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UConn Golfers Benefit From Mind Games

Jon Wortmann serves as a volunteer assistant with the men's golf program.

June 1, 2012

By Phil Chardis

Assistant Director-Athletic Communications

STORRS, Conn. - When that noted philosopher, Yogi Berra, theorized that "90 percent of this game is half-mental," it was easy to tell that he wasn't talking about golf. The numbers weren't nearly high enough.

In perhaps no other sport does the mental part of the game so influence the results --- not only match by match, not only round by round, but even swing by swing. And when it comes to golf at the collegiate level, the mental influence may play an even larger role.

"Pretty much every kid in college golf can hit it far or whatever, but when it comes to scoring, it's 99.9 percent mental," said University of Connecticut golf coach Dave Pezzino. "These kids can play. They don't need swing instructors, or if they do, I'm recruiting the wrong guys. Everybody makes birdies when the pressure's not on, but can you string three days together, three rounds together? That's the biggest thing."

Still, it wasn't as if Pezzino went out looking for a mental coach as a way to help his Huskies improve their focus both on and off the course. When one was placed right in front of him, however, Pezzino was smart enough to recognize the possibilities. Jon Wortmann wasn't going to try teaching the UConn players how to drive the ball farther, chip it closer, or read the green better --- although as close to a scratch golfer himself, he probably could help do so --- but rather he could try to give each of the Huskies the mental strength necessary to improve in all phases of the game.

Wortmann is a highly-successful non-profit leader and corporate coach and trainer, specializing in communication, leadership, and stress reduction skills. A graduate of Carleton College, where he played tennis on a national level, and with a master's degree from Harvard, Wortmann has co-authored three books, including "Hijacked by Your Brain: Discovering the Path to Freedom From Stress." He lives in Ellington with wife Jennifer, a Ph.D. candidate in clinical psychology at UConn, and had absolutely no plans to become an assistant golf coach at the university.

It wasn't long after Pezzino and Wortmann became acquainted while playing golf at Ellington Ridge Country Club, however, that they began to talk about applying Wortmann's skills to Pezzino's players.

"I was first looking for ways to communicate better with our players," Pezzino said. "With all the new media and everything that's thrown at our guys, and all our guys are different types of learners, I was looking for different ways to communicate. Jon was able to evaluate guys by just standing off to the side in practice."

From there, it was a short step for Wortmann to become a volunteer assistant coach and get deeper involved with the development of the UConn players.

"When Dave asked, `Hey, would you want to help these guys?' I was very excited because no one had ever given me deep insight as to how my head worked," Wortmann said. "If they had, I might have had a chance to do more with my athletics, while at the same time been a good student and leader.

"The guys ask me, `Why are you doing this?' and I say, `Because if I can give a few of you a shot to be the golfers you want to be ... well, no one gave me that chance. Best of all, if we can create a culture on this team where everyone knows how to be a leader and everyone is given the best chance to have unbelievable academic experiences at a first-class research institution like UConn, that's great. There are three pillars that Dave and I emphasize over and over again: `We want you to be great students, we want you to be great leaders, and that's going to make you great golfers.' "

No, all of a sudden, the Huskies didn't turn into a team of Rory McIlroys. But anyone who didn't notice a definitive improvement wasn't paying attention. Each of UConn's top five players --- Jeb Buchanan, Brian Hughes, Matt Carroll, Matthew Dziubina, and Chris Wiatr --- had a top 10 finish this season. That was a first for UConn golf.

"I really didn't know what we would be able to accomplish going in," Pezzino said. "But to see all the guys on the team have a top 10 finish, that was a big deal. I think Jon and I are onto something here."

Wortmann's lessons could be applied to many sports, but can be especially effective in golf.

"It's all about focus," Wortmann explained. "The reason golfers make mistakes --- that's golfers at this high competitive level --- is not really because they have a swing problem, If they do, they can go see Dave or their golf pro and they can get that fixed in 30 minutes. But the reason they shoot 4-under versus 4-over is the decision-making process they use to get singularly-focused on doing one thing at a time. Great golfers know how to --- maybe not block it all out, that just happens to be a side effect of having chosen one thought, or one emotion, or one goal over each shot that their brain gets entirely zoned in on. It's a fascinating thing. If you think about it, there are two worlds --- there's an alarm world, you're freaked out, you've got adrenaline in your system --- and there's what I call the optimal world. And in the optimal world, you've got one thing --- it could be a goal, could be emotion, could be a thought --- for which you're using your frontal lobes. If you think about this one thing, suddenly, your stress level goes down.

"When you learn how to do that and choose those kind of optimal ways to focus ... literally, guys were making putts they never thought they could. Each person has a different set of thoughts, emotions, and goals that keep them focused and my job is to help them uncover those optimal ways of thinking that keeps the decision-making part of their brain focused and their alarms, their stress response, turned down."

Wortmann's schedule did not allow him time to travel with the Huskies, nor be at every practice, but with his kind of coaching, that wasn't necessary.

"I was able to be with them once a week, maybe four or five hours, chasing them around, giving them one thing to focus on and that helped them improve," Wortmann said. "That's the way this brain science stuff works --- if you really focus on one thing, it helps you to think clearly. It improves your golf immeasurably."

And with the improvement, Pezzino can work on the consistency the Huskies need to become a legitimate contender in every tournament they enter.

"What we were missing here was some mental toughness," the six-year UConn coach said. "Trying to get the guys to understand that playing one shot at a time is a huge thing, but if they get distracted or a thought comes into their head, they have to clear their mind and start over. What I like is that Jon and I are "no excuse" guys. Like they'll say, `Oh, a car horn honked during my backswing.' Well, OK, did you use that challenge as an opportunity? Did you take the opportunity that you had an impossible chip shot as like a fun challenge, or did you think, `Oh, woe is me?' That's the kind of culture we're changing."

Wortmann is clearly excited about the results he has seen with the UConn golfers and intends to continue his role next season and beyond. Golf, in fact, might just be the start of something bigger.

"Certainly, this can be applied to other sports as well," Wortmann said. "What's interesting is, when you learn to manage your stress response, you can in fact turn it up to give yourself more adrenaline in high-impact sports like football, or even running. It's possible, when you're running a 5,000-meter track race or a 5-mile or 10K race to think of certain things that will get the adrenaline flowing and allow you to run faster. All this is new in being applied to sports and UConn is the place where we are testing it. We'll see where it goes, based on its success with golf."

And, Pezzino hopes, its success with the golfers themselves. The Huskies only began to have Wortmann helping them as an assistant coach last spring and Pezzino is eager to see how many of his lessons they retain.

"My biggest thing with Jon helping is that, yes, it's going to help them play better, because it helps them think in a more relaxed way," Pezzino said. "But we hope it helps them think better in their whole lives --- with their test-taking, with dealing with their parents, with dealing with relationships ... It's more than golf mental skills, it's life mental skills."