What Not to Do

Just because I know how to practice well doesn't mean that I practice well. Let me share a story of a session that was a perfect example. Interestingly, I had a conversation with Jerry before I started my practice session that should have given me the clues I needed to practice well, but I ignored them until it was too late.

It happened about a month ago, during the time I couldn't swing a golf club because of my shoulder. I had to do something to keep sane and active, so I was working on my tennis game.

I was trying to groove my groundstrokes to a new level, so I went and hit against the practice wall at the courts at the Rec Center where Jerry works.

The session went okay for a while. I was practicing my one-handed backhand, trying to hit with consistently good racquet preparation, working to generate reasonable power and, important for my development, topspin. (I tend to be very flat off the backhand side, and if I don't work on this the backhand will always be a struggle.)

I was hitting against the wall and in general I was trying to hit back to myself, shots that would be essentially down the line on court, so as to not have to move too much. I was trying as much as possible to make the need to react and move and set up my feet and center and breathe happen easily, so that I could focus on a good, well-prepared swing with a full swing-path. As the rallies would go on, the power would kind of ramp up, my control would get a little bit less, and I would find myself moving myself side-to-side, which was fun in its own way but ultimately led to more frequent errors. After a while the quality of my rallies started to decline, and I started to get a little frustrated. That was when I thought back to the conversation I'd had with Jerry before I started the session.

He had been talking about his Sunday racquetball game. He told me that during his last practice session he'd been "crushing" the ball (he was unsurprisingly pleased by that), and that during his match on Sunday he had been hitting similarly well--for a while, anyway. All of the sudden his shot quality disappeared and he started missing. For a while he couldn't figure out why and then he realized he was fatigued, so he wasn't getting the same movement and proper set-up and drive from his legs.

And then I was able to reflect that the day before I had played soccer for the first time since I injured myself, and though I was on the field for less than an hour, I hadn't played for three weeks and during that time had exercised very little. As a result, my fitness had dropped off somewhat, and so I was more fatigued than usual given the effort I'd put in. All of which pointed to this conclusion: maybe instead of ignoring it, I should actually feel the fatigue, and then break out of my obsessive must-hit-must-practice tendencies and, hey here's an idea, stop practicing, before the efficacy of the endeavor falls all the way to zero or below.

Makes sense, right?

Except what I did instead was practice serves for the next thirty or forty minutes. Will you be surprised when I tell you that it didn't go well, and I mostly missed and I got really frustrated and, instead of stopping, which is what I should have done, I kept hitting and kept hitting because I stubbornly didn't want to end in a bad string of serves. What finally got through this brick-like skull of mine was the realization that if I'm practicing while deeply fatigued I am essentially practicing to hit the ball badly, and that's not really likely to make me a better tennis player, is it?

TTW- Small Plate Solutions

I was meeting with Ben prior to my last post and we were planning, talking and just hanging out a bit. He reminded me of a story that I had shared with him over a year ago. It seems relevant to what we are trying to do here, so I thought I would share it with you.

Quite a few years ago, I had received a gift of some very beautiful pottery dishes. I really liked them but they were really big, almost twice the size of a standard dinner plate. So without too much thought, the old dishes were donated to charity and the new dishes were put into use. About a month later, I realized that I had gained some weight. Now, I don’t weigh myself often and my weight has been pretty consistent for the last 20 years, so I got on the scale and sure enough I had gained about 10 pounds.

Luckily, I know a really good fitness consultant, and started keeping a food journal like I always have my clients do under these circumstances. The problem became quite obvious after a couple days of journaling – I was eating too much. Interestingly enough, my habits had not changed during the last month. I was eating what I typically ate, and my exercise habits were the same. The only real change that had occurred in my life were the new dishes. After thinking about it for a while, I went out and bought new, normal sized, dishes and donated the pottery to charity.

You see, I was raised in a military family with 5 children. There was always enough food, but there was never any extra. Therefore, you ate the food that was put on your plate. Officially, that made me a member of the “clean your plate club.” Having been raised that way, I have continued that behavior into adulthood.

Cleaning my plate had never posed a problem for me until I was given those BIG plates. Because the plate was bigger, apparently so were my portions, and larger portions equals too many calories, which over a month or so, leads to weight gain. By switching to a smaller plate, I was better able to control my food intake and my weight returned to normal within a couple months.

Over the years, I have shared that story with many clients. The usual response is, “couldn’t you just take smaller portions or just leave some food on your plate?” Now, both of those are really reasonable choices except for the fact that I really like my plate to appear full and I have been cleaning my plate for the better part of 50 years now. That’s a habit that is very strongly ingrained into my brain. So, I could fight 50 years of learned behavior or I could buy smaller plates.

When I shared this with Ben, I didn’t realize the affect it would have on him. While we were talking yesterday he told me about the phrase “small plate solutions,” which he had coined after that initial discussion. I don’t want to put words into his mouth but I took it to mean that when making behavioral changes; rather than change the core of who we are, by knowing ourselves well, we can simply accept who we are and change some of our circumstances and create the positive change we were hoping to make.

Now, I bet you’re wondering what this has to do with the Training Tiger Woods program. Well during this training program we will be bumping into many behavioral patterns. Some will be completely ingrained and others can be solved by applying “small plate solutions.”

Between now and my next post, keep centering and breathing.

Principles of Practice via Classical Music Techniques, Part 2: Rehearsal

In my last piece, I spoke about the techniques I used to practice problem areas in musical pieces I worked on. I closed by mentioning that solving those problems out of context was not the same thing as successfully putting the solution into play. Recontextualizing the solution was a completely different skill. The process I used to achieve that recontextualizing I've chosen to call rehearsal.

Simply trying to plug the problem section back into the piece didn't work. I'd either make mistakes in sections I considered "solved" (especially as the problem section approached) or else all of my practice would fall apart once I got into that section.

Rehearsing entailed properly setting up the section where the challenge lay. I'd go back a certain number of measures before the challenging part and play up until and through that section. I'd aim for a certain momentum before I reached the section in question. Note, by the way, that "momentum" and "tempo" aren't synonyms. Generally I rehearsed at a tempo substantially lower than performance tempo, and often lower than what I had attained as my practice tempo. What I sought was the confidence and smoothness that momentum brings. In essence, the lead-in was almost a ritual to prepare myself for the problem section. Over time, this process brought the problem section back into the rest of the piece. It smoothed out the break between "stuff I can comfortably play" and "stuff I struggle with."

Sometimes at the end of my practice sessions, I'd go back and rehearse pieces that were already solidly in my repertoire. Optimally, I'd play them start to finish, but with the same approach I outlined above, that is, trying to create a certain momentum. These days, I might describe that process by saying that I was practicing grooving success.

And here is where I have to admit that, in music, I neglected that aspect. Practicing problem areas I could handle. Rehearsing the transition into a problem area, sure. But the path into learning to make actual music with my music was a real weakness of mine, if that makes sense. I sought technical perfection and would focus on that. Practice dominated my practice sessions, to the detriment of my pleasure in the endeavor and, ultimately, my greater success. And it's here that I really want to break with the past. Practice and rehearsal are wonderful and necessary, but at some point you have to perform, and at some point you have to play.

TTW- Practice Part 3 (Jerry)

“So often our possessions sleep.”

This quote popped into my head soon after finishing my last post. The ability to attend, stay present, to breathe and move consciously are skills (or tools) that I have honed over many years. The fact that they stay locked in my tool box on occasion doesn’t surprise me. What surprises me is the realization that through simple habit, I could unconsciously lock that tool box and severely limit my ability to perform.

With that in mind, I planned to meet Ben at the driving range. Upon my arrival Ben was already on the chipping green. He greeted me with “What’s the plan?” Which turned out to be perfect, because I had to stop and think about how to proceed. As I reached for a club, I could feel apprehension and even tension begin to build in my body. I put the club back and took a breath. I suggested we start with some stretching. Some conscious movement that was breath-focused seemed to be practical for creating new movement and energy patterns around golfing.

So we talked about if for a while, did some stretches and headed to our position on the chipping green. Again, reaching for the club, I could feel the tension begin to rise within my body. I took a deep breath and Ben and I began talking about and breaking down the mechanics of chipping. We talked about stance, and breathing, while looking at aim point and energy dynamics. When actually chipping, we would alternate shots so we could watch the others body mechanics, breath and energy. After three shots each we would talk about the results and make suggestions for better form.

It didn’t take long for us to find the form we were looking for and to begin creating a pattern that would elicit the desired results. We were both hitting some pretty good chips and the talk changed into critiquing performance. Almost immediately, I lost my form and couldn’t control my shots. I realized that my breathing had changed and all my energy had moved up into my head. I had once again triggered my habitual response and my form had fallen apart. I could tell that Ben had noticed as well. I excused myself and went to the pro shop to get some water.

During the walk I took the time to ground myself and shift my energetic focus. Upon my return, I decided to shift my focus back to the mechanics rather than the performance. Almost immediately, I was once again hitting quality shots. So what changed in the space between working on the mechanics of chipping and analyzing the results of said chipping?

The easy answer is FLOW. The ritual of grounding my energy and focusing on my breath while preparing to chip created a sense of flow and ease in my body that allowed my body to do what I was trying to do. The more caught up in the actual results I got, the worse my breathing and grounding grew and I lost the sense of flow. Without being able to feel the flow and energy of the chipping motion, I was stuck with the less than adequate physical mechanics that I had developed over the years.

Moving forward, I see the necessity of creating grounding and breathing exercises for the typical types of shots that I can expect to hit during a round of golf, in an attempt to break the habituated response that blocks my sense of flow and limits my ability to perform.

This should make for an interesting week of practice.
Between now and my next post, try this grounding exercise.

Either sitting or standing assume the centered pose to practice your breathing.

Begin focusing your exhales through the bottom of your feet and into the ground.

Separate from your exhale and let your inhale happen automatically.

Try taking 5 breaths this way 5 times per day.

Principles of Practice via Classical Music Techniques, Part 1

In my last piece, I spoke of how my training as a classical musician taught me about good practice skills. Today and in my next couple of pieces, in order to set the stage for a better vocabulary around what effective practice might look like, I want to talk about certain elements of those practice sessions.

I practiced about three hours a day back then. I spent the first hour or so doing warm-ups and drills--picking and finger-pattern exercises on guitar, Hanon exercises on piano, scales and arpeggios on both. I would start slow and slowly increase my speed. It wasn't exactly thrilling work but it served multiple functions. From a long-term perspective, drills serve as the foundation for technique. Smooth, efficient, tension-free playing is the heart of musical technique.

Perhaps less obviously, drills have a short-term function as well: they serve as the foundation for each individual practice session. Drills bring the student into the space of practicing. They don't require utmost concentration, at least at the start of a session when the tempo is slow. As the tempo increases, they require more concentration, which has the effect that concentration naturally deepens as the session goes on. Because drills aren't hard in the sense that practicing pieces is hard, drills serve to groove success.

It's also crucial to mention that drills help develop strength and dexterity in a way that also seeks to avoid injury, which is always an important concern for even a semi-serious musician.

In the second hour, I'd move on to the repertoire I was working on. In general, I would work from the easiest piece to the most difficult. Within each piece, I would put the bulk of my work into the most challenging sections. It's a truism in music that you put the majority of your time practicing your weak spots. Unlike in sports, where people sometimes successfully work around their weaknesses (think of the professional soccer player who's a wizard with one foot and dreadful with the other, or the tennis professional with the rocket serve but an otherwise mediocre game), in music this isn't an option: if you can play 95% of a piece but utterly trainwreck on that last 5%, you can't actually play the piece at all.

The way to practice the really challenging sections involves a lot of energy and deep concentration. First of all, those sections get separated from the rest of the piece, and then within those sections all sorts of techniques are applied to work through their challenges. I'd start by slowing the tempo way down from performance tempo. Maybe I'd practice one hand alone and then the other. I might play the melody alone, then the accompaniment alone. Sometimes, if a section was really giving me trouble, I'd try experimenting with different fingerings. The tactics were myriad.

If I could play a 95% of a piece, I probably spent 50-75% of my time on the other 5%.

Of course, solving the technical problems of a piece entirely out of context isn't the same thing as being able to put that solution successfully into play when the context returns. In exploring that aspect for this piece, I realized it was different enough from what I described so far that it deserves its own name. Instead of "practice," I call it "rehearsing," and I'll talk about rehearsing next week.

TTW- Practice Part 2

Why do I always think of Allen Iverson when talking about practice? He’s sitting in front of numerous cameras all attitude and utters “Were talking about practice.” We talk about it, because practicing anything - is a dress rehearsal for life.

By definition, practice is to perform or work at repeatedly so as to become proficient. But as I stated in my last post, quality practice leads to success. Going through the motions in practice will lead to poor mechanics and inefficient play.

Since starting this project I haven’t played or practiced golf. Ben separated his shoulder just before we began and hitting golf balls was out of the question. Now, that doesn’t mean I haven’t been to the driving range. Lately, I will go to the range without clubs and watch how people practiced. After spending several hours watching I have come to some basic conclusions.

The first is that everyone is very rushed. People would grab a club and take a few hurried practice swings, then start whacking balls down range. If they did stop to stretch for a minute, the stretches were rushed and appeared to be random.

The second is that the practice wasn’t very organized. As I watched, nobody seemed to take the time to think about what they were trying to accomplish. If they had a plan of action or goals for the session I couldn’t see it from where I watched. The only recognizable goal was to get through the bucket as fast as possible.

The third and maybe most important conclusion was that I had finally figured out why I was such a poor golfer. I was approaching the game exactly the same way. I would rush through my warm-ups, hit too many balls with the same club, and spend zero time getting my head right before I played. When I would go to just practice, the quality and structure of my practice would insure that I would never get better. It became very clear to me that I was practicing not only the wrong things, but the wrong way.

After thinking about it for a little while, I realized that if my earlier statement, ‘practice is a dress rehearsal for life,’ is true, then there had to be other places within my life that mirrored how I practiced. I’ll save you the self-reflection process, but I immediately came up with several areas within my life where I live like I golf.

The important thing here is that I teach conscious movement and breath every day to my clients. I spend at least 6 hours every day being conscious of how I am standing, walking and breathing. And yet, because of the bad habits I have developed over the years, all of it goes out the window when I pick up a golf club. With this in mind, I’m heading to the driving range later today with my clubs. I might even hit a ball or two and explore these ideas on practice. Between now and my next post, keep practicing your conscious breathing. Here is an exercise to practice while standing.

Stand with your feet hip to shoulder width.
Soften your feet by wiggling your toes.
Slightly raise your rib cage.
Take three deep breathes from the bottom up.

First Thoughts on Effective Practice

Jerry and I have been talking a lot about what differentiates effective practice from ineffective. (As our goal is maximizing potential, we're taking for granted the necessity of practice. It's just not even a question.)

I don't know that I have been very effective at practicing sports. I can be pretty avid about it--even during the layoff from most activities that the separated shoulder forced on me, I was back on the tennis court practicing serves as soon as I could comfortably toss the ball in the air.

There's a tricky aspect to sports practicing, which is that often the goal gets defined around an obvious but perhaps short-sighted understanding of what "success" is. With the tennis serve, for example, on some level any serve that misses the service box, no matter how well hit, is a "bad" serve. It thus becomes easy to focus all practice around "getting the serves in." This seems to define the amateur mindset: among the amateur tennis players I see on the courts around my house, I see a lot of wonky but, in a sense, effective service motions. They get the ball in.

But from the perspective of maximizing potential, this is clearly the wrong approach. In doing that, those players are effectively putting a ceiling on their game. And TTW is all about going right through ceilings.

So then, what might more effective practice look like?

On reflection, I realized that I actually have a pretty good understanding of effective practice, but it's nothing I learned doing sports. I was trained as a classical musician. When I looked at what my practice sessions looked like when I was most active as a musician (back in college and just after), I saw habits that set a strong foundation for success.

We're working now on teasing out how to apply those practice techniques to athletics (and we hope that in the process we'll discover principles that can be applied as general life-skills). In future pieces, we'll describe what we've discovered so far.

Practice – Part 1 from Jerry

I was thinking about the idea of practice while watching football this weekend. There was an interesting commercial from Under Armour that was airing during the game. The ad shows Tom Brady going through passing drills. During the ad, they replicate him hundreds of times, moving in the exact same pattern over and over again, looking down field with perfect footwork, throwing a complete pass. These ads feature the tag line of You Are the Sum of All your Training. I thought about it for a while and I realized that they were both right and wrong. They were right because we really are the sum of ALL our training. All of it. They are wrong because they limit what we “are” to our sports training.

Every single thing we do gets incorporated into who we are, and how we walk the world. Everything we do in practice not only gets incorporated into the game, it gets incorporated into how we live our lives as well. But, it’s not just what we do that effects everything else. It’s also how we do it!

If we do it wrong, we can train or practice every day and still not improve in our craft. If we practice with flow and grace, building a sense of presence into everything we do; it will follow us onto the course as easily as it will into our living rooms or office. Conversely, if we train with intensity, chaos and a lack of presence, that too will follow us wherever we go. There is no separating the results when it comes to crunch time. We will act as we have trained.

How we live has an equal impact on how we play. If our lives are filled with drama and chaos, that will follow us into practice and onto the playing field. There is no escaping it. We really are the sum of ALL our training.

So we’re going to train better. We’re going to be more present, and train ourselves to live and practice with balance and grace. When all is said and done, not only will we be better golfers– we will be better people.

In my next post I will talk about golf specific practice. Between now and then, here is a simple exercise to prepare.

Sit-up and put your feet flat on the floor.
Have your feet under you so your knees are at 90 degrees.
Slightly raise your rib cage.
Take 3 slow breathes.
Do this 10-15 times per day.

Background from Ben

In his piece from Monday, Jerry wrote, "We know that exercise can be used as a modality to help people overcome their limitations." I will attest to that. Jerry and I have been working together for a little more than a year now. When we started working together, I was in a pretty dark place, both because of some difficult events in my personal life over the prior year-and-a-half and because of some deeply ingrained negative habits that were getting in my way. Using Jerry's techniques to free up my energy has had a revelatory impact in my life. I'm in a vastly better place than I've been in for many, many years. (I wrote some about that process here. Quick warning: in that piece I was writing for a more personal audience, so there's some, ahem, salty language.)

Training Tiger Woods is an attempt to take those techniques to the next level. As Jerry put it, "TTW is an attempt to create a training program to help people … maximize their potential." I've already seen limitations evaporate. Just how far can we take this?

Our hypothesis is that, by applying the energy awareness that Jerry's techniques make available--by being able to feel the flow of energy in ourselves and see the flow of energy in others--we'll be able to radically increase the speed of improvement. Oh, and this is at least as important: we'll be able to have a lot more fun as well.

TTW came about in part because of how I have been applying Jerry's techniques to the sports I participate in. I'm an avid soccer player, and I've been doing my best to use his techniques on the soccer field since we began working together last fall. However, in that arena I've struggled somewhat to really bring them to fruition. Playing soccer has been a major part of my life since 2001. I have a certain amount of ego invested in the game, and it's something that I've had a lot of time to develop habits around. It requires a lot of conscious energy to change habits, and I've been playing long enough and successfully enough that it's easy for me to fall into them without realizing it.

This spring, I took the techniques to the tennis court, where I found some real success. I hadn't played since before I started working with Jerry, which meant first of all that I could start my explorations on the court from a place of a certain proficiency with the techniques. I also wasn't carrying too much baggage. I played tennis as a kid and showed some recreational-level promise, but quit after not making the eighth-grade team at my middle school. I played a very small handful of times over the years, then came back to the game a couple of autumns ago, but didn't play enough to tie too much of myself to the sport. By having been away from it for so long, I had little ego invested in my relationship to the game, which gave me a lot of space to play with energy techniques.

I started learning some interesting things about myself through the game. I learned about habitual energy responses. I learned about ways in which I'd played out aspects of my personality on the court from a very young age. I learned how other people handled (usually unconsciously) energy dynamics. I even found my way to some understanding about why I'd struggled with choking in the face of an opponent's frustration back when I was a kid. (In short: I didn't want to be disliked.) These are the kinds of things that open to you when you learn to feel what your blocks are.

Then while I was on my roadtrip this summer, my interest in golf resurfaced. As I wrote about previously, I saw highlights (if you can call them that) of Tiger at the U.S. Open and found myself thinking about Jerry's techniques and how much they'd help Tiger. Also, for the first time in years, I hit a few golf balls, which got me thinking about the techniques and how much they might help me.

Here on TTW, I'll be using and writing about TTW techniques in all three sports I've mentioned so far and others as well. (I'm also an avid mountain biker, skier and snowboarder, and I have played with the techniques in all these arenas.) Golf, however, will get special emphasis for the reasons Jerry touched on in his last piece: the way golf is scored gives something of an objective perspective on your performance on any given day. Also, golf is an activity we both participate in and would like to improve at, so in golf we have a unique opportunity for each of us to serve as both student and teacher.

We're early in this process, but I'd say so far the results to our experiment have been very favorable. I've seen improvements in my game, sure, but what's really interesting are the improvements in my ability to feel the game. How do you know when you're hitting the ball well, besides the flight path of the ball? How do you correct your mistakes on your own? You have to learn to feel the swing. It's the only way.