Centering and Sport

Center. Breathe. Let it be easy.

Center. Breathe. Let it be easier.

Re-center. Breathe. Notice the Quality of Ease that comes with every breath.

To live a centered life is to bring consciousness and ease to everything you do.

This is the state of being from which Ben and I have attempted to teach ourselves golf. To this point, I consider our experiment to be wildly successful. The improvement that I have seen in both of us is nothing short of amazing. Now at this point, I truly believe that anything can be learned in this manner.

When centered, using a heightened sense of flow, it’s possible to feel the truth of a movement, which lets us learn through observation as well as practice. This is possible because within our nervous system we have something called a mirror neuron. This neuron not only fires when we are doing an action, it also fires when observing someone doing that action. When I watch golf on television, it’s literally like I’m taking a golf lesson with whichever player I happen to be following that day. So as I sat on my couch on Sunday afternoon, centered, watching Billy Hurley III chip in on the 15th hole to secure his first PGA win, my body was literally learning to hit that shot. I bet that I rewound and watched that shot a dozen times. From his address to his leap of joy when he knew it was going to drop, I centered, watched, and learned.

Ben and I observed this ‘mirroring effect’ first hand a couple of weeks ago. We were at Flatirons on the chipping green when a man and a woman walked up on the other side. He wasn’t a pro there, but he was obviously giving her a lesson on chipping. They were in the rough, hitting over the cart path. The ball had to carry about 10 yards before hitting the green, then had to check up within another 10 yards before it rolled off the backside. As he talked and demonstrated the technique, we watched him hit ball after ball, successfully holding the green more than 90% of the time. It was quite an impressive demonstration. As we watched, his student was slowly able to replicate his motions and steadily improved throughout the lesson.

During this demonstration, Ben and I watched as intently as possible without disturbing the flow of the lesson. We talked about his body motions and how he manipulated his club to create enough back spin to hold the green. We both were actively centering and taking in as much information as we could. As soon as they finished the lesson and departed, Ben and I went to try to replicate what we just saw. I can’t say that we performed with the same success rate, but we both hit some really nice shots. More importantly though, we could feel the reasons for our successes and failures. Being able to feel why a shot is successful or not means that we were building neural as well as muscle memory with each shot. Over time, we will be able to hone the skills necessary to be as accurate as our unknown teacher.

Now, anyone can actually learn by paying attention and mirroring a more proficient player. But to do it while centering, brings it to a whole new level. When centered, you're bringing all of your collective resources to bear on the task at hand.

This week, take the time to consciously watch others. Look for the flow or truth in what they are doing or saying. Put aside your thoughts or opinions for the time being, just focus on their state of flow around their actions.

Center. Breathe. Let it be easy.

Center. Breathe. Let it be easier.

Re-center. Breathe. Notice the Quality of Ease that comes with every breath.

On Golf Instruction, Part 1

Jerry and I both take a pretty dim view of the quality of golf instruction we see around. One recent example: we were at the range and watched an instructor give a "junior clinic." Mostly he seemed to be doing little more than providing the kids with balls. One little girl of about eleven was swinging entirely from her arms, no shoulder turn at all, and so unsurprisingly was hitting without any power and without any accuracy. She clearly wasn't having any fun. If the point of the exercise was simply to make contact with the ball, it's really no harder to swing from core than than it is with the arms, but he didn't offer her one word of explanation. From what we could see, all she learned that was that she has no power and that golf isn't fun. Not only could we not see how this "clinic" was serving her, we thought it was likely to her detriment.

More broadly, if golf instruction were better, wouldn't more people be better at golf? I came through this winter of teaching skiing with many criticisms of the way skiing is taught, but I'll say this: with a little application, a novice skier can learn to ski well enough to actually have fun in just a few days.

Now it's not unreasonable to say that golf is a harder sport than skiing, but I still think it's an indictment of the way golf is taught that so many of us don't get anywhere with our games, and, for as obsessed as we get, so few of us really have fun at the sport.

I'm not suggesting that instruction isn't important. I came out of a winter of teaching skiing more impressed than ever at the value of good instruction. It's worthwhile to take advantage of the knowledge of those who've come before you.

Nevertheless, neither Jerry nor I have taken a golf lesson since starting TTW. We're applying our knowledge of energy dynamics and proper body function. We're experimenting. And we're definitely seeing improvement.

Still, it's worth asking: could we speed up that process with some good instruction?

By definition, the answer is yes: good instruction helps you learn more quickly. But the sticking point--and what I intend to discuss over the next few weeks--is that it depends very much on what you mean by good.

Living A Centered Life

Center. Breathe. Let it be easy.

Center. Breathe. Let it be easier.

Re-center. Breathe. Notice the Quality of Ease that comes with every breath.

To live a centered life is to bring consciousness and ease to everything you do.

Living a centered life is the ultimate goal.

Living a centered life isn’t hard. In fact, it’s as easy as following the mantra above. Living a centered life is about showing up and paying attention. It’s much more about perseverance than anything else. It’s a skill that can be mastered by anyone willing to spend the time to stop, breathe, and pay attention.

The benefits to living a centered life are limitless. The detriments, well, that is complicated. I would like to say that there are none, but that would be a lie. There is a cost associated with paying attention. On the surface it seems trivial, but when we start to understand the truth of it, the cost can be much more than you're willing to pay. You see, the real cost is the loss of illusion and distraction.

On the surface, our world is full of things to entertain, enrage, and otherwise distract us. We log in and tune out to the world around us. Often, we think we’re engaging the world through Facebook and other forms of social media, when what we’re really doing is tuning out to our conscious self. As you are updating your Facebook status, your consciousness withers for lack of breath and awareness.

So when we center and breathe, we begin to align ourselves with the feeling of flow and harmony. As we continue to practice the centering breath, we become less tolerant of things that break or otherwise limit our sense of flow. When this happens, the things we use to distract ourselves becomes less appealing and fulfilling. That’s fine when we’re talking about things like computer or tablet time. But all too often, hobbies, relationships, and even our jobs prove to be limiting to personal growth and awareness. When this happens, the cost of becoming conscious can seem excessive.

Over the years I have helped literally hundreds of people through this process, and it’s been my experience that the greater the cost associated with becoming conscious, the greater the rewards and potential for personal growth.

As I said earlier, the benefits of living a centered life are truly unlimited. As we unlock our potential, life opens like a blooming flower on a sunny spring morning.

Next week, I will bring this topic back to the idea of sports and sport performance. Until then:

Center. Breathe. Let it be easy.

Center. Breathe. Let it be easier.

Re-center. Breathe. Notice the Quality of Ease that comes with every breath.

An Evolution in My Approach to Practicing

A piece of wisdom handed down from my music teachers, but applicable to any craft in which we seek improvement, is that it is far better to practice for fifteen minutes every day than to practice for half an hour once every two days, or 45 minutes once every three days, etc.

In the realm of golf, a problem most of us run into with respect to practicing is that practicing golf is an ordeal. We have to go to the practice range, and a trip to the range involves getting in the car. Let's face it, in the midst of all the other things we do in our daily lives, making a daily trip to the practice range is too much of a hassle. Furthermore, any time we go to the range, we're going to go for long enough to make the trip worthwhile. We're not going to make the drive for 15 minutes of quick practice. All of which means that on any given day, we're unlikely to practice.

We want to get better, and the only way to get better is by practicing, but practicing is a hassle, so we don't practice. It seems like we have a bit of a conundrum, doesn't it?

A few weeks ago, I started a different approach to practicing golf: most mornings, I go to my local park and practice there. Now, before I go on, let me be clear: practicing in a park raises a couple of important issues, namely safety and protecting the park. Regarding the former, I only practice with real golf balls when I'm chipping--there just isn't enough velocity on the ball to hurt anyone, and I'm not going to hit a shot so awry that anyone's going to be in harm's way. When I take full swings, I use light foam balls--they're light enough that I don't think they'd hurt even if you were standing right in front of one, and obviously I'm not going to hit one at someone directly in front of me. About the latter, because I too would be aggrieved if anyone went to my neighborhood park and tore up the grass, I only hit from a practice mat I put on the sidewalk.

I start my sessions with chipping. I set a bucket out in the grass to use as my target. In the short time I've been doing this, I've already seen myself improve. I rarely drain one into the bucket, but my grouping around the bucket is getting tighter and tighter. My aim and execution have both dramatically improved.

Afterward, I'll hit some full-swing shots. Little by little, I'm working with longer and longer clubs. I'm seeing some improvement. Clubs that I couldn't hit at all a few weeks ago, I'm sometimes able to hit.

As an added benefit, I'm seeing my improvements come much more quickly. Let's say my limit before frustration sets in is 10 six-irons. Let's say it takes five sessions of those ten balls, paying close attention and making tweaks, before I see any improvement. If I'm practicing only once a week, it takes more than a month before I see myself improve. If I'm practicing daily, it takes only five days.

I also play with things in a way that I wouldn't at the range. It's hard for me to go to the range and feel like I can take half swings, or intentionally mishit shots to learn what that swing feels like in my body. Yes, a ball at my local range only costs ten cents, but it still feels wrong to "waste" balls doing anything less than full swings that I'm trying to hit as well as possible. But at the park, if I'm trying, for example, to understand what it is I do to create that ugly push-slice I tend to hit, I can work on doing it intentionally, and it doesn't feel like I'm wasting anything.

I'm also noticing that my ability to solve golfing problems has improved. Earlier this week, Jerry and I went to the chipping green, and we were practicing a shot from some really deep grass, and I was not succeeding with my shot. I got a little frustrated but I stuck with it and tried to figure out what I needed to do to hit the shot successfully, and by the third or fourth go-round practicing that shot, I was seeing my shots improve.

Now that I've been doing this for a few weeks, I am coming strongly to believe that a major part of the reason that most of us don't see our golf games improve is that, even for the few of us who actually practice, we don't practice often enough to get better at practicing itself. By practicing every day, I'm giving myself space to play with how I enter the practice mindset, to play with how I warm-up, and to play with the order of shots that I practice. In short, while I'm practicing, I'm also practicing practicing. My practice sessions themselves are getting more effective.

As I'm seeing the benefits in my own game that this change in approach is bringing, I'm discovering a mission for myself: I want to encourage people to bring to find a way to make practicing less of a big deal, so that we do it more, so that we improve, so that we have more fun.

The Art of Centering

Center. Breathe. Let it be easy.

Center. Breathe. Let it be easier.

Re-center. Breathe. Notice the Quality of Ease that comes with every breath.

To live a centered life is to bring consciousness and ease to everything you do.

Living a centered life should be our ultimate goal.

TTW was founded on the idea of maximizing our potential through conscious training. Over the last few weeks I have been chronicling my interactions with a client of many years who has been struggling with her golf game. After finally convincing her, a couple of weeks ago, of the need to practice, she has diligently practiced 2-3 times per week for 20-30 minutes. I have given her some practice ideas and she has created some of her own. I am happy to report that she has been shooting in the mid 90’s since she began practicing and is feeling much better about her game.

During our last training session, she commented that she needed to work on her endurance, because after 14 holes or so she finds it harder to stay focused and centered. Keep in mind that although I have worked with her for many years on centering and energy flow, she has been actively applying it to her golf game for only several weeks. Through the heat, the ups and downs of several rounds of golf, under lots of pressure (she was playing in a tournament), being able to maintain center and focus for 14 holes is truly amazing.

In his piece on Friday, Ben pointed out how centering could help many, if not all, of the best players at the French Open. He catalogued how each wears down, losses focus, and struggles in the heat of competition, and highlights how they could improve and be helped by the centering techniques that we share here at TTW. These players are at the top 1% of their sport and each and every one would benefit from this practice.

Now, keep in mind, from visualization techniques to working with sports psychologists, all of them already do some kind of mental training. Many of them do yoga and other forms of breathing and meditation exercises. They all have personal trainers and staffs dedicated to keeping them fit, strong, and prepared to compete at the highest levels of their professions. And yet, In the thick of the competition, when it’s all on the line, why does their training often fall short? Why can’t these elite professional athletes integrate their training seamlessly into competition? I would assume that it’s how they train and practice. That they are building a set of tools that they hope will keep them at the top of their game, instead of building a set of tools that keeps them centered and living a balanced life.

Remember, living a centered life should be our ultimate goal.

To live a centered life is to bring consciousness and ease to everything you do.

Center. Breathe. Let it be easy.

Center. Breathe. Let it be easier.

Re-center. Breathe. Notice the Quality of Ease that comes with every breath.

Centering for Famous Pro Athletes, Centering for Us

Our initial jumping-off point for this project was the observation that centering and other techniques that Jerry teaches would dramatically help Tiger Woods in his desire to return to being genuinely competitive. I spent a month's worth of pieces describing how centering would have helped Jordan Spieth at the Masters. In light of the recent pieces from Jerry and me about the practice of centering and how it helps people at our level, I thought it might be worthwhile to talk briefly about how centering might help other people at the top of their game as a way to pique thinking about other ways centering can be useful in our lives.

Because the French Open just ended, I'm going to focus on professional tennis players.

Serena Williams is still the person to beat in women's tennis, but she tends to get listless and disinterested in the middle of matches, and then needs a dramatic over-compensation to get back into the match. It's inefficient and it wears her down. She did this all through the French Open, Wimbledon, and the US Open last year, and it finally caught up with her in her match against Roberta Vinci. She no longer had sufficient reserves to draw on and she lost. I'm sure it's clear enough to her when it happens--she is cruising along and suddenly she isn't. Centering would help her feel as that listlessness sets in and possibly catch it before it became a problem. By feeling the difference between her flow state and her listless state, it would also allow her to let go of it more quickly when it does set in.

Maria Sharapova could benefit as well. Assuming she doesn't get a doping ban that's so long it ends her career, then she needs to deal with the real weakness in her game, which is her serve. Specifically, her toss is all over the place, which makes her serve very inconsistent and puts her under high stress during her service games. As we have spoken about at length with respect to our golf practice, centering gives the foundation for change by returning more fully to the present, rather than falling away into the past or future. For Sharapova, either the stress has become habitual (past focus), it stems from a worry that things could go wrong (future focus), or it's a combination of both, but whatever it is, it's corrupting her ball toss. A return to the present moment via centering would begin to shift that stress away. The ball toss could just be the ball toss.

For another example, consider Andy Murray. Murray tends to waste vast amounts of energy getting upset when things aren't going his way in a match. He directs that energy toward the people in his player's box. It got bad enough that his most recent coach, Amelie Mauresmo, with whom he had considerable success, admitted that their parting stemmed in part from the discomfort she felt being at the receiving end of his negativity during matches. (I can empathize; as a fan, it can be genuinely hard to watch.) Centering would allow him to experience the annoyance and frustration simply as they are, without needing to put more energy into them. It might also make him more aware of the effect he's having on others.

A couple of things worth noting with respect to Murray: in last weekend's final at Roland Garros, which Murray lost to Novak Djokovic, we saw very, very little of this habit. He did complain about a few things during the match, but those things--an interviewer in his player's box during the match, seeing a cable-cam designed to look like an airplane in his peripheral vision while serving--seemed like fairly legitimate distractions. Of course, as Jerry spoke about in his piece from Tuesday, there are always distractions. The question is, how do we deal with them?

Also, the tenor of what Murray says during those spells matters a lot. Many, many tennis writers have discussed how singles tennis might be the loneliest of all sports--you're separated from your opponent by both a substantial distance and a net. You're not allowed any coaching. Whatever comes, you have to handle it all by yourself. When Murray is speaking things aloud but without the negativity, it may be a way to let go of that sense of aloneness, and thus be energetically worthwhile. He needs to learn to differentiate between practices that let go of negative energy and practices that soak in it.

Over the next week, consider ways that you could bring the awareness and flow brought by centering into problematic or at least energy-leaking habits in your own life.

Ritual Practice Part 5

I have been creating, practicing and teaching the concepts and techniques of centering and flow for the last twenty years. In his piece last Friday, Ben captured the essence of the idea beautifully.

To be centered is a state of being. We practice centering to become. We practice as a meditation. We practice as we exercise. We practice as we live.

Yes, centering can improve your golf game, your tennis game, even your poker game. But it only helps in proportion to the amount of and the type of practice. If you’re not honing your centering skills, the ability to create and stay within a state of flow will escape you when you need it the most.

I experienced a test to my centering skills a couple of weeks ago before my trip to Arizona. I was at the driving range working on my pre-shot ritual. A golf pro was a few spaces down giving a lesson. I watched for a couple of minutes, shook my head in disbelief and continued on with my practice. The disbelief was caused by the absolute look of frustration on the student's face as he struggled to make the adjustments the instructor wanted. The more frustrated the student became, the louder and faster the instructor talked. Soon his booming voice had every person at the driving range distracted and frustrated because they couldn’t tune him out. After hitting a couple of horrible shots, I exchanged a look and another head shake with the guy hitting next to me. I contemplated leaving but decided it was a great time to practice my centering skills.

I stood behind my ball and dropped into center. Using the breath to establish a sense of flow, I went into my pre-shot ritual and calmly stepped up, addressed the ball and continued my practice. I was able to do this because I diligently practice using and developing my centering skills. I try to practice at both the best and worst of times. By practicing under duress, I am able to rely on my skills in the most stressful of circumstances. Now don’t get me wrong, I still have the ability to struggle and let situations get the best of me. But the more I practice being centered, the less it happens.

I was discussing this with my client right before my Arizona trip. We talked about why even though she’s quite skilled at centering and controlling her energy, it rarely helps her when golfing. Especially lately, she’s really been struggling with her putting and centering hasn’t been helping. I suggested that she needed to go to the range and practice her centering techniques and putting at the same time. We discussed a couple of different techniques to try. She agreed to try practicing 2-3 times a week for 30 minutes. She had managed a couple of practice sessions and sent me this text while I was in Arizona.

“Just to let you know – golfed much better yesterday- 94 (43 on the front) Still had some blow ups, but lots of pars too and one birdie. Putting much better” 

In her rounds prior to the practice sessions and that text she had been scoring well over 100. I heard that she was playing in a tournament this week with a friend. I will be curious to see if the practice sessions continue to help.

This week I’d like you to spend some time thinking about the essence of centering and creating flow. Think about where it could be most beneficial in your life.

In Response to Last Week’s Questions

Last week, I wrote about a day I spent fishing on the San Juan River and described how I had the most successful day I'd ever had by slowing down, paying attention, and then acting on what I observed.
I ended last week's piece with a series of questions relating to what we're doing here: "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?"

Over the past week, I've put a lot of energy into those questions, and the answer I've come to is that essentially, it's exactly that willingness to slow down and pay attention that's driven our improvement. That is exactly what we are trying to do with TTW: to slow down and attend deeply to the moment, seeking to create a space where our rational mind and our intuitive self can engage with the task at hand and work together optimally instead of fighting each other. To feel our bodies as best we are able and to discern what happens moment by moment with as little judgment as possible. To bring a sense of play to our practice.

With the techniques at the heart TTW, we're trying to create a ground for this to happen. That is what centering, this practice of bringing attention to the body and the breath, is all about. That day on the Juan, the circumstances were as they were, and I flowed with the river. On another day I might have succumbed to frustration, smacked my rod against the water, and broken the tip off. (How I know to offer that specific detail as indicative of frustration taking hold will be left as an exercise for the reader.)

The practice of centering is to give us an always-with-us, easily available means to access that state. For most of us most of the time, access into a calm, centered, flowing state happens at best haphazardly, during those few fleeting moments when our focus in some activity becomes just so. For many of us, it happens not at all.

Centering and related techniques offer the promise that this state--what has become popularly known as flow--can be accessed at will. More precisely--this is very important--flow is a skill that can be learned. It needs to be practiced. It gets easier to access as you work at it, and grows in depth as you practice. Like any other deep skill, it will meet your explorations of it with ever deeper rewards, and will still never become fully discovered. You will never exhaust that exploration.

Now think back to the story Jerry told about his client who speaks of the decline of her golf game but says that she doesn't like to practice. What if we could convince her that practicing is fun? What might happen then?

How would we do that? It starts with centering. Centering brings your attention to the present moment, and the present moment, properly noticed, turns out to be fascinating. If she practiced centering as she practiced golf, and suddenly practicing golf became fun, what might happen with her golf game? More importantly: what might happen with her life in general?