Negative Cancels Positive

Regular followers of this blog know that I search for usable slants on coaching from golf educator sites. (There are more of them and they have been doing it longer, and it is similar enough, etc.) In so doing I ran across this quote from one of my favorite golfers:

Winners see what they want, losers see what they don’t want. Don’t let the game eat you; you eat the game.” (Moe Norman)

I like Moe Norman, now deceased, a lot because he basically coached himself to become the greatest golfer Canada ever produced. The stories of his skill are almost beyond counting (and some beyond belief).

In any case, allow me to unpack his quote. The word “see” refers to visualizations of the shots golfers want to pull off. So, they “see” the next shot in their imagination, then they do it, just having “seen” it. (I argue these are like a visual recipe for our subconscious minds to follow.) Moe’s main point is that “winners” see what they want to have happen, while “losers” see what they fear will happen. This is why so many golfers trying to hit a shot over a pond end up with their ball in the pond because what was dominating their thinking was “Don’t hit it in the water; don’t hit it in the water” which is a subconscious recipe for . . . hitting the ball in the water.

He recommends that you not allow the game to “eat you (up)” and that you instead should be the eater. This is a somewhat colorful metaphor for not letting the golf course dictate to you what to think, that you be in charge and dictate your own thoughts, thinking only about what you want to have happen, not what you fear might happen.

With respect to archery, we are in a repetition sport that is even more repetitious than golf. In golf, it is hit the ball and walk up to it and hit it again, whereas in archery we stand on one spot and shoot two, three, four, five, or even six arrows before we have to walk up and find them. In order to get the desired level of consistency/repeatability, we endeavor to repeat each shot, just like the previous one (assuming that were successful). To pull this off we create a shot sequence that we train in so we do the same actions, in the same order and, if we can pull it off, with the same timing/tempo. Part of that sequence is what I call the marker for the end of the pre-shot routine and that is a visualization of you making a shot, from your point of view, seeing the shot fly through the air to land dead center in the X. This is a very positive visualization, one that equates to success. Immediately upon the completion of the visualization, the shots starts with you raising your bow and just a few seconds later, your arrow hits the target.

It sounds perfect, but . . . I am here to tell you that “negative cancels positive.” If you are anxious about your shot for any reason, say it is score related—you are shooting a personal best score and then some and want it to continue—the fear of missing can creep into your thoughts. You can see each arrow score as being on the track to that new personal best or being off track, so in the back of your head your are entertaining the negative effects of an arrow that doesn’t score as well as you wish. You, in effect, are thinking “Don’t hit it in the water; don’t hit it in the water.” And, often as not, your arrow scores deteriorate and your opportunity for a new personal best score is gone.

This scenario is typical of what is used to explain performance “comfort zones” and why we as a rule, never think about score if we can avoid it. Nothing good can come from thinking about your score or anyone else’s . . . well unless you are practicing performing under pressure. I am reminded of an archery camp I attended in which they pulled off a simulated tournament to give us the experience of competing in a USAA target tournament (I had not at that point, so the exercise was most welcome). As luck would have it I ended up in a shoot-off with another archer: “one arrow closest to the center” determined who went on. The other guy was chosen to shoot first and while he was doing that, I settled myself thinking “I don’t care what he shot, I will just ‘shoot my shot’ and let the chips fall where they may.” When I looked up the coach was walking toward me with a Cheshire Cat grin on his face, looked me in the eye and said, very loudly “He shot a 6!” A voice in my head immediately said “I only need a 7 to win!” Have you ever shot to score a 7? No? Neither had I. I had to compose myself for several seconds to clear my mind and just take a “normal” shot. I knew better but couldn’t control my thoughts.

So, what to do, what to do?

I still can’t control my thoughts but I have a processes for “shooing away” those negative thoughts. If you have one of those mid-shot, a let-down is in order. Whatever does control my thoughts knows that if we do not stay positive, we don’t get to shoot. This is the same way we control lines of acting out teenagers on a shooting line. Anyone acts up, no one gets to shoot. (It works, even with those considered incorrigible by the schools they attend.)

I have no idea what the actual control mechanism is, or even if there is one. (There is a good argument for unbidden thoughts being a survival mechanism too valuable to shut off.)

We also have to be aware enough to notice when negative thoughts are starting to hold court. If we do notice this, it is time to stop, take a deep breath or two, and refocus upon what our actual goals are for the day, rather than a goal that just happened to pop up. (New PB! New PB!)

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