Jerry is in Arizona celebrating his father's 77th birthday with him, so he's taking the week off from posting. In the meantime, I have been thinking hard about the question I asked at the end of my last piece, and aim to have some answers for my piece on Friday.
In Jerry's piece from Tuesday, he described a client/friend of his who heard about the improvements in his golf game and said, "That’s great, Jer, but you’re bound to get better by practicing so much." Her suggestion that the TTW principles amount to little more than a call to practice got me remembering something.
Back in the summer of 2013, a little more than a year before I started working with Jerry, I went fishing with a couple of friends at the San Juan River in northwestern New Mexico. We fished an area just below Navajo Dam. The water flows from the bottom of the dam, and so it stays consistently cold all year long, making it an excellent environment for zillions of tiny little bugs and the trout, especially rainbow trout, that feed on them. The fish there get big. There's a restricted-limit zone for the first couple of miles below the dam, and in that area you're allowed to keep one fish over twenty inches per day. You can catch trout that size pretty regularly. Like I said, big.
I've been fishing the San Juan since I was a teenager, and have been many times, but it had been a long time since I'd gone, maybe approaching ten years. It was good to be back.
My friends and I got on the river by mid-morning. We did okay but not great at the start, and then, as happens at the Juan, we hit a lull and didn't see a strike for a long time. During that time, rather than giving in to frustration, I did something I'd never done there before: I stopped fishing and started really observing and thinking about what I observed.
One of the fascinating and frustrating things about fishing the San Juan is that when you wade in, the fish will come right up to your legs and use you to block the river's current. From what I understand, the fish like it there because by cutting the current, you cut the energy they require to stay in place, and the way the water flows around your legs concentrates food behind the break in the current. An upshot of this is that when you're not catching fish, you can't petulantly convince yourself that they aren't there--you can see them, just a few feet away.
So I started watching, really watching. What I saw was interesting. They'd swim in place against the current, and all of the sudden they'd dart a few inches to one side or the other, moving to get food. Additionally, I noticed what they don't do: they don't move up and down. They stay at a particular depth and feed there. If you watch, you'll see.
From that simple observation, I concluded a few things. First of all, they're constantly feeding. Once I looked for it, it became obvious. So if they're not biting what you're drifting down, there are only a handful of possible reasons why. Either you're fishing a fly that's the wrong size or the wrong color, or you're not fishing at the right depth. That's it. Those are the only possibilities.
With that realization, I started fishing again. Figuring out the right fly turned out to be easy enough--just take a good look at the nymphs that were making it up to the surface and match them as well as possible. From there, the only question was how to weight the line so that the fly would reach the right depth. So I watched and I played with different length tippets and amounts of weight and placement of the weight on the line, and each time I would drift the fly, I would visualize as best I could what that combination of factors was doing with the fly--how quickly it was sinking in the current, how long before it began to drag on the bottom, and so on. And sure enough, before not too very long, I started catching fish.
It ended up being probably my best day ever at the Juan. I was pretty pleased. I'd figured something out.
At the end of the day, my friend Coit, who is like a second father to me and taught me pretty much everything I know about fishing, said to me, "You know, I've known you so long, in some ways it's hard to not see you as the kid you were. But today I really saw the man you've become."
I took that as a very nice compliment, but I thought it also spoke to some of the benefits that come as we age, as we become a bit more calm and willing to slow down a little and really pay attention to what's happening around us.
I tell this story here because Jerry's piece from Tuesday got me wondering: to what degree are the improvements in our golf game simply the willingness to slow down and pay attention as we practice? What is it that makes what we're doing with TTW any different from what I did at the San Juan that day?
As of right now, I can't say that I know the answer. I told this story to Jerry, and he thought it was a question worth asking. In upcoming pieces, we'll strive to find the answer.
Practice. Practice. Practice. I’m not sure how many times Ben and I have written about the importance of practice. It really doesn’t matter if you’re talking about golf, tennis, or life. If you want to improve, you have to commit to practicing.
Recently, I was discussing the improvements that I have made in my golf game since beginning the TTW project with a client/friend that I have golfed often with over the years. She smiled and said “That’s great, Jer, but you’re bound to get better by practicing so much.” I smiled as it dawned on her what she had just said to me. You see, we have talked about our golf games for years. She always talks about how a long time ago she took a series of lessons and committed to hitting a bucket of balls every day, saw tremendous improvement in her game, and routinely broke 90. Now, she plays 3-4 times per week, but never practices. In fact, she doesn’t even like to practice.
When discussing her game, the theme seems to be how she has lost distance, has a higher handicap, and generally isn’t as good as she used to be. The primary culprit to the diminishing skills, in her opinion, is getting older. I agree that aging can diminish a golf game, but I think the true culprit is the unwillingness to practice.
Having been a client of mine for years, she knows about the value of centering and using the breath to create flow. Occasionally, she even tries to center on the golf course, but she experiences mixed results. When we discuss the TTW principles, she’s always excited about the potential improvement that the program offers, but she approaches it as if centering is a magic wand that, once waved, will create immediate improvement in her game.
Unfortunately, as both Ben and I can confirm, that is never the case. Centering and using the breath to create flow is a tool, a means to an end. It’s not a panacea. It will help improve your game, your attitude, and eventually your life-- if you practice.
This week, keep practicing centering. Practice at home, at the gym, on the driving range, and on the course. Practice being in the moment. Practice. Practice. Practice.
I started playing classical guitar during my first year of college, and when I came home that summer, my dad suggested I continue my studies with the guitar professor at UNM. I thought it was a worthwhile idea, so I called him and we agreed to meet.
At our first lesson, after watching me play a piece or two, he said, "Your teacher must be a student of a student of Segovia. Your right-hand technique is badly out of date. It's inefficient, produces inferior tone, and increases the likelihood of injury." He demonstrated what he considered proper right-hand technique, and I could quickly see and hear his point: it made much more sense biomechanically and it did sound better.
When I tried it, it felt deeply unfamiliar. It was immediately clear that I was basically going to have to start over and rebuild my right-hand technique from scratch.
Unsurprisingly, I found the prospect deeply daunting. But at the time I had dreams of pursuing guitar very seriously, and I understood that if I didn't make this change, I'd be putting a ceiling on my abilities as a guitarist.
He gave me a number of exercises to work on. The practice was every bit as tedious as I feared. He had me plucking single notes at a time, following a metronome set at a very slow tempo. It was about as far away from actual music making as you could possibly imagine. At the same time, it demanded serious concentration; there was no phoning it in. To properly produce the stroke, I had to catch the string at the interface of the fingernail and pad of the finger just so, or else the tone suffered. And I needed to learn to be very precise--if I was ever going to play a piece at tempo, I'd have to work until this level of precision became automatic, no matter how fast the figuration in the right hand might be.
As you might imagine, my ego hated this. I went from playing music to devoting entire practice sessions to doing the most rudimentary of exercises. It was deeply humbling.
It wasn't easy, but I stuck it out, and ultimately it paid off. My tone was far better, and I could play faster with less fatigue. I was unequivocally a better guitarist. That ceiling on my abilities was no longer there.
My memory of this episode rose up during the last week as I've confronted the reality of this same basic process with respect to my golf swing. If I'm really interested in improving, I'm going to have to sigh and step up and do the fairly tedious work I described last week. There's just no way around it. And exactly as was the case all those years ago, I have to concentrate to make sure that I'm precise in my practice. There's no sense doing all this work if I'm only going to end up grooving another faulty swing.
As before, my ego doesn't like it. It wants me to be good now. Sadly, it doesn't work that way. The only path forward is to accept with humility the unsexy work that needs to be done.
This week we’re going to look at developing a pre-shot ritual. I have been doing some reading about golf and learned that the pre-shot ritual is crucial in developing the mental side of the game. Think about it, golf is the only sport that is played with a ball, where the ball isn’t moving and no one is trying to prevent you from achieving your goal. I get to take my time, watch the ball, and plan where to hit it. So what do I do? I stand over it, knowing I’d like it to hit it towards the green, and then hack at it without truly creating a plan for what happens after.
My pre-shot ritual will begin with CENTERING! Why? When centered, the body is in a state of perfect posture and balance. Movements initiated from center are perfect in form and function until the centered position is lost. The longer the centered position is maintained the better the next shot will be.
Standing behind the ball centered, I think about where I want to hit my next shot from. I plan where I’m going to hit the ball, so that can I leave myself with a comfortable distance for the next shot. With this in mind, I pick my target and my aiming point. My aiming point is something 3-4 feet in front of me along the path of my ball in alignment with my target. When I’m comfortable with my aim point and target, I move to address the ball. Over the ball, I begin by re-centering myself.
As Ben mentioned in his piece on Friday, we have been playing with videoing parts of our practice. After watching myself go through parts of this process, I learned that after centering, I tend to lift my club straight up into the air waist-high 2 or 3 times prior to hitting the ball. After discussing this with Ben, who assumed it was just part of my pre-shot ritual, I decided to try to remove it and stay as still as possible when addressing the ball. So at a subsequent practice session I tried to remove that part of the ritual and remain as still as possible. This was a complete disaster. For some reason, I couldn’t hit a ball to save my life. I was clearly thinking about not doing it, which of course caused me to fight my body. My mind was saying don’t lift your club and all my body could hear was ‘lift the club’. After about 20 minutes of complete frustration, I decided that Ben was right, it was actually a part of the ritual and I would have to find a way to incorporate it into the process.
A couple of weeks ago, I talked about using the breath to ground myself prior to hitting the ball. I decided to incorporate the club movement with that breath, inhaling when raising the club and exhaling and grounding myself as I lowered it. It is here at this point at address, standing over the ball, centered, that the pre-shot ritual stops. Now, it’s time to quit thinking and perform. Simply commit myself to the process and allow myself to execute the shot.
As you can see, I have spent a lot of time thinking about my pre-shot ritual. Using the video that Ben and I shot was critical to the process. It was critical, because my pre-shot ritual didn’t look like I thought it did. A disharmony between perception and reality can negatively affect the outcome. With practice, I should be able to make it feel and look exactly the same every time, thus, maximizing the results.
So the assignment this week is to think about your pre-shot ritual. What is it? Does it change when your change clubs? If possible, get a friend to video you using your cell phone. See if it looks like you thought it did. Were you centered? How repeatable is it? Now, practice your pre-shot ritual. I recommend doing exactly what Ben talked in his piece on Friday; go through your ritual all the way into the back swing. Pause at the top and check your center and balance. Then step away and begin again. Practicing in this manner helps grove the process and makes it repeatable on the course.
We've begun focused work on rebuilding my golf swing. We hoped that by using centering (as Jerry has described here in recent posts), we'd be able to make changes quickly. Unfortunately, the process has turned out to be a little more complicated than that.
The faulty patterns in my swing are so deeply ingrained into my body that they feel "normal." I literally cannot feel when I've gone out of center during the golf swing. In many ways, we'd be having an easier time teaching me to swing a golf club if I'd never played the game before at all and thus wasn't working against years of patterning.
We brought a couple of video movement-analysis apps to the range last week, and being able to watch myself helped immeasurably. Watching in slow motion made it clear that there's a lot to work on.
Most critically, what I noticed from those videos is that I usually start out of center--I collapse my shoulders in toward my chest, drop my head downward out of line with my spine, and make the forward bend in the body from the spine rather than the hips. Each of these problems is so ingrained that I don't feel out-of-whack when I step up to address the ball. I still feel that I'm centered.
Now that it's clear to me that the problems with my swing begin there, my work toward improving the swing gets simpler. There's a clear focus. The actual work will involve invoking the ritual approach that Jerry describes. First of all I will come to center. Then I will take my stance, trying to build the feeling within myself that an engaged spine, balanced energy at the shoulders and grounding at the hips is more centered than the various breaks in the body that I do now. And then, rather than hit the ball, I will step back and repeat the process, again and again, until my old pattern stops feeling "normal" and is replaced by the new one.
It's nothing glamorous, the work I'm describing here. Indeed, if I don't bring careful concentration to what I'm feeling, I'm likely to succumb to boredom and fall right back into my old patterns. But if I'm diligent, eventually my initial set-up will get re-patterned. It won't be fun, per se, but the first step to rebuilding my swing comes from fixing the faulty foundation.
Last week I introduced ritual practice by having you practice standing center. I did this for two reasons. The first, is that if were to establish a ritual, starting by being centered seems the obvious starting position. The second, is for a ritual to work it has to be repeatable.
As Ben described in his piece on Friday, Jordan Spieth did or felt something different on that fifth shot on 12. Energetically, he shifted back into his normal posture and addressed the shot from a more confident position. That feeling obviously stayed with him after that last shot on 12. That shot set up his birdies on the next two holes. It actually enabled him to get back to his pre-shot ritual that had given him the 5 stroke lead.
This is why a pre-shot ritual should always start with centering. Centering is designed to bring you back to that feeling of being open and at ease with what you’re about to do. Mistakes are bound to happen. But by re-centering before the next shot we can keep the mistake from creating a pattern.
Now, I doubt our mistakes on the golf course will ever cost us a couple of million dollars like it did Jordan Spieth at the Masters. But, centering isn’t all about golf. Centering is about life. The ritual of centering is critical to living a balanced life. To keeping us open and in tune with what is happening within and around us.
This week’s practice is going to continue building on last week's. Grab your favorite golf club, one you always hit well, address the ball and center. Now, notice your grip. Is your breath open and your energy able to flow? Take a couple of practice swings as you try to stay centered. I highly recommend hitting a bucket or two this week as you practice centering at address. Limit the practice to just the one club .
Last week, even as I published, I felt some discomfort that my conclusions in my piece seemed to lack a certain solidity, but I couldn't figure out why. Late that night, I saw what the problem was. It stemmed from my initial conception of the piece. The right initial approach isn't a statement: "This is how we'd help Jordan Spieth." Instead, we'd start with a question: "Jordan, how did you help yourself?" Regarding ten, eleven, and twelve on Masters Sunday, I trust my assessment of what I saw--after all, over the course of those three holes, I correctly predicted where Spieth's shots were going to end up, just based on the energetic signatures of his body--but I have no access to what Jordan Spieth did to re-center himself after the disaster of two balls in the water on twelve.
But without a doubt Jordan Spieth did something with that fifth shot on twelve. Were we in a position to help him, the right jumping off point would be to find out how much he could say about what he did differently on that fifth shot. Whatever he did to re-center right then would be the foundation on which we'd help him build the structure for containing his energy and allowing it to flow in the face of the kind of pressure and stress that cost him the win that day, pressure and stress that he will surely face again and again in his quest to become a truly great golfer.
Now, it's completely possible that he doesn't really know. He surely recognized that something had changed--it was a radically different outcome, after all--and I'm sure it felt different, but it may be that he can't fully describe how it was different. Here I draw on an experience I had during ski season. I was working with a skilled teacher, and I was struggling to bring what he was teaching me into my skiing. I thought I was following his instructions, but I was also kind of confused and frustrated. Then on one run during the latter part of the day, for a few short moments, maybe eight to ten turns total, it was suddenly like my feet had become weightless. It was wonderful. It didn't last long, and it hasn't happened again. But it happened once, and I know, now, the feeling I'm seeking. With good instruction and a lot of practice, I believe I will find it. So Spieth may be in a similar situation. He doesn't quite know what he changed with that shot, but he surely felt something change. That's what we'd be looking for. "Remember that feeling? We're seeking that feeling."
Here's why all this matters: The major puzzle Jerry and I are trying to work out in our training together right now is how to unlock my golf swing. I am tall and long, and the simple physics of the golf swing would seem to dictate that I should be able to hit the ball a pretty long way. That I am not so able indicates a substantial energy block. We've been experimenting but haven't been able to figure it out yet. Right now it's getting worse instead of better, and honestly I'm getting frustrated to the point that I'm starting to imagine finding a high bridge or cliff to throw my stupid clubs off of. But I think back to two shots this year that flew high and true after swings that felt pretty much effortless. That's the feeling that's keeping me going. That's the feeling I'm looking for. I don't know what I did differently. The answer is in my body somewhere. Our task now is to find it.
Last week, I wrote - The techniques for building flow that I have laid out over the last four weeks can be applied to all aspects of our lives. Using ritual practice to help build flow and create habits that help create consciousness is critical to the process.
I thought it might help to start by defining the word ritual and then take you through the process of practicing our ritual.
A ritual is defined as: a religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order.
The Ritual: Standing Center
Take a moment and center yourself. Think about your foot position; how you’re holding your shoulders; and your breath. Do you feel centered? Here’s the test – Can you take an open flowing breath? Did your breath rise from the bottom up? If it did, that’s great!
If not, don’t worry about it. Let’s go through standing center step by step so you can be confident in your ability to re-create it at any time.
Start with your feet hip to shoulder width, just like seated center. If your feet are too wide, it locks your hips and if too narrow it makes you unstable. Now, relax your feet. Soften your arches and wiggle your toes. Soft feet will give you soft knees. If your knees are locked, you will not be able to soften your feet. If your feet are tight and rigid your legs will follow suit. Soft legs will let your hips stay open and relaxed.
Slightly raise your diaphragm so your shoulders will drop and relax. Take a nice open flowing breath from the bottom up. Did the breath rise up into your shoulders? If so you are centered. If not, start with repositioning your feet and go through the process again.
If you’re ever in doubt about whether or not you're centered, just breathe. An open flowing breath always means your centered. If your breath doesn’t rise, then you’re not. It’s really that easy. Although it might seem foreign at this time, with practice you’ll find centering will get easier and easier.
Centering is where anything and everything should begin.
This week, let’s once again focus on the process of centering. Practice often. I’ll discuss the next phase of the ritual process next week.