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  • Paul Tolley

Consistency - Is it really what you want?




Dear Golfers, In this article, I want to help you understand why trying to be consistent may not be in your best interests and guide you to getting what you really want which is to improve and get better.

I would say that without doubt the No.1 request from Golfers who come to me for coaching is; “ I want to be more consistent”.


WHAT ARE GOLFERS REALLY ASKING FOR?


The dictionary definition of consistency is “being consistent” and consistent is defined as “being constant in action”. Basically, it refers to how repeatable an action or performance is. However, I believe that what Golfers really want is more of their best shots!


What I mean by this is that if we took a sample of ten shots from a Golfer of any Handicap, with any club, then there would be a mixture of great shots, good shots, good enough shots and hopefully not many poor shots! When Golfers have produced a great shot (their best shot) they question why they are not able to produce this everytime and as soon as this doesn't happen or they don't have the same feeling, they assume that they are not consistent.

Many Golfers ask for consistency. Golfers see consistency leading to improvement however, it can lead to sameness. Adaptability leads us to better performance and may also increase consistency. Every 7 years, every cell in the body has been replaced by a new cell. We essentially remake ourselves every 7 years!

In actuality it is not consistency we are usually after, it is improvement, growth and excellence (more of your best shots).

DOES CONSISTENCY EXIST, IF SO WHAT IS IT?


If we look at the top professional players we will see that they are not consistent. During a tournament, very often we see that they score 72 on one round and 64 the next. In August 2016 on the PGA Tour at the Travellers Championship at TPC River Highlands, Jim Furyk shot rounds of;

  • 73 (3 over)

  • 66 (4 under)

  • 72 (2 over)

  • 58 (12 under)

There was a 15 shot difference between his best and worst scores, and a 14 shot swing from one day to the next. So, if a top player of his stature and experience is capable of such a variation, why should we even be concerned with being consistent?

The best players are bouncing around with the same highs and lows that you are; they are just doing it at a different level! Their "moving average" is much lower/better.

In this case, Furyk's average score was 67.25 (2.75 under).

Most Golfers make things more difficult for themselves by looking too short term at their game. Typically, I hear Golfers complaining when they shoot 38 stableford points one week and follow it up with 29 (9 shot swing) the next week and then they think they need a complete re-modelling of their swing. In our current society generally as well as in golf, there is an obsession for instantaneous results and chasing the unreal element of consistency, rather than, doing the things that make a real difference to your game and what you need to become a better player overall. Golfers scores tend to fluctuate around a "moving average", seemingly erratically moving up and down . However, if you look at the picture more long term, we can understand that our game will also fluctuate between good days and bad but always moving around our moving average. So a variation of 5 shots better or worse than our average is not being inconsistent. The goal should be to improve the moving average over a period of time, not every game. Looking at every single shot, hole or round of golf as a measure of your skill as a Golfer is like looking at Finiancial Investments on a minute by minute basis. You are never going to win. However, looking over a week, a month or a year and we start to get a bigger, clearer picture. This should be how you measure your improvement and success.


Golf, by its very nature, is inconsistent. While there are things you can do to become more consistent, the fact that golf is so variable is inescapable. In fact, the only thing consistent about golf is its inconsistency. Therefore, we need to accept and deal with this fact – stop seeking consistency and choose to improve! YOU ARE CONSISTENT! It is true to say that to some extent we are consistent when we play our game however, not in the way that most people think or desire. What everybody has in their game is a range, pattern and tendency to their shots. What do I mean by this? Well, if you hit 10 shots (with any club), this would produce a range, pattern and tendency of shots.


Range can be described as the distance between your furthest left shot and your furthest right shot. Pattern is the mid-point of your range, if your shots range from 5 to 25 yards right then your pattern is right sided or if your shots range from 20 yards right to 20 yards left, you have a centred pattern. Tendency is your average shot or where the majority of shots are grouped. Of those 10 shots, for example, say you hit 2 shots left (furthest left 20 yards), 3 shots straight and 5 shots right (furthest right 20 yards). You would have a wide range (40 yards dispersion), a centred pattern (mid-point) and a right tendency. If we increased these shots by 10, 20, 30, or 100 the results would be similar. So, in effect you are consistent. Your consistency lies in the fact that you mess up in the same ways and you succeed in the same ways. Your worst tendencies will show up when you are under pressure. You need to learn to recognize and understand what they are and be more aware of what you do when your best tendencies appear. Whilst I understand that this may not be the information you want to hear, knowing this could stop you wasting time and energy and from stressing so much and putting too much pressure on yourself trying to be consistent with your game. Golfers are basically looking for consistency in the wrong place. The next paragraph will make it clear to you why it may hurt your game to pursue this goal. YOU ARE INCONSISTENT BY NATURE In trying to be consistent, the first area most Golfers will look will be their swing technique. The long held belief that improving our swing technique by intensive practice and “beating balls” in the anticipation that our muscles will memorise the golf swing and that it will never break down needs to be questioned.


The notion of “muscle memory” has a lot to answer for!

Not only is it incorrect but it is misleading and leads to a lot of wasted time for golfers. There is no doubt that technique has a big influence on whether you can perform a task consistently or not. However, we know there are numerous Tour players (Jim Furyk, for example) who do not have perfect technique so there must be other influences. Again, whilst this may not be what you expect or want to hear (having spent years practicing swing positions for hours on the driving range), but there is science to support this statement.


Firstly, the term “muscle memory” is misleading because muscles do not have memories. The fact is that muscles do not have the capacity to store information. Storage of information is a function of the brain. Muscle memory does not exist!

What exists are neural patterns/circuits/instructions (from the brain) which tell the muscles how and when to move.


Secondly, recent scientific studies conclude that the opposite of consistency is actually true. Professor Krishna Shenoy of Stanford University, USA, set out to discover why we all seem to be so inconsistent with actions like golf swings. His study concluded that:


The main reason you can’t move in the same way each and every time, such as swinging a golf club, is that your brain can’t plan the swing the same way each time. It is as if each time the brain tries to solve the problem of planning how to move, it does it anew. Practice and training can help the brain solve the problem more capably but people and other primates simply aren’t wired for consistency like computers or machines.

Instead, people seem to be improvisors by default"

The main conclusion of Professor Shenoy’s study is because the vast majority of situations requiring significant movement are novel (i.e. each shot is different), our brain looks to adapt movement patterns, rather than repeat them. We need to embrace the idea of adaptability to the variety of situations that we will be presented and challlenged by on the golf course.

Because of this, we will never be able to “hardwire” a movement in its entirety.

This is as a result of an evolutionary survival mechanism known as Dynamic Systems Theory. Predators never get the chance to catch and kill prey in exactly the same fashion and in exactly the same conditions. So, part of our evolution and survival has depended on our brain remaining flexible to the ever-changing environment.

In golf terms, we have been sold the idea we can perfect our swings so it won’t let us down.


We then practise that swing in a rigid and structured environment called the driving range; and then we attempt to take that perfect swing out into an ever-changing, flexible and dynamic environment called the golf course. Is it any wonder so many golfers become disillusioned by their inability to transfer their practice game onto the course?

When we look at the research and the way our brain works, we can understand why it is such a fallacy to consider we can hone or hardwire a perfect swing. Curiously, when we play or perform poorly on the course, where do we go to fix our game? Yes – we return to the driving range in search of some change in technique. We start hitting the ball well again, return to the course and of course, start to play badly again and so the cycle continues. Not very productive, I think you’ll agree!! MENTAL INFLUENCES ON CONSISTENCY The consistency you are looking for (more of your best shots) is the result of a number of factors. There is not one thing that will give us consistency and of course, we cannot control everything. Therefore, we must be realistic. There are many variables which result in our score. One day our putting may be great but our ball striking is below average or vice-versa. However, one major influence is our mental consistency.


Too many swing thoughts?


The average golfer will walk off the course at the end of the round having gone through more than 10 different swing thoughts. Sometimes they stay with one for a few holes, sometimes they change every shot. Is it any wonder that we are inconsistent?

Most Golfers know that they play their best when they have one singular focus which is simple and clear and which they maintain for the entire round. Why then do we change focus so often during a round? The main reason is a short term obsession with the result. Typically most Golfers are too concerned with hitting good or bad shots (consequences) and put too much pressure on themselves to do/avoid doing so. They are then unable to deal with a bad result and feel the need to constantly correct their swing technique or mental state in order to get the desired outcome. If they were simply able to deal with good or bad shots and maintain one simple and clear focus during the entire round then they would have a much better chance of achieving a higher level of performance and consistency both in the short and long term. Your ability to maintain and remain focused on one simple and clear thought will be influenced by the following;

  • Understanding that consistency does not exist – this statement helps us realize that bad shots are inevitable, part of the game and not a call for change.

  • Acceptance of a bad shot – If you are unable to accept a poor shot then your desire to correct and change will be increased. Allow them to happen – they will happen less as a result.

  • Awareness – if you understand that being overly conscious and trying to change things will actually lead to less consistent movement, you will be less likely to try it.

  • Hitting better shots – the better we are playing then the less likely we are to “tinker” with our swing technique.

Out of the four, we are only really in control of the first three however, controlling those three makes the fourth one more likely to happen more often (consistency?). CONCLUSION


At certain times during my coaching career I have thought that the game of golf was entirely about swing technique and at other times I have thought that it was entirely about the mind.


After 50+ years of playing and teaching and a considerable amount of studying swing technique, how people learn and how the brain and body function, I can now say that both elements are vitally important and playing good golf is a combination of the two.


Regarding swing technique, it is clear that unless we have some level of playing skills then we will not be able to produce the shots that we desire. Our skill level will determine the quality and regularity of the shots we are able to produce. As Professor Shenoy states, "Practice and training can help the brain solve the problem more capably" which influces our skill level. However, I believe that the over-emphasis and near obsession with swing mechanics (how to do it) and the illusive search for the perfect swing (whatever that is ) has been and still is to the detriment of most Golfers. There are four major influences on what happens to the ball affecting its direction and distance and those four points are;

  • Where you strike the ball on the clubface

  • The angle of the clubface as it hits the ball (in relation to the club’s swing path)

  • The speed that the club is travelling at impact

  • Whether you strike the ground in the right place


If you are consistent in controlling these four points then you will hit straighter, further and better golf shots.

These influences are not reliant on your swing style, back-swing position, swing plane or any other “magic move” which is prevalent in the world of golf today (look at Jim Furyk).


However, the advantage is that they do allow for some “flexibility”,“self organization”and ADAPTABILTY in your movements in order to achieve the desired result. These elements will also influence the range, pattern and tendency of your shots and will mean that you become better and more consistent. To this end, your “moving average” of results will improve. Regarding mental consistency, it is obvious that during a round you will be challenged to maintain your focus as bad shots will happen. Even the best players in the world with their “technically perfect swings” hit bad shots; theirs are just at a different level! Your ability to control your emotions, stay focused and accept that bad shots are going to happen, will determine the outcome of your round. You are entirely in charge of these elements. If you are going to allow the result of a shot (good or bad) dictate how you are going to react then unfortunately, you will never reach the level of play or level of enjoyment that so many golfers dearly seek. Whilst you are playing, you will either be thinking about something that is helpful to you or something which is not. You alone have the choice to decide which it will be and allowing the ball to be your master is to put your fate in another’s hands. Are you in charge?

If I told you that next time you go out to play, you should think of something different after every swing, you would think I was crazy! And you would be right.

However, being completely honest with yourselves, how many of you have done this?


So, being consistent in thought and controlling our emotions is vital to achieving any type of consistency and this combined with an awareness of the four major influences to our shot making will not only allow us to be consistent but also, BETTER.

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