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.

TTW- Background Information

In my last post I shared that Training Tiger Woods (TTW) is an attempt to create a training program to help people overcome their limitations and maximize their potential.  Before I move forward, I should clarify that we are not doing this on a lark.  I have spent the last 20 years developing the techniques we are going to be using during this process.  These are tried and proven techniques that I have used working one on one with clients in a gym setting. So walking in, we know that exercise can in fact be used as a modality to help people overcome their limitations. Using sports and sports performance takes it one step further.

For those of you who might not know me, my name is Jerry Siravo.  I am the founder of A Way of Life Fitness Consulting.  I have a BS in Kinesiology and I am a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS).  My work focuses on injury rehabilitation and helping people re-establish balance within their lives.  My hope is that the TTW program is going to be a stepping stone for teaching the principles that I have developed to larger and more diverse groups of people.

The obvious question seems to be, why use golf?

We chose golf for several reasons. First, golf is hard. The fact that it’s hard to play golf well is generally accepted by most people.  Therefore, significant improvement by either of us will be a ringing endorsement for our training methods. Second, improvement is easily measured. At the end of each round you have a ‘report card’ that shows how well you played against the golf course that day.  Third, neither of us are proficient in the sport.  Ben has never broken 100 strokes over 18 holes.  In my past, a very long time ago, I broke 90 once.  These days I typically shoot between 96 and 105.  Fourth, we both enjoy practicing and playing the game. Since we are going to be spending lots of our time working on this, we might as well have fun while doing it.

Our first order of business will be to get Ben healthy. He is currently recovering from a separated shoulder that he hurt playing soccer. As soon as he has recovered we will play a round and see where exactly we are starting from. (Neither of us has played a full round of golf this season.)

Our initial goals are as follows.  By the end of next golfing season, approximately a year from now, Ben wants to be routinely breaking 100.  Myself, I hope to be shooting in the high 80’s on a regular basis.  Because we are going to teach each other without any outside help or lessons we can insure that our improvement is a byproduct of our training program.

Now that the background has been set and our goals established, it’s time to begin.  Wish us luck.

Training Tiger Woods–Ben’s Introduction

After the U.S. Open, you could just tell that Tiger wasn't likely to make the cut at any of the other Majors either. It's not that he doesn't have the physical game anymore--on any given shot he's still capable of performing at the level of the best in the world. His physical injuries haven't depleted him so much, and golf has not become so totally the playground of the young and powerful that Woods, now 39 and past his physical peak, can no longer compete.

But by the Open, back in June, I'd been working with Jerry long enough to see pretty clearly when a top athlete is or isn't in flow. And let me tell you, just seeing highlights from the Open, it was totally clear that Tiger's energy is totally off, and without a radically different approach to how he approaches the game, it isn't going to get back on. He's rebuilt his swing again and again over the course of his career, a process he's continuing now, but the swing isn't the problem. Indeed, that constant upheaval is one of the clear symptoms of the actual problem. He's off energetically. Until he starts to focus on the problem as an energy problem rather than a physical problem, he won't return to anything like the form that made him so utterly dominant.

Now, I know what Jerry's work with me has done in my life--in rough summary, it's changed everything, and is still changing everything, and my life is vastly better than it was, and I have every reason to believe it will continue to get better. That led me to wonder: what would happen if Jerry could work with Tiger?

I came back from my road trip in early July and I gave Jerry an assignment. "Tiger Woods is going to miss the cut in the British and the PGA and when he does he'll be done for the year. If at that point he isn't utterly in crisis, well, he should be. And I know you could help him. As an exercise, I want you to write a letter to Tiger introducing yourself, offering your services, and telling him you could help him."

Jerry liked the idea. He drafted the letter. Then We tried to imagine what to do next. We could think of some places to send the letter (Tiger's agent seemed the most likely bet) but the likelihood of it getting to Tiger, much less that Tiger would understand that he was holding in his hand the Golden Ticket, seemed pretty small.

The project got us asking some interesting questions, though. Elite athletes clearly have a profound intuitive understanding of energy flow. But all else being equal, do they excel by dint of being genetic outliers, or do they instead meet a potential that's latent in all of us but rarely touched in our lives? We didn't know, and don't know still. But we recognized that most people have vast amounts of unmet potential.

We began to conceptualize a training program that would allow people to develop their potential. And our initial subjects would be--will be--ourselves.

Jerry's been developing techniques over the past 20 years that, in briefest summary, teach what is commonly referred to as flow. As a student of these techniques, I can attest that they have the potential to foster major change in one's life. What we're doing here, though, is a bit more specific. We're aiming to use these techniques in spheres of athletic endeavor in which neither of is an expert, hoping to create something of feedback loop in which we experiment and essentially teach each other.

There's one last thing I should say, and this is very important: We're working in the field of exercise and athletics not to make it the dominant focus of our lives--we're both over 40, and there's no professional sports career out there for either of us. We're working in athletics because it narrows our focus and allows us to play without over-complicating things. Also, athletics allows measurement of improvement that a broader view of life might not. Being able to say, "My life is vastly better," while deeply valuable, is also purely subjective. But you can easily notice that you bench press twice what you used to, or that your average golf score has dropped seven strokes. All of that is useful. But what we're really training to improve is the totality of our lives, and ultimately, by sharing these techniques, the lives of others.

Training Tiger Woods–Jerry’s Introduction

Before I explain what this is, I should explain how this idea came about. I was watching Sport Center with my good friend and writing coach, Ben. The talking heads on the screen were talking about Tiger not making the cut in the U.S. Open. So Ben, who also trains with me, asks “could you help Tiger be dominant again?” I smiled and explained why I thought I could if the circumstances were right. He gave me his whimsical smile and we moved on to the next topic.

A couple of days later we were meeting for a writing session and Ben says that he has an assignment for me. I’m to write a letter to Tiger Woods and explain how I could help him. We talk about the parameters of the assignment, he gave me six weeks to complete it because by then Tiger would have missed the cut in the British Open and missed the PGA championships (leaving him with plenty of spare time), and we moved on to the next topic.

Here’s the letter. If anyone reading this has access to Tiger or his people, please forward it on. I stand by my premise and feel strongly that I could truly help.

An open letter to Tiger Woods

It’s good to be the king! Tiger, when you were dominating the golf world you were truly the “king.” You were the most dominant player the world has ever seen. You strutted around the golf course like a young god daring those around you to defy your right to rule, while enjoying the spoils of success in a manner only those born to rule can. Now, I’m not here to judge, success has a way of enticing even the best into temptation. I’m sure all the great golfers of their day enjoyed the spoils of success. But they lived in a different time and almost a different place. Back then, there was a thing called privacy. Your private life was private. Now, not so much.

The way you walked the world and took what was yours by right, created a confluence of power, control, and grace. It was a marriage of energy, passion and complete physical dominance that changed the landscape of golf. You truly changed the game for ever. No longer is golf the play thing of the rich and privileged. We all like to play now.

Today, I watched Jason Day win his first Major with Jordan Spieth hot on his heels. After missing the cut in your third straight major, you were in Florida watching from your new business interest. That kind of sounds like another ‘has been’ moving on to the next phase of life. I can only hope it’s not so.
It’s not that I have anything against the young golfers who are dominating the scene right now. They are very talented and deserving of the praise they are receiving. It’s just they’re like golf used to be. But, if the king is dead – “long live the King.”

Somehow, I don’t think you’re quite done yet. You keep retooling your swing and putting yourself under the harsh scrutiny of society. The talent is still there. You are still one of the greatest athletes ever to play the game.

Your swing isn’t the problem. You can change it a thousand times and things still will not be right. You still won’t win.

When you look at the combination of social pressure, injury rehabilitation, and trying to redefine yourself as a man, a golfer and a father, it’s not a mystery why you haven’t succeeded.

There is an energetic balance that goes with success. When I watch you play, I don’t see a golfer struggling with his swing. I see an athlete out of balance. That state of balance and grace under pressure was once yours. It can be again.

We should talk. I can help.

Jerry Siravo CSCS

Founder of A Way of Life Fitness Consulting.

The writing process led to some interesting questions and ideas. For example, what separates us average people from the truly great athletes? Are they born gifted with more potential than the rest of us? Or do they just achieve that potential to a higher degree? Whatever it is, we agreed that most of us live lives of unfulfilled potential. We could do more and be more. We all have our reasons, excuses, and stories for why we haven’t achieved our potential. I’ll even go so far as to accept that often our reasons are legitimate. Whatever the reason, we haven’t been able to rise up and overcome our limitations and maximize our potential.

The simple idea that we could all do and be more led Ben and myself to this idea.

We are going to develop a training program that helps people achieve to their highest potential.

We will share this process with you both here and on my site at I will be posting my views and insights on the process most Mondays and Ben will follow with his on Fridays. Our goal is to make this process as interactive as possible. We would love to hear your opinions and will gladly answer questions during this process.