The Anatomy of Performance
What is it that separates a PGA Tour player from an amateur who plays once a week?
It sounds like a silly question with easy, obvious -answers.
Access to first-class instruction.
All true, but secondary to the real point.
What if I told you that one of the main traits that separates tour players from you and me on the golf course--and world-beaters like Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson from the "rank-and-file" players on the Tour--has nothing to do with physical talent or beating thousands of balls on the range?
I've spent my career studying human performance, both in the lab and out in the world. My job is figuring out what makes people perform to the best of their abilities and clearing the roadblocks that stand in their way.
The real geniuses in sports--people like Michael Jordan in basketball, Serena Williams in tennis, Wayne Gretzky in hockey, and Tiger Woods in golf--unquestionably have incredible physical talent. But what really separates those giants from the rest is not their ability to manipulate a ball or their body in a certain way.
It's their ability to manipulate time.
You've probably heard athletes and announcers talk about how the game "slowed down" for them. Quarterbacks talk about the key moment when the scene from behind the offensive line wasn't total chaos but a chessboard, with the pieces moving in a choreographed dance. Baseball hitters talk about seeing pitches come in slow and fat--just waiting to be hit.
To those of us watching the action as spectators, time obviously doesn't actually slow down and wait for these players to do their thing.
It just seems like it does for them.
I know something about this from firsthand experience. I've played table tennis at a relatively high level for a number of years, and as a teenager I was ranked among the top handful of players in the United States. Still, there was a tier of players above me who were significantly better. At sixteen years old, I was playing one of them--six-time U.S. Open champion Dal-Joon Lee--when I found that place where the ball slows down, at least for a short time.
Watch a YouTube video of a match between two skilled table tennis players and you'll see that it's truly one of the fastest ball sports in the world. Players are hitting the ball in excess of 80 miles per hour across a table that is only nine feet long. It doesn't seem possible that the players can even react to what's happening.
But for the first hour of that match against Dal-Joon Lee, I was. I was connected to the ball. I could see it coming from every angle, and I was blocking and smashing it almost at will. I was ahead two sets and 13-7 in the third when a comment from one of my friends in the crowd--something to the effect that this would be the biggest upset in the sport at that time--broke the trance I was in, and I ended up losing.
For that short time, I had been in The Zone.
Table tennis was a challenging career path for a teenager in New York in those days, and after competing in the German professional league for a year and a half, I moved on to the premed program at Stanford. One of my earliest lab partners in organic -chemistry was Eric Heiden, who had just finished winning all five of the individual speed skating gold medals at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. We became great friends, and it would fascinate me to hear him talk about his biggest races as if he had skated them in an empty rink, with nobody watching. Everything slowed down--even his pulse.
In one special class that Stanford convened for students with high-level athletic experience, Eric described how he was able to visualize every single stride he was about to make before his gold medal 5,000-meter race, and how he stumbled over a rut in the ice halfway through his 1,500-meter final but recovered in time to take another gold. Eric was the first person ever to win five individual gold medals in one Olympics--swimmer Michael Phelps matched him in 2008--and the very definition of this incredible mental acumen I've been describing.
As I made my way through my academic career at Stanford and the University of Texas and moved on to my internship in internal medicine at UCLA, my fascination with this kind of "timeless time" that great athletes would experience continued. It seemed that when a competitor was in the right state of consciousness, he or she could sample time in smaller and smaller increments. If you think of a fastball coming out of a pitcher's hand at 98 miles per hour, a hitter who is struggling might see that ball as a single frame. A photograph. But a locked-in Miguel Cabrera sees the ball as a movie--with thousands of frames. And when he's locked in like that, the movie slows down to the point where he can see the individual stitches on the ball, just as it slows down for a PGA Tour player when he can actually feel the position of the clubface at impact while the head is moving at 125 miles per hour.
I wanted to figure out what made the great ones like Eric--or Dal-Joon Lee--able to essentially live in The Zone, while other competitors could only visit it on occasion. Was it something inherently different in their makeup--like the physical difference between a six-foot-two point guard and a seven-foot-one center? Did their minds work differently?
And, most importantly, was it something an athlete could make happen more frequently through -training?
The answer surprised me, and I'm sure it will surprise you too.
To figure it out, I engineered a study--which earned a grant from the United States Tennis -Association--that measured the way different groups of athletes responded to light while under hypnosis. I based it on a technique developed by Dr. David Spiegel, a prominent psychiatrist at Stanford. Without getting too technical, Dr. Spiegel measured the changes in brain-processing speed on an EEG machine while people were under hypnosis--something extremely valuable in the study of disorders like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases and ADD.
In my study, I used Dr. Spiegel's techniques on different groups of athletes, from world-class to competitive amateur triathletes to average "weekend warriors." I predicted that the study would show that those in the world-class group--which included my friend Eric Heiden, tennis player Roz Fairbanks, eight-time Ironman Triathlon champion Paula Newby-Fraser, Olympic miler Steve Scott, and gold-medal gymnast Peter Vidmar--would show that they received information more quickly than the average person and then processed it more quickly as well. In other words, their mental machine was in higher tune than those of us mortals.
But in reality my original prediction--that the signals would get there faster and stronger--didn't hold true. There is a correlation between being in top physical shape and processing information more quickly and efficiently. But the true world-class athletes didn't automatically process information any more quickly or efficiently than the group of fit amateur triathletes.
What they did do, however, was show the ability to consistently and consciously put themselves in a trancelike state that enhances performance. Simply put, the study seemed to indicate that peak athletic performance is more about state--the competitor's level of consciousness and ability to handle a given situation--than it is about trait, or some innate physical or mental wiring.
In other words, you can learn to find The Zone.
That's something with huge implications in the world of peak performance.
You've probably heard of Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell's runaway bestseller about the subject of human excellence. In it he advances Dr. K. Anders Ericsson's theory that a virtuoso in a given discipline--whether it's a sport, music, or surgery--has to devote ten thousand hours of directed practice to master the discipline.
We could argue about whether or not that's true, but I think the ten-thousand-hour theory misses the bigger point.
Don't get me wrong. Practice is certainly important. It's seductive to think that spending ten thousand hours--or five hours a day, five days a week, fifty weeks a year, for ten years--can overcome a real or perceived shortfall in actual physical talent. It might, to a degree, but there's no free ride. You do have to understand and improve the physical elements of any discipline to be good at it.
But it's how and what you practice that is fundamental to improvement. You have to practice intelligently, creatively--and over the entire spectrum of the body and mind. It's cliche, but your mind really is a muscle, and like all muscles it needs to be exercised to perform at its best.
Without understanding this fundamental concept, you will get only so far--literally and figuratively--with practice alone.
I've been affiliated with the U.S. Olympic Training Center outside San Diego for almost twenty years and what's not missing over there is talent. The Olympic trials are filled with the most talented people you're ever going to find--in any discipline. They all have it, and they've all spent ten thousand hours practicing.
I even saw it with my brother.
In 1991, Brad qualified for the PGA Tour for the first time on his second try at qualifying school. I was in the middle of a research fellowship at the University of California, San Diego, and Brad asked me to come and caddie for him at the season-opening Sony Open in Hawaii. We worked together off and on for five years, including the 1993 PGA Tour Q-school finals, where John Feinstein immortalized Brad's ultimately successful quest in his famous book A Good Walk Spoiled: Days and Nights on the PGA Tour.
I not only saw how much work went into just surviving week to week on the tour, I also got to see how fine the line is between success and failure, and how little separates the "winners" from the "losers" in terms of physical skill.
Watching many of these incredibly talented athletes fail led to the big important question I wanted to answer in that research study, in my practice, and in this book:
In what ways can we train our minds to help us get the most out of our talent--whatever that talent happens to be?
Golf is democratic in that the average player goes through the same mental struggles a professional does. We all have our weaknesses and frailties, and the innate nature of all human minds is the same.
Through a rigorous process of trial and error over twenty years of work on the PGA Tour--which grew out of relationships that first developed during my time caddying for my brother--I came up with a system that helps players structure the mind's natural proclivities in a way that helps you play your best using innate logic, creativity, and instinct.
And it works just as well for players who want to win major championships as it does for ones who want to break 100 for the first time.
So much of mental training in golf is centered around general advice like "Stay in the moment" and "Focus on the process." It's not bad or inaccurate -advice, as far as it goes. It's just incomplete. It's -somewhat akin to learning how to drive a car, and the first pieces of advice you get as a beginner are to keep up with traffic and avoid crashing. Accurate but not useful.
You need a system to effectively integrate the new information.
It all starts with the Pre-Shot Pyramid--and the Six Components of Mental Excellence, which make up the blocks of the Pyramid.
The first component, attitude, is just what it sounds like. It's your mind-set--and how you view yourself. Are you open to learning or blocked off? Are you a self-confident person? Are you assertive? Reticent? The elements of your attitude are the first indicator we investigate in the process.
Motivation gets at what drives you--from the primary level of fear and survival to the outer layers of material and emotional reward. The more you can understand your own personal motivations, the better you can tailor your mental approach to take advantage of them.
Control has to do with how you're able to harness emotion. Many athletes have tremendous emotional control and play with a serene stoicism. Others burn hot, like John McEnroe, and thrive on that emotional turmoil. What's important to distinguish is the difference between productive tension and destructive -anxiety--and what to do about both.
Optimization is where we start to move from the "soft" discussion of thoughts and feelings to the literal work of applying skills and solutions in real-game situations. It's how to actually go about directing your thoughts and feelings to produce positive results.
Concentration, properly applied, is one of the main rewards for mastering these other skills. Productive players learn how and when to focus intensely and when to disconnect. To let the machine reset, so to speak.
To fully assemble the Pyramid, it is crucial to have an ultimate plan for what you want to accomplish and to understand the crucial distinction between skill acquisition and execution. The best players know how and when to train and how and when to compete. I'll show you how to do that in Chapter Seven.
Mastering Golf's Mental Game works in the same way my client sessions do. The goal is to assess how strong or weak you are in each of the components--for which the Mental Scorecard is perfectly designed. The information on each of the components (and the scorecard itself) found in the coming chapters will help you understand the components themselves and why you might be lacking in a particular area. You'll understand the theory behind the components and the "why" behind the way your mind works the way it does. The case studies and homework assignments will give you practical, real-world tools to incorporate the components into your game.
Why does it work?
Because the Mastering Golf's Mental Game system is designed to function in concert with the way we're already wired neurologically.
The biggest challenge I face when working with tour players is the fact that virtually every competitive player is inherently result-oriented.
Scores obviously matter.
But that strong results orientation often gets in the way of this trancelike focus we've been talking about, and prevents players from hitting each shot in the optimal mind-set. The Mental Scorecard system lets any player keep that natural results orientation but aim it at a better target, so to speak. You get to focus on results, but on results that actually make you play better, not worse!
Copyright © 2014 by Dr. Michael T. Lardon. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.