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.