Archive for July, 2011

Being Ok With Being Uncomfortable

I recently presented the following 2 scenarios to a group of high-school athletes:

Scenario #1: You’re coming off a good week of practice and a great week of school. You woke this morning feeling great. During warm-ups, your coach praised your talent and efforts in front of everyone on the team. You feel no pressure today and everything feels “on” as your warm-up winds down and you get ready to perform.

Scenario #2: You’re coming off a so-so week of practice. You woke up this morning feeling sluggish (and it’s raining outside). During warm-ups, your coach questioned your ability. Today, you’re playing a team you did poorly against last year. You don’t feel 100% as warm-up winds down and you get ready to perform.

“In which scenario can you have a good game?” I asked. One of the athletes, nailed the sentiment many were thinking with her response, “I’d like to think ‘both’ – but it sure helps to feel comfortable right before the race!”

Ah, comfort zones. We all have internal “comfort zones” that help us play at our best. These are like check-lists that help determine our comfort level. Take for instance the comfort zone of a cross-country runner I recently met:

  • Nice weather
  • Familiar course
  • Everyone getting along on team/ No drama
  • I feel energized in the morning and during warm-up
  • Coach says something motivating to me before the race

 When our checklist and our environment are in sync, in other words – everything is exactly the way we want it – we feel comfortable and ready to perform. But – what happens when reality (poor weather, challenging course, team drama, lack of energy, etc.) doesn’t match our comfort zone? 

 Most athletes struggle to stretch their comfort zones. When our comfort zone is too narrow, we’ll have a tough time adjusting to all of the things that are simply out of our control and our performance likely suffers.  The key is to begin to recognize the limits of our comfort zone and stretch it as much as we can:

 Anticipate the times when it’s uncomfortable.  Each of us knows the “things” that stretch our comfort zones. It might be weather, or a certain opponent, a certain course. Identifying the things that make us uncomfortable is the first step in developing an effective response to the problem.

 Choose an effective attitude. Worry and fear are often down-payments on a debt we might not owe. Too many athletes worry about what might happen – rather than taking the time to think about what they want to have happen with their performance. We have to choose to “see” ourselves performing well in a variety of situations, regardless of what is (or isn’t) happening around us.

 Focus on your response. In other words, “what’s the plan?” What will you think or do to put yourself in a position to be effective?  These actions will be dependent on the situation – but our “response”-ability will be determining factor in whether or not will perform well outside of our comfort zone.

 Put your best foot forward. In the end, we have to experience the discomfort of these uncomfortable situations to know what response works best. This doesn’t (and shouldn’t) wait until the next race, game, or tournament. This kind of quality effort can be practiced each day in training sessions.

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Safe Haven

When it was unclear if my wife would live or die, Sligo Creek took care of me. As my wife lay in a hospital bed and after dropping my daughter at preschool I would slowly climb the hill to the clubhouse weighed down by a golf bag and dread. It seemed like a new pro shop attendant greeted me on each visit. Regardless the face behind the counter, a kind smile and warm greeting was there to encourage me. Green’s fees paid and bottle of water in hand I’d be out the door and onto the first tee.

More often than not I stood alone. During my family’s 100 days in medically induced exile, kind spirits and warm hearts graced our journey. Wonderful people were sprites that visited us on the path we traveled. Other than a former Negro League baseball player that seemed to appear on the first tee like Shoeless Joe Jackson stepping out of the cornfields, I played Sligo Creek as a single.

Standing over my driver, looking up the lush green hill, “play” always found the recesses of my mind. After a fair drive just left or just right of the front of the green, I’d bound up the slope with a little less weighing down my shoulders.

It was a nicely maintained nine hole loop (the oldest in the United States). Hitting a majestically lofted eight iron into the second green always brought a great sense of satisfaction. Hearing the hum of the DC beltway as I played the third and fourth holes was oddly soothing. Five and six created a meditative monotony – driver, walk straight down a hill, then straight up a hill, and wedge it onto the green… repeat. The dog leg left of seven was never quite as easy as it appeared (but isn’t this the reality of most of golf?). Eight always proved to be good for the ego. A short par 5 that gave up an eagle during my first round and under the watchful eye of an applauding green’s keeper. The concluding tee shot towards the road that brought me to this safe place never seemed to fly quite right. Deep rough or thick woods always to be my destiny. I am not sure if I ever found a par on the final green. It did not really matter, this hilly pasture somehow managed to give me shelter from the storm.

A year later, I found myself waving to the security guard of a gated golf community on my way in to work. Either around a perfectly manicure practice area or while wandering the course itself, members would share with me their golf stories. Stories of struggle, success, embarrassment, confusion, and all the rest. I think it would be difficult to find a more passionate golf community. The lesson tee rarely got a rest. Everyone seemed to have a regular foursome and at the same time each was often invited to join the random group here and there. Rarely did a week go by without some form of competitive event – be it stoke play, best ball, or match play the grill room leader board rarely got a rest. Great juniors, spectacular collegians, middle aged businessmen, and players happy to break 110 all shared the course and cared about the course.

Too often there is a dark side to such an intense passion, feelings of inadequacy or failure. In a close knit community, it is easy to sense a red hot spotlight shining on foibles and follies. The shanked 7-iron reverberates as a character-flaw. The missed four foot putt suggests a self worth just a bit less than “worthy.” Holes over par on the scorecard were worn like Hester Pryne’s scarlet “A.” Or at least this was how it too often felt in the guts and hearts of golfers.

Golf is enough of a challenge in and of itself. Add in a referendum on one’s goodness as a person while walking the fairways and it can be down, right smothering. Desiring a low score is a distraction when standing over putts. Wishes to not be excluded from the weekly foursome or evening cocktail party are guaranteed yip inducers.

The funny thing is, other than the occasional complaint about slow play, I never heard nor witnessed any golfer being ostracized due to a triple bogey. Actually it may have been quite the opposite struggles on the course built community rather than broke it. Particularly horrible rounds always seemed to have particularly good friends riding together in the golf cart. It is quite strange how we can expect so little good sense from others. A chili-dipped drive at all levels a golf is far likely to be something that brings players together rather than separating the field. Yes, accolades are received when one stands atop the leader board. The scores that grace the bottom are quickly forgotten in the minds of all but the player herself.

It has been suggested that gated community bread greater fear and distrust of neighbors. There is likely some truth to this. However on and around the course community tends to exist in the truest sense of the word. Golfers that strive, struggle, and succeed on parallel fairways accept and understand one another. Empathy can be found about the deep rough or the giant green on the ninth hole that seems to be surrounded by a force field. Acceptance of our golf game is quite universal we just need to find a little acceptance from ourselves.

As the months got warmer and my wife’s prognosis seemed a bit more positive I would find myself walking the hill to the club house after preschool had concluded for the day. It remained a laborious walk, but not out of burden. The inquisitive mind and club dropping hands of a three year old tended to slow the walk. We never made it to the first tee, but rather were diverted to the two putting greens and chipping areas. The pins were just the right size for a pint sized golfer. We would alternate between lining the balls up a few inches from each hole, to muscling wedges onto the greens, to sitting around in the grass of the shady hill. No place to really go, just the right place to be, a safe haven that did not add to our stresses, expose our frailties, but rather buoyed spirits regardless of how well we played our games. Be our stresses minor, major, or beyond, it is quite amazing how a community of play looks upon us with a supportive eye and warm heard rather than one of criticism.

For the full story on my wife, check out http://cancergaveme2birthdays.blogspot.com It’s worth the read.

If you like this tale, check out A Quick 9 for the Mind. Filled with stories of golf with lessons for the mindset.

Explosive Mentality

July 4 fireworks truly inspire awe. Perhaps their explosiveness provides a some food for thought in the athletic realm.

Strong and solid athletic technique more often than not begins compact and then explodes. The football lineman begins low and crouched only to explode up and off the line of scrimmage when the ball is snapped. From the baseline, a tennis player keeps elbows and racket relatively close to the body before allowing racket and arms to explode out and through the ball. The surfer catching a great wave paddles hard, then bounces into a low athletic position, and finally stands tall riding out the remnants of the ocean’s roll. Like a firework, the physical game lies in starting compact and exploding outward.

The mental game is much the same. At its best, it works from the inside out. Too often an implosive mentality is brought to the mental game – outside factors push inwards to determine confidence and focus. Opponents, coaches, scouts, standings, and scores push from the outside into the unsuspecting athlete. Just like in the physical game (and a good fireworks display), best performances occur when mindset explodes from the inside out. The athlete that is grounded in how she competes, what he has practiced, and gets in touch with genuine passion for play drives performances from the inside outward… shaping the competitive landscape rather being subject to it.

Like a great bottlerocket, an explosive mentality has the potential to create dynamic performances.


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