Antoine de Saint-Exupery once said, "Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."
Now let that sink in for a minute...
Golf is not a game of perfect. It cannot be won. It can only be improved upon. Just like perfection, it cannot ever achieve it, you can only works towards becoming better every day.
Most people think in order to play their best golf they must have the perfect swing but the reality of the fact is that your swing is a very small part of actually playing golf. More important is the process you go through for every shot, and how you react to the result.
At the highest level in every discipline, the athlete goes through a mental and physical checklist before pulling the trigger. This allows them to get in the zone, to find that elusive "flow state" and let their training work for them instead of against them. In golf, the pre-shot routine can take many forms and the details can be determined by the individual athlete, but most pre-shot routines follow a similar pattern which is what I want to discuss today.
VISION54 founders Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott (they coach Annika Sorenstam, Russell Knox, Kevin Streelman, Condoleezza Rice, and many others) made popular a concept called Compartmentalization.
Compartmentalization is the ability for the subconscious mind to separate and categorize conflicting ideas in order to avoid cognitive dissonance (aka, Mental Discomfort).
Pia and Lynn have broken down the stages of the swing into what they call the Think Box, Play Box, and Memory Box. Each of these stages plays a vital role in accomplishing flow and allowing you to play your best, day in and day out.
I've borrowed the concept of Think Box, Play Box, and Memory Box to provide my students structure to their pre-shot routines so they can overcome the many mental pressures that occur during a round of golf.
Inside the Think Box, you, well... think! Before each shot there's certain things you need to know in order to pull off the shot you're intending to hit. The first thing is to ask yourself 5 Important Questions. I've written a previous article on the 5 questions you should ask before each shot so I won't go into detail here.
Ask yourself these 5 questions up font so you can properly envision the shot you want to hit. As you play more and become a better golfer, this process happens almost instinctively but it's important to be familiar with it anyway. If you don't know the answers to the 5 questions you might as well just hit it and hope.
When you're in the play box, it's no longer time to think. Instead, it's time to feel, to be present in the moment, to be focused and dialed in. If you've ever experienced flow before, time seems to slow down, you don't notice things going on around you, and the only thing that matters is the task at hand.
The play box is about being emotionally stable and confident. The play box is where the magic happens and you need to train yourself not to taint this sacred area with thoughts, especially negative ones!
Henry Ford famously said, "Whether you think you can or think you can't, you're right." In Golf, if you think you're going to hit a bad shot, you will. Your mind doesn't hear "Don't." "Don't go in the water" "Don't slice it" "Don't leave it short" are all interpreted as "Go in the water" "Slice it" "Leave it short." I even encourage students to take their practice swings away from the ball so they don't have any negative thoughts bleed into the play box.
BRIDGING THE GAP
So how do you go from thinking to not thinking? I'll be perfectly honest, it's not easy. The secret to bridging the gap is hidden within the pre-shot routine itself. After asking yourself the 5 questions, visualize the shot in your mind then make a few practice swings if you need to so you can feel in your swing what you see in your mind.
Practice swings are meant to get your body and mind to match, to feel like you've hit the shot before you've hit it. That way when you stand over the ball, it's like you've already done it.
After taking your practice swings, go through your pre-shot routine. I like to stand behind the ball and look straight down my target line. I pick an intermediary target then keep my eye on it. I draw a line in my mind that connects the ball to the intermediary target then align my feet, knees, hips, and shoulders parallel to that line. The last thing I do is go through my bracing sequence and look at the target for one last time. I check my gut and make sure I have all green lights then pull the trigger.
If my gut tells me somethings not right, I listen to it and start my routine again. This would be my opportunity to change clubs, re-align, or take a deep breath. But if I don't have all green lights, I won't swing because I know it won't be my best shot.
This is where so many golfers go astray. They think once they've hit the ball the shots over but that's simply not true. Sure you may be done physically but by no means are you done mentally.
After your shot, hold your finish and watch the ball until it stops moving. One of two things will have happened. Your shot will either have met/exceeded your expectations or it won't.
If the swing met or exceeded your expectations, get excited! In a game of "who can miss the best," when you pull off the shot you had in your mind you should be very excited. You need to reinforce that your process was correct. You did you due diligence and asked yourself the 5 questions before the shot, chose the right club, aligned yourself properly, and made the swing you intended to make. That's a big deal! You don't have to show it on the outside but you sure as heck should be thrilled on the inside. Don't discount it, it's important!
If you didn't get the result you were looking for which is commonly the case, you have two options. You can either ignore it and move on or you can learn from it.
Ignoring the shot and moving on isn't as easy as it might sound. You may think you're ignoring it only to think about it the entire way to your next shot. It may pop up in your mind several holes or even days or years later. That bad association will destroy you next time you have that shot. I encourage all my students to read and practice Stoic Philosophy. Stoicism is the ancient philosophy of turning obstacles into opportunities. It's about understanding what you can and cannot control and accepting things for what they really are. It's about seeing the silver lining in everything.
The other option is to learn from your shot. Be honest with yourself but also be encouraging. If you hit a bad shot don't say "you're a worthless piece of crap who will never be good at this game." What good will that do! Golf is hard! That's why it's so important to celebrate the good shots.
Instead, when you hit a poor shot, ask yourself, was that because of a swing fault or was it because I didn't plan properly. Did I forget to aim or did I take the wrong club? Was I focused or was I thinking about being 2 shots down going into the back 9? Chances are if you've played enough golf, you've played with someone before that has a terrible looking swing and they've cleaned your clock. Why? Because you don't need a beautiful swing to play great golf. You need to know how to get around the course and get the ball in the hole.
Regardless of if you've been playing for a lifetime or you're just getting started, the best thing you can do for your game is develop and trust a pre-shot routine that you can rely on time and time again. The details may change, but the big picture should always stay the same... Explore the options at hand by asking the 5 questions, visualize the shot, feel the shot, execute the shot, embrace the good and create learning opportunities from the bad.
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