EVER PLAY DECENTLY AFTER HITTING THE BALL TERRIBLY AT THE RANGE? THERE MIGHT BE A CONNECTION.
Tour winner Peter Malnati was in college, he had a teammate who refused to attribute the bad shots he hit to anything within his control. “It was always the grooves on his wedges, or something like that,” Malnati says.“I wish I could turn my brain off in the same way. But that’s not how I’m wired.”
Malnati need not worry, according to Pirozzolo, who argues those bad shots are vital to improvement. After decades working with tour players like Bernhard Langer and teams like the New York Yankees, Pirozzolo is a proponent of a process he describes as “not this, but that,” in which the better way to groove the feel of a proper athletic movement is to introduce the various feels of bad ones. It’s the difference between confidence, which he considers a shallow trait, and competence, a mastery that can best be achieved through a process of elimination. A simple example: In practising a five-foot putt, you hit the ball three feet past the hole.What some might see as the ingraining of a bad habit, Pirozzolo sees as training the brain to understand the difference. “You failed the first time,” he says, “but it helped all future attempts.”
Working through a specific problem is far more effective than a practice session in which a golfer seems to be striking the ball perfectly, Pirozzolo says. It might explain why we inexplicably struggle after warmup sessions in which everything seemed to be clicking.The 2006 US Open champion, Geoff Ogilvy, recognises the same dynamic.
“Certainly too much confidence, or overconfidence, leads to lazy shots. You just assume you’re going to play well all the time,” Ogilvy says. “There are tons of stories of guys leading up to the Masters, and they can’t miss a shot, and their families come in, and all of a sudden they shoot five over on the front nine. It creates a lazy head space because you’re just sure good things are going to happen.”
The inverse scenario of the overconfident player stumbling in competition is the struggling player who ends up thriving, and even winning. Ever play decently after hitting the ball terribly at the range? There might be a connection. In the 2009 WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, Ogilvy won his early-round matches but knew he was lucky to do so, often blocking shots to the right by getting his hands stuck behind his hips at impact. Far from confident, Ogilvy was forced to identify a flaw he might have otherwise neglected.After working through a series of drills on the range, he corrected the problem and ended up beating Paul Casey in the final for his second World Golf Championship.
“On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, I couldn’t play at all, and then Saturday and Sunday was the best I ever played,” Ogilvy says. “It all came out of complete desperation and not much sleep.”
The disparate ways we approach our mistakes in golf is perhaps best encapsulated by the Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck, who famously divided our mindsets into two categories:
▶ A “fixed” mind-set describes people who seek validation of their abilities.
▶ A “growth” mind-set describes those who believe their skills can be cultivated through effort.
Dweck’s most celebrated experiment was issuing a fairly easy exam to a group of fifth-graders.When the kids fared well on the exam, half were praised for their intelligence, the other half for working hard on their answers. In a subsequent test, the two groups began to reflect fixed- and growthmind-set tendencies.The “smart” kids grew frustrated when they no longer seemed as smart.The “effort” kids embraced the challenge of the test.
In competitive golf, the test always gets more difficult.A growth mind-set embraces the idea that the game is one of perpetual improvement, with failure a vital ingredient. It explains how Horschel was able to approach each of his two tournament gaffes constructively rather than see them as some larger commentary on his worth as a golfer. Or why Jordan Spieth says it took his loss in the 2014 Masters to fuel his green-jacket win the next year – and why there’s reason to believe he has grown from his collapse there in 2016.
Meanwhile, fixed mind-set tendencies are evidenced by the “lazy head space” of overconfident players who just feel like they’re supposed to play well. Consider one of Pirozzolo’s clients, Cameron Smith, a promising Australian who teamed with Jonas Blixt to win at New Orleans in April. Smith has already been tabbed as a future superstar. Among the psychologist’s messages? Don’t believe the hype.
“I tell (Smith),‘You’re going to be hearing how great you are, and you need to know that’s not a good way to proceed,’ ” Pirozzolo says. “The reason he’s got to where he is is because he’s worked. A lot of what we preach among younger players is that their future depends on how firmly they can grasp the concept of this growth or learning mind-set.”
Even more than with other sports, a growth-mind-set approach to golf is vital because it allows for the stumbles that are such an inherent part of the game. Just do the maths. No one wins every time, and even those who display the high-level “competence” that Pirozzolo stresses do so within the larger context of missed fairways and putts.
“I think it’s important to understand that nobody is consistent at this game – nobody,” says instructor Martin Hall, ranked eighth on Golf Digest’s list of America’s Best Teachers.“You just have a range.You have your best and your worst, and if you’ve improved your game, you’ve just moved your bell curve.”
Hall, too, believes the only avenue to such improvement is by dissecting what isn’t working. He advises his students to write down in blue and red ink their swing thoughts over a given round – blue for those that helped, red for the ones that were problematic. For instance, Hall says the idea of swinging his arms down from the top has never worked for him, so he knows to steer clear. Like Billy Horschel missing a two-foot putt, the fact that he discovered it the hard way is still preferable to not knowing at all. “I don’t think negative is necessarily bad,” Hall says.“Negative is what can help eliminate a lot of problems for you.”
In addition to athletes, Pirozzolo has consulted with military training, and he says,“The very last thing you would want to be saddled with is a soldier who is happy, overconfident and carefree.” His point applies to golf just as well.The most effective players aren’t blessedly absent of doubt. They’re the ones who know where the problems lie, and how to avoid them.