You have to switch between analysis and performance.
August 24, 2021 by Steve Andrews in Opinion with comments
Think of how you perform most athletic activities – returning a serve, reaching out for a pass, making a jump shot over a defender, hitting a pitch. In each case, you are reacting to a situation, letting your body make precise, split-second calculations without your conscious input. Successfully learning a sport is usually marked by early awkwardness and overthinking followed by smooth unconscious competence.
Think of your early tentative and awkward efforts to learn to drive a car — the hours you spent jolting, breaking, and overreacting in an empty parking lot at 5 mph, and then, years later, roaring into moving traffic on a wet highway at 75 mph in the dark while drinking coffee and listening to the radio. Trying to carefully think through every move you make to merge onto a busy highway would end in disaster.
And then there’s golf. NFL teams often call timeouts to “ice” an opposing kicker, hoping that making them think about the kick for 30 more seconds will make them miss it. The way disc golf is structured, golfers are iced on every shot. You wait your turn before each throw, help partners find lost discs, and sometimes sit on the tee for 35 minutes before the hardest drive of a round. This is one of the toughest mental challenges of disc golf: applying the analytical thinking necessary to evaluate your options, pick a disc, choose a line, and then turn off all of that to throw the disc with the same freedom you bring to other athletic activities you complete automatically.
There is no opponent. There is you, on a tee, with your thoughts, facing a narrow tunnel surrounded by an almost impenetrable forest. You’re up.
The Importance of a Preshot Routine
It is important to recognize that you must be two players on the course – one analytical and one performative. In golf, these two mindsets are often in tension – thinking about all the dangers on a hole is not helpful when it is time to throw. There are players who excel at the analytical side, making good decisions and setting good plans, who then tightly guide their shot into the first tree. There are also intuitive players who throw great shots but with the wrong disc or without considering important information like wind or OB. The best players do both.
One way to do that is with a preshot routine that brings together both modes and allows you to switch from one to the other. We have discussed the importance of a preshot routine in putting, but it is important to use it on other shots as well.
Start with the Analytical
As you approach your lie, you need to be in analysis mode. You are gathering data – how far out are you, what are the conditions of your lie, how is the wind, what is the score? What are the dangers – is there water, a mando, OB? Are you throwing over the water or laying up to the landing zone? Are you going to throw a high turnover or a low skipping forehand? There is a lot to think about.
This is the stuff of good course management – making good decisions that maximize reward and minimize risk. In the end, you should come away from this number crunching with two things – a disc in your hand and an idea of the kind of shot you are going to throw.
But now is the real difficulty: how can you make this plan a reality? Once you have decided on the disc and the line you are going to throw, you need to put all that thinking away. You don’t need to think about the water or the wind anymore. You already included those factors in your analysis. Now, you need to stop thinking and get out of the way of your ability to execute.
Using a Trigger
It is basically impossible to be in a state of intense concentration for a whole round; your attention will rise and fall as you walk the course, chat with your playing partners, or zone out. That’s great, but you need a trigger to signal to yourself that it is time to focus. It can be tactile, like blowing on your fingers or fanning your disc like Kevin Jones, or it can be verbal, telling yourself “let’s go.”
The important thing is to be able to summon your concentration when you need it. The best way to do that is really develop a trigger that signals it is time to focus and go into the performative part of your preshot routine.
Visualize Your Shot
Start by setting positive intentions. Your mind is not great at understanding negatives. The thought “don’t go into the water” sets your focus on the water. Always set your intention on what you want to happen – “hit the gap” not “don’t hit the tree.” You saw all the dangers in analytical mode, now you need to focus on what you want to happen.
The best way to do that is to use visualization. One of the crucial tools in switching to performance mode is to give yourself clear mental images of the shot you are trying to throw. The best way to make that shot is to give yourself “good pictures” – a clear visualization of what you are trying to do. In effect, you are getting your body to react to the image you have drawn in your mind. This is not new in sports; it’s not even new in golf.
In Jack Nicklaus’s bestselling 1974 book Golf My Way, one of the greatest golfers of all time described how he “took himself to the movies” before each shot: “I never hit a shot, not even in practice, without having a very sharp, in-focus picture of it in my head. 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 is a sort of fade-out, and the next scene shows me making the kind of swing that will turn the previous images into reality.”
For some players, this will seem easy and intuitive. For others, it will be a real challenge and require practice. Being able to visualize the flight of the disc and the throw you need to get it is a great way to move out of the world of analysis into the world of execution. For some people, who may find visualizing the full flight of the disc difficult, it is easier to focus on the target rather than the full flight of the disc.
Sometimes, because of the degree of turn and fade in disc golf, visualizing the entire flight of the disc is difficult, especially if you are throwing over an obstacle or around a corner. The most important thing to visualize and commit to is where you are starting the disc. Pick a point in the distance where you want the disc to start its flight. It can be a tree, a brown spot on the turf, or anything on the horizon that gives you an aiming point. Draw a line back from that point to the teepad – that is the line you will have to throw on to get your shot started on the line you want (and notice that this line is often not right down the center of the teepad.) Depending on the shot you are throwing, such as an overstable forehand or a huge anhyzer, it may leave that line almost immediately, that’s fine. Focus on getting “good pictures” of the disc leaving on the right line, angle, and height, and trust the disc to do the work from there. Build your swing around that line and your visualization of the shot. Let your body follow your pictures.
Here is Paul McBeth throwing a massive sky anhyzer. Notice as he is standing on the tee he is seeing his line – and his starting line for this shot is not anywhere towards the basket. He is picking his aiming point, and working himself back to a position where he can hit that line by running diagonally across the teepad:
If you are still working on your golf swing, you may have to think about mechanics as you set up for certain shots. However, as you incorporate visualization into your preshot routine, you will notice that your mechanics will change to match your intent. If you focus on an anhyzer, you will stand straighter, change your disc position, and your run up. This is great, it shows your body is “feeling” the difference between different angles and working out how to hit the flights you are visualizing.
Do a Rehearsal Swing
There is a difference between a practice swing and a rehearsal swing. A practice swing is usually a full-body movement, getting loose, moving through the big motion of the swing. It is priming you to move. A rehearsal swing is more intentional, focused on performing key elements of the shot you are going to try and throw. You see lots of pros do this, a big movement to get loose, then a smaller, more precise movement really locking in the angle, release, and finish they have visualized.
Not everyone uses a practice swing or a rehearsal swing; conversely, some great players use both. If you are going to incorporate them, tie them into your visualization of the shot. Use your rehearsal swing to confirm the feel you want to have on your actual throw. You can see this process in a shot that many of us are very familiar with: James Conrad’s throw-in at the 2021 World Championships. While we can’t know his thought process for sure, he is on his line, visualizes the shot, takes a deep breath then a practice swing to loosen everything up, then he does a very focused rehearsal of his release angle. Then, perfection.
You have examined all the conditions in making your plan — pulled out the disc you wanted, taken a cleansing breath, seen the target, and used a rehearsal swing to prime yourself to make the exact right movement. In a perfect world, your mind is now a still pond with no ripples of anxiety. You are at peace, wrapped in a cocoon of flow.
Or not. Or you can hear your heart pounding and that dude opening a Clif bar and you are so busy trying to think of nothing you are hearing everything. In traditional golf, this is often the place for a swing thought. A swing thought is a simple cue or phrase you think of as you throw. They can be very useful, because if you are focused on this one thought you can keep your mind from racing or going to other places you don’t want. The key is to have a thought that is broad, non-technical, and leads to a good swing.
Sometimes this can be as simple as thinking “smooth” or “commit” as you start your throw (John Daly’s swing thought was “Kill” when he overwhelmed the field to win the 1991 PGA out of nowhere). There is a place for mechanical swing thoughts, but pick one that is broad and produces a cascade of good effects. For example, you can think “full turn” or “get wide” if your problem is rounding or collapsing in your backswing. “Finish high” can help make sure you commit to a hyzer. A thought like “slow first step” can help you stay in good rhythm through your swing. I often use “get onto your front foot” to make sure I lead with the lower body and get my weight off my back leg. In putting, you can tell yourself “full extension” to stop shorting your putts or “legs” to remind you to get your body into the shot. Look for a swing thought that gets your entire throw working smoothly and efficiently.
You may not need a swing thought. If you are setting good targets and throwing well, that’s great. But if you do find it hard to quiet your mind, focusing on one concept or cue can help you. Thinking about one thing is often easier than trying to think about nothing.
Putting it Together
Breathing, intentions, visualization, and rehearsal swings are just possible parts of your preshot routine. You may find that you like some of them, but others are distracting, or you may find other things that you need to add to play your best. While it may seem overwhelming, if you watch great players, you will notice that most of them have incorporated these elements into their natural rhythm and do them efficiently.
Create a preshot routine that works for you and practice it until it does its job – helping you focus, relax, and execute the shots you are trying to throw.