Unleashed: No. 1 Huskies Redefine Women's Golf
Jan. 16, 2013
By Gregg Bell - UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - Brittany Tallman was trying to relate the mental aspects of her golf game to Dr. David Hanscom. She really was.
But she couldn't complete her sentence.
Managing "interference" to enhance performance was why Tallman and the nation's No. 1 women's golf team were here inside Seattle's renowned Swedish Medical Center. They were visiting Swedish's Neuroscience Institute, learning how surgeons and athletes can use the same mental approach to perform at peak levels.
But this was a whole `nother type of interference. It was one the Huskies' lone senior, her teammates - heck, anyone not a neurosurgeon -- had never seen.
"I'm sorry," Tallman said politely to Dr. Hanscom, "but I'm a little distracted by what's on behind you."
Projected on a screen behind Swedish's attending orthopedic spine surgeon was the live image of a gaping, blood-ringed opening. Underneath pulled-back, yellowed skin was grayish matter amid whitened bumps. The bumps were the lower neck vertebrae of a patient undergoing spinal stabilization surgery.
Some Huskies watched and looked enthralled. Others appeared horrified. Many had their mouths agape or averted their glances from the screen.
Assistant coach Andrea VanderLende turned away as she heard the sound of a high-speed drill. Dr. Bret Ball explained the drill was shaving the lamina, the back part of the vertebrae, "to make more room for the spinal cord." The neurosurgery fellow of Hanscom's was narrating what the Huskies were seeing via a closed-circuit feed.
"This is a five-hour surgery," Dr. Ball told the Huskies. "Just like it can take five hours to play a round of golf."
Then, he added while turning to the screen: "This point in the case is very dangerous. If he drills a millimeter too far, that patient is paralyzed."
At that point, Cyd Okino looked like she was staring down a bunker shot from behind a water hazard on the final hole of the NCAA championships, while in 40-mile-per-hour wind. A member of perhaps the most heralded freshman classes ever for coach Mary Lou Mulflur two years ago appeared as if she was getting ill. Okino was trying to look everywhere but at the screen.
Dr. Ball surveyed the eight UW golfers - not to mention infielder Ty Afenir and pitcher Jacob Coats of the Husky baseball team, Huskies pole vaulter Ashley Schnapp (a junior recently accepted into UW's undergraduate neurobiology program), distance runner Anna Dailey, plus Beddome Allen of UW's national-champion crew team. They were all watching this part of the five-hour surgery.
Then Dr. Ball asked the question of the day.
For Coach Mulflur's No.-1 ranked Huskies, it may prove to be the question of 2013.
"So how does this make you a better golfer?"
David Elaimy describes himself as a "performance/surgical coach."
PERFORMANCE = SKILL - INTERFERENCE (+/- LUCK)
This is where David Elaimy comes in.
(And I am letting you know right now, this is about to get a little Zen-like).
The 45-year-old Elaimy is a UW graduate and self-described "performance/surgical coach." He joined Washington's men's golf team in 1985 and made it onto its traveling squad in his fifth and final season of eligibility in '90 under coach Bill Tindall.
He is now Mulflur's secret weapon. This spring, SooBin Kim and loaded Washington aim for its first national championship, Elaimy may prove to be the most valuable volunteer assistant in college golf.
The native of Los Angeles graduated from Boise High School in Idaho before coming to UW. He hasn't left. Elaimy and his wife Lisa (UW Class of 1989, in pharmacy), their 10-year-old daughter Hannah and 7-year-old son Isaac live in the Wallingford area of Seattle.
For the last three years he's been with Mulflur's Huskies. He has been refining - and in fact redefining - the most important tool a golfer carries with his or her bag on the course.
"Surgery and golf are the same in that you succeed by being completely focused and centered," Elaimy told eight golfers and four neurosurgeons last Thursday night at the Husky Golf Center inside Alaska Airlines Arena, during a meeting with fellows from Swedish to talk about performance thinking in golf and in surgery.
"We are clearly able to compete among the best in the nation. It's about the consistency."
His goal for the athletes and surgeons with which he has worked for more than two decades: Reduce interference to achieve that consistency.
His formula: Performance = Skill - Interference (+/- Luck).
His reasoning: An athlete's skill is a "hardware" set that will remain relatively constant during competition. The key to increased performance is thus found in reducing the "software" variable of interference and detrimental, controllable factors such as anxiety.
Elaimy strongly believes you and I can adopt his formula in our everyday lives and careers, just as the Huskies are applying it on the golf course and the surgeons at the Swedish Neuroscience Institute are using it during spine surgeries.
After hearing four hours of enlightening, empowering presentations over two days last week, I believe he may be right.
"I started adopting and forming the mental approach after teaching golf for a few years," he said. "Just focusing on mechanics yielded limited success with my students. And while I could get them to hit it good in front of me at the practice range, they would come back frustrated because the technical thinking wouldn't hold up under pressure.
"So I started learning from many sources and through trial and error came up with the model and coaching. Some of my students began asking me to share my approach to performance with their business teams, partners and prospects. So I did a lot of business/golf events around the country and started working with freestyle mogul skiers and other athletes.
"Then came surgeons and medical practitioners."
The basis for Elaimy's self-awareness are rules he's set for "hardware" -- the body, swing mechanics, equipment, weather, scores - and "software," one's approach, perspective, emotions, and thoughts.
His rules include: *Software runs hardware *You cannot directly control hardware *With AWARENESS, you can generate any software program at any time *You are 100-percent responsible for your software *Software is contagious.
"Identify and repeat the software that makes you very good," Elaimy told the golfers and fellows on the second floor lounge of the Husky Golf Center. "Identify and attack the software that makes you worse."
Hours later, at 6:45 before sunrise on a Friday morning that frosted Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood, the Huskies' golf team met on Swedish's Cherry Hill campus. The golfers put on pale-blue surgical scrubs and toured a neurosurgery operating room. They looked like smiling Smurfs with blue hair nets. Nurses gave them a tour of the operating room and explained the equipment and procedures of surgeries.
It was Gray's Anatomy, only for real.
After the tour of the OR, Elaimy joined Dr. Hanscom in leading a discussion in a conference room. Hanscom is the first surgeon Elaimy began working with years ago.
"The OR is just a laboratory of stress management," Hanscom told the Huskies. "How many of you think we have no stress, that we have it all together? Well, we don't.
Surgery, it's still the same stress reaction as if you are at the plate with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, as if you are standing over the putt on the 18th green for the championship.
"Surgery, it's still the same stress reaction as if you are at the plate with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, as if you are standing over the putt on the 18th green for the championship."
Dr. Hanscom then told the Huskies something that flies in the face of everything they - and I - have heard since we were playing on our first sports teams as kids: PMA - positive mental attitude, that old coaches' bromide - doesn't work.
Wait ... whaaat?
"Positive thinking is a disaster of unmitigated proportions," Dr. Hanscom said. "Mind over matter does not work. Positive thinking does not remove anxiety.
"I'm here to talk to you about positive thinking versus awareness. ... The one thing I want you to take away from this is awareness. Be aware of the response. Do not suppress it."
Hanscom has passed on Elaimy's self-awareness approach of "putting anxiety in the moment" and being connected to one's physical environment to the younger neurosurgeons who cycle through Swedish's fellowship program. He says his fellows are having 20 percent of the number of surgery complications that he had in his first five years of practice.
"We tell our fellows to have the same thoughts no matter the procedure. We want to have our surgeons think the same way about the first skin incision as with removing a spur on the spine," Hanscom said.
"You hear golfers talking about thinking more on a harder shot. Don't do that. Think the same way for every shot."
Hanscom and Elaimy had others speak who have internalized this self-awareness process for higher performance, in medicine and in business. One was Dave Sabey. A linebacker on the 1967 Huskies, he turned a career as a young owner of a wood roofing business in 1971 into a Seattle-area real-estate development and construction company reported last decade to be worth $400 million.
Sabey focused on the first aspect of the Elaimy's "A.I.R. technique": *Awareness: what is happening within me? *Intention: dial in your focus *Respond: make the move; remain aware.
The purpose of the "A.I.R. technique" is to become aware of interference during a procedure or event. The idea is that increased self-awareness will lead to relaxed focus.
For golfers, take a moment to truly feel how the club sits in your hand. Appreciate the warm sun and the beautiful, green course you are playing on.
For surgeons, use two hands to hold the handle of the high-rev drill, to maximize the feel of it. Notice the lights and the staff and the entire OR environment. Feel your feet on the floor as you stand beside the patient.
Sabey subscribes to Elaimy's belief that self-awareness is the key to high performance. Sabey's point is that internal happiness leads to self-awareness.
"What makes you happy?" Sabey asked the Huskies. "Change your software to make you happy. Be centered on your happiness before the event starts, regardless of the outcome."
Kevin Brown also spoke to the Huskies Friday morning. The chief executive officer of Swedish Health Services advised the student-athletes to take time to "decompress" each day. He said despite leading a huge operation with 9,000 employees in the ultra-competitive world of medical services, "I don't get stressed out."
"Don't take work or a bad shot home with you," Brown said.
Dr. Peter Nora is the medical director of Swedish Neuroscience Specialist and the director of the Deep Brain Stimulation at Swedish Neuroscience Institute. He emphasized "Relax. Breathe. Feel where you are."
"As surgeons, we think we know it all," Dr. Nora said. "But these methods really help me.
"When I approach surgery, I would argue the stakes are pretty high. My approach my whole career was it was all about the outcome. But this approach (of Elaimy's) is really trying to separate out the outcome and focus on what's going on during the event. It's about awareness.
"It's simple things. When someone in the operating room hands you an instrument, stop and feel it. Even though you've done it hundreds of times, stop and appreciate what it is. Appreciate your surroundings. If you stop and say, `I love where I am right now,' you can take away all these distractions and become innately aware."
Dr. Nora concluded: "Don't constantly push yourself to the finish line. Don't constantly focus on the result. That raises your anxiety."
Anxiety, after all, is interference.
Monica Huang and the rest of the Husky women's golf team took mental training for the game to a new level.
"I'M ALWAYS LOOKING TO LEARN AND GROW"
All this meditative talk would be mere faint echoes on a distant fairway to the Huskies without Mulflur.
She's been coaching at UW since 1983, after U-turning from a degree in speech communications. That makes her the second-longest tenured coach at Washington behind rowing icon Bob Ernst. She's one of the two or three longest-tenured coaches in all of women's college golf.
Yet by adding Elaimy, whom she knew because their kids go to the same school in north Seattle, Mulflur is proving to be among the most innovative coaches of her sport. Or of any sport, for that matter.
She has incorporated his thinking as an integral part of her team. Elaimy himself is now an integral part of it; the "mind coach" is often one of the two UW coaches allowed to walk the fairways alongside Huskies during competition rounds. Sometimes, he and VanderLende coach rounds while Mulflur stays back in more of an oversight role.
"Players and others who know that I've been coaching for 30 years think I must know everything. Well, I don't," she told me outside the conference room at Swedish during a break in Elaimy's and Hanscom's presentation.
"I am always looking to learn and grow."
Her golfers think this latest innovation has turned a program with loads of potential into one that has the mettle to be a national champion this spring. The top four UW golfers are ranked in the top 89 of the latest GolfWeek/Sagarin Rankings. And all are freshmen and sophomores.
"Now, it's about having fun," said Kim, the Pac-12's women golfer of the month for November whom Golfstat ranks No. 1 in the country right now. "Before, we were always talking about `We have to succeed!'"
Junior Kelli Bowers has 10 top-25 career tournaments as a Husky. She's been UW's top golfer in five events. She blitzed the NCAA East Regional last spring, going under par with an opening round 71.
She was all over what she heard last week.
"I loved it," she said as the Huskies began assembling to carpool back to campus following what Hanscom called a "three-day seminar given to you in three hours."
"I never been the best-skilled golfer, but my best part is the mental game," Bowers said. "In golf, it's all in your mind. You are out on the course for five hours. Be grateful - `I'm out here. It's sunny.'"
She believes what Elaimy has taught the team has transformed the program.
"I think it's mattered," she said. "A lot of our players have never been into the mental thing. Subconsciously, it's helped us all."
For example, Bowers said Kim was "easily frustrated" when she first arrived in that heralded freshman class. Now, midway through her sophomore year, Kim is ranked as the nation's best, poised and undeterred.
"It's fun to watch," Bowers said. "Now, she has the golf skills and the mental game.
Dailey, the UW distance runner who joined the golfers at Swedish, put it best. She turned while walking out of the hospital and into a new outlook on her sport -- and perhaps her life.
"It was," Dailey said, gasping, "amazing!"
For more information on Elaimy's teachings, visit Elaimy Golf online.
About Gregg Bell Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for The Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.