First Round Observations

Last week I reported the results of my first round since starting this experiment. After reflecting on the results, I thought I would share some observations.

First, I feel that we should have been playing actual golf the entire time. Practice is one thing, but as Ben pointed out, playing has a different energy and feel to it. Without playing it’s hard to understand how effective the practice truly was. For example, when practicing Ben and I have become very efficient with chipping onto the green from 50+ feet. When playing, we were both hesitant and left chip after chip short. I know that all the practice will eventually show up within the game, but that lack of confidence was a direct result of not playing.

Ball striking and clubs selection: When hitting practice balls on the range, the distance of each shot and the action of the ball is very different from playing with real balls on the course. When playing last week, several times I used the wrong club for a particular shot. These shots resulted in either being short of the green or hitting into obstacles. As the round went on I became less and less confident with my choices. This showed up time and again as I would hit a second shot with the right club and would hit a much better shot. Again, I feel this will auto correct with playing more frequently, but could have been prepared for much more efficiently.

Putting: I was efficient with my putter. Not amazing, but better than average. My lag putts were very good, but I did have 3 putts either lip out or stop one roll short of going in. We haven’t practiced putting anywhere near the amount we have chipping and I thought it showed for me. Moving forward, I plan to do more chipping drills where I finish the shot with my putter in order to simulate playing more effectively. On a side note, Ben nailed several long putts and except for the last hole putted much better than I did. He usually wins our putting competitions, but I plan on getting extra practice while he’s away this week to close that gap.

Overall, as I stated before, I feel that we have been highly successful. I think moving forward we can be more efficient with our practice and create effect strategies to improve on our weaknesses as they show themselves while playing.

The Games Are Not Neutral, Part 2

I'm going to wait until next week to dive deeply into my experiences with the round Jerry and I played last Friday. Today, leading in to that conversation, I want to follow up on the issue I raised two weeks ago, that the sports we choose to engage in are not neutral to how we perceive our growth as athletes and people.

In my piece from two weeks ago, I offered parallel hypothetical situations in tennis and golf--a sequence of eleven shots, five of them excellent and six of them poor--and noted how the outcomes could be completely different. You could win your service game in tennis with that sequence. On a par five in golf, that sequence nets you a sextuple bogey. It's fair to say the rules of one of the games is relatively forgiving and the other completely the opposite.

And let's face it: you'd be very likely to come out of those respective sequences with very different feelings about what just occurred.

It's worth asking: how differently should you feel?

I wish the answer were cut-and-dried. My first inclination was to say, No, it shouldn't feel different, but as I delve deeply into it, the question seems more complicated. For the purposes of our project, the question hinges on another question, not obviously related: what do we mean by improvement?

Consider: I currently am practicing my golf swing and tennis serves quite a lot, and I noticed that I had a very different relationship to how I performed in the two different arenas. When practicing my tennis serve, I'm pleased when a serve goes in. I allow the misses to fall by the wayside. Sometimes, depending on my goals (when I'm practicing for power, say), I even welcome them. In golf, on the other hand, I noticed that I wasn't judging myself by my successes, I was judging myself by my failures.

Now, from the perspective of scoring golf, that kind of makes sense. If I'm playing a round, each of those "bad" shots counts toward my score. If my goal is to get "better" at golf from a scoring perspective, then it makes sense to focus on consistency of shots and on working to improve my worst shots.

But that's a pretty narrow view of improvement, and it fails to take into account that practice doesn't really work that way. "Failure" is how we learn. What did I do that produced the result I didn't want? What did I do that produced the result I did? Can I repeat it? We get better by learning from "failure." That's the way practice works.

By judging myself on my bad shots rather than my good ones, all too often I was failing to notice the very real improvement at the top end of my ability. I could hit one really good drive and six weak ones and all I'd be thinking was, "That's six holes I'd be starting from the rough." But that thinking is a problem. Instead, I should be noticing about the good one that I couldn't hit one that good until recently. My scoring in a round might be improving only a very little, but I'm improving. The practice is bearing fruit. So I need to be conscious that I'm not letting the structure of the game keep me from noticing just how effective the work really is.

Indeed, if I look at my game as a whole, what do I see? Well, my worst shots are as bad as they ever were, but they occur far less frequently. My medium-quality shots are much improved--they're underpowered but they go straight, which almost never used to happen. And my best shots are hugely improved. They're rare, but every once in a while I hit a shot and say, Yes. That is what I am capable of.

What's interesting is that, notwithstanding everything I just said, and despite the mental and emotional preparation, described in last week's piece, that I did ahead of our round on Friday, I did not have fun playing Friday's round. Somewhat to my surprise, I learned that there are still other issues I need to address before I have fun playing golf.

First post

Friday, Ben and I actually made it to Haystack for our first round of golf since starting this project.

If you haven’t played there, Haystack is a duffer’s dream. No tee times, very laid back, with a pretty funky (in a good way) vibe. If you’re in a hurry, or get frustrated with slow players in front of you, haystack is NOT for you. But if you want to play a casual round, try some second or even third shots, Haystack can be a fun afternoon. It’s a par-32 nine-hole course that is deceptively hard. What makes it hard is the unpredictable course conditions.

I was pretty excited to play and arrived early. So I walked around and hit some balls to get warm. Ben showed up right on time, we hit a second bucket of balls and queued up to begin play (that’s right, just wait your turn and go when ready.)

I’ll spare you the shot-by-shot details and summarize my day. I shot a 43. Yep, 11 over par. I had 4 balls find trees: 2 that were caused by course conditions, 1 that I hit offline, and the other I simply hit it too far by choosing the wrong club. I had 3 putts that lipped out requiring tap-ins to finish the hole. Twice I had chips that should have rolled right up onto the green, but the course was wet and soggy and ate the balls' momentum requiring another shot. A great example of these soggy conditions was on the 7th hole, a par three with an elevated tee hitting over a large pond. I hit a beautiful tee shot that landed firmly onto the green and sank. That’s right, no bounce or roll, it just stuck there about 25 feet from the pin. But that’s golf, right? You play the course in the condition that you find it.

To summarize my day, I had a blast. I really didn’t realize how much I missed actually playing a round of golf (it had been two years). I could have played better and next time I will! I was pleasantly surprised by my confidence hitting any club, up to and including my driver. As I begin to know how far certain clubs will go, I should have an easier time with club selection.

The thing that shocked me the most was the lack of confidence both Ben and I had when chipping. We have spent the majority of our practice time on finding balance within the swing while chipping. We approach the practice green with confidence and a sense of capability that neither of us had before starting this project. On the course, both of us were hesitant and underperforming. I assume that it’s simply the nerves associated with actually playing and that it will improve as we continue to play. I hope to play once or twice more before my next scheduled post, so I should know lots more by then.

In Anticipation of Our First Round

For at least a month now, Jerry has been insisting that it's time for us to play a round of golf. We've only played once, at a nine-hole par-three course last summer, which served as the establishing-a-baseline experience for this whole project. I recall playing that round surprisingly well, despite not having played a round for many years. I started something like par-par and finished with a par, too. I hit some reasonably good shots. Since then, we've pretty much taken my swing apart, working to groove a new, smoother, more powerful swing, a process that's nowhere near complete.

Nevertheless, Jerry's right: it's time. And today's the day.

I have to admit I feel quite a bit of trepidation. My new swing is nowhere near grooved yet. I expect that I'll hit a handful of pretty good shots, but also a bunch that go every direction but where I'm aiming. From the perspective of the actual (scoring) rules of golf, I'm likely to play pretty poorly indeed, and it's going to take some real focus on my part to not begin to question the conclusion that I've been sharing with you recently, that I really have improved greatly since that initial experimental round a year ago.

I wrote last week about how golf's scoring makes it especially unforgiving to the learning player, and so I want to plan a strategy ahead of time for making the experience as positive and fun as possible, while not diverging too far from the guiding idea of this project, which is to use energetic awareness to improve our golf games. By that I mean that I can't completely disregard the rules of the game and still speak to what we're trying to achieve here. I mean, I could definitely count only every other stroke if I wanted, and then tell people how I heroically and unexpectedly finished under par. (Hooray for me!) I could refuse to ever play a ball from a bunker or deep rough. I could pick up every ball that's behind a tree or in front of water. What's stopping me? Nothing, of course. And if that's more fun for me, well, I could just go ahead and do it. But I shouldn't properly call that "golf."

On the other hand, what's the value in using the rules of the game as a way to punish and undermine myself, to leave me demoralized and doubting?

So I'm making a plan, because I don't want to waste energy on disappointment--I'm interested in setting myself up for success. Because I haven't played since we started working on this project in earnest, I intend to go in with the attitude that I'm basically a beginner, that I haven't done this before, that every shot is new to me. Furthermore, I want playing to support my goal of improvement as much as practice does, so I want trying to figure out how to get as much useful experience out of the round as possible. With that in mind, I intend to do the following: I'm going to play by the rules, counting every shot. At the same time, I'm going to keep a second score, in which I essentially play a scramble with myself. Whenever time allows, I will take another shot when a shot goes awry, and sometimes even when it doesn't. Basically, I'll practice as many shots on the course as possible. I'll take my actual ball as my score, but will use that second score--we'll call it the "potential" score--as a guidepost to help keep me optimistic about where I'm ultimately headed.

What I'm most concerned with is seeing within me the ability to hit something of a reasonable shot from each actual lie, even if it takes me three or four shots do so. Recall that when we started this project, my goal was built around having fun, and for me in the context of a round of golf, fun is less dependent on my score than feeling that I have the potential to actually play golf. I don't want to feel like the stupid game is something eternally beyond my reach.

So why keep score at all? Several people, including at least one friend who's a much better golfer than me, have recommended not doing so. "It's a lot more fun that way," they've said. (I'm sure we've all seen the quote, usually attributed to Mark Twain, that golf is "a good walk spoiled.") They have a point, but for our purposes, a score offers a numeric way to gauge how we've done, and an objective path to measuring our improvement.

I feel good about this plan. By preparing myself mentally ahead of the experience, I'm making it much more likely that I'll walk off the course exclaiming, "That was fun!" It's hard to hope for anything more than that.

Play time

The time has come for Ben and I to actually play a round of golf.

They say that the longest distance on the golf course is the distance from the practice area to the first tee. I guess we’ll see.

Wish us luck.

The Games Are Not Neutral, Part 1

If the real goal of the practices we've been describing is to improve not just our golf (or tennis or whatever) games but our lives--if the goal is to make ourselves better people--we need to be aware of the way the games themselves can foist upon us certain narratives about ourselves and our capabilities, and that these narratives can help or hinder our growth.

Consider the following scenarios:

Imagine you are playing a tennis match. It's your serve. You start the game with a powerful ace: 15-love. Next, you produce an egregious double-fault--your first serve is so long your opponent has to duck to get out of the way, and your second serve bounces on your own side of the net: 15-all. Now you blast another ace: 30-15. And then another double-fault, a carbon-copy of the first: 30-all. You hit your next serve so powerfully you can see it red-shift as it travels away from you. Ace: 40-30. Your next first serve improbably bounces off the top of the frame, goes straight up, and hits you on the top of the head. Even more improbably, your second serve does the same thing. Another double-fault. Now serving at deuce, you put so much spin on the ball that it visibly distorts as it spins away from your frustrated opponent. Another ace: ad-in. Finally, you send an untouchable serve down the T for a final ace, leaving your opponent in tears and giving you the game.

During this game, you struck the ball eleven times. Five of those shots were excellent, six were very poor, but because of the structure of the sport and its scoring, you won the game. Those bad shots can disappear into the ether. They no longer matter at all.

Now imagine that you're playing golf. You're on a 500-yard par five. Your drive is lovely, straight down the middle of the fairway, about 230 yards. With 270 yards left to the hole, you grab your trusty fairway hybrid, but you top the ball so badly that it skitters about fifteen yards down the fairway before stopping. 255 yards left to the hole. You swing your hybrid again, this time hitting it well. The ball travels about 180 yards into the middle of the fairway, leaving you with 75 yards to the hole. You grab your pitching wedge, take what feels like a careful swing, but hit it so fat the divot travels further than the ball. Your next swing produces the same result. On your third attempt, you finally hit the ball well, putting it within fifteen feet of the pin. On your putt, some strange magic befalls you, and you mishit your putt so badly that the ball whistles past the hole and keeps going, all the way across and then off the green and into the deep rough. Your first chip shot sails over the green, landing in the rough on the other side. Your next one travels about six inches, embedding so deeply into the rough that it seems almost impossible that you'll get it out. But you make a lovely chip, relative to the lie, and leave yourself a twelve-foot putt, which you mercifully make for a sextuple-bogey eleven.

On this hole, you struck the ball eleven times. Five of those shots were good, sometimes very good, and six were poor. Here, there's no escaping your errant shots. Each and every shot counts toward your final score. You're stuck with the indignity of a sextuple bogey.

Notice how different the emotional tenors of these two situations are apt to be. In each instance, you hit five good and six bad shots. On the tennis court, you might walk away from that service game feeling pretty good about yourself. Maybe you're breathing a sigh of relief and calling yourself lucky. Either way, you won the game, and are one step closer to winning the match. On the golf course, you're likely to be feeling pretty bad. Sextuple bogey. Your playing partners don't even want to make eye contact after a hole like that.

Again, despite exactly the same ratio of success to failure, you're likely to be engaging in two very different narratives about your ability, maybe even about yourself as a person. One of those narratives is likely to help you stay in flow. The other is likely to drive you out of flow. Our goal is personal growth. So how do we deal with this kind of thing?

The Ultimate Goal

As we bring centered practice to the sports we choose to play, the ultimate goal isn't actually improvement. Improvement is just a side effect. What we're really seeking are the deeper things that emerge as we make this consistent effort to begin to meet our true potential. For those of us old or wise enough to have released whatever dreams we might ever have indulged of going pro, putting our utmost into being a really good golfer or tennis player has little value for its own sake. Winning an amateur tennis or golf tournament might be nice, but if the value of the effort comes only in meeting the goal, what happens should you not succeed? What happens when your skills decline? Can the point truly be only winning?

We say no, and our answer to that question is at the heart of why we're doing this. We're not interested in seeing our golf games improve only because we want to play better golf. Competition and play are wonderful, but only part of the point. What we're really talking about is striving to use the practice to become better people. That's why so much of our focus is on energy and feeling rather than technique. Being able to hit a 220-yard drive straight down the center of the fairway has utility in exactly one place. A feeling awareness of the body, concentration, centering--these are things you can use everywhere. These things make your life better.

Truth Part 5

As I mentioned last week, your energetic center or energy bubble can be used in many ways to better understand yourself, the world around you, and our interactions with others. Honing the skills necessary to reliably use your energetic center (energy bubble) under various circumstances requires practice. With my clients, this practice is built into their workouts. Every repetition of every set is an exploration of being centered.

Ben and I use centering to find and explore the truth within the golf swing. In his piece last Friday, Ben explored feeling the center of the golf club in an attempt to find more balance within his swing. He shared how the relationship between his energetic center and the center of gravity of the club creates a sense of flow within the swing which results in a more consistent and repeatable swing.

Finding the energetic center, where the golfer, club, and ball all exist in harmony will be the key that allows Ben and I to easily obtain the goals that we have created at the start of the TTW program.

I encourage you to experiment with different ways in which to use your energetic center. Practice creating and developing your understanding of the energy bubble.

This week, I ask that you re-read the pieces that Ben and I have posted over the last few weeks. Start with the first piece on truth and monitor your energetic center as you move forward. Spend some time sitting and feeling your response to each piece. Look for the truth within each piece. Read from center and see what speaks to you.