Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Jesus Club: Why so many tour players carry 15 clubs

   After Zach Johnson won this year’s John Deere Classic with an absolutely glorious shot from the fairway bunker to win the playoff against Troy Matteson, he said to CBS announcer David Feherty, “I just want to thank my Lord and savior Jesus Christ for giving me the patience and perseverance and the talent to play this game.”  While some people may cringe at hearing so public a proclamation of such privately held beliefs, just a quick look at the success of the Jesus club should make us stop and wonder: Bubba Watson (the Masters), Webb Simpson (US Open), Rickie Fowler (Wells Fargo), Hunter Mahan (WGC Match Play, Shell Houston), Jason Dufner (Zurich, Byron Nelson).   Regardless of our feelings, that’s an objectively impressive list and anyone would do well to decipher just what the Jesus club adds to these players’ already powerful armatorium that proves to be the saving grace for them.
   It is important to note that Zach credits the Jesus club with three things: talent, patience and perseverance, with two of them being the kind of cognitive benefits that are the ineffable, though quite tangible, difference between winning and losing in any sport, golf in particular.  When we think about it from a slight remove, we can identify at least three benefits that the Jesus club might impart that anyone would do well to incorporate into their bag regardless of the affiliation of their creed.
  1. Praying.  While we don’t know the details of Zach’s religious observation, we can imagine that it involves some form of prayer.  Regular prayer has been shown effective in helping all kinds of problems, from improving mental and physical health to reducing stress and increasing a sense of happiness through serenity.  Furthermore, most religions have prayers that believers utter in incantatory repetition.  In this vein, we think of praying the rosary, with its repetitions of the “Hail Mary,” and some Christian adherents resort to the “Jesus Prayer:” “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have pity on me, a sinner.”  The Buddhist mantra “Om mane padme hum,” is yet another example. Any prayer or mantra when uttered in repetition will have a distinct, calming effect on one’s neurological functioning, changes which have been proven on fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging).  It is also important to note that one does not need to resort to religious prayer to achieve this effect.  Regular mindfulness meditation, encouraging mantras repeated with regularity, and especially, a mindful attention to one’s breathing--particularly in competitive situations when the breath gets short--can all produce the same effects on the sympathetic nervous system as any of the prayers mentioned above.
  2. Participating.  Many people of a religious bent feel as though they are participating in something larger than themselves, that they are a small feature in a bigger drama that is playing out around them.  For them, there is a larger plan, a broader canvas and even an entire other realm for which this one is mere preparation.  This belief, when truly incorporated, tends to have a calming effect on the here and now.  Crises seem less urgent, adverse turns of fortune can be tolerated with greater equanimity and the need to understand every last thing becomes less insistent.  Now note: caring less about the here and now doesn’t mean that they become careless about it.  This crucial distinction itself brings about a strange but true paradox: by caring less about the here and now, they can bring a more full attention to it, not forcing an outcome with their mind, but freeing their body to do best what it has been trained to do.  It also means that they can more easily tolerate the slings and arrows of an outrageous fortune better than the rest of us.  This kind of toleration is, quite literally, money in the bank when it comes to enduring the famous “rub of the green” of golf, where our perfectly struck ball has a disastrous outcome, but our rival’s shank hits the ball washer of the next tee only to end up as a leaner against the flag.  It is here important to remember that the first playoff hole of the John Deere was halved in sixes, as Zach hit his first fairway bunker shot into the water hazard.  His miraculous shot on the second playoff hole, from the very same bunker,  is testament to his ability not to be undone by events of the first.
  3. Letting go.  Very closely connected to this idea of participating in something larger is the idea that such an attitude brings on a relaxation of need to control absolutely everything, oblivious to the reality that forces larger than us are in play.  It is a sports cognition cliché that we should focus only on the things we can control, not the bad bounces, the bad calls, the rambunctious crowd, the petty irritations of an opponent.  But players of a religious bent have this idea already as part of their deep-seated cognitive and spiritual repertoire.  The bumper sticker: “Let go, let God,” comes to mind here.  So, too, the AA Serenity Prayer.  It is important to note how foreign from our mind set this attitude is.  For much of the history of the human tragicomedy, we have given enormous privilege to the power of rationality, of human cognition, as a way out of our problems and jams.  But, many problems, indeed the biggest problems, such as fate, free will and the meaning of life, are problems of being, not problems of thinking.  In this sense, we are all mini versions of Oedipus, that wonderful thinker who, when the chips were down, couldn’t think his way out of a paper bag.  He was, quite simply, using the wrong club.  Compounding the problem is the fact that we spend the majority of time trapped in the bubble of our minds and believing the thoughts ricocheting around that bubble. Time spent this way leads us to the auteur problem:  a cognitive distortion that would have us believe that we are the author, director and cinematographer of a movie (“My Life”) in which we are also the main protagonist.  This thought must gain incredible strength for a golfer toward the end of a tournament, thronged by fans, televised globally, who is, quite literally, a main character of the unfolding drama.  Imagine how helpful it is to feel that one is only in control of the moment to a certain degree, particularly when those moments are highly pressurized.  “I will play my part, and the universe will play its.”  It is my main point, here, that not only is this a very healthy cognitive attitude, but that those who use the Jesus club come to the game already well practiced with it and are thus more able to reap its rewards.

   So, if you’ve read this far, perhaps I’ve piqued your interest.  Or, maybe you’re just a friend of mine and are being patiently abiding.  Either way, it is important for me to say that I am not proselytizing for any particular deity.  I am evangelizing that you incorporate these three skills into your cognitive repertoire, if you haven’t already.  But, you should also know that the Jesus club is not something that you go down to your local pro shop and pick up like a new hybrid or your 10th new putter in as many years.  No, the directions to achieving the heavenly benefits of the Jesus club are the same as those to that other storied place of perfect performance: practice, practice, practice.  These are skills that require as much cultivation as any other sport skill.  And I highly recommend you start soon, because the stakes are very high, indeed. Until then, you can repeat the Golfer’s Prayer after me: “O Golfing Goddess, daughter of the Universe, have pity on me, a thinker.”

Friday, August 17, 2012

Scott’s Lytham Opportunity: The Only Way Out is Through

Much was made of the way Adam Scott handled himself after his disastrous four-hole demise at this year’s British Open.  In total control of the tournament and his golf game for 68 holes, Scott bogeyed holes 15-18 to lose the tournament by one stroke to Ernie Els.  Commentators all praised him for the Stoic and gentlemanly manner he negotiated himself after a collapse whose scope was compared to Greg Norman’s epic blunder at the Masters in 1996.  We remember that Norman  started the tournament with a course record-tying 63 and took a six stroke lead into Sunday, only to shoot 78 and lose by 5 strokes to Nick Faldo.  Even Scott made the comparison as he told reporters how well his idol had handled himself in defeat.
   Two comments immediately come to mind about the comparison with Greg Norman.  First of all, I have a distinct memory of the bad taste Norman’s comments left in people’s mouths when he said a version of, “hey, in the end, it’s just a game and I have all my business interests and my money, and I’ll be fine.”  Secondly, it would also be useful to remember that Norman never seriously contended in another major tournament, unless you consider the 1999 Masters, when he again turned in a lackluster final round 73 to finish three strokes behind Jose Maria Olazabal.  Norman’s final round might indicate that, regardless of how he handled himself in his 1996 defeat, his post-round retreat into his off-course successes may have been a salve for his ego, but may have hindered him from submitting to the kind of post game analysis necessary to avoid repeating it, as he did in 1999.  Any trauma survivor knows that avoidance is the easiest and most common-sense reaction to the traumatic event, but anyone who has truly overcome their trauma knows that the only way out is back through.  And that means: exposure.
   While Scott definitely did not seek to soothe his ego too quickly (“I can’t justify anything I did out there today.”), he would do well to expose himself very painstakingly  to everything that happened in those last four holes.  Rather than hide behind his now trademark steely gaze, he should submit to a tortuous examination of as much as he can remember of his thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, as well as every little detail of every shot in that last hour of play.  If he does, he might find that he succumbed to any or all of the following cognitive pitfalls:

1) The “I’ve got this” error.  If he reviews the audio reel of his self-talk, he might find that he had some thought that the birdie on 14 that put him four shots clear of the field was the winning stroke.  We all know how dangerous this cognitive distortion is and how much it can undermine the kind of attention needed to execute all the way to the end. And if he had the thought, was he quick enough to answer with a stern version of, “hey, we’ve got lots of golf left, here”?  He said of his play on Thursday that he just kept his foot on the gas, “as if it was Sunday.”  But maybe after his putt on 14 on Sunday, he began to play as if it was Thursday.
2) The strategy error.  Had he prepared himself to have a big lead late on Sunday?  If so, what was the strategy?  If he had not thought of that, then it suggests that his preparation was incomplete.  He should have gone through every margin of leading or following on all of the final holes, so that no situation would have felt unfamiliar.  He may think he prepared to “take it just one shot at a time,” which is generally a good strategy, but it’s equally good strategy to think, “how would I play if I had a four shot lead with four to go?”  It might not have meant doing anything differently, from a strategic point of view, but it would mean that he would have put himself there in his mind and had a plan when it did happen.
3) The “don’t” error.  Every golfer knows the power of saying something like, “don’t hit it into the water,” right before doing just that.  Did he make a version of the “don’t” error on 16 :“don’t miss this putt”?  Or, more likely on 17: “don’t hit it left.”  It is always more cognitively effective, from a performance point of view, to put the goal in the positive: “Hit it pure (and the water’s not an issue).” “Make a good stroke.”  “Let’s hit this a little right.”
4) The Stevie Williams error.  Adam said of Stevie’s contribution to his spectacular opening 64 on Thursday: “ [His] little gee-ups (a ‘gee up’ is Down Under speak for a “pep talk”) are good for me.  It keeps me alert.  I like that, I can feed off of it because I can cruise too much when I’m out on the golf course.”  All of us, particularly after Adam’s win last year at the Bridgestone, thought that Steve Williams would be Scott’s 15th club in the bag when it came down the stretch at a major.  After all, Williams had been a successful closer in 13 majors with his previous boss, the consummate closer.  But where was that 15th club in the last four holes?  Did Stevie continue to give him little “gee ups,” or did both of them go into the sort of cruise control that considers victory a foregone conclusion?  Did Stevie step up or down, and if so, was Stevie’s role clarified if he felt that his man was on cruise control?

There is evidence that his old habit of cruise control did set in, because in his press conference this year at Bridgestone he said of his last four holes at Lytham: “But it's not like I lost by spraying the ball all over. I wasn't that far off. What I was, though, was sloppy coming in. I just got a little sloppy. I'd never really been in that position before, and I just got a little sloppy."  Note how suggestive this comment is of errors 1, 2 & 4.  It’s great that he’s aware of the slop, but the question is the measure and extent of his awareness.  I think his response to his demise has been much better than his childhood idol’s, but if he really wants to tighten up that slop down the stretch on Sunday in a major then he would do well to examine and fully admit if he fell prey to any of these cognitive errors.  Otherwise, Greg Norman will indeed serve as an all-too unfortunate role model. 

(For help with these or any cognitive challenge in sport, don't hesitate to contact Altius Performance Works: