Mental Toughness

It goes without saying you need to be mentally tough to compete and possibly even win the United States Open.  There is, obviously, a long list of players who have won the tournament, however, the list is quite short of players who were lucky to win.  Most, if not all are or were mentally tough golfers.

What can this be attributed to? Or rather, who can this be attributed to?

Let me venture to say that most golfers or people who are successful in life’s endeavors have a mentor or figure that pushed them in the right direction.  This could have been anyone.  But on one weekend in June, we can look to one person in particular.

Dad.

In honor of the U.S. Open and its correlation with Father’s Day, this post is dedicated to the men who dedicated their time to shape and mold those of us into the people we are today.  Now, I know many of you might say that mom is equally important.  I agree.  Totally. But, because we often see Dad walking the course with the next winner of the U.S. Open and getting a heartfelt embrace on the 18th green, this post is for dad.

One cannot minimize the affect a father has on a son (and daughter).  Although at the time we are getting life’s most valuable lesson we rarely realize it.  It’s not until we are fathers ourselves do we understand why dad did the things he did.  Many of us have amusing life stories of when dad taught us a lesson.  Many of those lessons we had to learn the hard way.  I think dad knew this.

What about the lesson of mental toughness?  What specific moment in your life can you look back at when dad taught you the value of being mentally tough?  The lessons are numerous.  The situations, although comical now, were not so much at the moment.

Take a moment when the winner of the U.S. Open and his dad meet on the 18th green to think about the times when your dad was bestowing a lesson upon you.  I bet that many of life’s mentally tough lessons for the winner of the U.S. Open were the same as what you and I experienced.  It just so happens the winner of the U.S. Open is good at golf.

What are you good at?  I bet dad had something to do with it.

From one dad to another-Happy Father’s Day.

Scott Kapla, Mike Fay Golf Staff Writer

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Soft Spot

Earlier this week, I asked Mike what he thought would be a good topic to write about when it comes to the mental side of the game.  He threw out the notion of #17 at Sawgrass which allows for insight into the mental anguish players may feel on the tee.  The island green strips away the confidence of some of the best players on tour.  In reality, a tour pro hits a wedge to a 145 yard pin daily without any issue.  Not being inside of 10 feet with a wedge in their hand seems like a failure.  On the 17th, though, flaws and commitment are magnified.

 Although the 17th at Sawgrass is an excellent story by itself each year at the Players Championship, another story has emerged when it comes to the mental side of the game. 

 Kevin Na. 

Kevin Na, admittedly, is taking an abnormal amount of time to hit the golf ball.  His pre-shot routine has morphed into a waggle-ridden, backoff, waggle again-spectacle.  His pre-shot hesitancy is precedented.  (See: SergioGarciaregrip)

 The question is-what is going through Kevin Na’s mind prior to hitting the ball?  He has been a somewhat obscure tour pro up to this point with not many tour wins.  Wouldn’t we all like to be an obscure tour pro? 

 I am not a psychologist.  I apply what I know to what I see.  What I see with Kevin Na is a hesitancy in his mind about his shot which is manifested physically in his pre-shot routine.  As many of us can speak to, we all have thoughts going through our head prior to a shot.  Most of them, for me, are horrendously bad.

 I will try and correlate some of my own experiences.  Take pitching for example.  When I was either on the mound or coaching a player who was struggling with walks, most of the time the pitcher was trying to be too “fine”.  The pitcher was trying to “place” the ball exactly where he wanted it to go.  When this happens, the pitcher does not deliver the ball in a free and easy-fluid motion and the pitcher either walks the hitter or the hitter takes advantage of the pitchers inability to hit his spot.  Hitting your spot in baseball and golf is essential for success.

 Soft Spot

 A lesson that was told to me when I experienced this on the mound was to pick out a “soft spot”.  The “Soft Spot” was area that I would throw to instead of a fine spot where I was exactly aiming.  For example, mentally, when I needed a pitch on the inside corner to a right-handed hitter, I would picture a one foot circle in which I was going to throw the ball to.  In contrast, when I trying to be “too fine” with my pitches, I was throwing to a one inch circle. 

 Let’s bring it back to golf.  When looking at a shot (any shot), tour pros can pick a leaf off a tree (fine spot).  Many of us hit the tree when aiming down the fairway.  When we stand over a shot, we should be looking in an area similar to the pitching example above.  This soft spot gives the average golfer the confidence to hit the shot with an understanding that it does not have to be perfect.  Left side of the green away from trouble, right side of the green because water is on the left-this is the process I’m speaking about. 

 Is Kevin Na trying to be perfect (by the way, he is leading the tournament)?

 Is Kevin Na picking out a spot that is so fine, it is creating hesitancy which is manifested in his pre-shot routine? 

 Sometimes, grip-it-and-rip-it works because you’re not thinking about it. 

 Remember, golf and baseball are easy. 

Baseball: throw the ball, catch the ball and hit the ball.

Golf: hit the ball in the hole in the fewest attempts.

Scott Kapla, Mike Fay Golf Staff Writer

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 Images:

Kevin Na: http://www.pgatour.com/golfers/025396/kevinna/

Bullseye:  http://www.psdgraphics.com/backgrounds/bulls-eye-target/

Results?

So, I’ve had some time for this to sink in and I still don’t understand it.  I’ve tried to see it from other perspectives but simply cannot.  Thinking he might be not aware of the situation isn’t going to work.  Thinking his caddy doesn’t understand the magnitude of the day isn’t going to work either.  Thinking he feels as though he can pull off any shot at any time wherever the ball lies, yep, that’s it.

It’s Phil.

 

Who doesn’t like Phil?  I like Phil.  I like Phil for who he isn’t (or seems not to be).  I like Phil for what he tried to pull off on the par 3 fourth hole where he took a triple bogey.  Phil can bounce back from a triple bogey on any course (which he did, by the way, at Augusta) but when competing for his fourth green jacket to tie him with some of the golfing greats, what was he thinking? What was his caddy thinking?

 

Let me ask you: Do you think Phil was results-driven when attempting to hit his second shot right handed with his club turned around in the brush on the par 3 fourth?  This is a trick question by the way.

 

It seems as though I could write about any golfer in any tournament who may start thinking about results before approaching a critical situation thusly leading to an even worse scenario. 

 

But, here’s where it gets tricky with the mental approach.  Remember, I wrote a while back that results oriented thinking is bad? Well, maybe not in this case.  The moment may dictate that you step back and assess the complete situation before committing to a shot.  This may seem results-oriented (and in a way it is-but that’s ok-back to process).  Being the fourth round of a major and a green jacket on the line, if Phil steps away from the situation and thinks about a drop, with his short game, he probably would have bogey-worst case scenario. 

 

Let me put this to you a different way.

 

You see this type of thinking in baseball, in every game.  Watch the pitcher.  Watch to see how he pitches to a hitter based upon his match up with the hitter on deck.  This is where scouting reports and homework is crucial.  Pitchers know weaknesses and strengths of hitters.  You typically see, in a tight game situation, where a pitcher will “pitch around” a hitter to get to the next guy who he has had success against. Ah yes, the unintentional-intentional walk.

 

Phil’s situation and the baseball scenario employ the same basic principles.  Ask yourself, what is my best course of action based upon the moment?  Walking the hitter who has a .302 average against you to get to a guy who has a career average of .157 against you in a tight spot, is a good play based on the situation. 

 

Or

 

Taking a drop on the 4th hole, knowing you have 14 more to play with some par 5’s mixed in might have been the good play.   Phil knows Augusta better than anyone.  His caddy knows Augusta better than anyone (homework, scouting).

 

In the end, Phil was in the hunt but playing catch-up.  Maybe if he took a step back in the weeds on the 4th hole, the story might be different.

 

So, let me ask you again, do you think Phil was results-oriented when attempting to hit his 2nd shot on the par 3 fourth?

Answer: It’s Phil.

Scott Kapla, Mike Fay Golf Staff Writer

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Photo: Golf Digest

Conviction

PALM HARBOR, FL - MARCH 18: Luke Donald of England plays a shot on the 18th hole during a playoff for the Transitions Championship at the Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club on March 18, 2012 in Palm Harbor, Florida. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

The Transitions Championship has just concluded with Luke Donald sinking a 6 foot putt for the playoff win and world number one ranking (again). In the playoff were three other players, one with an impressive pedigree and the other two not so much. There was someone missing though.

Ernie Els.

The Big Easy wasn’t so “Easy” with a 4 foot putt on the 18th to get into the playoff. He missed the putt. As NBC gave television viewers a close up of his putter head through the strike, most could see deceleration or an “choppy” stroke. When asked by the reporter after the round about his confidence over the putt, he gave an un-confident answer. He said he was, but it didn’t seem so. (Poor question aside-I believe)

Confidence on the greens can make all the difference. Confidence lagging the ball gives you a 2 foot putt instead of a 4 foot putt. I am sure the amateurs, like myself, do not have a very good percentage for 4 foot putts as compared to 2 foot putts.

Ernie Els is a champion. He has won may times on tour with a couple majors. He knows how to putt. But, confidence under pressure putts can be the difference between not making the cut, $300,000 or having to pay up on a $30 Nassau..

Mentally, when we are placed in a pressure situation on the putting green, our muscles tense, grip tightens and we think about the result. As a result, we either leave the putt short or completely mishit the putt. We do not stay in the moment and concentrate on the process of the putt. What is the answer? Not sure. I am not a PGA professional. I can tell you, mentally, what the answer isn’t.

Conviction. (Can you make the connection here?) Rarely, when we are placed in situations with extreme pressure, do we feel as though we have been there before. In reality, we have. Many times. For example, as a baseball player, I have been in 3-2 count, close game, two out and runners on 2nd and 3rd as a pitcher, many times. I’ve encountered this scenario in the first inning, fifth inning and ninth inning. What’s the difference? Nothing really. The scenario, itself has not changed. The pressure has, though. Because it’s the ninth inning, does that make me any less sure of what I am trying to do than the first inning?

It shouldn’t, but it does. Confidence and conviction to the process are replaced with results oriented thoughts. Muscles tighten, focus is not where it should be and therefore, the end result (that bad one you were dreading) is realized.

One of my pitching coaches once told me that I’d rather you be 100% committed to the wrong pitch than be 50% committed to the right one. I think that’s where we can start if we want to build confidence in any situation-especially on the greens. Pace and line. Commit to it.

Have a plan. Stick to the plan. Execute the plan. It might be the wrong plan but you’d be surprised how much conviction plays a role in results.

Scott Kapla, Mike Fay Golf Staff Writer

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Destination

Goals. We all have them. Whether it be at work or play, we are inherently built for autonomy, mastery and learning.  I”m physically fit enough to strike a golf ball within reason.  But last summer and the summer before, that was not happening.  I continued to hit shots fat, hook or three putt more than I want to remember.  I finally had it.  On a family vacation, I took some time out to see Mike.  Viola.  Bad shots diagnosed.  A plan had been formulated.  I had goals for my rounds and the range.

My buddy”s whom have been taking me for about the last year and a half were not happy when I told them before the round-I was out.  I had things to work on.  I wasn”t worried about scoring.  I was concentrating and focusing on certain swing keys throughout my round.  I had a goals but the pressure of a “friendly” match was not what I needed at the time.  

My goals were simple.  (Ask Mike, he”ll tell you and show you what you need to hear and see). But I was focused.  Determined.  At least I felt as though I was ( side note- I didn”t practice as much as I should have- but don”t tell Mike).  I could see immediate results when I did play with just a few swing, stance and grip keys.

 

 Assimilating or relating goals or goal setting isn”t much of a stretch when thinking about other sports or your profession. When I was playing baseball at any level, I had a goal for every time I took the mound. I had one focus, throw strikes. First pitch strikes to hitters decreased their batting average more than 100 points. Two strikes on a .300 hitter now he was a .167 hitter. It was therefore imperative that I threw strikes, because strikes led to outs (Plus, it kept my team in the game behind me. I didn”t have to strike everybody out.  It was more democratic. See Crash Davis, Bull Durham) Get 27 outs and score one more run than the other team, now team goals are realized.

As a coach, there are many aspects to baseball and winning but simplifying through small steps was the key. Win every inning. If the other team scored one run-score two. If they score five-score six. You get the idea. The end result is not emphasized but will be apparent if the smaller steps or objectives are met.

 When you tee it up this spring, think about the small objectives. For example, eliminate three putts, keep the ball in play- no penalty shots, for starters.  Dedicated practice is at the heart of achieving your goals. Keep this in mind when you”ve hit balls twice in a dome and one of those times was with your six year old son.  Be realistic.

Scott Kapla, Mike Fay Golf Staff Writer

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In The Moment

What’s it like to stay in the moment? Ask Kyle Stanley. As the Pebble Beach Pro-Am just wrapped up, I want to bring you back to the last two weeks of golf and what Kyle Stanley didn’t and did accomplish.

In the momenta phrase many of us have heard if we have taken golf lessons or have played golf at a high level or any other sport for that matter. To many, it is the phrase that brings us back to reality. It’s the phrase that reminds us not to worry about the next hole-par 5 with a good drive, 240 yards to the pin over water. It’s a phrase that tells us put the past in the past and leave it there. Not being in the moment tells us to lay-up because of past failures.

To watch Kyle Stanley come from behind and win is impressive. To know that he lost the week before in extra holes and to win in the fashion he did was that much more impressive. In the moment.

How can we apply what Kyle Stanley did in our weekend games or other arenas of sports? Essentially, when playing a sport, failure is inevitable. Actually, it is essential. When coaching or playing we all have moments that we wish we could do over. We have moments that could potential define us and keep us from progressing. By staying in the moment, we allow ourselves to focus on the essential without worrying about outcomes. By staying in the moment, we are able to focus on simple thoughts and execute what needs to be done-regardless of results.

For many of us, outcomes are what define us. This is what gets in the way of progress. Thinking about the past inhibits and stunts our future. For Kyle Stanley, he easily could have finished with a respectable 20-30 place finish and no one would have thought anything less of him. Instead, by staying in the moment and focusing on each shot, he was able to win the tournament he just lost a short week ago.

Stay in the moment, focus on the task at hand and execute. Something we all can apply to our daily lives and not just golf.

Scott Kapla, Mike Fay Golf Staff Writer

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