Tournament disc golf is often typified by high scores. Often far higher than players would normally throw in casual rounds. What I call Tournamentitis is responsible. There's more on quelling your Inner Asshole, too.
In this article I want to help you release what I call your Natural Game when in competition.
After more than 25 years of playing in disc golf tournaments, I have found low performance in competition is caused by a variety of things.
The word itself is sometimes hard to define. I believe in disc golf you are only ever in competition with the course and the conditions – never another person – and this is one of the defining characteristics of the sport (and the game!) of disc golf. You would never jump up and down and celebrate wildly if a tennis opponent aced you on the court, but in disc golf you will happily rejoice in the ace your arch rival has just thrown.
Just as the par for a hole cannot affect your score, neither can the performance of another player. Thus, it is extremely important you do not allow the game of another person to influence your own game, unless they are acting as wind-dummy, and your wind read was wrong.
The Hobbit Hole, at the LOTR filming location, Paradise, NZ, March 10th 2019.
What is Tournamentitis?
It can range from butterflies in the stomach, to feeling physically ill, and even throwing up for a few people. It can make you feel hot and sweaty. It can lift your heart rate, and blood pressure alarmingly. It can even cause visual disturbances - something I have experienced myself!
It fills a player's mind with FUD: Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt.
Often, it is your Inner Asshole hurting you. Details later in the article.
Sadly, it's true for many people, that a player’s meeting is the kiss of death to a round. People who have inflamed tournament glands sometimes suffer from a failure to define the word “competition” correctly in their minds, and feel extreme pressure when playing “official” rounds. And yet these same players can often crush it when it’s just them and their buddies in casual play.
Unrealistic expectations often feed the rapacious disease of tournamentitis.
For those without proper preparation and expectations, tournamentitis comes as standard, and even the top pros sometimes suffer from it. For some, doing simple relaxation and concentration exercises is all it takes to avoid it. Others will naturally settle down a few holes in. And while it’s true you can’t win a tournament in the first round, you can certainly lose it – and so it’s vital to tame tournamentitis before it can hurt your score.
It's necessary to release your Natural Game, in order to do that.
Your Natural Game
Is the one played by your Inner Golfer; that's the player inside you who knows how to play disc golf quite well, who knows how to execute shots correctly, and put in putts from challenging distances.
However, a major impediment to your Inner Golfer shining through is your Inner Asshole (more later), who malevolently attempts to derail your Inner Golfer .
To avoid Tournamentitis there are several things you can do
Be familiar with the layout, the rules, the holes and the course.
There’s nothing so good for your mental well-being as being well prepared for a tournament. Get there a few days early, practice as much as your match fitness will allow, and rest up for at least half a day before Round one.
Positively knowing where all the OB is, and knowing the rules for each hole is essential to be relaxed during play. Take time to examine exactly where the OB lines are well ahead of time, and plan your strategy appropriately.
Know the rules
Knowing the PDGA rules is vital. Go and pay your USD10, and sit the TD’s exam at the PDGA web site, as you will need to examine the rules closely, refreshing yourself with them. The players who know the rules best are best equipped to win. It's $10 you will never regret spending, I promise you.
Have your strategy planned in advance
Having plans for each hole, depending on the wind, so you are not improvising strategy on the fly is key to avoid making bad decisions. And... Stick to your strategy!
There’s more on developing your strategy later in this article.
Do not overexert yourself in practice
You should feel fresh as a daisy standing on the teepad of your first basket in Round 1 – not tired from all your practice.
A tired player tries to throw hard. Throwing hard is bad. More later.
Put in a few mental practice rounds
If you are an observant player, then after two rounds on a course, you should know it well enough so you can play mental rounds in your head. When you play your first rounds on a course, examine each hole closely throughout its length, so you have the layout and distances to various obstacles firmly in your mind.
Create your strategy while on the hole, so that it can be as accurate and as close to reality as possible. Where are your best landing areas, and what's the surface of them like? Where is the danger? Prevailing winds? Alternate shots for differing wind directions? You need to consider a lot of possible combinations and permutations when you formulate your strategy. But don't get bogged down in the process. Your strategy needs to be relatively simple and straightforward.
The nights before tournament rounds, I review my strategy for each hole, and play that strategy out in my mind. I never play better in my head, than I can in real life, but in mental games, I don’t make any mistakes, so I get all the birdies I possibly can.
I find mental rounds help me to validate my strategy, and this helps me stay relaxed on the course.
Kyle Martin driving on Death Valley, Paradise, NZ
Give yourself plenty of time on comp day
It goes without saying that you do not get obliterated the night before, and that you get to bed at a good time, and you sleep well. Wake up early. Have a good breakfast. Don’t rush anything. Get to the venue early.
Be properly equipped
You need to have your quiver well planned, with backups if you may need them. But discs are just the tip of the iceberg, and I’ll be doing another article about gearing up for tournament play in the future. Have plenty to drink.
Get there early
Arrive at least 1 hour before the player’s meeting. That way you can say hello to people, be a bit social, get yourself and your gear ready to play, and then have plenty of time left to…
Warm up before the round
You do not need to bother stretching before disc golf. Injuries are not, in any way reduced or avoided by stretching ahead of exercise. Neither is the recovery time of injuries improved. Stretching also does not improve performance. This is one of the biggest fallacies in sport.
There is however, strong evidence for overall flexibility having a big influence on injury severity, recovery time, and overall performance level, so this makes yoga your best weapon against injury and old age; remaining flexible and strong into your old age.
Warming up is not stretching – it is simply playing 3 or 4 holes. You might like to include a small putting session, following the regime I detail in a previous blog post, “How to Putt More Proficiently by Practicing Properly”. Most importantly, DO NOT practice far from the basket, missing shots.
This might sound like hippy-dippy bullshit, but breathing is properly important! Getting full lungs of air, at the right rate helps relax you. You must always be exhaling as you smash the disc – but you knew that already.
Bad breathing patterns can contribute strongly to tournamentitis.
If you feel your shoulders start to tense up, or you experience any other symptom of nerves, tightness or other malaise, take 20 seconds out. Stand naturally with feet hip-width apart with arms beside you. Tense all the muscles in your body, and hold them for 5-10 seconds. Then relax. Let your arms hang from your shoulders. Get your head nice and upright. And Breathe.
Have a laugh
Laughing is a great way to relieve stress. And the old maxim is true; if it’s laugh or cry, then you gotta laugh – right? Disc golf is a social game, and you should do your best to have several good laughs in a round, preferably with the entire group, and sometimes at yourself.
But this is an MPO card, Chris!
Yeah, sorry to hear that. MPO is often frequented by young fools and try-hards who take the game waaaay too seriously. But it's important to have the odd laugh even in MPO, so provided you aren't interrupting play, it's fine to have a few laughs.
Life in the Masters and Grand Masters divisions is so much more fun. We still compete just as hard as those young guys, but we're a bit more experienced, and we know what's important in disc golf competition: having fun and feeling good!
What about when Bad Things Happen?
A busy mind isn't capable of worrying or feeling down.
Stick to your strategy. Try to have fun! If you let bad luck or bad play get you down, you've already lost the mental game. You need to occupy your mind completely with the game, and to divert your attention away from bad feelings, towards observing the conditions and concentrating on executing your strategy.
Watch the other players closely, to see what strategy they are playing, but do your best to stay focused on your own game. The rules of the game require you to watch each of your card mates play each shot. You should follow this rule as closely as you possibly can.
Paz Maslen, deep in the Paradise Forest, NZ
Do not try to throw hard
Not so applicable in Round 1, but at the end of a tournament, you may be noticing your discs flying not so far, even though you are putting your normal (full!) power, into them.
The automatic (and understandable) reaction to shorter throws is to try to throw harder. This does not work, and is the kiss of death to almost any shot.
You do not practice throwing harder than your normal full power drive – so trying to do it on the course is Verbotten! All it can do is wreck your timing, and hurt your technique. This leads to rounding, which is what people often call griplock.
If you are getting tired, you must accept that you will throw shorter. Do not fight it. Short and straight up the middle is not going to cost you a stroke, but a disc grip-locked into Tiger Country 40 metres off the fairway definitely will.
It is similar to the situation when the weather is shocking, and it’s raining so hard all your chamois are soaked, and there’s nothing that will actually dry a disc, and you have to throw with a wet disc and wet hands… you must only throw at 70% power, nothing more. You do already know, of course, that you can never throw full power with wet hands or discs.
If tiredness begins to affect your game, you might start changing your tactics to account for this. But do you get aggressive, and start throwing flip shots to try to gain back the lost distance, or do you throw more conservatively to ensure you don’t mess up? I think the second option is the way to go, as hyzerflips can have enormous landing areas, and are best avoided unless your fairway is wide and open.
There is a full article coming on the subject of Throwing Too Hard. Look out for that in the coming weeks.
Stay focused, and don’t get lazy
You need to concentrate intently on your game, especially when you are tired. Be hyper-aware of your own condition, and take it into account on the putting green. Make sure you lift your aim point on the basket as you get more and more weary. You will tend to under-throw your putts as the round progresses.
It’s nice to think you can just lob one in casually from 4 metres when tired – but you mustn’t. Stick to your putting routine, and perform it fully, for each and every putt which is not a drop in.
Make a habit of asking yourself on each teepad, “How am I?” and be honest with yourself.
An unhappy player is a terrible burden on a card, and you mustn’t ever bring anyone down if your game turns to custard. Don’t be That Guy! If you find that a disc hitting a tree is cause for being angry or sad, for more than 2 or 3 seconds, then you need some of the new Viagra eye drops; they let you take a long, hard, look at yourself.
Scott Stokely – the greatest Forehand teacher of all time – tells a moving story about people having their hands cut off in racial cleansing in sub-Saharan Africa – and asking how is it possible to have a bad time on a disc golf course with that in mind.
Actively compliment other players on their great shots
I always try to be the first to cheer when a card-mate makes a great play. And afterwards, I’ll always make sure to say something like “Dude, that was one fantastic [InsertShotType]! The shot of a champion, in fact!”
BUT – Do not offer congratulations to a player unless you are sure they think it was a good shot. Otherwise your “WOW! Wicked shot!” exclamation might be met with a stern face, and the reply, “For you, maybe”!
Don’t play the game the downers play
Some people with A Very Negative Attitude will often say things like “Shit, my shot was absolute rubbish” – as if they are wanting someone to say something like, “It wasn’t that bad, bro!”
Do not play that game. The correct response when someone says they played an awful shot is to agree with them. That tends to shut them up after a while, because they realise they aren’t getting any of the nice “Oh, you poor dear” messages their mother would give them in a lovely soothing voice.
Well, your momma ain’t ever gonna be following you around the DGC in a tournament, so best you act like an adult at all times during a tournament round. You are free to bitch and moan as much as you like after the round – if that’s your thing.
Get your excuses out of the way early!
As an older guy, I tend to pre-announce my excuses before we tee off on hole 1. That gets it out of the way ahead of time, so no need to make any during play.
Hayley Flintoft shaping up her birdie run on the back nine, Paradise, NZ
Stay On Target… Stay On Target!
No matter what’s going on around you, stick to your strategy. If you made your strategy when thinking properly, then you shouldn’t abandon it. Unless your strategy was to play aggressively – in which case, be prepared to fall back to a conservative one, to prevent losing even more places. :P
A tournament is a marathon, where consistency is king, and Bullshit Bravado is worth nothing next to the Deep Confidence a good strategy and proper preparation brings. Because if you make the birdies you planned to make, and avoid taking bogies, like you planned, then you are going to be at the pointy end of the results at the end of the day’s play.
Strategy? What Strategy?
Having an unrealistic strategy for tournament play is counter-productive. If your score lags badly behind your plan, then you will feel bad about yourself. That can wreck your round.
And, having no strategy at all is a recipe for disaster.
So, be honest with yourself when planning your strategy for each basket, and make sure you can achieve what you include in that plan.
As a long-time competitor it’s my strong personal preference to create a conservative strategy. I want to play for my par, and take what birdies I can. I do not try to be greedy, or plan to play high risk shots. At every opportunity, I’ll look for the most reliable shot type to play. It is seldom I plan to have a disc turn over, or fly with much (or any) anhyzer angle.
Examine Your Teepads
Being confident in the teepad and on the teepad is important for peace of mind.
You must be assured of the level of grip they offer, and take great care never to slip or fall during a throwing motion. Typically, a slip takes place from the start of the smash, so be aware of that, and make a full power x-step without a disc in your hand, to asses the grip available.
Examine any angle the teepad might be on, and be aware a sloped teepad results in the throw being deflected by the same angle, unless you account for it. I have seen very gently sloped tees upset a very great number of players over the years.
Do not show up with a hangover
If you are hungover, or worse, still drunk, at the morning meeting, then you are not a competitor and you are only there to make up the numbers.
Best idea is to lay off the toxic degreasing agent during an event, and if you must drink such stuff, then keep it to a minimum, and do not exceed the level of alcohol mandated as legal to drive on.
It never ceases to amaze me how drunkards are always amazed at how easy disc golf is when they play sober. Alcohol is a toxic poison. That is why.
Pure nerves are the result of not being prepared. You might think of yourself as being a nervous competitor, but that is only because you have never properly prepared for a tournament before. If you have done everything outlined in this article, then your pre-game and Teepad-1 nerves should settle down pretty quickly.
Many people still feel butterflies in their stomach on the first teepad in Round 1, and I am one of those people, even after more than 25 years of competition play. It's OK, though! Really!
Try to accept that you have done all you could to prepare well, and tell yourself that nerves aren't helping you. Use the body-tensing exercise to relax, even if there is no place to hide, to do it.
What about when you fail on hole one?
So yeah, that can happen. Your nerves got the better of you on the teepad. Or the Yips found you on the putting green and you triple-putted what should have been an easy birdie. That's a bit sad, isn't it?
NO! No it isn't! If you let yourself get sad about something like this, then your entire round is going down the toilet!
Don't think that way: FORGIVE. YOUR. SELF!
Mistakes happen. Everyone makes them. EVERYONE.
Exhibit One: Watch all four top pros on the lead card, final round, miss the double mando.
Timestamp - 21:08
As you can see above, on Hole 7, it is easy to make mistakes! So, don't let them get you down. This is not rocket surgery, now, is it?
Don't get me wrong; it is OK to feel emotional for a short time after a bad throw, or some really bad luck. But when I say "short time", I mean 2 to 3 seconds. If you possibly can, try to avoid shouting out expletives as this can get you disqualified from an event, under PDGA rules.
Invent some inoffensive expletives so to avoid this possibility, and really put some effort into using them.
Your Inner Asshole
This is an ongoing theme in our articles about the mental game in disc golf. We partially address the issue in our Proficient Putting article, but it needs some further discussion here.
Your Inner Asshole is a person who lives inside you, and whose main purpose is to tell you what a bad and terrible player and person you are. And they do not hold back on you, either! They will let you have a full clip from their Asshole Assault Rifle every time you fail.
The worst insults you can imagine ever screaming at someone are as nothing compared to what your Inner Asshole can whisper quietly to you on your trek to your "bad lie" (more below).
Anything less than perfection itself is unacceptable to your Inner Asshole. And they love to rub your nose in it too, whispering to you; "I told you not to hit that tree like you did last time, you uncoordinated moron" And the pithy; "You really suck at this game. That's three out of three into the pond, you useless sack of lukewarm puke!"
If you ever hear a voice in your head saying things like this, it is your Inner Asshole speaking. They do not care how well you play, or how many times you are successful, they are only interested in your misses, and your failures, and they record all of them with computer-like precision, and take great pleasure in dredging up all your failures from the past, just when you need such encouragement the very least!
For many players, their Inner Asshole can actually take control of their voice box and transmogrify into an Outer Asshole, and shout out loud the sort of sentence I describe above. Letting your Inner Asshole become an Outer Asshole is to be avoided at all costs.
How to quell your Inner Asshole
This is the $64,000 question now, isn't it?
It's easy on the putting green, because you've been following the putting regime I detailed in my Proficient Putting Practice article, but out on the fairways, and in the rough, it's a different story.
Have a hyper-short memory
Forget each shot after you arrive at your lie. It literally does not matter how you got to where you are, or how many shots it took to get there. The only thing that matters is the shot you have to play from THIS lie. The only shot that matters is THIS one. RIGHT. NOW.
Forget your score
Unless you are on fire, it's best to ignore the score. Back before I learned any Inner Game type stuff, the only way I could avoid ruining my game after bad play (or bad luck) was to forget every shot. It means I can't keep a track of my score in tournament play - so three holes in, I literally have no idea what my score is. I have a vague idea if I am doing OK, or not. That's about it.
In casual play I always know my score, but not during a tournament. Until the last few holes, the score is totally irrelevant to my strategy and my tactics. It's only in the final 6 or so holes I'll wake up and pay attention to the scores, and perhaps consider changing strategy or tactics depending on my position, and the size of the buffer (if any!) to the next player.
Concentrate on the task at hand
Keep focused on this shot. Get the risk vs. reward right for your planned shot, so you can achieve your goal, even if you are playing a golf shot, and simply pitching out to the fairway.
Perform your full routine
Even if you have only a small OCD streak in you, there is some deep satisfaction from performing your disc golf routine, and I don't just mean the shot itself. I mean assessing the lie, and your footing, and the type of shot to play, and looking at alternatives, and observing the wind, and any tiny obstacles dangling in your proposed flight path, and the surface at your landing zone, and selecting the right disc, as well as performing your actual throwing routine.
Concentrating on these things tends to get rid of your Inner Asshole as your mind is entirely consumed with going through your pre-flight checklist.
Try to keep a Positive Mental Attitude
When a shot goes astray, think of it as an opportunity to demonstrate competency in impromptu shot selection and execution. Not as some rotten luck, or lack of skill. It's your chance to shine, and that is why you've practiced so many types of throws to get you out of trouble.
Do NOT judge a lie until you reach it!
I can't stress this enough. Often your assessment from the teepad, of where your disc actually is, in relation to your envisaged landing zone, is woefully inaccurate. You will often find your actual lie is substantially better than you initially thought it was. This is one of Jay Reading's mantras, and you mustn't break this unwritten rule.
Because if you do prejudge a bad lie, then your Inner Asshole has plenty of time between when you throw the disc and when you arrive at your lie, to ruin your confidence, and hinder you from executing what turns out to be a fairly straight forward shot. The sheer amount of hurt your Inner Asshole can lay on you in just 1 or 2 minutes is horrendous.
So, consciously avoid telling yourself you have a bad lie - and hence made a bad shot - even when things do not go quite according to plan. Be optimistic about your chances, and if your lie does turn out to be bad, use the other advice in this article, and from others like it on our blog to get yourself out of that spot.
Be realistic about your performance level!
One of the best ways to achieve your tournament goals is to aim to shoot your PDGA rating. On your home course(s) you may lift your expectation somewhat. I know I do.
If you have 10 PDGA scores, then your rating is starting to accurately reflect your tournament performance, and so you must not expect to play significantly better than your rating.
It is very rare for a player to greatly exceed their rating consistently in a tournament, unless they have low numbers of rounds, and are improving rapidly. When Gregg Barsby won the Pro Worlds in 2018, he played significantly better golf than his rating would suggest he is capable of.
To achieve this, Gregg had to have a staggeringly good mental game combined with endless Deep Confidence in himself and his abilities. You KNOW Gregg didn't have ANY Inner asshole telling him he couldn't win!
Please click that little heart thing down below if you made it this far, and leave a comment if you've suffered from Coulda-Woulda-Shoulda before.
B-th, B-th, B-th, B-That's all folks!
Some of the thoughts and ideas expressed here come as a result of reading and reflecting on Tim Gallwey’s excellent book, The Inner Game of Golf.