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.

Gap Analysis: The science and art of navigating trees in disc golf

Many playing companions over the years have heard me mutter “I see holes” out loud at some point in my pre-shot routine during a round of disc golf. It’s a ‘go-to’ phrase of mine, and has been for probably 15 years. Some ask why I say those particular words when getting ready for certain shots, and they get the answer(s) you’re about to read below.

The funny thing about this particular mantra is that I use it for two distinctly different reasons- yet the two reasons often blend together. And the place where the two meet – the axis of risk/reward assessment (a scientific approach) and more nebulous subjects like positive thinking and confidence (closer to an art than a science) – is really the essence of the mental side of golf. As always, this is best explained through the use of specific examples, which we’ll get into, but first a brief explanation of the two reasons for “I see holes!”

The history of this mantra for me was the light bulb-over-the-head realization that even on shots where the trees and other obstacles seem so numerous that throwing a disc cleanly through and past them is impossible, it’s rarely as bleak as that. In fact, when you consider the overall area covering a particular flight path you’re hoping to take, the gaps between the trees usually represent a much larger portion of the total space than the obstructions.

After this fact became apparent to me, I would chant “I see holes” as a way to remind myself to think about and visualize a clean flight rather than dreading the relatively few disc whacking trees it had to pass. In this context it’s really just positive thinking and positive imagery, and the mantra is a way to keep my thoughts focused on the good things that I plan to happen rather than the bad things that might occur. And it really works! That’s how it started out when the phrase first popped into my head. But it was only a matter of time before my analytical side dissected the magical effectiveness of ‘I see holes’.

Ironically, as explained above my little mantra started out as a vague positive-thinking mind trick. And I’m convinced it works. But sometimes I find myself with so many trees between my lie and the basket (or whatever fairway spot I’m aiming for) that even a positive thinker along the magnitude of Stuart Smalley would have a hard time ‘seeing holes’. I’m talking about situations where I know that realistically the chances of getting through clean on the ideal line are less than 50 percent. At times like that I’m forced to choose between (to use a technical term) the least suck-y option.

When it’s time to select from different options on the golf course, the scientific side of me kicks in. Thoughts of percentages and risk/reward kick in. You would think that would preclude the nebulous realm of ‘I see holes’, but the mantra actually has a place here as well. This time, though, the more applicable adjectives are ‘practical,’ ‘sensible’, and the more golf-specific ‘high-percentage’. Depending on the situation, there are a couple different applications for this approach.

Searching Far and Wide

When your direct path to the target is blocked, look for gaps to the left and right that offer the best alternatives. Sometimes, as in Example 1 (click on the image to get a better view), you can hit the gap with a shot that will curve toward the target after it passes through. Other times the layout won’t allow for anything but a straight shot. Either way, though, it’s better to get most of the way there than aim for a tiny slot and hit something right in front of you.

Sometimes the best gap to aim for does not present a direct route to the target. But in tight spots the thing to look for is the best chance to get past the obstacle. Photo by Jack Trageser.
EXAMPLE 1: Sometimes the best gap to aim for does not present a direct route to the target. But in tight spots the thing to look for is the best chance to get past the obstacle. In this case the player needed to throw a shot that curved left after clearing that gap. Photo by Jack Trageser.

The ‘General Area’ Gap

This approach usually applies to instances where the obstacles in question are not right in front of you but further away, and evenly distributed, so that there is no single gap that is the clear choice.

In situations where I see what appears to be a wall of trees blocking my route that is far enough away that aiming for one particular small gap isn’t feasible I try to identify the least-dense section of that wall. Kind of like an attacking army would look for the weak spot that is most vulnerable. To be clear, I’m not talking about finding a single gap between two trees. In the situation I’m describing, the objective is to identify, aim for and hit a general area that offers the least resistance to a disc that wants to pass through relatively unmolested.

In a sense, I’m trying to find the one realistically hittable zone where there are more open spaces than trees (‘I see holes!’). A key point is that in situations like these I have shifted my goal away from selecting the shot that can get me all the way to the target – because there is either no realistic option for doing so or the chances that I’ll succeed are extremely low –  to selecting the shot that has the best chance to advance the disc as far as possible.

Example 2 (again, click on the image to get the necessary larger view) shows two gaps- one on the left of the photo, and one on the right. The gap on the right is the more direct route to the basket (hidden behind the trees on the right), and it is also a ‘true’ gap in the sense that a perfectly accurate throw will definitely get through. However, I chose to aim for the general area circled on the left for the following reasons: 1- even though a couple skinny tree trunks cut through the area, the overall area is much larger than the single gap on the right, and my odds of getting through are better; 2- the gap on the left provides a better worst-case scenario as there are no early trees to hit on the way to the gap (notice the early trees on the right side on the route to the gap on the right); and 3- as a left-hander throwing a backhand shot, if I get through the gap on the left with the throw I want, it will skip-hyzer right, in the direction of the basket. The right gap would require me to throw a shot that stays perfectly straight for 200-plus feet- a difficult feat to say the least.

We’ve covered a lot of ground in this article, hopefully filling a few ‘gaps’ (couldn’t resist) in your strategic and mental game. Here is a quick list of the important take-aways:

  • Most of the time, even when it seems like there are lots of obstacles in the way, it’s mostly open space (holes, you see). Focusing on the space rather than the other stuff will enable you to hit those gaps more often. In other words . . . visualize success!
  • When you find yourself hemmed into a particularly tight spot, take a wide view of all your possibly escape routes. If all the more direct paths to your target require hitting tiny openings with an unlikely perfect throw, settle for a higher-percentage throw that at least allows you to make some progress.
  • When your obstacles are further away and no single gap stands out as the obvious route to take, look for a general zone that is the most open. Then target that large zone and revert to the first bullet point: think positive!

You Make the Call

In the last photo – Example 3 – there are three routes circled. If you open the full image you can see that the basket is shown in the middle of the center gap. The question I have for you, the reader, is ‘Which gap would you choose (the right rough on hole 10 at DeLaveaga, by the way), and why’? Please use the Comments link at the end of this post to provide your answer. I’ll wait a few days for the answers to come in, then I’ll post a comment with the route that I took, and why.

In this photo the basket is to the right, behind the wall of trees. The gap on the right- despite the fact that several small tree trunks criss-cross the opening - is still the best option for the left-handed thrower. Photo by Jack Trageser.
EXAMPLE 2- In this photo the basket is to the right, behind the wall of trees. The gap on the right- despite the fact that several small tree trunks criss-cross the opening – is still the best option for the left-handed thrower. Photo by Jack Trageser.
On this one you get to make the call. Would you go for: A-the gap on the left; B- the gap in the middle; or C- the gap on the right? And most importantly, why? Vote in the comments section below. Photo by Jack Trageser.
EXAMPLE 3- On this one you get to make the call. Would you go for: A-the gap on the left; B- the gap in the middle (note, the basket is in the middle of this gap); or C- the gap on the right? And most importantly, why? Vote in the comments section below. Photo by Jack Trageser.