978, his career has spanned over 40 years.

Senior’s game and swing have stood the test of time, and the longevity of his career should be recognized. Senior formerly worked with Australian instructor Gary Edwin, and the structure to this swing taught to Senior paved the way for a future of consistent, high-quality professional golf.

Having a great golf swing isn’t the only key to becoming a great golfer, one must learn to play the game. However, you can learn a lot from Senior’s swing.

The origin to Senior’s swing lies in his set-up. Senior sets up in what I call his “hitting angles” or a position that mirrors impact.

From this position, Senior is able to simply keep these angles he established at address throughout the swing. This is why the set-up is so critical. The further he deviates from these “hitting angles”, the more he will have to find that impact position with his body in the backswing and downswing. In other words, more movement. The goal of his backswing will be to maintain these original starting angles.

From the picture, Senior has maintained his original body shape that he established at address. From this position, it will be much easier and repeatable to return the club to impact.

Note how his impact position now mirrors his original address position. All his original angles were maintained with a slight bump of the body towards the target. From impact, he can simply fold up his arms as his right side of his body rotates around his left side, keeping the clubface square to the body.

This standing tall finish position with the head following the torso is much easier on the back. His body has come forward and around beautifully, covering the ball for a proper strike.

The beauty of Senior’s swing lies in its simplicity. The changes Senior made to his swing can apply to anyone. Let’s look at two simple drills to make your swing more efficient and powerful.

“To a large extent, my backswing is a product of my set-up position” – Tiger Woods, Golf Digest 2020

To get into these impact angles simply practice pushing into an impact bag with the head and shaft of the club. Make sure your trail arm is tucked, lowering the trail shoulder as you pressure the bag.

To get the feeling of the proper coil from this set-up position, grab an impact bag and hold the bag in front of you.

From here, swing the bag around you with your arms keeping the top of the bag level. You will feel the trail side of your body move back and the lead side move out, coiling around your spine angle.

The trail glute will also move back and around with this drill, a key move the great Ben Hogan used to pivot his body. To develop an efficient swing and a long, injury-free career, take note of Peter Senior’s key moves.

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