Do pressure putts wind you up? “Don’t look down!”

How do you perform on pressure putts? Are they a weakness in your otherwise solid disc golf game? If the first question caused you to grind your teeth and/or break out into a cold sweat, and if you grudgingly answered ‘yes’ to the second question, this post is for you.

Let’s start with a seemingly random question: Have you ever had to walk across a rickety bridge spanning a 3,000-foot gorge? Or maybe you’ve traversed a narrow, slippery trail hugging the side of a steep mountain. Even if you haven’t, you’ve probably seen such scenes in movies and know what the cool, calm, and collected inevitably say to those with mortal fear in their eyes:

“Don’t look down!”

Image: InfinityandBeyond2

The obvious reason for this timely advice is to help an already frightened and nervous person from becoming paralyzed with fear. Looking down in such situations reminds us of the dire consequences if things don’t go right, and healthy fear is one of the traits hard-wired into all species. But alas, not all fear is healthy, nor helpful.

Take away the consequences -possibility of serious injury or death, with immense pain along the way, in this case – and that walk across the rickety bridge is really no big deal. It’s just walking, after all. But when one false step could turn into a real-life Wile E. Coyote plunge, it suddenly gets much harder. And this is true of pretty much everything. The more it means to you, the greater the likelihood that anxiety comes into play. And anxiety, needless to say, never enhances performance.

Good news, the solution is simple! However, it’s not easy, at least not in an instantaneous, problem-solved kind of way. You gotta consciously work at overcoming a tendency that, like garden weeds, can never be entirely eliminated. But if you make a sincere effort to make this change you should see some results almost immediately.

Here is the essence of the one and only true way to combat performance anxiety. Drumroll, please . . . . . .

Think about what you’re trying to do, not what you’re trying to accomplish- and definitely not why you’re trying to accomplish it.

Many believe that athletes who are known as ‘clutch performers’ must somehow thrive on the pressure that negatively affects everyone else. That’s not true. They have simply trained themselves to concentrate on the raw components of the task at hand and block out everything else.

The general idea of focusing on actions rather than results is nothing new. Instructors, trainers, and coaches have applied it to everything imaginable- far beyond the realm of athletics. I’ve written about the applications of this concept multiple times before and have included some links later in this post. There are many techniques that will help you accomplish this game-changing transformation. Adapt one of mine, or come up with your own. The purpose here is to help you understand and embrace the basic concept.

The rickety bridge/”Don’t look down!” analogy just recently occurred to me, and I think it can be instrumental in helping golfers who already realize that the primary obstacles between them and lower scores are often mental, but haven’t gotten beyond that vague realization.

Want yet another example? I bet whoever trains people to diffuse bombs stresses the fact that the mind must remain focused 100 percent on the task at hand. Thoughts of beloved family members and fear of being blown to smithereens could result in shaky hands or a momentary confusion between red and blue wires. Next thing you know, BOOM!

As we all know, some missed putts result in different kinds of explosions (or, in some cases, implosions): Exploding scores, tempers, and visions of that personal-best round that was so close you could taste it. And it’s not the miss itself that is so frustrating, but the awareness that it was due to a brain twisted into knots.

If you now believe the simple solution revealed above (think about what you’re trying to do, not what you’re trying to accomplish) has merit, and are wondering “How, exactly?” that’s an excellent question. There is no one-size-fits-all answer, but I think I can get you headed in the right direction by sharing a little about my personal strategies, tactics, and tricks.

Think about what you’re trying to DO

This literally means the physical movements I (and you) need to perform in order to execute a successful putt. This isn’t a post about putting technique, so I’ll only list a few things that I try to think about right before every putt (yours may be different):

  • Start with a comfortable, balanced stance
  • Focus my eyes on the orange decal on the pole, or one particular link, and don’t release the stare until the disc arrives at the basket
  • Follow through straight at the target, feeling the stretch in my back, shoulder, arm, hand and fingers for a lingering second after the disc leaves my hand

Notice I did not list “make the putt” as something I’m trying to do.

Do NOT think about what you’re trying to accomplish, or why you’re trying to accomplish it.

The second you start thinking about making the putt, two bad things happen.

  1. You stop thinking the productive “Do This” thoughts that give you the best chance of success. You can’t simultaneously follow two trains of thought.
  2. You open the door to why you want or need to make the putt. The bigger the situation, the farther the drop from that rickety bridge. It doesn’t matter whether a really bad thing will happen if you miss (you lose the round, for instance) or a really good thing won’t happen (you don’t birdie hole 13 for the first time ever). The effect is the same.

Remember when I said the solution is simple, but not easy? That’s because thinking only about the process of putting and blocking out all thoughts related to the desired achievement is a simple enough concept- but easier said than done. That’s where the strategies, tactics, and tricks come in. I’ve shared a few that I’ve posted about in the past. Adapt them to your game, or use them as inspiration for developing your own routines to prevent yourself from “looking down.”

“Do This!”

Back in 2011, I came up with a pre-shot routine wherein I practice my putting motion several times, full speed but without the disc in my hand, right before my actual putt. I discovered several benefits in doing this, and you can read the post or watch this short video if you’re interested in the full explanation. I list it here because one of those benefits of the routine is that it allows me to think about my process keys while practicing my “stroke,” and then when it’s time to execute the actual putt, my last final thought is always the same: Do exactly what I just did on the last practice stroke. Just that one thought, and nothing else.

For me, there is no other correct final thought before I pull the trigger. The routine is now habit for me, which makes it easier to remember even in the most high-pressure moments. I’m also more likely to identify renegade “value” thoughts that try to invade my routine in time to replace them with “process” thoughts.

Assess. Choose. Execute.

Extending the routine further backward is another way to be sure I’m thinking about the right things at the right time. A successful shot starts well before I step up to my lie. In this post I discuss the proper sequence of first assessing the situation, then choosing exactly what to do, then executing. If I complete the first two steps before I step up to my lie (this post was for all shots, not just putting), I have a better chance at being able to focus on process, and only process, when it’s time to execute.

Like A Machine

Another post that touches on this subject was titled “Play Disc Golf Like a Machine. A Well-Oiled Machine.” If you need another metaphor for setting emotion and value aside and simply executing a command, you’ll find it in that post. If it helps, think of yourself emulating a robot, automaton, or even Star Trek’s Dr. Spock. If asked, he’d say “In competitive disc golf, feelings are illogical and counter-productive.”

However you get there, separating process from value on every throw will result in lower scores and less stress. Find something that works for you, and stick with it. It’ll be worth it!

Learning by Feel in Disc Golf: Why, and How

Companies that market formal clothing love to tell us how their garments lead directly to success in business.

“If you look good, you’ll feel good”. Heard that one before?

The idea is that men wearing chic, expertly-tailored suits and women wearing designer labels gain extra confidence. There may be a kernel of truth buried beneath the B.S., but that’s beside the point. What matters is we can use it to communicate some useful info to disc golfers wanting to improve skills and consistency. It’ll take a bit of ‘splainin’ to get to the meat of the lesson, though, so hang in there. It’ll be worth the 10-minute read.

First off, this tip flips those ad slogans around. Feeling comes first. Also, I am using the word ‘feel’ in a totally different way than them. We’re not talking about the touchy-feely emotional kind of feel (as in, ‘you hurt my feelings’). More like the physiological use for the word, as in ‘that toilet paper feels like sandpaper!’ (Cringe-worthy mental image, but it got the point across, didn’t it?) Finally, since we’re talking about a different kind of ‘feel’, the word good doesn’t work as well. So if we had to have a pithy slogan similar to theirs to sum up the lesson, it would be more along the lines of “Feeling right leads to playing better, and (for those who care about such things) playing better makes you look good.

Ok, we’re done laying out our tortured analogy. Onto the actual message.

The School of Disc Golf has previously mentioned the concept of ‘muscle memory’ no less than six times, with good reason. It’s a scientific explanation of why and how practice makes us better. On Wikipedia, it is summarized as “a form of procedural memory that involves consolidating a specific motor task into memory through repetition. When a movement is repeated over time, a long-term muscle memory is created for that task, eventually allowing it to be performed without conscious effort.”

By that definition, muscle memory is something that happens automatically, behind the curtain of your conscious thoughts. It’s one of the benefits of repetitive practice. I’d like to believe that as disc golfers (or any athlete working to perfect a craft) we can take it further than that. We can try to consciously maximize the process and benefits. I’ll explain using a couple commonly accepted tips.

Putting

Whether you prefer the spin putt or the push putt, the in-line or straddle stance, following through, dramatically, should be a constant. We talk about it in detail in this post and even include a video tutorial of an exercise to practice follow through and better develop the key muscles used in this particular way. Every putt should end with a rigid throwing arm stretched directly toward the link of chain you’re aiming at. Your elbow should be locked, arm and even fingers perfectly straight, with your thumb pointed straight up at the sky.

Now, as you read this, don’t focus on what that description of following through looks like. Focus on what it feels like. If I was giving you an in-person lesson right now, I’d explain follow through, much as I just did in writing above, and show you what it looks like. Hopefully after seeing me do it you’d make your best effort to replicate what you just saw me do. Assuming you did it correctly, I’d tell you so, and you’d accept that you just did it correctly based on my positive feedback. But here’s the thing: I can’t follow you around for all your practice sessions and rounds of disc golf. My lessons are reasonably priced, I think, but that would get costly quickly! And even if that were feasible, the key to the lesson (that follow through is a key to good putting) would not penetrate beyond your logical mind. In other words, it won’t be carved into your muscle memory. That kind of learning requires feel.

Let’s go back to the word picture I offered:

Every putt should end with a rigid throwing arm and hand stretched directly toward the link of chain you’re aiming at. Your elbow should be locked, arm and even fingers perfectly straight, with your thumb pointed straight up at the sky.

As you read the words, stretch your throwing arm toward a focal point across the room. It doesn’t matter what it is, but keep your eyes locked onto it. Now zero in on the key words and phrases, “rigid throwing arm and hand”, “stretched”, “elbow . . . locked”, “arm and even fingers perfectly straight”. Rather than thinking about these descriptions look like, or what you should look like emulating them, let your mind dwell on what each of these things feels like. An arm stretched straight ahead to its extremity feels very different than one that is dangling at your side, or resting on the arm of a chair. Get that feeling locked into your long-term memory and recall it before every putt. Remind yourself that unless you feel that sensation of stretching and straining directly toward your target, you’re not doing it right.

This post is meant to be more about the importance of learning and recalling by feel than a putting lesson, but we’ll make one more point. At the end of your putt, just before, during and after you release the disc, the feeling should also include a quick, sharp burst of movement. Don’t misunderstand all the talk of stretching toward the target and conjure up thoughts of slow motion Tai Chi. For more on that check out the follow through post referenced above.

Backhand Drive

Since we went into pretty good detail about the importance of ‘feel’ in the putting example, this one will be short and sweet. It should help drive (no pun intended) the point home using a different type of scenario. We’ll focus on one particular aspect of good, consistent driving: Balance.

One of the key points in our comprehensive post ‘Building Blocks of Basic Backhand Technique‘ is the relationship between balance and weight transfer. When it comes to throwing a golf disc properly the two are intertwined, and the difference can definitely be felt when done correctly vs. incorrectly.

First off, when you’re setting up to throw, make sure you begin with good posture (knees still slightly bent, but back mostly straight and body not ‘hunched over’) and weight evenly distributed between front and back foot. As you execute the throw, remember the goal of keeping that weight centered as much as possible. Yes,  you need to transfer weight to the back foot as you reach your disc all the way back and transfer it forward in sync with the disc as you throw. But to retain the most consistent control of where your disc goes, you must remain well balanced. If you feel yourself falling off to one side or, more commonly, falling forward upon disc release, your balance is off and likely so is your aim.

This is why, in the backhand post cited above as well as all lessons I give on the subject, I urge players to begin by learning proper backhand technique without a run-up. It’s important to lock in the feel of proper balance and weight transfer so you can recall it when needed, and identify flaws when they arise.

This post doesn’t include any images, for a good reason. Visual aids do have a place in learning. But when it comes to muscle memory it’s all about learning through feel, and realizing that feeling is the best way to learn.

Want to improve your game? Think A.C.E. on every hole

Everyone knows the secret to learning a complex concept lies in a good acronym, right?

Okay, that may be overstating things a bit, but they do at least help us remember and internalize those concepts once we’ve had them explained to us. And the best acronyms are the ones that pop up organically, and as a bonus form an actual word, and as a double-bonus have relevance to the subject matter as was the case a couple weeks ago.

I was in the middle of a private lesson, and my client Sean and I were on the course going over the importance of game management. I was trying to explain the importance of going through the same routine a routine for each shot. But in this case I wasn’t stressing the value of a set routine in keeping him clear-minded and focused on the task at hand (which is important as well). We were studying the three individual elements of the routine, and the importance of doing them in a specific sequence:

  1. Gather all available information and analyze it
  2. Make a decision based on your analysis
  3. Throw the disc

Then it hit me like a Firebird right between the eyes. Assess, Choose, Execute. A.C.E. If you want to shoot lower scores by making less mistakes, one way to do it is to A.C.E. every hole! What could be easier?

disc golf instruction lessons school
Finding yourself in a situation like this requires lots of analysis. How will you get around the tree? Don’t forget the drop-off behind the basket on hole 4 at DeLaveaga.

My hope is that the line will be memorable enough for people to remember it, and based on my focus group of one, it is. I asked Sean a week later what he remembered from our last lesson, and the first thing he said was “Ace. Assess, choose, execute”. That in turn helped him recall the additional details we covered on each step, which are listed below.

Assess

Whether on the tee, in the fairway (or rough), or on the green, success starts with having a plan. And having a plan starts with collecting and analyzing the available data. How long is it to the green? Where does the greatest danger lie? How will the wind affect the shot? And then, the final two questions: What are my options, and what are the risk reward trade-offs for each?

One specific tactical tip for ensuring that you’re considering all your options on those particularly complex shots – you know, the ones where you’re stuck in a really gnarly, claustrophobic situation or just when no one obvious best option jumps out at you – is to make like you’re playing the game Twister. Making sure to keep one foot (or other supporting point) behind the marker, stretch out in all directions, both facing the direction you want to throw and with your back turned as well, as sometimes that is the best way to get off a backhand shot. Doing this will help you see routes that may not have been immediately obvious.  Also, don’t be afraid to get down on one or two knees, and low may be the best way to go.

Choose

Once you’ve collected your data, the next step is to choose and option based on specific shot selection criteria that you predetermined before the round. This may be a philosophy you always use regardless of the situation, but it can also be guiding rules that differ depending on the type of disc golf you’re playing that day. Casual vs. weekly club competition vs. PDGA sanctioned tournament may for some all be handled differently. Another example might be singles strokes play vs. match play vs. best-shot doubles. One personal example I can give is the way I purposefully set out to play super aggressive and run at everything in my first casual round after playing a sanctioned event. I tell myself beforehand to let it all hang out and focus exclusively on fun, score be damned.

disc golf lessons instruction learning school
On shots where you need to choose one gap over others, make a decision and don’t look back. Focus only on that gap.

The two main points about the ‘Choose’ phase of your routine are to settle within yourself what your shot selection criteria will be before the round, when you mind isn’t clouded with the emotions of the moment, and stay faithful to the plan; and also this: Once you’ve made a decision, don’t look back. Fully commit to your decision knowing that it was made after a comprehensive review of the situation. If you choose an aggressive (high risk, high reward) option and find yourself second-guessing as you set up for the shot, switch to the conservative play. When in doubt, don’t.

Execute

Now it’s time to take action with your disc of choice (said disc choice should have been part of the Assess and Choose phases, by the way). The main reason for consciously dividing these elements of a pre-shot routine into three separate parts is so that, once it comes time to throw the disc your mind is occupied with nothing else. You want to be fully committed and thinking only ‘throw thoughts’, (in ball golf they are referred to as ‘swing thoughts’), those mostly mechanical reminders you find most useful.

It’s kind of a weird analogy, but think of it like making a smoothie. First you decide what to put into based on the ingredients you have on hand; next you actually put them in the blender; and finally, you hit the button. The main part of this analogy (technically a simile, for all the grammar geeks out there) is that executing the shot – throwing or putting the disc – should be like hitting the button on the blender. The time for critical thinking has passed, and hopefully in both cases the result is something smooth and tasty.

This routine is even helpful for shots that seemingly don’t require it, like a short putt that borders on gimme range or a situation where the shot choice is automatic. Why? Sticking to a routine, no matter the circumstance, greatly reduces the chance of a mind-lapse and taking the resulting unnecessary strokes. When you miss a 12-foot putt it’s almost always because you took it for granted and allow your mind to be totally elsewhere. I literally feel for my keys in my pocket whenever I lock my car because locking the keys inside sucks big-time. I drilled that routine into a habit that I never change, and haven’t made that particular stupid mistake since. Plenty others, of course, but at least not that one!

One of the best and easiest ways to shoot better scores in disc golf is to cut down on mental errors. and one way to do that is to have a A.C.E. every hole. Quick quiz: what does A.C.E. stand for? You got it! Assess, Choose, Execute.

disc golf lessons instruction school of disc golf
It isn’t practical to think ace on every hole – although Hole 3 at Ryan Ranch is one time you might do just that – but it is quite prudent to think A.C.E. on every shot.

One final note. You may be wondering how on earth you’ll be able to cover all that ground in the 30 seconds you get, according to PDGA rules, to throw once it’s your turn. First of all, the more you repeat this routine, this quicker and more automatic it will become. Second, most of the time you should be able to do most of your assessment and even choose your shot before it’s your turn to throw. This routine should begin the second you have an idea of where your previous throw landed. Remember, playing disc golf is fun. Playing smart, focused golf is fun and rewarding.

We touched on several topics that are covered in more detail in other posts. Feel free to check ’em out.

https://schoolofdiscgolf.com/2013/12/10/bringing-some-ben-franklin-wisdom-to-disc-golf-when-in-doubt-dont/

https://schoolofdiscgolf.com/2011/02/21/mind-control-in-disc-golf-first-step-thinking-about-what-youre-thinking-about/

https://schoolofdiscgolf.com/2008/05/26/twist-and-shoot/

https://schoolofdiscgolf.com/2014/12/16/okay-everybody-take-a-knee-and-putt/

Playing Disc Golf like a Machine. A well-oiled machine.

If I tell you to play disc golf like a well-oiled machine, and leave it at that, it would be no more useful than saying ‘It’s beneficial to execute all your shots on a consistent basis’. Thanks a bunch, Captain Obvious!

Thankfully, for the purposes of this post I’ve come up with something a little better than that. My goal is to use the term in a different way in hopes that a couple concepts stick in your brain like a spike hyzer landing in soft, wet grass.

(Slight digression- feel free to skim past) Experience has shown me that being an effective disc golf instructor has two distinct components. First of all, of course, the techniques and concepts I communicate need to be valid and hopefully sometimes new and insightful. But equally important is the communication itself.

Excelling at a sport is no guarantee that a person will be any good at teaching that sport to others, even if that person has a good understanding of why he or she excels. If you can’t explain it to others in a way they can understand and internalize, you won’t have much success as a teacher. Part of this is a basic ability to communicate clearly- having a good vocabulary that can be adapted to a variety of different audiences. And then there is the careful selection and use of well-known (or sometimes original) metaphors, similes and sayings that will resonate and penetrate people’s long-term memory. Like a spike hyzer (or the use of the imagery of a spike hyzer, for all you literary buffs). And now on with the actual concepts I want to share- of which there are actually two.

You are a disc golf machine

The title of this post (Playing Disc Golf like a Machine-A well-oiled machine) offers a hint to the fact that the whole ‘well-oiled machine’ phrase can actually be co-opted to convey two distinct disc golf tips. We’ll first just tackle the idea of playing disc golf like a machine.

The idea here is not so much playing like a machine as it is focusing only on the shot you’re about to attempt in an automaton-like way. In other words, once you’ve decided what to do think only about the mechanics of your throw, not what’s at stake, or what might happen if you miss. In ball golf they refer to these thoughts about mechanics as ‘swing thoughts’ – the specific keys to proper form that you’ve found give you good results. For instance, when driving backhand remembering to rotate hips and shoulders, or when throwing sidearm to keep the wrist from turning over.

Ken Climo is the closest thing to a machine the sport of Disc Golf has ever seen. His unparalleled resume is matched only by his ability to focus only on the shot before him.
Ken Climo is the closest thing to a machine the sport of Disc Golf has ever seen. His unparalleled resume is matched only by his ability to focus only on the shot before him.

Another way to explain it is to use the stereotype of the science fiction robot. Superior intelligence untainted by emotions. I know some players think they can elevate their games by getting pumped up, or mad at themselves, but in golf this is rarely the case. For every time that guy runs off a string of good holes after throwing a fit over a missed putt, there are four or five times when his tantrum has the opposite effect.

Now picture a graph with a baseline that is ’emotional zero’. The goal should be what on an EKG machine would be called ‘flat-lining’. Not good at all on an actual EKG, but the ideal state for competing in a game like golf. (Side-note: notice I wrote ‘competing in’ just now rather than ‘playing’. This advice applies to situations where your score is the most important thing. If your only objective for the day is fun, then of course letting the emotions spike upward into the manic happy zone is encouraged.)

However, if you are focusing on score then flat-lining is what you want. Remember that a robot (a machine) is devoid of ALL emotion, not just anger or despair. Elation and excitement distract a player from focusing on good decision-making and mechanics just as much as negative emotions. (For more on this, check out this post from the past on controlling emotions. But finish reading this one first!)

Every machine is designed to perform a particular function, and that function is all it knows. We are not machines, of course, but our best and most consistent performance is realized when we can emulate them as closely as possible. Our thoughts during a round should always be related to performing the functions of a disc golf machine- specifically the next task in the queue: the next shot.

Since we’re not robots but complicated tangles of among other things hopes, fears, anxieties and excitements, we’ve no chance at succeeding at this 100 percent of the time. But being aware of when our thoughts stray outside that little box and shoving them back inside is the next best thing.

Getting back to the robot analogy, it occurs to me that when we talk of machines being able to think for themselves the term used is ‘artificial intelligence’. For the purposes of being a disc golf machine, then, staying locked onto our sole purpose of executing the next shot would show the opposite of that- or real intelligence. Right?

Well-oiled

Now that the ‘play like a machine’ concept is established, let’s examine the ‘well-oiled’ part. No, I’m not talking about the use of sunscreen, although that’s always prudent. And I’m definitely not referring to being ‘lubricated’ by pumping alcohol in the bloodstream.

This bit of common wisdom (which is applicable to all active sports that require fine motor skills) is an important caveat to the discussion above. Yes, by all means, play like a machine. But while focusing on those mechanics, make sure your form isn’t too mechanical. KnowwhatImean?

Terms like ‘smooth’, ‘fluid’, ‘loose’ and even ‘relaxed’ are all used in relation to this concept. Smooth as opposed to hurky-jerky. Loose rather than tight. Relaxed instead of anxious and nervous. And fluid, well, fluid more than the others is directly analogous to the imagery of a well-oiled machine. Picture water flowing downhill and conforming to the terrain, compared to rocks tumbling down that same hill.

Smooth follow-through and good balance are good indicators that you're playing like a well-oiled machine.
Smooth follow-through and good balance are good indicators that you’re playing like a well-oiled machine.

One final example would be the most obvious- the way motor oil keeps the piston in your car’s engine firing smoothly, rather than seizing up and causing you to . . .  shank your drive!

That’s my subtle way to bring the discussion back to disc golf.

So how do you make sure you play like a machine on one hand, but also stay loose, relaxed and fluid on the other? Well, first of all keep in mind that ‘play like a machine’ refers mostly to your mindset and ability to focus only on the things that enable to properly execute the shot, while the ‘well-oiled’ reference is a reminder to stay loose and relaxed at all times. They’re really two separate bits of advice that go together in a yin/yang kind of way.

When your mind gets too cluttered with all the things that go into good shot planning and execution (not to mention all the extraneous stuff a ‘machine’ would never factor in), it can create tension in your body in a very surreptitious kind of way. You might not feel it until it’s too late. Therefore preventative measures are often in order. Maybe you just perform a little last-second checkup to see if you’re feeling tight or loose- or just assume that a certain amount of tightness will always creep in and takes steps to prevent it. Ever see someone take a deep breath before every putt? Sure you have! That’s exactly what they’re doing. Flushing out the tension and letting the natural fluidity flow back in.

So there you have it. Play disc golf like a machine programmed for that singular purpose, eliminating everything else from your thought process. But don’t let that turn you into a Wizard of Oz Tin Man in need of an oil can. Loosen up and have fun!

The perfect playing partner, and the almost near-perfect round

Today was a good day.

More specifically, today was a very good disc golf day in the life of a player whose days of high-level competition are mostly behind him.

At the risk of boring those who could care less about the disc golf exploits of others I will recount my round today, because it gives me the opportunity of sharing yet another lesson on one the sport’s finer points. Specifically, we’ll examine what I think is the appropriate way to act when someone in your group is having a potentially personal-best, or-for-some-other-reason historical round.

A little backdrop: I had been camping with the family and hadn’t played DeLaveaga for almost a week. In that time, the baskets had been moved (some of them at least) for the first time in a couple months. Ten of the 29 baskets were in different spots than the last 20 or so rounds I’d played there.

My friend Asaf and I met for a casual round this afternoon, and for the sake of brevity I will tell you that he shot a +10, which is a little worse than his average and significantly above his recent scores of between +2 and +6.

The round started off for innocuously enough for me with a par on hole 1  (basket in the A position). But I did feel an energy, or strength, on the drive, and it gave me confidence to play Hole 2 aggressively. Hole 2 at DeLa is uphill and also a fairly sharp left dogleg with plenty of trees. As a left-hander it requires a technically near-perfect S-turn drive with premium power. I felt as I released it that as long as it didn’t roll away it would be good, and it was. Close enough to putt with the Ape driver that did the heavy lifting. Birdie number one on the day.

Hole 3 provided the first opportunity for a big putt. I pulled the drive left, leaving a 50-foot jump/straddle blocked by low limbs. Dead center, -2 after three holes.

This 50-footer from an obstructed lie on hole 3 slammed dead-center into the chains.

After a par on hole 4 in the short position (one of the new pin positions), I birdied 5, 6, 7, and 8 (the final of these while playing through a group from the Bay Area Chain Smokers clan- one of whom helped me out big-time in a School of Disc Golf event recently. Thanks Ryon!). Holes 5 and 6 required short ‘tester’ putts, while both 7 and 8 were in the 25-30 range. At this point I was -6 after eight holes and it was hard to ignore the fact that I was off to a rather hot start. It’s worth noting two things at this point: First of all, I try very hard to NOT keep track of my total score during my round. This has been well-documented in previous posts, so feel free to do a little research to understand why I am so passionate about this philosophy. Second, my friend Asaf was also well aware of my hot start, as he later revealed- yet he took pains even at this point to NOT comment on that fact. He is quite familiar with my efforts to not dwell on cumulative score during a round.

Holes 8A through 14 (six holes total) were all pars, but even that attests to the magic of this round. 8A and 10 were both missed birdie opportunities for me, but 9, 11, 12, and 13 are all holes on which I average more than par. Hole 9 is a tough lefty hole, but I played it safe. Hole 11 in the long-left position is tough for anyone, and for me today it required a tough, technical, lefty backhand skip-upshot with a Star Tern to save par. Hole 12 had just been moved to the long ‘Wind-chimes’ position, and I didn’t have the disc I would normally drive that hole with, an OOP, pre-Barry Schultz gummy Beast. I threw the Tern instead and hit the small gap left of the canyon to net a par.

Then I came to Hole 13. I-5. DeLaveaga was installed in the early 1980’s, a time when all disc golf holes were for the sake of consistency par 3. If DeLa were installed new today, hole 13 would today definitely be rated a par 4, but it is and now always will be par 3. For this reason, it is impossible to approach this hole bogey-free and not think about the significance of getting a par 3 here. It’s easily the toughest hole on the course in terms of par, so if you make it past 14 bogey-free, in theory the toughest obstacle has been conquered. Never mind the fact that there are 15 holes yet to go.

The view of this picture of Hole 13 at DeLaveaga is from behind the basket looking back to the fairway. Obviously the epitome of a guarded green. Add 500-plus feet of distance and this is one tough par 3. Photo by John Hernlund.
The view of this picture of Hole 13 at DeLaveaga is from behind the basket looking back to the fairway. Obviously the epitome of a guarded green. Add 500-plus feet of distance and this is one tough par 3. Photo by John Hernlund.

My drive on 13 was as usual a backhand lefty roller, and it was a good one. I got all the way through the flat, wide-open first half of the fairway before my roller began to turn over toward the steep, wooded canyon on the left. That’s important, because if it makes it far enough before cutting left there is usually at least a chance to eek out a par through the trees. Such was the case today, and my pinpoint upshot with my (secret weapon) soft Vibram Ridge gave me a 23-foot par putt which I was able to hit, keeping my unblemished round intact.

If Asaf made any notable comment or compliment after I hit that putt, I don’t recall it. He likely said something like ‘nice putt’, but I just don’t remember. That’s a pretty big deal in itself, because I’ve actually had people say to me when I was bogey free after hole 13, “Did you know you don’t have any bogies yet?” Now, I’m not truly superstitious, but jinxes aside, there are things that common sense should tell you not to say in certain circumstances. The last thing I want to hear from another player in a spot like that is a verbal reminder that I’m bogey-free.  To reiterate, a bogey-free round at DeLa is a big deal. Almost as rare for a player of any level as a no-hitter in baseball- which brings up another good analogy.

Before getting hooked on disc golf in the mid 90’s, I was (like Paul McBeth) an aspiring baseball player. And as all baseball players know, there are a numerous time-honored traditions. One involves how teammates treat a pitcher who is in the process of potentially recording a no-hitter. In baseball, as the outs and innings tick by, the pitcher’s teammates work harder and harder to avoid him. By the eighth and ninth innings no one will even sit near him in the dugout- much less engage him in conversation. Asaf has never played baseball, but he has  impeccable golf etiquette, and his instincts on how to react to my hot round were spot-on.

As I said, my par putt on 13 drew a perfectly measured response from Asaf. Hearty congrats for parring a hole that seeing may more 4’s than 3’s, but nothing to draw attention to the fact that I just cleared the biggest hurdle to carding a bogey-free round at DeLa.

Hole 14 was in the 2nd-toughest of it’s four possible pin placements, and after a drive good enough to get a pretty routine upshot for par, I kinda blew it. I hit a high limb trying for a high hyzer upshot and left myself 29 feet away. Feeling for the first time the full pressure of bogey-free potential, I hit the putt to keep hope alive. Asaf once again didn’t betray his recognition of the significance. I uncharacteristically celebrated, but I don’t recall him saying much of anything. I mentioned earlier that I’d had only four bogey-free rounds at DeLa in more than 20 years . . . well, I’ve made it past hole 13 only to get my first bogey on 14 at least 10 times. So that was a hurdle to clear as well.

Hole 15 was my first birdie in seven holes, hole 16 saw one of my longest drives there ever (400-plus feet in the air, but I missed the 40-foot putt), and hole 17 resulted in a birdie for both Asaf and me. Hole 18 and 19 were both pars for me, but Asaf birdied 18 so he took the teepad for the first time. I remember kind of liking that as it took the focus off me and my round.

On hole 20, which had just been moved to its right position, I likely came close to an ace. We couldn’t see the result from the tee, but my drive ended up just past the hole, 18 feet away. I birdied that  hole, as well as 21 and 22, a long drive across an OB road- which I based. Holes 23 and 24 were pars, which left me with what we refer to at DeLa as ‘The Hill,’ the final four holes that play up, across, and down a steep, rutted, and tree-filled slope.

Hole 26a at DeLaveaga looks simple enough from the tee, but a narrow fairway and steep drop-offs on both  the left and right mean drives need to be both very straight and fairly long. Photo by John Hernlund.
Hole 26a at DeLaveaga looks simple enough from the tee, but a narrow fairway and steep drop-offs on both the left and right mean drives need to be both very straight and fairly long. Photo by John Hernlund.

Hole 25 was recently moved short, which is a good thing, except that the short pin placement is close to an OB road to the right. For a guy throwing lefty backhand hyzer, at that position for the first time in months, it caused a good deal of consternation. My Vibram O-Lace came through, though, and the reliable grip enabled me to turn a big S-turn into a drop-in birdie. Asaf, in retrospect, was treating me more and more like radioactive material.

Hole 26 in the long is one of those holes where it’s nearly impossible to just ‘play it safe’ off the tee. I did what I normally do, got a good result, layed up as safely as possible for par (if you know this hole you know that there is no such thing as a routine par here) and thankfully kept my card clean for another hole. 27 holes down, two to go.

Hole 26a was added around 10 years ago – maybe longer – at a time when we were trying to ‘rest’ some environmentally sensitive holes like 17. The idea was to always have 27 available to play. It sits on a narrow ridge between the basket for 26 and the tee for 27, with steep DeLa-style drop-offs on both the left and right sides. 26a was one of the holes just moved- to it’s long position. I knew if would provide the final challenge to a bogey-free round, as hole 27 (normally Top of the World) to an ridiculously short position.

My drive on 26a, thrown with a Legacy Rival for stability and control, came out exactly as I wanted. However, at the end of its flight  it got caught by some Scotch Broom foliage in the fairway and left me with an obstructed 200-foot upshot. I did everything I could with my soft Ridge given the circumstances, and it came down to a 40-foot low ceiling look for par. My lean/jump-putt looked good most of the way, then hit the top nubs of the Mach X basket and fell unceremoniously to the ground. Bogey.

What happened next, though, was pretty cool. It was obvious that Asaf had been for many holes holding in the desire to show his support for my effort. We discussed what had been moments before taboo, then quickly moved to the fact that he could preserve a single-digit score by parring the final hole.

I was disappointed to lose the bogey-free round on the second-to-last hole, but also still aware that I had a pretty hot round going anyway. After my teeshot on 27 looked like another likely birdie putt and we were snaking out way down the 68 steps from tee to fairway, I mentioned that I thought I still might have a shot a double-digits under par. Asaf  replied that he thought I was easily at that mark, but I wasn’t sure. As I mentioned earlier, I try hard not to keep track of my total, and if I had to guess at that time, I would have guessed that I was either -9 or -10 at that point.

Turns out I was -12 when I missed my par putt on 26a, and then -12 after I hit my 13th and final birdie on 27. I tied my personal best (recorded in 2006), didn’t get the bogey-free round that really meant more to me, but still floated around the rest of the day basking in the glow.

The best and most lasting memory, though, will be of my conversation with Asaf afterward. He said that he was so aware of my round, from the hot start to the par on 13 and on, that he didn’t want to do anything to mess it up. He said it got to the point, on the last six or seven holes, that he didn’t even want to touch my discs. I hadn’t noticed that, but appreciated it with a chuckle after the fact. As an old baseball player – an old pitcher, in fact – I could not have not asked for anything more in a playing partner.

So the specific advice is this: when you’re playing with someone who has a hot round in the works, do like Asaf and refrain from any commentary that draws attention to the hotness of the round. If the player brings it up then you’re in the clear. But don’t be the one to raise the topic. In fact, generally speaking, you can never go wrong by limiting your narrative on other peoples’ shots (and your own for that matter). Let the game for the most part speak for itself, and use the time together to discuss other things.

How to drastically cut down on your short missed putts

Is there anything worse than missing a short putt? The kind that you make 90 or even 99 times out of 100 on the practice basket? Usually when that happens we know even a split second before the disc leaves our hand that we’re in trouble, and that says most of what we need to know about why we occasionally miss ridiculously short putt, and how to make sure it almost never happens.

Let’s touch on the mechanical issues first. Based on personal experience and what I see out on the course, the most common technical flaw that causes missed short putts comes from how some players change the putting stroke to adjust for shorter distances. Quite often players will try to ‘take something off’ their normal putting motion in an attempt to putt softer or simplify their form. That usually results in changes to the finish of the putting motion, and it’s exactly the wrong approach. All too often that approach results in putts missing low, high, left and right. Instead, to accommodate short putts that require less power, reduce movement in the front-end of your normal putting technique.

Ways to do this include using less lower body, not pulling the disc as far back (my favorite), and reducing the amount of armspeed as needed. But whatever you do, keep the form of your finish as consistent as possible- especially your follow-through. The most important part of a good, consistent putting stroke is the finish. Specifically, the follow-through. Good follow-through ensures that a player’s disc goes where it is being aimed (assuming the follow-through ends up pointed at the spot being aimed for). Check out this video tutorial demonstrating a great exercise that helps develop proper follow-through.

A good definition of follow-through in this context, by the way, is ‘continuing the putting motion even after the disc leaves your hand’. Take a look at pictures of top players putting, and you’ll see arm and even fingers fully extended at the target, usually rigidly straight, even when the disc is 10 feet out of the hand. That’s good follow-through.

Good, balanced follow-through eliminates most short misses.
Good, balanced follow-through eliminates most short misses.

Follow-through also adds a surprising amount of oomph to putts, and with short putts that can make the difference between hitting the front rim and just clearing it. In fact, the idea to write this post occurred yesterday during a crisp -11 at my local course, Black Mouse. I had an 18-foot putt on hole 11 for birdie, and at the very last second  I realized that I wasn’t giving it enough power to go in. I was able to exaggerate the follow through even more than usual, and that made all the difference as it barely cleared the front nubs.

Follow-through also helps eliminate misses to the left and right, and also putts that hit the top of the cage. Going back to the first point made about the problems caused by making changes to the finishing part of a putt, lets look at some specifics. When we do that, we’re really just guessing on a case-by-case basis, and the results are unpredictable. Early releases turn into misses on the weak side of the basket, and holding on to the disc too long causes players to ‘pull’ the disc and miss on the strong side. And everyone at one time or another has launched a short putt at a sharp upward angle and hit the top of the cage. %!#!*^!!!

The cure for all of these- really all mechanical flaws in short putts – is to keep the finish of the putt the same no matter the distance, and follow through the right way (and the same way) every time. This is true of all putts, but especially short putts, and the reason is simple: If you putt firmly and follow through at the center of the basket, the disc won’t have enough time/distance to stray off line. The firmness of the putt (it just needs to be hard enough that it flies on a straight line) is important as well. If you are a finesse putter, you still don’t want the short ones to have any curve or turn. With a firm, accurate line, even if you’re off a little with your aim, good follow-through will ensure that the disc bangs the chains before it has a chance to veer too far.

One final note about follow-through: Balance is a key to the aiming part of follow-through. If you’re not well-balanced and tend to fall or lean to one side or another as you release the disc, good follow-through won’t help much in terms of keeping the disc going in the right direction.

Now let’s examine the short putts that are missed due to mental lapses and neurosis. These are at least as frustrating as those caused by mechanical flaws, and luckily they are also just as preventable.

When I say ‘mental lapses’, I’m referring to those times we take for granted that we’ll make a putt of ‘gimme’ distance (which is different for everyone). Without even making a conscious decision to do so, we switch to autopilot and go through the motions while our brains are occupied with something completely different. Then we miss the putt and become immediately and painfully aware of the 100 percent preventable mistake we just made.

The cure for this kind of lapse is to have a putting routine and go through it on every putt in every round you play, whether practice or tournament, casual or for stakes. Once again I refer to those top pros who depend on the money they on tour to be able to stay on tour. Watch some tourney videos and you’ll see nearly all of them take a little time on even the shortest putts, knowing that each throw counts the same and each throw could directly impact their payout.

The other mental error that causes missed short putts is something I write about often- getting wrapped up in and dwelling on the ‘why’ of the putt rather than the ‘what’. In other words, thinking about why the putt is important, or why you can’t afford to miss it rather than simply what you need to do to properly execute. For one thing, negative thoughts lead to negative results, and even if the ‘why’ isn’t purely negative the fact remains that you can’t think about two things at once. And thinking about the ‘what’ is essential.

Confidence - or the lack thereof - can make all the difference on short 'tester' putts.
Confidence – or the lack thereof – can make all the difference on short ‘tester’ putts.

There is a certain distance putt (and the exact distance differs depending on each player’s skill and mentality) that is longer than a gimme but short enough that it’s a big disappointment if missed. When someone in our group is left with one of these, my friend Alan likes to say “there’s still some meat left on the bone”. Most players refer to these putts as ‘testers’, and they can mess with your head like no others if you let ’em.

Have you ever seen a movie with a dream sequence where a character looks down a hallway, and the end of the hall keeps stretching further and further away? In disc golf, this translates to testers that we really should make at least 80 percent of the time morphing into final exams that we forgot to study for. I have to admit that when my putting is a little off, these can really get to me. The problem is that when this happens my anxiety shifts my focus away from where in needs to be – on the ‘what’ – and at that point I’ll be lucky if the putt even accidentally goes in.

So what’s the remedy? First, be cognizant of those anxieties creeping into your head. Acknowledge that they’re there, then step back and re-focus. When it happens to me, which is usually, as I said, when my confidence is on vacation, I remind myself to trust the routine and technique. At times like that it’s usually a blind trust as I’m just not feelin’ it at all. But it almost always works, because after all, these testers are putts I should be making without too much trouble. By shifting my focus back to the routine I’m dissipating the doubts and anxiety that would otherwise derail me.

Missed short putts are almost always avoidable, which is why it stings so much when it happens. Hopefully the tips above can spare you some of that angst. And when that short miss eventually does come along (it will, it happens to all of us), instead of just getting disgusted with yourself, consider it a reminder of all the ways to prevent those mistakes in the future.

Lost discs: practical preventative steps to avoid that void in your bag

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Discs ain’t cheap- especially if everything you throw is premium plastic or rubber that runs $15 or more a pop. And we all own some that would fall into the category of ‘it’s not the money’; discs that are worked in just the way we want, discs that are out of production, in high demand, hard to replace, or have sentimental value. Equipment is part (albeit, in my opinion, a minor part) of what enables us to perform our best, and if our most important tool is suddenly gone, our game is likely to suffer.

For all these reasons, it makes sense to have a strategy to reduce the lost disc factor. Below is a collection of observations I’ve made over time and some changes I’ve made based on those observations.

Brand your discs like cattle

There is an unwritten rule in disc golf that a person is less obligated to try to find the owner of a found disc when it is completely devoid of a name, number, or identifying mark. So it naturally follows that unmarked discs get reunited with their owners far less often than those that are marked. But lets dig a little deeper. Everyone approaches labeling their discs a little differently, so what type of markings produce the best results in terms of getting back the lost little lambs?

This collection of discs from the author's bag show the consistency and readability of his 'personal branding'. Look closely, and you notice that some need a fresh coat, and the rare gummy Beast on top has the brand written backwards on the bottom so it shows correctly on top. Photo by Jack Trageser.
This collection of discs from the author’s bag show the consistency and readability of his ‘personal branding’. Look closely, and you’ll notice that some need a fresh coat, which they received right after the photo was taken. Photo by Jack Trageser.
  • Name and Contact Info- People who find your disc that are inclined to try to contact you personally can’t do that if you don’t put down some contact info. I used to list my email address in addition to my phone number but no one ever used it, so I just stick with the phone number. That way they can call or text, hopefully right when they find it. Both name and number should be large and clear on the top or bottom of the disc (not the inside rim). Make it big enough so it won’t get erased or obscured through wear-and-tear, it’s easy to read, and also discourages finders from becoming keepers (those who may be temped to erase it or write over it). In this photo of multiple discs, the lighter orange disc was lost, and a friend noticed my faded JACKT on a photo on eBay. The perpetrator had attempted to erase it but wasn’t quite successful (I re-did it, in a more creative manner for fun). Good thing, as I got that disc from Steady Ed himself and it still serves active duty as a finesse roller.
  • Personal Branding- This one has gotten me back numerous discs I would not otherwise have seen again. The key is to make sure the way you brand your discs is very consistent, and fairly large. People I play with even occasionally remember the way I write JACKT on the underside of all my discs, and get them back to me. I’ve had them spot my discs on the course, in Lost-and-Found, and even in the hands of other players! My favorite story along these lines was when someone I don’t know approached a friend of mine (RIP, Slingshot Steve) and asked “What do you think of this disc?” Steve, quickly spotting the JACKT, replied “I THINK it belongs to a friend of mine,” and snatched it out of the guy’s hand. The key is to come up with a way of writing your name that is readable, unique, and simple enough to replicate on each disc.
Even pretty see-through discs must be branded. The author writes backwards on the bottom so it reads correctly on top. Photo by Jack Trageser.
Even pretty see-through discs must be branded. The author writes backwards on the bottom so it reads correctly on top. Photo by Jack Trageser.
  • Practical over Aesthetics- Golf discs in your bag are there to do a job, not look pretty. I know it mars the beauty of a translucent disc to write your name on it in large, bold letters, but you gotta ask yourself what’s more important- Keeping the disc pristine, or keeping the disc . . . period? It’s like not wearing a helmet riding a motorcycle because you don’t want to mess up your hair. And no, I don’t think I’m over dramatizing (much) with that analogy- we’re talking about our discs here!

Natural (Disc) Selection

Whereas the first point dealt with retrieving discs from others who find them, this one concerns being able to find them after an errant throw. The color of a disc significantly impacts the chance of spotting it on the course. You players who frequent wide open courses, or courses where the terrain is all manicured, regularly mowed grass might feel they can ignore this section- but read on. Disc golfers love to travel to new courses, and chances are you’ll at some point play courses like the ones I frequent in Santa Cruz and Monterey, CA. Thick bushes and ground cover, tall grass and dense, gnarly trees abound, and that’s just on the fairways!

Seriously, though, playing here has forced me to take ‘spot-ibility’ into consideration when selecting discs. Whenever possible, I choose discs in solid, bright, unnatural colors. That way I can search for the color more than the shape of the disc. Kind of like those old natural selection experiments we read about in textbooks using white and dark moths and white and dark trees- except in reverse. The discs that stand out most are the ones that will survive.

Quick- how many discs do you see? Which one caught your eye first? Enlarge the picture if necessary. Especially when only the edge is showing, bright colors really make a difference. Photo by Jack Trageser.
Quick- how many discs do you see? Which one caught your eye first? Enlarge the picture if necessary. Especially when only the edge is showing, bright colors really make a difference. Photo by Jack Trageser.

Black, dark green, and any discs in earth tones that blend in with the terrain are obvious loss-risks (although manufacturers still make them and people still buy ’em). Another kind of easy-to-lose color is more surprising; even if the colors are bright and unnatural, tie-dye and really any multi-colored discs are hard to spot as well. The variegated patterns help them blend into nearly any background. Tie-dye shirts jump out at you, but not tie-dye discs. Go figure.

Bad Habits

We’ve covered a couple things you can do in preparation of playing to reduce lost discs. Now let’s examine a few habits and activities that tend increase the separation of player and disc.

Sometimes when we throw a really bad shot and know it immediately, it’s hard to watch. I really do think we sometimes turn away or cover out eyes not to be dramatic, but because it’s painful to see a well-planned shot gone bad. I’m guilty of this as much as anyone, and it’s a situation that sometimes leads to a lost disc. If I don’t see exactly where it lands I have less of an idea specifically where to start searching for it.

Where I play, hiding places are numerous and discs can get lost on even the most innocuous of throws. So I try hard to watch my disc closely, no matter how ugly the result. I try to remember to commit where it lands to memory, and if it disappears from sight before it comes to rest, I try to note the trajectory and some type of nearby landmark as a reference point to begin the search. The word ‘try’ was in italics because occasionally I note those things but forget them immediately, making the whole exercise pointless. The trick is to pay attention to where your disc goes and retain that information until it’s time to look for it.

Here’s another one. Ever thrown a drive – maybe just before dark, or warming up for a tournament right before it’s about to start – and get the impulse, because of the unsatisfactory results, to throw one more? A little voice warns ‘Don’t do it!’ but you ignore the warning, launch the disc, and almost immediately regret it. A disc golf version of ‘one too many’, it seems the odds of losing the disc in situations like this for some reason dramatically increase. The only advice here is to listen to that little voice, and remember that as Shakespeare wrote in Henry IV, ‘discretion is the better part of valor’. Let that disc live to fly another day.

A variation of this affliction is known as ‘throwing the bag’, in which one is impelled to throw every disc in one’s quiver- usually on a particularly awe-inspiring hole. Two things can go wrong here: Either you throw so many discs that you forget one in the search-and-rescue effort, or you throw so many that the odds that at least one gets lost increases. If you can’t resist throwing multiple discs on an irresistible hole, try to note and remember the location of each disc you throw. The odds that one of your babies gets lost on its own won’t go down, but at least you won’t arrive at the landing zone with that ‘uh-oh’ feeling.

The subject of playing new courses while traveling was mentioned above, but is worth revisiting. If you’re playing a course you’ve never played before – especially if you’re just passing through and likely not to return any time soon, and especially especially if you’re playing solo – consider leaving your most precious discs out of the bag. When you don’t know the course it’s much easier to lose a disc, and when you’re solo the odds of finding it go down. Having a local as a guide helps quite a bit, but if you do lose a disc on that faraway course, odds of having it returned are not great. Instead, bring some ‘stunt doubles’ that won’t hurt as much to lose. Your score may suffer a little, but that sting is temporary compared to the loss of a key disc.

As a side note, it should also go without saying that being in an altered state of mind is often a contributing factor to lost – or forgotten – discs. To each his or her own, but play straight-edge and you’ll be amazed at how many fewer discs you ‘lose’. Disc golf should be enough in and of itself, anyway.

Golfers can easily get attached ( and that’s an understatement) to their equipment. The difference is, ball golfers bond with clubs but it’s the balls that go flying away into the horizon. In disc golf, there is only the disc- and us disc golfers can bond with one mighty quick. If I can prevent just one separation of player and disc, then this post was worth the effort.

Subtraction by subtraction: Eliminating these mental errors will lead to lower scores

The term ‘addition by subtraction’ refers to the potential for improving something by removing one or more variable from the equation. In a sports context it’s normally applied to a scenario where the elimination of a negative factor (an under-performing player or negative influence on a team, for instance) results in some type of improvement. But in golf, less is more, right? We want those scores to go down, not up. Therefore, the title of this post is Subtraction by Subtraction. Same concept, but embracing the points below will result in strokes being subtracted from your average score. Got it? Okay, here we go!

Those angry, bitter second-attempt putts

When a missed putt is followed in rapid succession with another, almost always harder putt out of anger or disgust, nothing good can come of it. The thought right before that action is taken is usually something along the lines of “I can’t believe I just missed that #*$^@* putt!” The specific reason that anger translates to firing another disc at the basket has never been scientifically proven, but I suspect it has to do with the general desire to throw something at something when frustrated.

The problem is that this rash act is detrimental to one’s game in a couple different ways. First of all there is the issue of emotional control. Getting overly excited (due to negative events or positive events) is likely to take a player’s focus off of where it needs to be. Decisions then get made based on emotions rather than logic, which is not a good thing. That tendency is always lurking in the shadows if not already romping around freely, and an emotional outburst is like a size 14 wide foot-in-the-door.

It may be easier to stay calm in Hawai'i, but angry second putts are never a good thing. Photo by Al Schwartz.
It may be easier to stay calm in Hawai’i, but angry second putts are never a good thing. Photo by Al Schwartz.

The other issue at play here is the fact that players who make this mistake are in essence reinforcing bad technique- unless firing the putter with extreme malice is how he always putts. Regardless of whether the rash second putt goes in the basket or not, it serves no constructive purpose since it isn’t representative of the players ideal form and tempo. If you’re playing a casual round or a match play event where practice putts are not prohibited, and you take an extra putt or two not as an angry reflex but because you immediately recognized a flaw in your putt and want to iron it out, that’s completely different. In that case the behavior is constructive and completely fine.

Second guessing vs. analytical reflection

As a general rule, the proper thing to be thinking about during a round of disc golf is the next shot. Any other thoughts are unproductive at best, and capable of downright sabotage at worst. But we are not machines, and our minds will go where they will go. The trick is to recognize when it has wandered into the wrong zone and guide it back to the right one: the next shot.

And briefly reflecting on the shot just thrown is a good practice, as long as that reflection is brief and of an analytical nature rather than simple second guessing. Personally, I like to capture the details of the shot and the results like a snapshot in my mind, move on to the next shot, then analyze the notable ones (good and bad) later after the round. Whether you do it briefly during the round, afterward, or both, the key is to approach your review and appraisal in a constructive frame of mind. Collect information rather than passing judgement.

Why did the disc fly that way? What should I do differently next time? Second guessing is just dwelling on the past. If your reflections on an errant throw stop there they serve no constructive purpose, and worse, erode confidence in both your skills and your decision-making. Instead, use every throw as an opportunity to add to an ever-growing database that helps you benefit from each disc golf experience.

Selecting shots based on wishful thinking

A major element of playing smart golf is to know your own game. Don’t confuse confidence with wishful thinking. You may really, really want to clear that lake with your drive, but if your longest throw ever was 350 feet in perfect conditions and a 345-foot drive is required to reach the opposite shore it probably isn’t the wisest choice. Smart golf is about, to loosely paraphrase Clint Eastwood, knowing your limitations.

A big part of game management in golf is being able to quickly assess the percentages for any given shot. What is your chance of successful execution? What is the reward if you do- and the repercussions if you don’t? If you’re not able to make a realistic and sober assessment of your own capabilities, assessing accurate odds on a shot is nearly impossible.

Selecting shots based on another player’s throw

A similar and fairly common error that is even more insidious in the way it can creep into one’s thoughts is letting the shot of another player influence decision-making. This can happen on drives, putts and anything in between. Sometimes it’s seeing someone else get big distance then overthrowing to equal it. Other times it’s seeing a different approach or route and reconsidering what you had planned. And yet others it’s pure, uncomplicated ego. You were planning to lay up a tricky 35-foot putt, but the other guy goes for his that happens to be five feet longer and just as risky- and nails it.

Make a decision and stick with it- despite what the other guy does. Photo by Jack Trageser.
Make a decision and stick with it- despite what the other guy does. Photo by Jack Trageser.

In some of these situations the alternative actually makes sense, but all too often last minute changes-of-mind based on another player’s shot result in disaster- regardless of whether they make sense or not. Trust your own instincts and play your own game. It’s you against the course (and the occasional unruliness of your own mind). Sometimes actually sticking to this advice may require drastic measures. There have been times where I’ve been grouped with players that all had more power off the tee than me, and I purposefully didn’t watch their drives so as not to be influenced!

The ‘ol Over-Correct and the ol’ Double-Adjust

Everyone is guilty of this one at one time or another, and correcting it is not so much a matter of eliminating a bad habit as increasing awareness of when it’s most likely to happen.

Some ‘mis-throws’ stick with me longer than others, and I’m guessing I’m not alone. And when I am faced with a similar circumstance with that mistake fresh in my mind, the overriding thought in my mind is ‘don’t make the same mistake this time’. For example, I might have tried to throw a neutral-stable disc with an intended flight path of flying straight for the first half of the flight and then turning over the rest of the way without coming out and hyzering back at the end. Instead, the disc turns over too soon and flies right into the trees I intended to get past then curve around.

The next time I’m faced with that same shot or a similar one, I remember the earlier mistake and am focused almost exclusively on not repeating it. There are two different reactionary flaws that can result from this: the ‘ol over correct and the ol’ double correct. The over correct is a scenario that is usually immediately apparent to the player when it happens- like chucking the disc 50 feet past the basket on a short hole because it came up 25 feet short the last time.

The ‘ol double correct, on the other hand, is a little more complex. Consider the example above- the one where the disc turned over too soon. With this shot, there are a number of different ways I might try to affect a different outcome. I could start the disc on a more conservative line, or give it more elevation, or less spin . . . or even throw a different disc. Any one of these might work, with the key word being ‘one’. Sometimes rather than thinking sharply and clearly about the problem and arriving at a specific solution, I let all of those possibilities float around in my head and end up employing two or more of them. For instance, I might throw the disc a little higher and take a little off of it, resulting in a shot that never turns over at all.

The central theme in this type of mental error, and the habit to avoid, is focusing on the mistake rather than the necessary elements of the same shot executed correctly. Turn ‘don’t do this’ brain commands into ‘do this’ commands. And that brings us to one final point, the broader problem of negative brain commands.

Negative brain commands

These come in many different flavors (including the ones just mentioned), but my favorite example is thinking to yourself ‘don’t hit that tree’. The better objective, of course, is ‘throw the disc right in the middle of that space between that tree and the bushes to the left of it.

If your thought is ‘don’t hit that tree,’ the brain, for some reason can’t process it successfully. Either it just hears the last three words (‘hit that tree’), or it can’t discern the logic of not doing something. It knows that the only way to be certain to not hit the tree is to not throw the disc. Yet the disc must be thrown, so it turns more into a hope than a confident plan. Out of all the mental errors listed here, this one might be the simplest to catch and correct. Whenever you notice yourself speaking or thinking about shot selections and objectives phrased in the negative (hint: the word ‘don’t’ is almost always involved), take the time to replace it with the positive alternative.

All of the things listed here are logical and difficult to argue with, I think, but agreeing with the logic doesn’t make it easy to eliminate the mistakes. The best advice is to learn to be more conscious of all the thoughts floating through your head and find ways to replace them, or better yet prevent them from showing up in the first place. The example I gave of not watching my competitors’ drives so I wouldn’t automatically overthrow trying to match them is only one of the little devices I’ve created. For me, overcoming these mental flaws is half the fun of the game.

5.5 different reasons to practice putting in disc golf

Conventional wisdom says putting is a crucial facet of any successful  golfer’s game- and conventional wisdom is correct. No one who has ever spent a round crushing long, accurate drives only to score poorly because he couldn’t hit a putt would argue. Yet few players practice putting with a purposeful, regular routine.

If you’re reading this you are likely someone that has at least a moderate desire to shoot lower scores on the disc golf course. Therefore, if you’re not systematically working to improve your putting skills and consistency, the question is why?

One logical answer is that you’ve never heard a specific reason or reasons that resonated strongly enough with you personally. It’s one thing to agree with the logic in a general, vague sort of way and quite another to be able to connect the dots with a straight line that leads directly to a result you value highly. Therefore, the below 5.5 reasons to practice putting in disc golf are presented as a means of motivating more players to create and stick to a putting practice routine.

1. Getting better & scoring better

This is the main reason to practice anything in sports. The bottom line. The ultimate quantification to judge whether practice is translating into desired results. It’s also where most players’ understanding of why they should practice begins and ends. In this case, we practice putting because the better the putting success rate in a given round, the lower the score. This is observable, cause-and-effect, incontrovertible truth. Hit the putt and you’ve successfully completed that hole and can move on to the next one. Miss it, and (at least) one more stroke is added to your score.

Which brings us to the relationship between practicing putting and improving one’s putting success rate in actual rounds of disc golf. Have you ever thought beyond the fact that practicing something makes you better at it, and asked yourself why? In golf, due to its unique psychological components, the explanation goes much deeper than simple cause-and-effect. Consider the next 4.5 points, which are really sub-points to this first no-brainer. Also, take note of how they either build on or connect to the other sub-points as well as this first basic fact.

2. Confidence

Naturally the more you practice something, the better you should get at it- with ‘better’ in this context being defined as being successful more often (making more putts). Nothing gives a person confidence they can accomplish something like knowing they’ve accomplished it many times before. Therefore, practice should result in improvement, improvement is defined by more made putts, and more made putts will naturally increase confidence in future putts.

The second part of the maxim ‘Practice like you play, and play like you practice’ alludes to this. If you’ve put in the practice hours and repeatedly experienced what it feels like to hit that 20-footer, when it comes time to do it in a round you’ll be armed with greater confidence. ‘Play like you practice’ is meant to be a reminder during a round that you’ve made this putt many times in practice, so just do now what you do in practice.

This point probably isn’t a big revelation to you either. Naturally experiencing more and more success will give a person increased confidence. But what, specifically, does that mean? Are there additional, ‘collateral’ benefits as well? Turns out there are!

Practice results in confidence, and confidence results in more made putts. Photo by Rebecca Stark.
Practice results in confidence, and confidence results in more made putts. Photo by Rebecca Stark.

2.5 Stress reduction/emotional energy conservation

The mental game is key to success in any sport, and in golf it’s nothing short of crucial. Confidence is one component of a good mental approach to golf, for reasons stated above. It gives a player the belief she can make the putt she’s about to attempt, enabling her to credibly visualize the successful attempt. But it also benefits the player through something that it eliminates or greatly reduces- namely stress.

Players who get emotionally invested in a competitive event (tournament, tag round, whatever) have a palpable yearning for success on each throw. With that comes an equally strong negative reaction when things don’t go well. Without confidence, this translates in putting (especially on putts we think we should make) to a dread of missing. Being able to conjure up the memory of thousands of made putts of the same distance during practice time and previous rounds acts like Valium or Xanax on this kind of stress.

This is very important over the course of an entire round, much less a tournament spanning three or four rounds! Playing focused golf for hours at a time requires an enormous amount of mental focus and emotional energy, and stressing out over every throw quickly takes a toll. Practice results in confidence, and confidence results in less stress (and less misses, which also means less stress).

3. The inverted pyramid effect on shot selection

Smart disc golfers always consider the ramifications of the next shot before they decide on a disc, route, or approach. A basic example would be a right-handed player throwing backhand not choosing a super overstable disc on a left-to-right dogleg with a lake all along the left side of the fairway. That’s using logic to determine that a disc which will hook left into the lake is not a smart play. This logic extends to other variables as well, and the player’s capabilities should always be among them.

This inverted pyramid illustrates how all other types of disc golf shots are dependent upon and affected by one's putting game.
This inverted pyramid illustrates how all other types of disc golf shots are dependent upon and affected by one’s putting game.

In this sense shot selection is like an inverted pyramid with putting at the tip of the pyramid and driving at the base (which in this case is on top, since it’s inverted or upside-down- see illustration). With each shot selection determined at least in part by what the player is realistically able to execute on the following throw, the options on an upshot and sometimes on a drive are based on the player’s putting ability. Consider the following example:

You shanked your drive on a par 3 hole into the rough, and are looking at numerous trees and bushes between you and the basket, which is only 80 feet away. There are several routes to consider, with none of them being routine. You’re obviously hoping to get up and down for a par. If you have confidence in your ability to hit putts from 25 feet and in, you can imagine a 50-foot diameter circle with the basket in the center, then look for the highest percentage route that gets you anywhere within that circle (route B in the diagram).

In this diagram, route A can get you right to the basket, but it'll be tough for even a very skilled player to pull off and odds of execution are small; Option B is a more realistic option in terms of executing the shot, but will only get you within 25 feet of the basket.
In this diagram, route A can get you right to the basket, but it’ll be tough for even a very skilled player to pull off and odds of execution are small; Option B is a more realistic option in terms of executing the shot, but will only get you within 25 feet of the basket.

If you don’t have any confidence in your ability to make putts (but still hoping to save par), you’ll instinctively limit your consideration of routes to one that will let you get right to the basket (route A)- even if the odds of executing that upshot are small.

So in this case, practice results in confidence, which in turn results in more options on the preceding upshot, which results in choosing a higher-percentage shot, which results in a putt you can make due in part to confidence, due in large part to practice. And to take it a step further, the stress reduction mentioned in 2.5 also applies to your reaction to shanking your drive, because you had the confidence that you’d at least save par due to the fact that your upshot only had to get within 25 feet of the basket (hey, you hit those putts all the time in practice!). That’s the inverted pyramid on shot selection.

4. Psychological warfare (but the pacifist kind)

Disc golf is a played largely within your own mind (see famous Bobby Jones quote), as it’s just you against the course and the elements. It never pays to get wrapped up in what competitors are doing or saying, or how they are playing. Competitively, when it comes to other players the best thing you can do find is a way to enclose yourself in a bubble and allow only neutral interactions with others inside (like reporting scores on a hole, or responding politely but succinctly to casual chit-chat). If others can’t help getting wrapped up in you and your game, though, it’s no fault of yours. And the truth is, some players (to their detriment) allow their game to be affected by the play of others.

When such players see a competitor who not only hits most of his putts but seems to know he’s going to hit the putt as soon as he places his mini on the ground, it can get to them.

In this case practice leads to confidence, confidence leads to less stress, less stress leads to a calm, controlled demeanor, and that ‘never let ’em see you sweat’ demeanor leads to added stress for the other guy. Don’t feel bad! It’s not like you were trying to psyche the guy out. You’re just playing your game. What he perceives and how he reacts is his deal.

5. Muscle memory

This one has much more science to back it up. The Wikipedia entry for muscle memory has a great, succinct definition of the term which says in part “When a movement is repeated over time, a long-term muscle memory is created for that task, eventually allowing it to be performed without conscious effort. This process decreases the need for attention and creates maximum efficiency within the motor and memory systems.” Go to the wiki page if you want to understand exactly how it works, or just accept it as fact. The more you practice something (assuming you get to the point where you’re doing it correctly and getting the results you want), the easier and more automatic it will become. In a sense, muscle memory is part of the confidence that grows from practice, or at least it is the fertile soil that gives it the best chance to grow.

I guess there is one more reason to practice putting. Fun! Have you ever seen the bumper sticker that says ‘The worst day fishing is better than the best day working’? If you love to play disc golf, committing 15 minutes a day to practice putting in a purposeful way can’t be too much of a sacrifice. This post isn’t about what kind of routine yields the best results, or which routine makes it the most fun or interesting. This is all about helping you to understand the many reasons it’s worth the while.

Bringing some Ben Franklin wisdom to disc golf: When in doubt . . . don’t!

“When in doubt . . . don’t.”

Golf had barely made its way to the United States during Benjamin Franklin’s lifetime, otherwise I’d be inclined to think that the above quote, taken from his Poor Richard’s Almanac, came to him while playing a round. I also believe that Franklin, if born into a world where both ball golf and disc golf existed, would undoubtedly have chosen the later. Add that to the long list of reasons why he is by far my favorite among the founding fathers.

I could write an entirely separate post listing and elaborating on the reasons he would favor disc golf – chief among them it’s accessibility to people of all classes and the endless intriguing flight path possibilities of a flying disc. But that is for another day. Let’s focus on that quote, and how it applies to disc golf.

When in doubt . . . don’t.”

I like to think the best interpretation of this nugget of wisdom in the golf world is this: In order to execute any shot successfully – and especially the most difficult ones – 100 percent conviction is a must. You can’t be waffling on which way to play it and expect things to turn out well. Let’s look at a couple examples:

Example 1

You’re 30 feet away from the basket with a downhill putt where the terrain continues to slope down behind the basket with a lake at the bottom. You know this hole well, and as you approach your lie you think of the many times you’ve hit this putt and others like it.

Despite the treacherous backdrop, you’re thinking ‘go for it. I got this.’

You place your mini on the ground and begin to line up for the putt when thoughts of the possible results of a miss begin to creep into your mind.

A player attempts a comeback putt on hole 18 at Winthrop Gold in Rock Hill, SC after missing his downhill birdie run. Photo by Jack Trageser.
A player attempts a comeback putt on hole 18 at Winthrop Gold in Rock Hill, SC after missing his downhill birdie run. Photo by Jack Trageser.

“If I miss the basket entirely I’ll probably roll away down the hill. But maybe not . . . but, probably . . .  “

“A soft, lofty putt will be less risky.”

“If I make this I’ll be leading two two strokes, and if I take a bogey here we’ll be tied.”

All of these thoughts would qualify as doubts, or at least distractions that arise from doubt, that if present in your mind as you’re about to attempt a shot should throw up a huge red flag that reads “DON’T!”

Example 2

Your drive on a fairly wooded par 3 hole smacks an early tree and comes to rest in a spot that leaves you with two clear options. The first is to pitch out safely through a wide gap to your left, which will leave you with an easy upshot of 80 feet. The other option is a narrow gap in the trees directly between you and the basket 100 feet away that you believe you can get through cleanly. You want to save par, but you’re not quite decided yet and now it’s your turn to throw. You need to make a decision right away. The following thoughts float your brain in rapid succession:

“I don’t want to just concede the bogey .  . . I can hit that hole! If I don’t get through cleanly, I might not even be able to get up and down for a bogey . . . If I do hit that hole, how long will the putt for par be? I think I can get through that gap, and then I’ll at least have a chance to save par . . . “

Choices abound on this shot. Hit an early branch and this player may be just as stymied on his next shot. Whatever he decides, there is no room for doubt. Photo by Jack Trageser.
Choices abound on this shot. Hit an early branch and this player may be just as stymied on his next shot. Whatever he decides, there is no room for doubt. Photo by Jack Trageser.

In this case your initial reaction was likely based on emotion more than analysis. You’re ticked off that you hit that tree and want to save par to ‘erase’ the mistake, so your first impulse is to look for how that might be accomplished (“I can hit that hole!”) As your logical brain has time to process, though, it begins to come up with reasons why the risky option isn’t the best choice, and these reasons represent doubt.

Example 1 and example 2 are both situations where it would be wise to take Benjamin Franklin’s pithy advice of ‘When in doubt . . . don’t’. There are differences between the two, but also one important similarity.

In example 1, the choice is clear-cut: either go for it and risk the roll-away, or play it safe and lay up. You initially intend to go for the birdie, which may or may not wise in and of itself. But good or bad judgement and game management are not the issue here. We’re talking about doubt, and once you’ve made your mind up any doubt that creeps in needs to be acknowledged and acted upon. Nine times out of 10 this means stepping back and switching to the safer play. (On that 1-out-of 10 exception, when it’s a shot you really need to make or should have no problems with, you still need to ‘own’ the existence of the doubts and do your best to clear your mind of them and recommit to your choice.)

In example 2, you haven’t ever really made your mind up. You’ve been debating the options from the time you saw your lie until right before you’re expected to throw. You’re trying to talk yourself into the risky play due to an emotional response, but the logical side of you demands to be heard as well. I suppose this is more uncertainty than doubt, but it amounts to the same thing: attempting a shot without full commitment and attention, when it requires both.

In both cases, as with every shot in golf, successful players follow a specific sequence for every shot: First evaluate the situation and options, next make a decision and commit fully to that decision, and finally, execute that decision with 100 percent conviction and focus. You can’t expect to be consistently successful unless you do all three, in that order. There will of course be times when doubt creeps in. One’s own thoughts are slippery and hard to harness. But when that happens . . . when in doubt . . . DON’T!

Remember, ‘discretion is the better part of valour.’ Wait, that’s Shakespeare’s quote, not Franklin’s, so forget I mentioned it.

If you want another Ben Franklin quote that can be applied to golf, consider ‘Honesty is the best policy’ or ‘He that is good for making excuses is seldom good for anything else’. I’m tellin’ ya, Ben Franklin would have loved disc golf.