The foundation of Dave Alred’s coaching philosophy is, as far as I understand it, built on the scrutiny of all aspects of in-game performance which he then deconstructs and transposes into practice and training. The net result of this is that preparation with Dave is nothing if not demanding. That’s partly why he calls it the ‘Ugly Zone’.
For the sake of clarity the Ugly Zone doesn’t have to equate to misery. I make the point to Dave,
“As far as I’m concerned it’s much more about being prepared to forgo ego than enduring agony. Any ‘pain’ associated with the Ugly Zone is surely, more often than not, of your own making”.
Dave agrees heartily,
A five year old child, if she misses a shot, more likely than not will laugh, chase the ball and give it another go without a second thought.
“A five year old child, if she misses a shot, more likely than not will laugh, chase the ball and give it another go without a second thought. As we age we learn to shy away from ‘mistakes’ for fear of humiliation”.
Francesco chips in,
“There’s that little voice in your head saying go easy here don’t do anything stupid”.
Golf occupies a singular spot in global sport. Few pastimes are so focused, pressured and unforgiving. No-one tries to tackle you, intercept your shot or beat you to the play. It’s just you, your club, the ball and the singular objective of sinking that ball into a hole, several hundred metres away in as few shots as possible. Bottom line is, it’s all on you. No excuses, no hiding place no second chances.
Perhaps that’s why it creates obsessive levels of interest from millions of weekend warriors, agonising over ways to improve their handicap. Or to simply not look foolish in front over their mates. The strange thing is how most people, in their desperation to not ‘screw up’, are doing everything wrong to improve their standard of play.
Dave picks up the theme,
“What Fran alluded to there is negative avoidance. Think of a goal kicker…” , Dave pauses and introduces one of his frequent asides, “I’ve even heard of an international goal kicker being handed the tee, by the kicking coach no-less, and being told ‘whatever happens don’t miss, we really need this’. I could not believe what I’d heard”.
Dave warms to his task,
“You need to fill your mind with what you want rather than what you’re trying to avoid. There is so much around you that points to what you want to avoid. Remember, you’re not a million miles away from the language of people around you. You know the sort of thing, ‘don’t miss any tackles, make sure the ball doesn’t go in the water, keep the ball out of the bunker – especially on the right’. Because of this we’re filled with a lot of stuff we’re trying not to do instead of seeing what we want to do. People talk about mental toughness but for me it’s the discipline and the skill to be able to see what you want in so much detail and at the smallest possible point so that it displaces all the other stuff. And that’s tough to do”.
Remember, you’re not a million miles away from the language of people around you. You know the sort of thing, ‘don’t miss any tackles, make sure the ball doesn’t go in the water’
Francesco picks up the thread,
“Like Dave is saying, it’s a process that you go through in your mind. In a nutshell for us golfers, it’s picking a spot as small and detailed as possible and seeing it in your minds’ eye when it’s time to pull the trigger. That usually helps get rid of all the negative thoughts because you’re not thinking about anything else but that spot”.
“I’m guessing that doesn’t guarantee hitting the target?”
“You might miss it but if you miss it by three yards it’s still a good shot. An example is when we hit to a fairway that is 30 yards wide. It’s similar to a goal, it’s a big target but if you try to hit the big target and you miss then the miss is harmful whereas if you aim at a very small target you might miss but it’s still a good shot”.
Both Fran and Dave are animated now. I happily let them riff off each other. It’s Dave’s turn,
“Ironically people miss more fairways than they do greens because it’s so big. I’ve got a saying that if you want to hit a barn door 1000 times out of 1000 always aim for the keyhole. And I think it’s the same with so much of sport, the ability to be able to zone in on the smallest possible point”.
Both transpose match-play with practice to the point that the two seem interchangeable. I guess that’s the point. That said, we’re all aware of the difference between practicing a speech in front of a mirror and delivering it in front of a room full of people. Or hitting a ball on your own versus in front of 20,000 onlookers. I ask the question,
“I understand the principle of focusing on detail and crowding out other thoughts. But I imagine are a lot more thoughts clamouring for your attention at the Wentworth PGA Championship than on a beautiful day at the Wisely with only a camera crew and me for company?”
What I try and do is create practice with consequence.
“What I try and do is create practice with consequence. Look at the three ball-chipping from today”
Note. One of Francesco’s practice sessions involved chipping three balls from the same spot.
“If I looked at all the chips rather than just the ball that was in the worst position there were plenty of really good chips today and certainly at least 5 went in the hole. But the consequence was if Fran messed up just one of those then that’s was the one he was stuck with. So I try and create something that plants in your mind a temptation to think ‘I mustn’t miss this’. And I want that to be something to tempt you so you, in turn, condition yourself to go ‘right, what I need to do is reframe what I’ve got on”.
“And that’s where the ability to focus on the minutiae helps condition the mind?”
Francesco’s mind was obviously in top condition this morning during putting practice. I raise this with Dave as Francesco looks on appearing deservedly content with his performance, “What about this mornings’ putting session? It was faultless”.
“I think it was fantastic this morning when we did that putting test and there wasn’t one putt missed. But, even if you didn’t know it at the time, the consequences were always increasing. The putts get harder so you get two in then three – but if you miss the fifth you have to start again”.
I laugh, “Not only do the putts get harder, the stakes get higher? Francesco, I’m guessing it always doesn’t always go as smoothly as this morning?”
He laughs in turn, “There may have been a couple of occasions where it’s gone dark before I’ve finished”.
Dave grins at the torture chamber he’s designed, “That’s the consequence. And it gets higher the more successful you are. Here’s something that’s very interesting: if you miss the first one on the 9th and you start again and then miss the second on the 10th, when you once again get on the 9th, 10th and 11th you start remembering the misses. That is the game. Then it’s about actually how do we override that. I know there’s been some very relieved ‘phew, one to go’ and then there’s a miss. It’s hard. There’s no swearing but there’s a glimpse of the type of pressure that you get in competition. The key thing is that the practice means something”.
I turn the attention to the subject of Dave’s Ugly Zone, “Francesco what’s it like going through that?”.
“It’s been massive and it’s an on-going process; it’s not something that is white or black. The great thing for me is, like today, you saw all the practices we did. There is the temptation to think negatively and say ‘I don’t want to miss this’. With the chipping if I hole two and hit the third to 40 feet then I have to putt the 40 foot one”.
“That can be hard to swallow?”
“That’s the rules of the game. Then, for me, it’s about working on not listening to that negative voice and always focusing on going through the good process and getting a good strike on the ball. It’s about always working and always improving, it’s never ending. It’s not just one day we’ll finish because we’ve done it. It’s never going to be done, there’s always a way to get it sharper and to improve”.
As we say our goodbyes I can’t help but be impressed by the blend a graciousness, determination and resilience that the ‘new’ Francesco Molinari exudes to the extent that his win, five days later, at Wentworth had an air of inevitability about it. Like hitting a barn door 1,000 out of 1,000 times: when you’re aiming for the keyhole. That’s something to put a smile on Dave Alred’s face.