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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

The Wedge Guy: The easiest-to-learn golf basic

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My golf learning began with this simple fact – if you don’t have a fundamentally sound hold on the golf club, it is practically impossible for your body to execute a fundamentally sound golf swing. I’m still a big believer that the golf swing is much easier to execute if you begin with the proper hold on the club.

As you might imagine, I come into contact with hundreds of golfers of all skill levels. And it is very rare to see a good player with a bad hold on the golf club. There are some exceptions, for sure, but they are very few and very far between, and they typically have beat so many balls with their poor grip that they’ve found a way to work around it.

The reality of biophysics is that the body moves only in certain ways – and the particulars of the way you hold the golf club can totally prevent a sound swing motion that allows the club to release properly through the impact zone. The wonderful thing is that anyone can learn how to put a fundamentally sound hold on the golf club, and you can practice it anywhere your hands are not otherwise engaged, like watching TV or just sitting and relaxing.

Whether you prefer an overlap, interlock or full-finger (not baseball!) grip on the club, the same fundamentals apply.  Here are the major grip faults I see most often, in the order of the frequency:

Mis-aligned hands

By this I mean that the palms of the two hands are not parallel to each other. Too many golfers have a weak left hand and strong right, or vice versa. The easiest way to learn how to hold the club with your palms aligned properly is to grip a plain wooden ruler or yardstick. It forces the hands to align properly and shows you how that feels. If you grip and re-grip a yardstick several times, then grip a club, you’ll see that the learning curve is almost immediate.

The position of the grip in the upper/left hand

I also observe many golfers who have the butt of the grip too far into the heel pad of the upper hand (the left hand for right-handed players). It’s amazing how much easier it is to release the club through the ball if even 1/4-1/2″ of the butt is beyond the left heel pad. Try this yourself to see what I mean.  Swing the club freely with just your left hand and notice the difference in its release from when you hold it at the end of the grip, versus gripping down even a half inch.

To help you really understand how this works, go to the range and hit shots with your five-iron gripped down a full inch to make the club the same length as your seven-iron. You will probably see an amazing shot shape difference, and likely not see as much distance loss as you would expect.

Too much lower (right) hand on the club

It seems like almost all golfers of 8-10 handicap or higher have the club too far into the palm of the lower hand, because that feels “good” if you are trying to control the path of the clubhead to the ball. But the golf swing is not an effort to hit at the ball – it is a swing of the club. The proper hold on the club has the grip underneath the pad at the base of the fingers. This will likely feel “weak” to you — like you cannot control the club like that. EXACTLY. You should not be trying to control the club with your lower/master hand.

Gripping too tightly

Nearly all golfers hold the club too tightly, which tenses up the forearms and prevents a proper release of the club through impact. In order for the club to move back and through properly, you must feel that the club is controlled by the last three fingers of the upper hand, and the middle two fingers of the lower hand. If you engage your thumbs and forefingers in “holding” the club, the result will almost always be a grip that is too tight. Try this for yourself. Hold the club in your upper hand only, and squeeze firmly with just the last three fingers, with the forefinger and thumb off the club entirely. You have good control, but your forearms are not tense. Then begin to squeeze down with your thumb and forefinger and observe the tensing of the entire forearm. This is the way we are made, so the key to preventing tenseness in the arms is to hold the club very lightly with the “pinchers” — the thumbs and forefingers.

So, those are what I believe are the four fundamentals of a good grip. Anyone can learn them in their home or office very quickly. There is no easier way to improve your ball striking consistency and add distance than giving more attention to the way you hold the golf club.

More from the Wedge Guy

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Clement: Stop ripping off your swing with this drill!

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Not the dreaded headcover under the armpit drill! As if your body is defective and can’t function by itself! Have you seen how incredible the human machine is with all the incredible feats of agility all kinds of athletes are accomplishing? You think your body is so defective (the good Lord is laughing his head off at you) that it needs a headcover tucked under the armpit so you can swing like T-Rex?

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How a towel can fix your golf swing

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This is a classic drill that has been used for decades. However, the world of marketed training aids has grown so much during that time that this simple practice has been virtually forgotten. Because why teach people how to play golf using everyday items when you can create and sell a product that reinforces the same thing? Nevertheless, I am here to give you helpful advice without running to the nearest Edwin Watts or adding something to your Amazon cart.

For the “scoring clubs,” having a solid connection between the arms and body during the swing, especially through impact, is paramount to creating long-lasting consistency. And keeping that connection throughout the swing helps rotate the shoulders more to generate more power to help you hit it farther. So, how does this drill work, and what will your game benefit from it? Well, let’s get into it.

Setup

You can use this for basic chip shots up to complete swings. I use this with every club in my bag, up to a 9 or 8-iron. It’s natural to create incrementally more separation between the arms and body as you progress up the set. So doing this with a high iron or a wood is not recommended.

While you set up to hit a ball, simply tuck the towel underneath both armpits. The length of the towel will determine how tight it will be across your chest but don’t make it so loose that it gets in the way of your vision. After both sides are tucked, make some focused swings, keeping both arms firmly connected to the body during the backswing and follow through. (Note: It’s normal to lose connection on your lead arm during your finishing pose.) When you’re ready, put a ball in the way of those swings and get to work.

Get a Better Shoulder Turn

Many of us struggle to have proper shoulder rotation in our golf swing, especially during long layoffs. Making a swing that is all arms and no shoulders is a surefire way to have less control with wedges and less distance with full swings. Notice how I can get in a similar-looking position in both 60° wedge photos. However, one is weak and uncontrollable, while the other is strong and connected. One allows me to use my larger muscles to create my swing, and one doesn’t. The follow-through is another critical point where having a good connection, as well as solid shoulder rotation, is a must. This drill is great for those who tend to have a “chicken wing” form in their lead arm, which happens when it becomes separated from the body through impact.

In full swings, getting your shoulders to rotate in your golf swing is a great way to reinforce proper weight distribution. If your swing is all arms, it’s much harder to get your weight to naturally shift to the inside part of your trail foot in the backswing. Sure, you could make the mistake of “sliding” to get weight on your back foot, but that doesn’t fix the issue. You must turn into your trial leg to generate power. Additionally, look at the difference in separation between my hands and my head in the 8-iron examples. The green picture has more separation and has my hands lower. This will help me lessen my angle of attack and make it easier to hit the inside part of the golf ball, rather than the over-the-top move that the other picture produces.

Stay Better Connected in the Backswing

When you don’t keep everything in your upper body working as one, getting to a good spot at the top of your swing is very hard to do. It would take impeccable timing along with great hand-eye coordination to hit quality shots with any sort of regularity if the arms are working separately from the body.

Notice in the red pictures of both my 60-degree wedge and 8-iron how high my hands are and the fact you can clearly see my shoulder through the gap in my arms. That has happened because the right arm, just above my elbow, has become totally disconnected from my body. That separation causes me to lift my hands as well as lose some of the extension in my left arm. This has been corrected in the green pictures by using this drill to reinforce that connection. It will also make you focus on keeping the lead arm close to your body as well. Because the moment either one loses that relationship, the towel falls.

Conclusion

I have been diligent this year in finding a few drills that target some of the issues that plague my golf game; either by simply forgetting fundamental things or by coming to terms with the faults that have bitten me my whole career. I have found that having a few drills to fall back on to reinforce certain feelings helps me find my game a little easier, and the “towel drill” is most definitely one of them.

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