You can’t change what you’re not aware of

It’s strange what happens to many golfers as they hit a golf shot.

One moment, they’re standing over the ball, going through their pre-shot checklist in their head like a pilot before takeoff, the club starts to go back … and then whack! The ball is in the air.

It’s like they’ve just come back to consciousness. While the club is in motion, it’s as if they blacked out. Something happened; they’re not sure what.

For a skilled golfer, that might not be a bad thing. In this video (fast forward to the 2:00 mark), Tiger Woods talks about “blackout moments” where he didn’t remember performing a shot.

But for a golfer who wants to change their swing, it is, well, not advantageous. All change begins with awareness. You cannot change what you’re not aware of.

This was one of the issues that a student had in trying to improve her game, especially to stop slicing the ball. A few lessons into our work together at The Golf House in Guelph, I asked her she felt when she swung her driver.

“What am I supposed to feel?” she asked, looking confused.

Oh my. I searched for a different way to ask the same question. “Well, what do you feel in your hands and arms when you swing?”

“That’s just it. I don’t know what I’m supposed to feel,” she said, looking exasperated. “Every swing is a mystery.”

We tried to figure this feeling thing out, which struck me as weird—we were talking and thinking about how to feel something. We eventually determined that part of her struggle was that she is prone to analyzing just about everything.

She said, “My whole life has been about figuring things out. My job was about analyzing data. I think about everything,” she said with a laugh. “Obviously, including golf.”

In this way, she didn’t seem much different than many of my students, most of whom are knowledge workers AKA desk jockeys. They use their minds all day at work, which is how most of us operate in all parts of our lives. I call it the analyze-the-data/formulate-the-plan/execute-the-plan approach.

It can work for many parts of our lives, but not for golf, or most any activity that has a performance aspect to it.

Any person who has achieved mastery in anything is just more aware of what they are doing than others. Yes, some people have more talent, but skill is developed through awareness.

Consider that we swing a golf club to strike a ball to a target. Yet, most golfers don’t have a clue what the striking thing is doing, and they don’t feel their hands—the things hold on to the striking thing—are doing.

Without feeling what you’re doing, you’re like an artist who can’t feel the brush or a dancer with numb feet.

The reason that the majority of golfers don’t improve is they don’t feel what they are actually doing. Therefore, they don’t know what they’re doing either.

But feeling is not thinking about feeling. It’s more like witnessing, sensing and just being aware of what’s happening. This could include, for example, feeling the wind on your face, or the feel of a rubber grip in your hand.

Highly skilled golfers know exactly what the clubface is doing throughout their swing. They feel it.

When I was a consultant for Nike Golf Canada, one of their R&D engineers told me that Tiger could tell if one wedge was one or two degrees heavier than another.  How was Tiger able to stop his downswing if he was distracted by say, a camera? His other-worldly sense of feel.

Thinking is what your mind does when it’s trying to consciously do something, such as turning your shoulders or your hips. But when you’re thinking, you are disconnected from feeling your body. You cannot feel your swing if you’re thinking about your swing. It’s a fundamental of sports performance.

Back to the woman trying to stop slicing, who, like many golfers, also struggled with hip and leg pain and a lack of flexibility due to past injuries that made it difficult for her to stay present to her swing and to make a good backswing turn.

I referred her to Brook Bennie, a TPI-certified trainer in Guelph and former trainer of the University of Guelph golf team. (They called Brook the “miracle worker.”) When she came back, she was more mobile and her pain had decreased.

I borrowed a page from my late friend George McNamara. Like many coaches who have worked with Fred Shoemaker, George didn’t believe that giving tips led to change.

Instead, he asked golfers to feel what causes their mis-hits. This led them to become aware of what they were doing; it was no longer in their blindspot. George was legendary for his ability to help people improve not by telling them what to do, but by coaching them on how to self-coach themselves.

My student became aware that she had a moderate out-to-in swing path that was partly due to her physical issues. She began to feel and know how her club path contributed to her slice.

We worked on aiming her clubface a few degrees to the right—she’s a lefty—at address, which made her ball flight more predictable. Rather than slice the ball, she was now fading it; the ball started right of her target and curved left toward her target.

She’s eager to get her golf season started now that her driver swing is no longer shrouded in mystery.

Something to try:

A great exercise to increase your sense of feel is to chip with a high-lofted wedge—these are the heaviest clubs in your bag. From set-up to post-impact, maintain your focus on the weight and feeling of the clubhead. Disregard what the ball does. Just feel the clubhead for the entirety of the shot. At first, you’ll be surprised how difficult it is to maintain that focus for the duration of the shot, but over time your ability to maintain your focus will increase. After a while, start doing the exercise with less lofted clubs, and you will be surprised how your sense of feel increases.

If you are interested in golf coaching or in my Commit to Freedom workshops on improving commitment and accountability in your organization, please send an email to tim@oconnorgolf.ca.

For more articles by Tim O’Connor, click HERE.

Tim O'Connor
Tim O'Connor is a golf coach, an award-winning writer, and speaker. Tim takes a holistic approach, coaching golfers in the physical and mental aspects of golf. He co-hosts the Swing Thoughts podcast, and is the author of The Feeling of Greatness: The Moe Norman Story. He plays bass in CID — a Guelph punk band!

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