Tuesday, July 22, 2014

What Are You Thinking?

The golf of world was treated to a wonderful performance at the recent "British Open Championship" played at Royal Liverpool G&CC at Hoylake. The wire-to-wire winner was Northern Ireland's 25 year old Rory McIlroy who established, what turned out to be, an insurmountable six shot lead going into the fourth and final round at the the links course, about 15 km. from that cavern in downtown Liverpool were four floppy haired lads turned the popular music world upside down in the 1960's. Although he was challenged by Spain's Sergio Carcia who climbed to within two shots at one point in the final round, the result was really never in doubt. It was, to say the least, a remarkable performance! It puts him a Masters "green jacket" away from the career "Grand Slam", with wins already posted at the U.S. Open and the P.G.A.

In a media scrum early in the week, Rory confided to the attending reporters that he used two "secret" words as he played. The reporters, as they love to do, especially in the land were betting is a national pastime, decided to wager on what those words might be. Well, now we know, they were "process" and "spot".

"Process" was a collection of key swing thoughts that ensured that Rory stayed "in the moment" and kept his focus on what it took to make the golf shot, not the outcome or result of the shot whereas "spot" referred to a, well, a spot on the green near his ball, that was on line with the path he felt the ball needed to take to get close or into the hole. He knew that if he rolled his ball over that "spot", his chance of making the putt were pretty good.

The more I work with curlers, of all skill levels and experience, the more I move away from "mechanics" and into the athlete's "head space". In other words, I care just as much about what the athlete is "thinking", if not more, than what I'm seeing mechanically in the delivery. And, I can apply this to my summer sport of lawn bowling as well, as the delivery of a bowl and a curling stone are extremely similar (but oh do I wish I had brushers on some of my lawn bowling shots!).

As the subject of this blog asks, what are you thinking about as you prepare to set in motion the mechanics of delivery (curling stone or lawn bowl)? Have you even given any serious consideration to the thought process? I'm guessing for many curlers and lawn bowlers, the answer is a resounding "No", no one ever challenged me to examine that. Well, I'm challenging you now! And, as to Rory's second secret word, "spot", what do you actually look at as you deliver stone or bowl, not what you "think" you're looking at, what do you really look at?

One way to know is to grab a smart phone or tablet and get a friend to visually record what you actually do and look at in the delivery process, which is more complex in curling as there's a slide component that's not part of the delivery of a lawn bowl. Those of you who have read my scribblings know how much a proponent I am of visually recording your action, regardless of the sport. How can you improve technique if you "think" you're doing A, B, C but it's actually X, Y, Z? The only way to make "perception" and "reality" come together is to have someone record your delivery, serve, swing etc.!

I believe most athletes understand the importance of a "pre-shot routine", as opposed to "pre-shot rituals". The difference between routine and ritual is planning. As humans, it just seems to be our nature to repeat movements, usually for no particular reason. They comfort us and seem to afford a sense of the familiar, not a bad thing. Routine on the other hand, is a carefully choreographed set of actions, each with a purpose. Again, enter that smartphone or tablet. When you see yourself prepare to make the shot, notice what you do.

Get a sheet of paper and draw a line down the centre. At the top of the left column, print the word "ACTION" and the word "PURPOSE" at the top of the other. Using what you saw on video, or what you're certain you do, list the various components of the actions that take place just before you begin delivery. In the "purpose" column, briefly explain why you take the action. If you can't think of a reason, that's OK for now, leave it blank. When you have listed the pre-shot actions and their purposes, hopefully each pre-shot action has a corresponding purpose. If there are "blanks" on the "purpose" side of the sheet, then that action is a "ritual". You'll discover that skilled athletes are that way for a variety of reasons, and one of them is that each has a pre-shot routine which, can change over time, but for every action in the routine, the athlete can tell you why it's part of the choreography. Can you?

Now to the actual delivery, swing, throw etc. For many years, there was the notion that to successfully complete an athletic action, your mind had to be like a clean chalkboard, blank. Thankfully, sports science has moved those yardsticks. Your brain, everyone's brain, even mine (no comments please from the cheap seats) needs information. But the speed and amount of that information can vary noticeably from athlete to athlete. But, here's the kicker, and I've written about this before, when your brain has all the information required, it wants to pull the trigger on the motor functions of the body to produce the athletic movement. If you wait too long, you can actually cause a self-induced distraction, public enemy #1 to poor performance!

The more practised you are (practice, what novel idea), the more those thoughts become so automatic, you many not even be "aware" that you're thinking them and you may feel that you're not thinking about anything, but that's never the case for a trained athlete, never, despite what you might hear from one in a post-performance interview.

Sports psychology recognizes that the two hemispheres of the brain operate very differently from one another (a topic about which I have written extensively on this blog site and in my coaching manual). In summary the left side of the brain is "in charge" with a very domineering attitude. It wants a job! The right side is the just-do-it side of the brain. It's where the real action is initiated and completed. But, its personality couldn't be more different from the left side. It waits for the opportunity to do what it knows the body is capable of doing and if you don't give that left side the job to which I referred, it's going to take one that may or may not be very appropriate (usually it's the latter I'm afraid) and the confident, just-do-it right side is never engaged. It leaves the athlete scratching his/her head as to why performance was so poor in the face of good skills.

The antidote is, as Rory McIlroy learned, key words that have meaning just for you. That's how you give that troublesome left side of the brain the job it so desperately seeks so that those delivery skills you possess and worked so hard to attain, can work for you! But you need the discipline to say them to yourself every time you get ready to perform the skills for your sport. You may not be blessed with great skill but you do have the ability to create a pre-shot routine (see that paper and pen activity above) and follow it. The results will be nothing short of amazing!

Rory's second secret word, "spot", again provided discipline for his putting stoke (or curling stone delivery or lawn bowl delivery). He knew exactly what to physically look at. The "picture" of the putt's final destination (the hole) was in his "mind's eye" but his physical eye was focussed on the spot on the green close to the ball (i.e. in his peripheral vision). His well rehearsed putting stoke then took over (guided by the right side of his brain) to roll the ball over the spot towards its final destination.

Curling and bowls are two sports that are much too "technocentric" (don't even think about using spell check on that one). It's a word I've coined to describe our obsession with technique and there's nothing wrong with that as long as the "thought process" gets equal time, but sad to say, it's my experience that doesn't happen. And I could apply that term to many other sports as well (i.e. golf). There's no sense developing a sound motor skill without the cerebral support mechanism. Sooner or later that excellent technique breaks down and when it does you're like a man overboard without a life jacket! Understanding your motor skill and knowing exactly what you do and why you do it and having the left and right side of your brain in balance are the keys to consistent performance.

Very skilled athletes suffer from inconsistent performance but they've never been taught how to support the on field/court/ice/pitch... skills they've worked so hard to develop! And you don't have to be a competitive athlete in your sport to take advantage of knowing what you're thinking about and what you're actually looking at.

I want to make one more point and it's about the power of "visualization". When young Jack Nicklaus stood behind his teed up golf ball, seemingly staring down the fairway, he drove TV directors mad wondering what the delay was all about. We now know that Jack was "visualizing" the shot he was about to play and understood its importance. When he stood up to the ball (and perhaps had a key swing thought to give his left brain hemisphere the job it so desperately needed) all his brain "saw" was the successful shot Jack had left with it and his brain activated the muscles in sequence to execute the shot. The great thing about visualization is that we can all do it. Again, it's a matter of discipline, doing it not just ever once in awhile, or frequently or almost always but every time!

Don't be that man (or woman) overboard without a life jacket. To obtain one go to a certified instructor who will ensure you have the whole package of skill support systems, not just good technique and oh yes, get your action visually recorded. You may be surprised at what you see!

Before I close, I want to deal with one more "intangible" in executing a skill. You will not be surprised when I tell you it's "attitude". If you "hope" to make the shot as opposed to "expecting" to make the shot, you'll recognize the difference in attitude. If I can select between two equally skilled athletes, one hoping and the other expecting to make the shot, I'll take the latter every time!

Author's Note: When Rory McIlroy was 15 years old, his father and three friends placed a legal wager that his son would win the British Open Golf Championship by the time he reached his 26th birthday. The odds were 500-1 on the 100 pound bet by each of the four. Rory is 25 and in two months will reach his 26th birthday. The 2014 British Open was the last opportunity for McIlroy senior and his friends to cash in and cash in they did!