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Why your comfort zone is killing your golf game

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As the golf clock ticks we all get trapped in repeating habits, and a golfer’s “comfort zone” is most often below where he or she is capable of playing.

What people may not know about these repeating habits is that they often don’t recognize them, and acknowledging them is key because they shape what they can and can’t do. People become comfortable with these behaviors, and they end up running the show.

Most people are familiar with the idea of comfort zone: the space where your activities and behaviors fit a routine and pattern that minimizes stress and risk. It’s a comfortable place where people aren’t threatened and everything always stays the same, and that offers mental security.

The Comfort Zone Explained

There’s a lot of science that highlights why it’s so challenging to break out of your comfort zone, and why it’s good for you when you do it. With a little understanding and a few adjustments, you can break away from your comfort zone on the course…and this will lead to rewarding improvement in your game.

In 1908, psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson showed that a state of comfort created a steady level of performance. They also highlighted that if you want to increase your performance, a state of relative anxiety is needed – a place where stress levels are slightly higher than normal. This is called Optimal Anxiety and it’s beyond your comfort zone. Further, they also showed that too much anxiety can produce too much stress, leading to performance drop-offs. So finding the right balance for you in your game is key.

You are not alone in the quest to expand your comfort zone. The leading professional golfers and other athletes I work with daily are constantly working to shift their comfort zone and find the place leading to higher performance. If you want to become a better player and see improvement, finding your own approach to shift your comfort zone is an important exercise for you too.

The Golf Treadmill

Let me give you an example of my first introduction to the comfort zone.

When I was growing up at the golf club, I did the scoring each year at the club championship. I stood at the scoreboard and marked scores of the membership. Players were categorized in four divisions (A, B, C and D) based on handicap index. I saw the same faces each year, and year after year the same players turned in basically the same scores.

I always wondered how it was possible that a golfer could play Confined by Walls Image(and practice) the game for 10, 20 or 30 years and stay in the same division every year without any real shift in improvement. I saw little shift between divisions from year-to-year.

The answer is these players, over time, became comfortable with where they were and never addressed how they might shift their comfort zone and move to another level of play.

The longer you stay in the same comfort zone, the more it shrinks and the harder it is to expand it. And the more you continue to do the same things, make the same mistakes and engrain the same habits, the more your comfort zone shrinks – and you become THAT player – your identity.

What Causes You to Be in the Comfort Zone?

You’ve seen it many times. You or your playing partners start playing great or “out of your mind” and then whammo – a string of poor play occurs. This often happens when a player has some good play early and then subconsciously slips back to “where he or she should be.”

In your golf game, your comfort zone is determined by the range of scores you typically shoot – let’s say between 85 and 90. Whenever you play, you’d like to shoot a lower score, but you are expecting a result in your “usual” range. Inevitably, you’ll have rounds where you flirt with scores outside your zone; maybe you reach the turn at 3-over par, recognizing that a similar back nine will give you a score well under your normal zone.

Then what happens?

You start thinking about what could be. You start playing defensively, trying to “protect” your great round. Next thing you know, you’ve adjusted everything back to your comfort zone and the career round fades away.

I’m sure you’ve also seen the reverse happen. You are playing terrible and then a sudden surge of good play at the end of the round mysteriously puts you back in your comfort zone.

What are Your Roadblocks to Growth as a Player?

We all have roadblocks to growth. In spite of your efforts to grow and get better, certain walls can interfere with your progress. Here are a few that may be familiar to you:

Fear of growth (not feeling safe to grow): A major barrier is what is called the “I’m stuck” syndrome. “I’ve always played that way, so how could I possibly change?” You feel stuck at times, and when you do, you don’t feel great about yourself… or your game.

A negative view of yourself as a golfer: You see and know yourself as a “D” player or someone who struggles to shoot good scores, so that’s where you stay as a golfer.

Skepticism: You believe any steps you take to improve won’t work or will be a waste of time. “I tried that and it didn’t work.”

Uncertainty regarding how to begin or what direction to take: You don’t know how to get better, how to evaluate your game or what steps to take to do it.

Challenging yourself emotionally: Force yourself to work on your weaknesses. It’s not an easy thing to do, and not as fun as the feeling of working on your strengths and seeing a good result.

It’s too late for me to change, I’m too old or I don’t have enough time: You use excuses that it’s not the right time to improve your game. This is a state of procrastination.

The most important factor for you to break out of your comfort zone is asking yourself why you are doing it. It can’t be for contrived or superficial reasons. You must be genuinely interested in improvement, and know what benefits you want to get out of it.

Build Slowly

Expanding the perimeter of your comfort zone by slowly and intelligently pushing your barriers will build confidence. The process should be methodical and progressive. Don’t run out and try to change your entire game overnight. Evaluate what needs to be done – physically, mentally and emotionally to move up a level – and create the steps to get there. It will be a gradual process and almost guaranteed won’t be a straight line.

Some Ideas to Start Expanding Your Comfort Zone

Face Your Fears: Stepping out of your comfort zone will probably cause some fear, and the dreaded “what ifs” are the downfall of many players.

  • What if I fail?
  • What if I really can’t do this?
  • What if I’m not good enough?

Stay in the moment and do things slowly and purposefully. A committed plan with reasonable milestones will give you the confidence to get to a new place.

Comfort Zone Image 2Change Your Routine: You can begin growing your comfort zone through small changes in your approach to the game, adding 45 minutes each week in short game practice, taking one lesson per week working on building limitations, or getting to the course 30 minutes early to warm up. Break out of your normal routine to help break through mental barriers. Create a goal to perform a new swing movement, task, or practice regime each week.

Get Out of Your Own Way: See yourself in a new light, because you probably put self-induced limits on yourself. The truth is that sometimes you’ve just got to get out of your own way. If you begin seeing yourself as a better player, chances are you will be. Raise your opinion of your game and yourself and you will set the table for better performance.

Time to Change: Comfort feels all cozy and warm when you’re in it, but it’s also a double-edged sword. Stay comfortable for too long and you begin to get bored, lazy and too satisfied. If you want to improve, avoid being a walking golf zombie: just another “D” player that does what he/she has always done. Challenge your status quo, push your limits and you’ll see the game in a new light.

It won’t be easy, but I think you’ll like the results.

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John Haime is the President of New Edge Performance. He's a Human Performance Coach who prepares performers to be the their best by helping them tap into the elusive 10 percent of their abilities that will get them to the top. This is something that anyone with a goal craves, and John Haime knows how to get performers there. John closes the gap for performers in sports and business by taking them from where they currently are to where they want to go.  The best in the world trust John. They choose him because he doesn’t just talk about the world of high performance – he has lived it and lives in it everyday. He is a former Tournament Professional Golfer with professional wins. He has a best-selling book, “You are a Contender,” which is widely read by world-class athletes, coaches and business performers.  He has worked around the globe for some of the world’s leading companies. Athlete clients include performers who regularly rank in the Top-50 in their respective sports. John has the rare ability to work as seamlessly in the world of professional sports as he does in the world of corporate performance. His primary ambition writing for GolfWRX is to help you become the golfer you'd like to be. See www.johnhaime.com for more. Email: [email protected]

19 Comments

19 Comments

  1. kik hack spy tool

    Oct 2, 2015 at 3:19 am

    Many players often join to play with their friends who
    are at a higher level and will have to play non-stop to get to a high enough level to join them.

  2. Philip

    Jul 3, 2015 at 5:49 pm

    A lot of truth in the concept of comfort zones. I see it plentiful within myself and others around me. However, for golf it does not apply to me as I have deliberately decided a few years ago when I got back into golf to always push myself outside my comfort zone to prove to myself how good I could be at something if I worked hard at it, kept setting higher goals, and never quit. Occasionally, I think that it would be more enjoyable if I just settled into a comfort zone and cruised, but I already do that too much in my life. My golf journey is a catalyst to living and to stop just existing.

  3. DrCRHop

    Jun 30, 2015 at 11:03 am

    Unfortunately, mice and rats are not humans. And even though they can and are used in studies, many of those do not translate to humans. Anxiety studies are notoriously wrought with issues trying to translate rodents to humans. So, although you quote the person from the NIH, and what they said is true in some instances, any study to do with the CNS (anxiety/depression/etc) are not translatable. Mice are not small rats, and rats are not small people. Quite a stretch the tie them together.

    • John Haime

      Jun 30, 2015 at 2:03 pm

      Hey Dr.CRHop,

      Would be pleased to take this offline with you and explain. Conversation definitely getting away from the original intention. A focus on mice is not the focus to help GolfWRX readers with their game.

      As you know, Yerkes Dodson is the most quoted experiment in psychology in the area of optimal anxiety and the parabolic performance curve. If I am stretching this – some of the leading psychologists in history have also done the same thing – so I’m in good company (:

      Would be pleased to help you with your game and how you might play better.

      Cheers!

  4. Alex

    Jun 30, 2015 at 9:03 am

    This “comfort zone” theory seems to be true when you talk about amateur golf. I’m a lower single digit handicap so at my club I’m at the top of the pyramid. I feel ok about that. Could I play better? Yes, of course, but It’d imply working harder at my golf.

    The bracket next to the top at my club always wants a more inclusive Club Championship. They say more players need to have a possibility to compete. That’s classic comfort zone. They don’t think “If I work harder I can reach the upper echelon”

    In golf if you want to seriously improve you need to peel your ass off and you need to have goals to meet. Most amateurs don’t take lessons, they check on the internet for quick fixes, or they buy the magical club. That’s the path to failure.

    It’s not necessary to be gifted to be an accomplished player. It’s all about attitude.

    • John Haime

      Jun 30, 2015 at 4:06 pm

      Good points Alex. Yes, goals – defining them and the plan to reach them is a good step in expanding comfort zone.

      And yes, great point. Attitude is key.

      Cheers.

  5. other paul

    Jun 28, 2015 at 10:47 pm

    When ever i think that a hole is important I mess it up. I much prefer to write my score on a little piece of paper in my pocket and not actually read it. Then total it at the end.

  6. May be typos

    Jun 28, 2015 at 9:18 am

    anyone can be great at golf,
    They just need the right nail drill

  7. James Fairbank

    Jun 28, 2015 at 7:34 am

    The Yerkes-Dodson law is an outdated and simplified explanation of the anxiety/performance relationship. The notion of “stepping outside of your comfort zone” is not an original thought either, and has been replicated (I’m assuming unsourced) over and over on many different pop psychology blogs. I encourage anyone to google the phrases “comfort zone where the magic happens” or “your comfort zone real life” and notice the countless images that pop-up expressing these ideas to see what I’m talking about. I am curious to read more information and the expansion to the theory, which you offered in a comment above.

    • John Haime

      Jun 29, 2015 at 1:55 pm

      Hi James,

      Thanks for the comments.

      As you know, there is only so much detail that can be included in a short article. The Yerkes Dodson experiment is a good illustration of the performance/anxiety relationship – and important because it was the initial structure for other work. Articles here are to inspire thought, consider the subject, consider how it might apply to you and create some action. My role here is to introduce, inspire further thought and give some potential solutions. I am hoping readers will consider the subject, see it is important and be inspired to learn more.

      Expansion of comfort zone is more relevant than stepping outside of a comfort zone. Everyone has a comfort zone – but expanding beyond the current state is the key.

      Please email me at [email protected] and happy to send you more detailed info related to this area.

      Thanks again James,

      John

  8. Alex

    Jun 27, 2015 at 12:33 pm

    Great article. It’s got me thinking…

  9. 4pillars

    Jun 26, 2015 at 2:45 pm

    The 1908 experiment By Yerks and Dobson was on mice,

    Couldn’t you cone up with more relevant real data

    • John Haime

      Jun 26, 2015 at 3:23 pm

      Thanks 4pillars.

      Yes, Yerkes/Dodson – two noted psychologists originally conducted the experiment on mice. It was to start the argument that stimulation up to certain levels increases performance – but stimulation above certain levels can cause decrease in performance. Directly related to comfort zone and finding your own space to expand you comfort zone. Based on this initial reseach – the introduction of the concept of “Optimal Anxiety” was introduced, many others have validated that this is indeed relevant in performance.

      The Yerkes/Dodson work points out the roots of the work – much expansion since then.

      Would be pleased to provide more info if required.

      The idea of comfort zone is a great topic and has been looked at closely in performance.

      The best to you,

      John

      • John Haime

        Jun 26, 2015 at 3:36 pm

        One more quick note 4pillars – directly from Live Science …

        The reason rodents are used as models in medical testing is that their genetic, biological and behavior characteristics closely resemble those of humans, and many symptoms of human conditions can be replicated in mice and rats. “Rats and mice are mammals that share many processes with humans and are appropriate for use to answer many research questions,” said Jenny Haliski, a representative for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare.

        Mice also make efficient research animals because their anatomy, physiology and genetics are well-understood by researchers, making it easier to tell what changes in the mice’s behaviors or characteristics are caused by.

      • John Haime

        Jun 26, 2015 at 4:06 pm

        4Pillars – one more piece of info FYI – that might help … research often begins with mice to demonstrate ideas …

        A primary reason mice are used as models in medical testing is that their genetic, biological and behavior characteristics closely resemble those of humans, and many symptoms of human conditions can be replicated in mice and rats. “Rats and mice are mammals that share many processes with humans and are appropriate for use to answer many research questions,” said Jenny Haliski, a representative for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare.

        Mice also make efficient research animals because their anatomy, physiology and genetics are well-understood by researchers, making it easier to tell what changes in the mice’s behaviors or characteristics are caused by.

  10. ca1879

    Jun 26, 2015 at 10:00 am

    Nice little fantasy, but most people play at the level that their talent and preparation allow. The reason you saw the same faces in the same groups year after year is dead obvious. They weren’t in their comfort zone, they were in their talent zone. All the pop psychology in the world isn’t going to turn a duffer into a club champion.

    • MHendon

      Jun 26, 2015 at 11:00 am

      Not entirely true. I for one tend to start playing poorly when I have a few holes left and I’m a shot or two under par at that point. I’ll swear I’m not feeling the pressure but it happens almost every time. One of my best examples of that is a few years ago going into the 18th a par five at my home course I was 3 under thinking par ties my best, birdie gives me a new best. I ended up quadruple bogeying it. The crazy thing is the week before and the week after when it didn’t matter I eagled the hole.

    • John Haime

      Jun 26, 2015 at 11:30 am

      Hey CA,

      Thanks for the comment and perspective.

      FYI – shifting comfort zone is not a fantasy. I do this every day with leading athletes and we generate results and change levels.

      I agree that someone with limited physical talent can jump to a level of club champion – but, if patient, with the right process, they can significantly shift their ability level.

      I think your comment really highlights the roadblocks I highlight in the article. If you don’t think you can do it – you never will. The subconscious mind is incredibly powerful and what you feed into it – comes out the other side.

      Thanks again for adding to the conversation.

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Instruction

Why you are probably better at golf than you think (Part 2)

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Golf is very much a monkey-see-monkey-do sport. If you ever go to the local range, you are sure to see golfers trying to copy the moves of their favorite player. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it does not. While I understand the logic of trying to mimic the “secret move” of the most recent winner on tour, I always balk when the person trying to create their best impression fails to realize the physical differences between them and the best golfing athletes in the world.

Read part 1 here. 

In addition to most golfers not being at the same fitness levels as the best players in the world, they also do not have bodies that are identical to their favorite player. This single statement proves why there is not one golf swing; we all are different sizes and are going to swing the club differently due to these physical differences.

You have to understand your swing

The biggest reason I believe that golfers are better than they think is most golfers I meet do not understand what their swings should look like. Armed with video after video of their golf swing, I will always hear about the one thing that the golfer wishes they could change. However, that one thing is generally the “glue” or athleticism of the athlete on display and is also the thing that allows them to make decent contact with the ball.

We are just coming out of the “video age” of golf instruction, and while I think that recording your golf swing can be extremely helpful, I think that it is important to understand what you are looking for in your swing. As a young coach, I fell victim to trying to create “pretty swings”, but quickly learned that there is not a trophy for prettiest swing.

It comes down to form or function, and I choose function

The greatest gift I have ever received as an instructor was the recommendation to investigate Mike Adams and BioSwing Dynamics. Mike, E.A. Tischler, and Terry Rowles have done extensive research both with tour-level players as well as club golfers and have developed a way to test or screen each athlete to determine not only how their golf swing will look, but also how they will use the ground to create their maximum speed. This screen can be completed with a tape measure and takes about five minutes, and I have never seen results like I have since I began measuring.

For example, a golfer with a greater wingspan than height will have a golf swing that tracks more to the outside during the backswing and intersects the body more towards the trail shoulder plane during the backswing. A golfer with a shorter wingspan than height will have a swing that tracks more to the inside and intersects the body closer to the trail hip plane. Also, a golfer with a greater wingspan than height will have a more upright dynamic posture than a golfer with a shorter wingspan than height who will be more “bent over” at the address position.

Sport coats and golf swings

Have you ever bought a sport coat or suit for a special occasion? If so, pay attention to whether it is a short, regular, or long. If you buy a long, then it means that your arms are longer than your torso and you can now understand why you produce a “steeper” backswing. Also, if you stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart and your middle-finger tips touching the top of your kneecaps, you will have perfect dynamic posture that matches your anatomy. If it appears that you are in a taller posture, then you have your second clue that your wingspan is greater than your height.

Translation to improvement

Using this and five other screens, we can help the athletes understand a complete blueprint of their golf swing based off their anatomy. It is due to the work of Mike, E.A., and Terry that we can now matchup the player to their swing and help them play their best. The reason that I believe that most golfers are better than they think is that most golfers have most of the correct puzzle pieces already. By screening each athlete, we can make the one or two adjustments to get the player back to trusting their swing and feeling in control. More importantly, the athlete can revisit their screen sheet when things misfire and focus on what they need to do, instead of what not to do.

We are all different and all have different swings. There is no one way to swing a golf club because there is no one kind of golfer. I encourage every golfer to make their swing because it is the only one that fits.

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How golf should be learned

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With the COVID-19 pandemic, golf is more popular than ever. Beginners being introduced to the game often find that golf is very hard, much harder than other sports they have played. To simplify the golf swing and make the game easier, it needs to start with a concept.

Golf should first be learned from a horizontal position. If the ball was placed four feet above the ground on a large tee, players would naturally turn in an efficient direction with the proper sequence to strike the ball on the tee.

Take for example, a person throwing a ball towards a target. With their eyes out in front of them? having an awareness to the target, their body would naturally turn in a direction to go forward and around towards the target. In golf, we are bent over from the hips, and we are playing from the side of the golf ball, so players tend to tilt their body or over-rotate, causing an inefficient backswing.

This is why the golf swing should be looked at as a throwing motion. The trail arm folds up as the body coils around. To throw a ball further, the motion doesn’t require more body turn or a tilt of the body.

To get the feeling of this horizontal hitting position or throwing motion, start by taking your golf posture. Make sure your trail elbow is bent and tucked with your trail shoulder below your lead shoulder.

From here, simply lift your arms in front of you while you maintain the bend from your hips. Look over your lead shoulder looking at the target. Get the clubhead traveling first and swing your arms around you. Note how your body coils. Return the club back to its original position.

After a few repetitions, simply lower your arms back to the ball position, swing your arms around you like you did from the horizontal position. Allow your shoulders, chest and hips to be slightly pulled around. This is now your “throwing position” in the golf swing. From here, you are ready to make a downswing with less movement needed to make a proper strike.

Note: Another great drill to get the feel for this motion is practicing Hitting driver off your knees.

Twitter: @KKelley_golf

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Why you are probably better at golf than you think (Part 1)

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Golf is hard. I spend my career helping people learn that truth, but golfers are better than they give themselves credit for.

As a golf performance specialist, I give a lot of “first time working together” lessons, and most of them start the same way. I hear about all the ways the golfer is cursed and how s/he is never going to “get it” and how s/he should take up another sport. Granted, the last statement generally applies to an 18-plus handicap player, but I hear lots of negatives from better players as well.

Even though the golfers make convincing arguments for why they are cursed, I know the truth. It’s my job to help them realize the fates aren’t conspiring against them.

All golfers can play well consistently

I know this is a bold statement, but I believe this because I know that “well” does not equate to trophies and personal bests. Playing “well” equates to understanding your margin of error and learning to live within it.

With this said, I have arrived at my first point of proving why golfers are not cursed or bad golfers: They typically do not know what “good” looks like.

What does “good” look like from 150 yards out to a center pin?

Depending on your skill level, the answer can change a lot. I frequently ask golfers this same question when selecting a shot on the golf course during a coaching session and am always surprised at the response. I find that most golfers tend to either have a target that is way too vague or a target that is much too small.

The PGA Tour average proximity to the hole from 150 yards is roughly 30 feet. The reason I mention this statistic is that it gives us a frame of reference. The best players in the world are equivalent to a +4 or better handicap. With that said, a 15-handicap player hitting it to 30 feet from the pin from 150 yards out sounds like a good shot to me.

I always encourage golfers to understand the statistics from the PGA Tour not because that should be our benchmark, but because we need to realize that often our expectations are way out of line with our current skill level. I have found that golfers attempting to hold themselves to unrealistic standards tend to perform worse due to the constant feeling of “failing” they create when they do not hit every fairway and green.

Jim Furyk, while playing a limited PGA Tour schedule, was the most accurate driver of the golf ball during the 2020 season on the PGA Tour hitting 73.96 percent of his fairways (roughly 10/14 per round) and ranked T-136 in Strokes Gained: Off-The-Tee. Bryson Dechambeau hit the fairway 58.45 percent (roughly 8/14 per round) of the time and ranked first in Strokes Gained: Off-The-Tee.

There are two key takeaways in this comparison

Sometimes the fairway is not the best place to play an approach shot from. Even the best drivers of the golf ball miss fairways.

By using statistics to help athletes gain a better understanding of what “good” looks like, I am able to help them play better golf by being aware that “good” is not always in the middle of the fairway or finishing next to the hole.

Golf is hard. Setting yourself up for failure by having unrealistic expectations is only going to stunt your development as a player. We all know the guy who plays the “tips” or purchases a set of forged blades applying the logic that it will make them better in the long run—how does that story normally end?

Take action

If you are interested in applying some statistics to your golf game, there are a ton of great apps that you can download and use. Also, if you are like me and were unable to pass Math 104 in four attempts and would like to do some reading up on the math behind these statistics, I highly recommend the book by Mark Broadie Every Shot Counts. If you begin to keep statistics and would like how to put them into action and design better strategies for the golf course, then I highly recommend the Decade system designed by Scott Fawcett.

You may not be living up to your expectations on the golf course, but that does not make you a bad or cursed golfer. Human beings are very inconsistent by design, which makes a sport that requires absolute precision exceedingly difficult.

It has been said before: “Golf is not a game of perfect.” It’s time we finally accept that fact and learn to live within our variance.

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