Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Swing Thoughts

I know I’m probably alone in saying this, but The Replacements is one of my favorite sports movies. While I recognize its absurdities (the placekicker smokes while lining up a field goal), its inaccuracies (why do they call timeout after a kickoff to stop the clock?) and its inability to decide on whether it's slapstick or serious, it’s still got a likeable story with a bunch of good messages about confidence, redemption and the game day advantages of having a sideline full of strippers.

(And if that’s not enough, it’s got an all-star “Hey, that’s so-and-so” cast, featuring Mikey from Swingers as a cop-turned-maniacal linebacker, Roy from The Office as a deaf, sure-handed tight end, and Tim and Billy Riggins’ future Friday Night Lights love interest as a hot cheerleader who can break down a zone defense.)

What sticks with me the most from the movie, though, is the scene in which the new replacement players are engaged in a team-building exercise where everyone has to open up about what they’re afraid of. When it comes around to Shane Falco, the quarterback and unquestioned leader, he gives a surprising response: quicksand.

“You’re playing, and you think everything is going fine,” Falco explains. “Then one thing goes wrong. And then another. And another. You try to fight back, but the harder you fight, the deeper you sink. Until you can’t move…you can’t breathe…because you’re in over your head. Like quicksand.”

It was a revealing confession, one that we can all probably identify with on some level. But I’d bet that there’s not another quarterback out there who can identify with it more than the University of Texas’ Garrett Gilbert.

Gilbert, like Falco, has always had star potential. A five-star recruit and national high school player of the year, he was blessed with all of the physical skills in the world, but since he arrived on campus, he’s seemed to struggle with a sort of emotional block that has kept him from performing up to his true capabilities.

In 2010, his first as the Longhorns’ starter, he suffered through a brutal campaign, throwing the second-most interceptions in the country and becoming public enemy number two among the UT message board crowd (Offensive Coordinator Greg Davis took the undisputed top spot).

And this past Saturday night, in Texas’ season-opening win against Rice, Gilbert got off to another uneven start.

While he did some nice things early on, like hitting a beautiful deep ball to set up the Horns’ first score, watching him, as a fan, still felt a lot like it did last year. Not only was he forcing some throws and struggling with his accuracy, he looked tight and anxious, seemingly pressing to make something happen. You could sense the tension through the computer screen (I was forced to watch an illegal online feed, because I’m not one of the seven people who get The Longhorn Network). There was no flow, no fun, and you wondered if a face-mask-grabbing disaster was coming every time he dropped back.

And eventually, it (almost) did. On a critical third down early in the second half, as he was about to get sacked, Gilbert inexplicably tried to lateral to his running back, who was trailing the play. The ball went bouncing towards the Texas end zone, the perfect opportunity for a defensive scoop-and-score, but UT fortunately recovered it.

It was a cardinal sin mistake, a play you wouldn’t expect out of a high school freshman – much less a college junior – and it appeared there was a chance that Gilbert could get benched. The word all offseason was how the starting quarterback would be on a short leash, and with the offense sputtering, this seemed to be as good of an opening as any to sit him down.

But I hadn’t given up on Gilbert just yet, and I was hoping the coaches hadn’t, either. Not just because I blindly support anyone in burnt orange, and not just because I thought he was still the best option at quarterback, but for a far more personal reason:

He reminds me a lot of myself.

Several years ago, when I was attempting to play golf competitively, I battled my share of difficult times, just like Gilbert has. Thankfully, I didn’t have a bunch of rabid fanatics depending on me to make their Saturdays, though, because if I had, I’d probably be locked up in a straightjacket somewhere, staring off into space like David Puddy.

For me, my internal expectations gave me more than enough to talk about with my therapist.

I was uncompromisingly hard on myself, and it got to the point where I dreaded going out to practice, because I knew what awaited. Instead of just concentrating on consistently improving, I was trying to qualify for the PGA Tour with every swing of the club. Each shot carried with it this far-reaching, core-shaking conclusion – if it wasn’t good, then I wasn’t good – and, sad as it is to admit, it turned the golf course into my own, private torture chamber.

I’d get up on the tee, and I’d be immediately drawn to all of the deep, dark places where my golf ball could end up. It was all I saw, and it flooded my mind with a million negative thoughts about how I wasn’t aimed properly or that I didn’t have the right club or that I was going to reenact Tip Cup’s performance on the U.S. Open driving range. The tension was utterly crippling, and despite telling myself that it wasn’t the end of the world if I were to hit a bad shot, it didn’t really matter. What mattered was that I believed that it would be the end of the world, and then when I hit it crooked, it felt like the end of the world. Each negative outcome would feed the next, and I couldn’t figure out how to break out of the cycle.

When you’re constantly worried about screwing up, you have very little chance of performing. Driven by fear, your natural ability is muted, and you become so consumed with all that can go wrong that any success you experience happens almost by accident.

One afternoon, I was out playing, and on the first hole, I hit a really nice approach shot about five feet from the flagstick. But as I lined up the birdie putt, I had absolutely no confidence that I was going to make it. The fears of failure, of success, of the gopher from Caddyshack jumping out of the hole and kicking me in the crotch swirled through my head, suffocating me with anxiety. I tried to shut it out by visualizing a positive image, but ultimately, it was no use. I could only see the golf ball finishing above ground.

And sure enough, that’s exactly where it came to rest.

Staring at my disobedient Titleist, I didn't know what to do. Why did I keep doing this to myself? Why was I giving in to such a ridiculous thought pattern? When was it going to register that playing out of fear and worry and caution was guaranteeing the negative results from which I was trying to protect myself?

As I walked to the next hole, though, I felt this anger swell up inside. But for once, it wasn’t a debilitating anger…it was an “I’m not going to put up with this anymore” fire, and it allowed me to see things more clearly. Maybe I was going mental, or maybe I’d just hit rock bottom, but whatever it was, I was a different person when I stepped on the tee box.

Golfers are often taught to focus on one thought as they prepare to hit a shot. Typically, it’s some sort of technical key, a trigger to help them execute a particular move in their swing, like “Rotate your hips” or “Stay down through the ball.” But as I stood over my next shot, armed with this newfound determination, I decided it was time that I go with something a little less sophisticated and a lot more primal:

F*** it.

What if I made a terrible swing? F*** it. What if I put it in that impossibly deep bunker? F*** it. What if I banana ball it through that kitchen window? F*** it. Just hit it. No strings attached. No deep, lasting effects. No nothing. The ball is going to go where it’s going to go, and wherever it ends up, we’ll go find it and hit it again.

Not surprisingly, I flushed it right where I was looking, and this time, it was no accident. For the first time in a long while, my swing had some authority to it. It had acceleration. It had power. It had command.

And more than anything, it had freedom.

When I got to the green, I decided to take things a step further – for the rest of the round, I was going to putt with my eyes closed. I’d read about tour players doing this to get back in touch with their feel, but for me, it was more about disassociating from what could go wrong. If I couldn’t see it, I wouldn’t worry about it. I could just concentrate on what I could control – my putting stroke – and trust that the golf ball could find its own way through the great unknown.

I won’t bore you with the shot-by-shot – I know that most people can’t stand to watch golf on TV, much less read about it – but I played the next 10 holes in three under par. That won’t win you much, but it was the easiest, most care-free stretch of my life. My swing wasn’t a model of perfection, nor was I in the “zone”…it was just that I had finally gotten out of my own way, giving my true talent the chance to take effect. Because I literally did not care what happened, I was able to focus on the process of what I wanted to achieve instead of being obsessed with the results. And with my mind uncluttered, my body could perform.

Naturally, once it registered that I had something going, I immediately wanted to protect it, and my old demons began wreaking their usual havoc again. But even though my back nine scorecard was littered with bogeys, I left the golf course knowing that I’d found the answer.

When things aren’t going well, our instincts obviously tell us to do whatever we can to fix them. We want to feel like we have control, so we dig in deeper, and we fight harder, and we scream louder, regardless of where it gets us. But the trick is really to do just the opposite - to relax, to let it go, to try not to try.

And if I could give Garrett Gilbert one piece of advice, that’s exactly what I’d tell him.

After making that head-scratching lateral, Gilbert was fortunately given another shot to redeem himself. Facing a pivotal point in his UT career, he responded admirably by leading the Horns on consecutive touchdown drives of 72, 99 and 94 yards. By no means was he perfect, and there was still plenty of room for improvement, but he did seem to settle down some, flashing the ability that had gotten him tagged just a year ago as the Next Big Thing.

The jury is still out on whether or not he can uphold the recent quarterback tradition that was established by the genius of Vince Young and Colt McCoy, but I still think he’s got a shot. Because beyond his improved second half production, I was most encouraged by something else that I saw the other night, something you won’t find in the game film or on the stat sheet.

Texas had just scored one of their final TDs, and the camera caught Gilbert on the sideline, reacting to the play. Jumping up and down, smiling, celebrating with his teammates, it seemed as if the pressure valve was finally loosening for him. He was happy. He was light. He was just a kid again, playing a game that was supposed to be fun.

And in that moment, even if just for a second, you could almost see his head poking out from underneath the quicksand.

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"It's not a lie, if you believe it." Those were the words of one of my generation's great sages, George Costanza, and the more of life I experience, the truer they ring. And while I still haven't found what I'm looking for, the search for my own personal "truths" is never-ending. Care to come along for the ride?