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The Sun Was In My Eyes

How To Stay in the Present and Avoid Excuses for Poor Play

At the center of any golf psychology mental game package is understanding the Zen Buddhists three stages of consciousness. The first stage, and the highest order of consciousness according to the teachers, is to be present centered. That's a great way to walk into every shot and to be in between shots as well. It's the quickest route to the inner-game. Secondary consciousness is forward and backward thinking; "how did I three putt from four feet? Or, there is a 5 par coming up and I can get there in two." The third stage is borrowed consciousness, called story telling. It's a method used to make excuses for poor play, and it's endemic in the golf culture.

On a Sunday last month, while playing golf at Stockton CC (my home course), I found myself, before the round even started, way off my mental game becoming the story teller that I council my clients to avoid at all costs. I was totally into it early that day. Let me tell you how I slipped into that mode and the process I used to emerge to embrace the competition, and the enjoyment. This inner-game process can work for you as well.

As the stories mount, play is always negatively affected. How can you possibly be in the present when you're concentrating on: Who cut these greens? Do you see with whom I'm paired? I hate to play in the wind. The bet is uncomfortable. I'll never be able to recover. Here it goes again. We tell stories before we play during play and after the round to pass on the responsibility for poor play to something other then ourselves.

That Sunday, I added my name to the list at Stockton CC for "the game." As is standard procedure at many clubs, drop in competition is available most days of the week. I had played the day before, struggling a bit at trusting my swing and stroke. Two days in a row is unusual for me, but it was a personal reward. Mike Bowker, co-author of Winning The Battle Within, and I had just finished a revised edition of the book. With the SAT process and tension free swings fresh in my mind, I was looking forward to the play.

I arrived with enough time to warm-up - a phone call gets you in "the game" - and learned I was in the first group. Play can be in foursomes to six-somes with multiple levels of betting and handicaps. I was placed with the better players with moderate betting. Hmmmm, I thought.

Our group was a six-some so carts were in order - walking is always my first choice. It was back tees, and I thought that they were too long for my game. The stories began. Sometimes stories begin before play starts. It's a proven way to explain away poor play before you even play. Although Stockton CC can't be stretched further than 6,500 yards, that's still a bit longer than I enjoy. I wasn't about to negotiate for the blue tees.

Three man teams, one ball, 2 balls and 3 balls, all you can eat, thus all scores count. In this format it's not unusual to see a player grinding over a net triple Bogey putt. Teams are balanced among handicaps. On the first tee I was asked if I wanted in the point game - an optional side bet. Points are awarded at each hole based upon how you finish compared to the other 5 players. It is common knowledge that point games favor the lower handicaps. I reluctantly consented to play.

My story telling had begun. What the hell was I doing in the point game? I was in with better players who will out drive me by 50-80 yards. There was one other 11 in the group. I'd rather walk. My cart partner was a legendary complainer, and the betting would be beyond my normal comfort zone.

I got off the tee OK, but topped my fairway wood. I jumped out of the cart walking the rest of the way, hit a short iron to the green and made bogey. With a stroke on the hole for a net par, that was an OK start. The stories escalated, though. I thought," what are you doing in the point game?" Maybe I can get out of that part of the bet."

On the second hole, a par 5, I topped another 3 wood and eventually 3 putted for a double to bring up the rear in the point game and lose points for my team. I'd lost about $20 and played only two holes. I was counting losses and surely was not in the present, No mental game awards for me.

"How can I gracefully get out of this? I have $170. Will that be enough to cover losses? How did I allow myself to get in this situation?" The longer I persisted in telling myself the stories, the more I would be likely to continue to stay on the bogie train. Although I had not told my stories so anyone else could hear, I am sure - it's always the case you know - everyone knew. Body language communications are quite clear.

At the third tee, the captain of my 3-man team with whom I had not played with before, asked me, when I was going to start playing. I replied with a semi-confident, "I'd better begin now." I thought then, how could a noted sport psychologist, who wrote about and counseled the inner game, possibly try to get out of a bet, spiral down into the depths of story telling, and not embrace the competition. I noticed I wasn't even breathing a symptom that I was squarely in the stress zone. By allowing self-doubt and negative emotions of frustration and resignation to race through by body, how could I get close to a trusting swing? My captain added that if I didn't start playing soon he'd recommend I read a book on sport psychology available in the pro shop.

Well, I got into the game. I began breathing, my posture straightened up, and I walked more then I rode. I looked at the tops of trees, and I allowed negative thoughts and emotions to pass through. I totally committed to each shot thus gave myself a chance to score well enough to hold up my end of the partnership. Most important, though, I found a way to stay in the moment, to embrace the challenge of the back tees and the point-game. For any of us to make our way back to in-the-moment golf we first must be aware that the stories are coming. I've experienced being in the stress zone by story telling before, but to be re-introduced to it with a bit of competition vividly reminded me of the pressure my professional golfer clients feel.

For all of us who coach players in any sport, getting back into a competitive environment - my score counts and will be there for every one to see - and be reminded of what it's like when the heat is on is an important experience. It doesn't matter what you shoot, but it does matter that you understand the myriad of emotions and stories that appear only when it matters.

Because I did slip into the story-telling mode - the sun was in my eyes - and recovered, I became a more understanding and effective coach. On a phone conversation that evening with one of the players with whom I work, I listened with more compassion. He told me how difficult it had been for him to stay in the present while battling the cut-line that day. I understood.

By the way, I did win some money, had 5 up and downs and posted a nice 81. My score really did matter. I avoided more stories, stayed in the present, and trusted my game. Next time stories begin to trickle down into your emotional memory, pay attention, allow the story to end, or better yet, to be incomplete. Then get back to one-shot-at-a-time. It really works!
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