The Comfort Trap
Two golfers meet each other for the first time. They don’t know each other but they discover that they have the game of golf in common. and the first question that is invariably asked: what is your handicap? it is always the same!
Have you ever fallen foul of the phenomena of ‘the turn’? By the turn, I mean what often happens to us as we cross from one nine to the another in a competitive round of golf. Yet, if you consider it and dig just a little deeper into the conversation, what is the real question in this interaction. what is your handicap? The subtext behind this question is obvious: am i better than you or are you a better player than me! all golfers do this; in the time it takes to ask that straightforward question, we instantly put other people in some sort of category. so what handicap are you?
are you happy with that? Do you feel that you have reached your true potential as a golfer? how long have you been on or around that handicap?
I have always been fascinated by the fact that after a couple of years playing golf, most people level out and pretty much remain at the same handicap their entire golfing career. Why is that?
Why do we find it so difficult to break through our own personal barriers to improve? Obviously, the time we have to practice and natural talent have a part to play but is that all? Is there not something a little more devious going on a little bit below the surface?
I personally think there is and it has a lot to do with how that lump of grey matter between our ears is wired up in us all. Before we get onto that though, just a couple of thoughts and one exercise.
Have you ever fallen foul of what I call the phenomena of ‘the turn’. By the turn, I mean what often happens to us as we cross from one nine to another in a competition round. Let’s say you play off a handicap of 10. How many times have you played great golf on the front nine, let’s say you have only dropped one of your ten shots after nine holes. You make ‘the turn’ and then somehow, someway, you manage to find a way of dropping ALL of your ten shots in the remaining nine...and perhaps a few more just for good measure!
The converse scenario is also probably familiar to many of you; you play the front nine holes like you have never held a golf club in your life but then, as you cross over from one nine to the next, some alien being swoops down to inhabit your body and you play the back nine in level par! How does that happen? It just doesn’t make any real sense because, as we know, our golf swing just cannot change that much.
What is going on? Well, by the end of this feature, I hope you will feel you have the answer and – more importantly – a strategy to deal with this.
Next, I want you to do a simple exercise. Think of the course you play most often. Your home course, most likely. Then, starting at the first hole and going through all 18, I want you to write down your lowest score on each of the 18 holes.
Now have a good look at that number. Surprising, isn’t it?
And then ask yourself the following question: if you are capable of shooting these scores on an individual basis – because it is YOU who has made these scores – why is it that your regular overall score is so high in comparison to your eclectic score?
Again, on the surface, it doesn’t make much sense. But if we dig a little deeper we find some interesting thoughts emerging. Basically, as human beings, our brains are wired in part for ‘familiarity’ – it goes back to the days when we roamed around in caves and each and every day was a success if you survived that single day. To know things around you were familiar and could be trusted meant your chances of survival increased. A part of us is definitely wired to explore and seek out new experiences but in a lot of people, the need for familiarity is probably the strongest pull.
We can see this in many things we all do in everyday life. One good example is what I call the Korma Phenomenon! We go into an Indian Restaurant and we tell people we just love Indian food, we get hold of the menu, have a look at the 380 different options on that menu – and then what happens?
The Chicken Korma phenomena takes over! We have all those options but our brain just has to go for what is FAMILIAR and SAFE.
Not unlike the feeling we get when we are one over after nine holes playing off ten. It feels unfamiliar, it feels uncomfortable and though this makes no sense whatsoever to the logical mind, the only way to get rid of those uncomfortable feelings is to throw all of those shots away and get back into our COMFORT ZONE.
The principle of the comfort zone holds so many of us back in so many areas not just golf. One of the ultimate examples of comfort zones comes from athletics. If you go back to the 1950’s, the Four Minute Mile was considered the ‘Impossible Dream’. It was, in fact, considered so out of the question at that time.
There was an urban myth in the 1950’s which suggested they thought if a human being ran a mile in less than four minutes there was a possibility that the body could explode! Now, as crazy as that sounds, just picture yourself in the 1950’s and your discipline is the mile. You are absolutely flying around that track, so fast in fact there is a POSSIBILITY you could break the Four Minute Mile BUT nobody has been there before you and there is just a slight seed of doubt that if you do, your body would explode! What is not going to happen? You are probably not going to go into unfamiliar territory and you are also battling with the common belief that this is an ‘Impossible Dream’.
Well, of course, one man didn’t believe it to be impossible. Roger Bannister was a medical student who obviously thought the myth of the exploding body was nonsense. He thought about the problem, the task of the four minute mile very differently. Apparently, he didn’t look at the four minutes as he said that didn’t seem too much time, he looked at the discipline as being 240 seconds. He felt looking at it that way gave him a different mindset. He, of course, broke the four minute mile and then, within a week, John Landy smashed the time even further and within a couple of years numerous other athletes had done the impossible. Why was that?
Well, obviously athletes were getting fitter and stronger, training methods were changing but MAYBE it had a lot to do with the mind and the breaking of a taboo and the sense that if others could do it, then so could you. The unfamiliar now became familiar.
What you can do to break through your own COMFORT ZONE
It is almost as if we have to trick our own mind occasionally to help us break through these self imposed limitations. Just as Roger Bannister did with the Four Minute Mile, we need to look at things differently to be able to shake off the mental shackles of familiarity.
As we looked at earlier, it is amazing how much the phenomenon of the ‘turn’ affects what we do on a golf course. When you think about it, we have been conditioned to BELIEVE golf is made up of two sets of nine holes. The problem with that is, if you start badly over the first few holes, then you have at least another six to go before you get the chance to metaphorically ‘start again’. This doesn’t make sense. Why wait for nine holes to pass?
For a number of years now, the players I have worked with do not ‘believe’ golf is made up of two sets of nine holes. They have reconditioned their brain to look at the game differently just as Bannister did. What the players I work with now do on every round of golf is to play a game called ‘Super 6’. The game is simple. You go out with two cards. The card you are obviously marking in your medal or tournament and the ‘Super 6’ card. The rule of Super 6 is that golf is made up of SIX sets of three holes and the goal is to score as low as possible on each set of 6. You can imagine the good news if you start badly, you only have a couple of holes to go before you ‘start again’. It has been amazing with this game as I, at first, was very sceptical as to how much it would make a difference but the results have been amazing. It seems by looking at the game DIFFERENTLY, it allows the mind the freedom to break out of the patterns of familiarity which have existed for so long. It is a fresh challenge with none of the previous baggage being brought to the table.
The other benefit of Super 6 is that after a few rounds you really start to see where you regularly drop shots. Most golfers say they want to be consistent yet, in the main, they usually are. It may be consistently BAD but they are consistent. It is incredible what patterns you see emerging with Super 6 that you would probably never have been able to detect otherwise.
Often, we find a player can see he/she drops a LOT of shots on the fourth set of three holes which would indicate perhaps a nutrition issue. Or, there may be a regular pattern of dropping shots on the FIRST set of three which would indicate a poor ritual of warm up or pregame. The big key is that once you KNOW your own pattern you can DO something about it.
Expect to feel uncomfortable
I always remember a phrase Jack Nicklaus said many years ago about coming down the stretch in majors. He said ‘Give me that feeling you get on the back nine on Sunday, that is what I hit all of the practice balls for’. Nicklaus knew in those white-heat moments of major winning opportunities he was going to feel uncomfortable but, rather than resist it, he actually played a perfect reverse psychology trick on himself by actually WELCOMING the feelings of discomfort. The ironic thing is if you do welcome these uncomfortable feelings, they actually cease to have much of a hold on you. Your brain deals with it better because it has planned and expected to feel discomfort. This is the opposite of what most people do, which is to HOPE they don’t get the feelings of nervousness and anxiety but then they panic when they do come along.
Whatever we resist, we strengthen and whatever we embrace, we can work with. The principle is exactly the same for you and your golf as it was for Jack Nicklaus. If you get into a position where you are way under your handicap or about to break 90 for the first time, you WILL feel uncomfortable, you will get a bit jumpy. But, if you EXPECT it and you PLAN for it, when it comes along you will be much better equipped deal with the situation.
I remember once hearing a quote which went along the lines ‘Successful people are prepared to feel uncomfortable to achieve their goals’ and I am sure that is EXACTLY the case. As we stated at the beginning, our brain is wired to seek out familiarity and comfort but, if you want to achieve anything with your golf and, indeed, the rest of your life, the chances are you will need to resist the pull of the familiar, go into unchartered water and give yourself the chance to come out the other side having got closer to your true potential.