The Foundational 5
As a Clinical & Sports Psychologist, one of obstacles I face working with clients is the abstract nature of the mental game. Most people kind of know what the mental game is, definitely know that it’s important, don’t quite understand how to work on it, and struggle to consistently apply the little bit that they do know. Why this is is a conversation for another time, but for now, I want to try to help simplify things and hopefully make the mental game a bit more approachable.
When it comes to the mental game of golf, there are numerous psychological skills discussed in the literature that are associated with optimal performance. For the purpose of this article I want to focus on the five that I believe are foundational and should be the bedrock of every golfer’s mental game.
In no particular order, the following mental game skills are a must if you want to succeed in the game and need to be applied every time you put the peg in the ground:
If you’re not doing it already, you need to set goals! They don’t necessarily need to be specific or even well defined (although for many people it helps to do so), but you need to have goals. Goals help us in many ways, but in particular, they motivate us, provide a clear sense of direction, and help hold us accountable because they can be measured and tracked over time. Here are some mental game goals you could set for yourself the next time you play:
- Goal #1: Try and go through your pre-shot routine, fully committed, on every shot. Make note of how many times you were able to do it and use that number as a goal to beat the next time you play. Your goal is to be able to be fully committed over every shot.
- Goal #2: Try and play the entire round without judging yourself or your shots. Make note of how many times a judgment happens and use that number as a goal to beat the next time you play. Your ultimate goal would be to play an entire round of golf without any judgment.
- Goal #3: Take a deep breath with a longer than normal exhale before stepping into each shot. Make note of how many times you were able to do it and use that number as a goal to beat the next time you play. Your goal is to do this type of breathwork on every shot.
Unless they are dead or comatose, there is no golfer on the planet who doesn’t experience stress and pressure when they are playing. In fact, stress and pressure are a requirement of any performance. For most golfers, however, the problem arises when there is too much stress and pressure and they are ill prepared to handle it. The solution is simple: breathe! Learning how to control your breathing is the easiest and most effective way to manage the negative effects of stress and pressure. By breathing from your diaphragm with slow, smooth, rhythmic breaths, you will essentially deactivate the part of your mind that is feeling too much stress and pressure allowing you to regain composure. Here is a worksheet describing a few ways to breathe to help get you started.
The process of mental rehearsal is often thought to be one of the more important psychological skills leading to optimal performance. However, my experience tells me there is more to the skill than just “seeing” what you are trying to do as visualization alone might lead you to believe. Mental rehearsal is a full-body experience when the athlete takes the time to not only “see” what they want to do, but also to “feel” it. Golf is one of the few sports where you get the opportunity to practice the behavior you intend to perform, in real time, just before you actually perform it. The next time you play, make sure your practice swings are purposeful. What I mean by that is make your practice swings as if you were actually hitting the shot you want to hit. Try to not only visualize, or see, the shot, but really try and feel what you want to do. The best part about making more purposeful practice swings is that it also gives you the opportunity to make any subtle changes without the risk.
Target focus is a skill that is mandatory to be successful in the game of golf. It is the ability of a golfer to consciously control their attention in the face of distractions. Most golfers are not good at target focus. They think they are focused on one thing when, in fact, their attention is fixed on something else, and unless they know that that’s happening, that “something else” will become their new target. Let me give you a classic example, you’re standing on the tee box ready to tee off, when out of the corner of your eye you see a pond that hugs the right side of the fairway. Immediately, your attention shifts from “stripe it down the middle” to “don’t go right”. You take the club back, swing, and sure enough the ball goes right, splashing into the middle of the pond. The root of the problem is the simple lack of awareness as to what our target was at the moment when you choose to execute a shot. If you’re worrying about a pond, the pond will become your target. If you’re thinking about your grip, your grip will become your target. If you’re anxious about being embarrassed, embarrassment will become your target. The next time you play, challenge yourself to stay fully connected to your intended target throughout the shot. If you notice yourself getting distracted, back off and refocus. This is easier said than done, but the more you practice, the better you’ll get.
How you talk to yourself on the golf course matters. Surprisingly, it’s not a matter of being positive or negative. Rather, what matters is whether or not your self-talk is productive or unproductive. Productive self-talk is specific, objective, rational, and focused on the present moment. It helps you stay focused on your goals and your process, and it motivates you to keep going. More importantly, productive self-talk is designed to help learn and move forward. Unproductive self-talk is vague, subjective, irrational, judgmental, and focused on the past or the future. There is no new learning or growth. It is limited by what it knows and is not open to new possibilities. It often leads to anxiety, frustration, and poor performance. The next time you play, pay attention to your inner dialogue. What is the quality of the communication? Is it helping you get better? Or, is it interfering with your development as a player? Any time you notice your inner dialogue being unproductive, see if you can reframe, or re-word, what you are saying to yourself in a more productive way. For example, if you say something like, “I am so bad at golf. I can’t get out of my own way!” It can be helpful to reframe it in a more productive way like, “I understand I am frustrated, but I’m committed to learning from my mistakes and I’m getting better every day.” I realize this is difficult to do when you are feeling like you want to quit or wrap your club around a tree, however, it’s clear to me that the more productively you talk to yourself the faster you will improve.
As golfers aim to become better at the game, these mental skills are critical tools. Each one deals with a different part of how our minds work when we play. But they aren’t things you can learn right away – you need to practice and think about them carefully. While following these ideas won’t make problems disappear, they can make the mental side of golf seem less overwhelming. This helps golfers have a better relationship with the game and themselves. Just like improving your swing takes time and practice, so does improving your mindset. With every swing and thought, the mental game becomes a way to get better at handling challenges, being strong when things get tough, and striving for greatness.