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Thursday, June 30, 2011

Tiger's "Mental Practice"

Since some of Tiger's comments at his presser Tuesday have drawn some, shall we say, "skeptical" responses, I thought I'd look at a couple of them and see if there's anything a weekend player can learn from them.

When Tiger said he still didn't know if he would be able to play at the Open Championship in a couple of weeks, many people snickered and wondered why he just doesn't shut it down for the year and stop teasing us with the possibility that he'll be back soon. He's already said he's having to take this day-by-day, as opposed to past rehabs where he had definite time and performance goals, so why not just block out the time and be done with it?

On GC's Morning Drive Erik Kuselias (who says he's a very goal-oriented person himself) asked Tiger if this approach wasn't frustrating and how did he manage to deal with it. Tiger responded that he still had goals but they were day-by-day "feel" goals.

Now, to many of you this probably sounds like Tiger is playing mental games with himself... and in a sense he is. When you're a big goal setter and find that concrete goals are hard to come by, you have to find something else you can use for motivation. And no, a "feel" goal isn't the same as a "concrete" goal.

A goal is measurable. You can know with certainty when you reach it. If you can't measure it easily, it's not suitable as a goal. "I will be able to run 1 mile in 9 minutes by September 6" is a goal. It's measurable. If on September 6 you can run a mile in 9 minutes, you reached your goal; if you couldn't do it, you didn't reach your goal. That's clear and easy to understand. You can measure your progress and chart it if you like.

By comparison, Tiger's current goals are "fuzzy." It's what he has to work with right now because his leg isn't stable enough to say, "I can do this much right now, so doing that much by such-and-such a date is a reasonable goal." So how do you motivate yourself?

I think that's why Tiger hasn't just taken the year off. Since he doesn't know how soon his leg will be stable, he's using that uncertainty to set goals that motivate him. For example, as long as he can keep playing the Open as an option, it helps motivate him through the harder parts of his rehab. And when he finally has to say "I can't play the Open," he'll say "Then maybe I can make the PGA" and move his focus to making that tournament.

It's actually a pretty smart way of minimizing the demoralizing effects this injury can have on him. It's a proven scientific fact that a good mental attitude can help your body heal faster, and this is how Tiger is applying it.

But by far the most criticized comment he made concerned "mental practice." I first became aware of this concept around 20-25 years ago (no, this isn't a new idea) when some POWs came back from their imprisonment and found that they were better at sports they played before they were captured. Some researchers decided to study them and see if these men had anything in common.

Here's basically what they found: To keep from going insane during their captivity, the men had begun mentally playing their sports while in their cells. For example, one might "play" tennis with friends from home. He would imagine each and every action involved in playing a match, from tossing the ball up for his serve to judging how hard to hit a forehand return.

In other words, he mentally duplicated every physical and mental action he made during an actual tennis match with his friends.

The phenomenon became a focus for further research and was found to be scientifically verifiable. For those of you who are interested, here are two links to more information:
Essentially the process works on two levels. The first is simply strategic -- by imagining how an event plays out, athletes can work their way through various scenarios that might happen during a game and develop proper responses. This helps them make better decisions more quickly during the game.

The second is actually physical. Researchers have found that if you imagine in detail making the movements you make during the performance of any physical activity, your imaginary actions actually stimulate the same sort of responses in your nervous system that the physical actions themselves cause. And while this doesn't happen at the same level as actually playing your sport -- in other words, an imaginary game won't make you as good as actually playing -- it's better than not playing at all and can even multiply the effectiveness of real training.

So Tiger's not crazy, people. Since he can't actually play golf, he's doing the next best thing. And by doing this, he really can work on his new Sean Foley-inspired swing and get better with it despite being unable to hit real balls. For you weekend players who can't get out to the course very often, adding a little "mental practice" can help your game too.

Just remember to "practice" the correct moves. You'll learn to swing the way you practice, so make sure you mentally practice a good stroke!

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