I Think, Therefore I Am... Bad at Disc Golf
Disc golf is easy. You just throw discs into a basket in less throws than everybody else. Just look down the fairway, pick the disc that's most likely to fly an a clean path from the tee to the basket, and throw it like you imagined. Easy.
So why is it so hard to do?
Think of the best round you've ever had. You were focused. You were having a great time. You cared about each throw, but not too much. Your discs went where they were supposed to and you got the disc in the basket in less strokes than usual.
The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the word "flow" to describe these experiences. Flow is a mental state where you perform an activity with energized focus, full involvement, and uninterrupted enjoyment in the process. Flow gives you complete absorption in what you do and takes away your sense of time. Most people have felt this at one point or another on the disc golf course but it just seems to happen to them by chance. However, it is a state that you can learn about and replicate.
“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times . . . The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).
Back to your incredible round. You achieved flow on the disc golf course. You've tried to replicate the experience but you can't and it's so frustrating. Your inability to replicate the round is not a problem with your form or your discs. It's a problem with your thinking. Most people know more about how to pick discs and throw them than they do about how the technology of their mind works.
Let's take a look at your mind's technology during a round of disc golf.
The Golf Minds
Your mind is the most important and most complex piece of technology you own, but have you ever read a manual on how to operate it? There are many manuals available to understand the mind's inner workings (such as Buddhism, psychology, neuroscience), but they can get quite complicated. Not to worry though, modern sports psychologists have broken the mind's basic operations down into simple, intuitive chunks. Disc golf has a void of literature on this topic, so let’s dive into some traditional golfing lore.
One book I’ve read recently is “The Inner Game of Golf” by W. Timothy Gallwey. In it, he calls the different minds Self 1 and Self 2. Self 1 is the analytical, judgmental, consciously controlled mind that reads the conditions, plans a strategy, and really really wants to get birdies and win. Self 2 is the subconscious mind that actually controls all the motions of the body to bring into existence the beautiful plans made by Self 1. If these two Selves work together it can be wonderful, surprising, and effortless. However, most mental errors in golf can be attributed to interference by Self 1, usually in trying to overcontrol the movements of Self 2 due to anxiety.
Here are some examples of how Self 1 might interfere:
“Get your wrist down so you don't throw a noob hyzer."
“Don’t forget to get a good solid plant and reach all the way back.”
“Get a full turn but don’t turn back too soon.”
"Remember to keep your left arm tucked in."
“Last time you bogeyed this hole so you don’t want to do that again.”
“If you lose a stroke here Phil will be one up going into the sidearm stretch of the course.”
Does that sound like your mind during a round of golf? If it does you’re making this sport a lot harder than it has to be.
Your body creates what your mind sees most strongly. It’s similar to the computer science principle of “garbage in, garbage out”. If you fill you mind with garbage images you’re going to throw garbage shots. If you fill your mind with three or four different garbage images mixed with one good image, your body is going to mash the images all together and produce some kind of hot dumpster fire.
The Boss and the Worker
I like to think of Self 1 and Self 2 as a Boss and Worker relationship. Self 1 is the Boss and Self 2 is the Worker. Who am I in the equation? Well, I’m both, but I feel more like my true self is the Worker. Let's look at how these two minds might interact on the tee.
Thrill Hill Hole 9
Here we are at the tee of Thrill Hill hole 9.
Hole 9 is a 525 foot par 4 with a long straight fairway. The pin is tucked tight behind the woods on the right in a clearing. OB lines the left and thick trees line the right. There are two main difficulties in playing the hole: keeping the disc in the fairway on the drive and accessing the well-guarded pin on the approach. You want to be close to the pin for your putt on this one because there is a nasty ditch filled with oily water 15 to 20 feet behind the basket.
The Boss decides we should birdie this hole. He knows from history that most of our birdies come from a nice conservative play by throwing a 330 foot low sweeping backhand hyzer off the tee with a somewhat overstable fairway driver. Our favourite approach from there is to cover the remaining 200 feet with a high stalling sidearm hyzer, usually with the same disc. (I may write a future article on the different hyzer flight paths and what they can be used for, but for now, a stall is good for this green because the disc gets all its energy out by stalling in the air and lands with very little energy left to skip and roll.)
So the Boss, when he’s being a good boss, feeds me the image above. I, being a good little worker, say, “I got it Boss. I’ll get it done right away.”
Now comes the defining moment for a boss to either become a good boss or a bad boss. A good boss would give you a thumbs up and leave you alone. A bad boss hangs around and micromanages.
“Hey, Mike, one more thing. I know you got this, but did you notice it’s a pretty stiff headwind today?”
“Yeah, I noticed that so I disced up a notch in stability. I’m good to go.”
“Is that disc really stable enough though? What if it turns right into the trees?” The Boss shows me this image:
“I’m sure it won’t. I’ll be putting it out on a bit of a hyzer like planned. It’s all good.”
“I mean, OB isn’t far off on the left. How much hyzer were you thinking? It’d really suck to go OB now when you’ve got a pretty good round going.”
“I was thinking of keeping it a bit low and as long as I commit there shouldn’t be a problem.”
“No no, it’s all good…”
“Look man, do you want me to do this or not?”
When I finally throw the disc I have about four contrasting images in my head. Where do you think the disc is going? Honestly, I don't even know. All I know is I don't want to make the shot. I might just stay on the tee and scratch my head. Can't screw that up.
Here’s an exercise: don’t think about a chimpanzee wearing a bowtie eating grapes with a spoon.
Did it work? You didn’t imagine the chimpanzee eating grapes did you? If you didn’t, you’re pretty special and your brain is weird.
Our brains are like teenagers with bank cards, ready to pay our precious attention to the most emotionally salient or most novel thing at any moment (and unfortunately, going OB or airballing a putt are way more emotionally salient than a nice conservative drive or laid up putt). We don’t have as much control over our minds as we think we do. However, there is one key recommendation that can help you play better golf right away.
Question: is the recommendation to stop paying attention to the boss after he’s done giving you a solid plan?
Answer: sort of no but kind of yes.
No - it is not to stop paying attention to the boss. This is because you can’t just NOT think of something. It doesn’t work to say “okay, don’t pay attention to what the boss is saying about going OB.” You will still think about and imagine going OB, usually with predictable results.
Yes - it is to stop paying attention to the boss. However, the way to do that is to fill your mind so full of the right things that there is no room left for the boss’s chatter.
What to Fill Your Mind With
We have to go back to ball golf again for this one. Let’s take a brief stroll through the mind of the Golden Bear, Jack Nicklaus.
Going to the Movies
"I never hit a shot, even in practice, without having a very sharp, in-focus picture of it in my head. It’s like a color movie. First I “see” the ball where I want it to finish, nice and white and sitting up high on the bright green grass. Then the scene quickly changes and I “see” the ball going there: its path, trajectory, and shape, even its behavior on landing. Then there’s a sort of fade-out, and the next scene shows me making the kind of swing that will turn the previous images into reality. Only at the end of this short, private, Hollywood spectacular do I select a club and step up to the ball." (Nicklaus, 1974, Golf My Way).
From the quote above you can see that Nicklaus has a detailed and consistent process of programming his body before every shot. This is similar to how most expert performers in their fields prepare themselves for their best performance. The sports psychologist Dr. David L. Cook in his book “The Psychology of Tournament Golf” explained the process in three simple steps: see it, feel it, trust it.
"Seeing it" is the job of the Boss. You want the Boss to feed you one single clear image of a successful shot. You want to see the disc in flight leaving your hand, gliding through the high speed stability phase of the flight, transitioning to low speed stability, fading, hitting the ground and either spiking, skipping, sliding, jamming, or rolling to where you want it to stop. If the image doesn’t feel right, keep working it in your mind until it’s just how you want it.
Once the image is clear, put your awareness in your body and feel how your body will need to move in order to make the disc's flight fit the image. Take a few practice swings and imagine the disc ripping from your fingers and flying on the exact path you envisioned.
Now your visual and kinesthetic senses are firing on all cylinders. They’re working together on the same goal. The Boss has left the building and all that’s left is you with this image and feel. You’re ready to go. The last thing to do is hold these images and feelings so firmly in your mind through your swing so that there’s no room left for the Boss to poke his head back in and say “but what if…” Trust that you can pull it off without a micromanaging Boss exercising control over your movements.
This is hard to do 50-some times over the span of an hour or two. It can be draining if you really pour your energy into it. But it’s worth it if you want to score well.
Here are two personal examples of this mental exercise from the final round of our local Swan City Mini one-day tournament on May 20, 2019. The tournament took place on Thrill Hill.
I threw my teeshot a bit soft and landed about 25 feet from the pin and sort of half stuck in Narnia (that’s the club’s nickname for those nasty grabby bushes guarding the green on the left of hole 15). If you're not familiar, 20 feet behind the basket from this view is a cliff that descends about 20 feet into a pit of water full of reeds, discs, and shopping carts.
It was the final round with four holes to go and my score wasn’t where I wanted it to be. A birdie here would get me excited and kick off a potential scoring streak to the end. I could stick my left foot into Narnia behind my disc, straddle out on my right knee, and get pretty comfortable. That’s fine. I’ve practiced this. Twenty-five feet from a knee? No problem.
Except there were two problems. One, there was a strong wind coming down the hill left to right. This would knock down my hyzer putt and push it right a bit. I’d probably doink it into the cage or miss low and right sending me down the hill.
Okay, I’ll aim a bit higher, putt a bit harder, and really commit.
Wait, there’s a second problem. Two weeks prior I was playing a windy round and landed almost in the same place. I didn’t read the wind correctly that time and airballed down the hill. I missed my comebacker and bogeyed the easiest hole on the course. Devastating.
By the time I had gotten to this point in my scattered thinking I had been squatting on my knee with furrowed eyebrows, jerking my putter up and down, and muttering to myself for probably 15 to 20 seconds. My cardmates were looking on, waiting to putt. So I just limply said to myself, “Okay, run it. You got this.” But my heart wasn’t in it. I putted very quickly to get it over with.
Where do you think the putt went?
Here's what happened.
It appears that my body, the poor confused worker, mashed all of those images together into a sort of an attempted safe layup half-run thing that was a bit more dangerous than it should have been. I seriously thought I was running it. Afterwards, I remember saying out loud, “my brain wouldn’t let me run that.”
Despite my flub on hole 15, I went birdie-birdie on 16 and 17 and was feeling great. My score was where I wanted it but I was feeling greedy for one more birdie. My tee shot looked good but it rolled a bit lower on the green than I would have wanted, leaving me with an uphill 30 foot putt into a headwind. Uphill putts into headwinds can be disastrous because they tend to lift and stall out before coming back down the hill, or they sail over the basket long.
In a low-confidence state I might have said, “okay, I’ll aim a bit lower then” and the result probably would be a non-committed fluffed putt into the cage.
However, I didn’t even see that image because my confidence was high and I had firmly decided I wanted one more birdie. In reaction to this confidence and desire the boss sent me one single clear image.
My body instantly felt what I would have to do to make that happen. Automatically, in my practice strokes my body reshuffled to bring my left foot in a little closer. I noticed it but didn’t question it. My left foot began pushing off firmly. “Okay,” I said. “You do that, foot. I trust you.” Then I started to feel as if there was a solid connection between my left foot and the disc in my right hand. It was as if there was no air space between me and the basket and all I had to do was push with my left foot, reach out my hand, and shove the putter into the chains.
With that strong image and feel in my mind I made my stroke. Where do you think this putt went?
Birdie. The putt was exactly as I envisioned it. There's no better way to end a tournament.
So what about you? Have you ever taken a moment to notice the chatter in your head during a round of disc golf? Have you discovered some of the ways you "get into your own head" and make the game more frustrating than it needs to be?
Lastly, have you had one of those magical rounds yet where you were carefree, trusting, threw your best score without trying, and enjoyed the sport immensely? Well, I believe that's a skill that can be learned and I'm on a mission to figure out how to do it.
“Competitive golf is played mainly on a five-and-a-half-inch course… the space between your ears.” (Bobby Jones)
For every past and future round of disc golf you will ever play, here's a picture of the course you will play on:
Our brains were built in sections throughout evolution, with the lower and inner parts being seen in lower stages of evolution (fish, reptiles) and the higher and outer parts (cerebral cortex) being seen in higher stages of evolution (mammals). The last to develop was our prefrontal cortex: the part above our eyes and behind our foreheads. This is the part of the brain that plans, thinks, calculates risk, reasons, weighs options, analyzes, thinks critically, decides what you should do and when you should do it, etc.
Does this sound familiar? The prefrontal cortex is The Boss. It is your Self 1. In golf, it is often your nemesis.
What's interesting about this is that in the last decade brain scan studies have confirmed a lot of what psychologists through the 1900's have been saying about performance in sports. These studies have showed that during "flow" experiences your brain goes into a state called "transient hypofrontality". "Hypo" refers to slowing down or lowered activity and "frontality" refers to the prefrontal cortex.
That's right, neuroscientists can actually SEE when the boss has left the building and how that impacts performance for the better.
It's true what we say when we finally pull everything together and start playing like we know we can. We say, "I finally got out of my head." That's exactly what you did, except now you can properly say, "I finally induced and sustained a cognitive state of transient hypofrontality."