Ryann O’Toole: It Worked Yesterday, Why Not Today?

Thursday Ryann O’Toole had a good thing going at the Wegmans LPGA Championship. At the difficult Locust Hill Country Club in Pittsford, New York, she was 2-under through four holes and 3-under at the turn. She bogeyed her 10th and cleaned it up with a birdie on the next. And then she cruised to the finish with a clean card: 3-under on the day and tied for the lead.

Why? She credited her sports psychologist, Dr. Bob Rotella, who convinced her to play like a free spirit and don’t hold anything back. He wanted her arrogant side to come out and to relax between shots. He wanted her to play in a state of detachment without a lot of subjectivity: don’t complain about the circumstances of any shot, just take it in and let it go. Hit the next one and go find it.

All very sound advice…which she proved to herself in the first round. Thank God, because it got her nicely to the weekend in the face of a second round that was as bad as the first one was good.

She kicked it off with a birdie at the 3rd, but then bogeyed the par-5 4th. Tour pros hate bogeying par 5s. Hate it. Then she bogeyed 7 and 9, but was still 1-under for the tournament…until she made three bogeys in a row starting at the 14th. She took some of the sting out of that with a vindicating birdie on the par-5 17th: 4-over on the day and 1-over for the tournament. She easily made the cut at T19, attributed mostly to a tightly bunched field on a difficult course.

I have no idea what happened between the two rounds because the Tours mercifully don’t drag players into the interview room after just the second round for a debriefing when they’ve had a bad day. Especially when they’ve fallen out of contention (couldn’t we all learn something if they did?). But I have one possibility that aligns with the typical pitfalls inherent in the mastery process…which I brutally discovered from personal experience.

It’s the difference between doing something and trying to do something. This whether it’s a swing thought or encouragement from a coach to play like a free spirit.

The “doing” of a skill evolves with practice that integrates coaching information:

  • The coaching information is provided.
  • The initial tentative steps begin to feel the swing change or experience the different way of being (playing like a free spirit).
  • Over some period of time on the range, the change is integrated in that static environment.
  • The process moves to the player’s home-course practice rounds and the change is integrated in that dynamic environment.
  • The process moves to practice rounds with peers at tournament sites. It’s important to see the impact the change has on familiar tournament courses against familiar, high-caliber players. For one, there’s less judgment by peers than by civilians who have such high expectations for Tour pros; you can make mistakes and crash and burn and everybody knows what you’re trying to do, what you’re going through. They’re just glad it’s not happening to them.
  • Each stage of the process leaves some portion of the initial effort behind.
  • The process is complete when the “doing” is supplanted by “being” in actual tournament rounds; when a player can be completely invested in the moment (the target, the shot and hitting the shot at the target) without worrying about whether the change will revert to the old swing, the old way of being.

So that describes a successful process that is allowed to patiently unfold. And why people say it takes so long to make swing changes.

But how about when you’re in the run up to the first round of the tournament and you’re looking for an additional piece of baling wire to hold your game together on Thursday? In desperation, I once called my coach after dinner on Sunday to figure out how to get through Monday’s qualifier. Good coaches know those calls will be coming and mine helped me through the night (just a crisis of confidence after a bad practice round).

So I’m guessing that Rotella’s encouragement to play like a free spirit was just another layer on work that he and O’Toole had already done. And she was able to carry the idea into Thursday’s round because of just that, it was just a deeper layer of consciousness that got laid on top of a fundamentally sound golf swing that she had a keen sense of. And so it “worked.”

And the euphoria was such that she clearly attributed the round to the coaching and she wanted to acknowledge him in her interview.

But come the dawn on Friday, while everything looked the same on the surface, everything was different.

All the attention shifts to figuring out how Thursday’s round happened, how to recapture that lightning in a bottle. The mind peels back to yesterday to try to create the mind state that allowed for all that freedom. “Let’s see, how did I do that again?”

And so all through the warm up on the range and up onto the first tee, the mind hunts and pecks trying to recreated that way of being. And that’s where the trying does you in. Instead of just playing golf at a very high level (target, shot, hit the shot at the target) as a free spirit, you get it backwards and try to be a free spirit playing golf.

And the more the “trying” effort mounts, the more the swing tightens, the more the body tenses, the shorter the swing becomes and the worse the shot dispersion patterns become.

And once it’s begun, it’s almost always fatal because your attention is so devoted to the myopia of the magic swing tip and not with how you’re inadvertently interfering with your freedom.

And because you become so embroiled in trying to make it happen, you invariably can’t see the answer until the round is over and your consciousness begins to expand again. It’s as if you have a bag over your head.

Hopefully Ryann will roll into Saturday’s round with an understanding of what happened to her — she’s that experienced and that good — and she’ll be able to once again trust herself, to just “be” a free spirit playing golf.

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