In my years of coaching, I frequently ask golfers, on a scale of 1-10 with 10 being “very important”, how important they think the mental game is to their success in the game of golf (By the way, what number would you pick?). On average the answer is usually 9 or above. I then ask a follow up question that goes something like, “I’m glad you value you the mental game so highly, and I agree, the mental game is critically important to success in the game of golf. So, if you think it’s that important, how often do you practice it?” Amazingly, despite placing a high value on the mental game, people report rarely ever practicing it. Is this true for you as well?
As golfers, why is it we see tremendous value in the mental game yet rarely ever practice the very thing that we know will make a significant difference both in our performance on the golf course and in our overall enjoyment of the game? Are we all closet masochists who found a wonderfully unique and effective way to suffer? Although there are many golfers who might agree with that statement, myself being one of them, I would like to share some of the more rational reasons I believe the mental game is neglected. Then, I’ll give you some fundamental ways to begin incorporating the mental game into your practice and play.
So, what’s getting in the way? And why do we neglect the mental game? From my perspective, the primary obstacle is a lack of awareness. The majority of golfers simply don’t know about the mental game and are unaware of how it can help them improve. Other than the occasional article in a mainstream golf publication, the current culture of golf does not promote the mental game and as a result, the average golfer has very little exposure to it. In addition, most teaching pros focus their efforts on the mechanics of the golf swing not the mental aspects.
Another barrier is incomplete or misinformation. The current golf culture definitely does not lack for advice and guidance about the swing, as golf magazines are filled with tips and in depth analysis. However, when the mental game is addressed, the information is often superficial and oversimplified, and like the swing tip that works for a round or two, the golfer is left frustrated with limited growth and understanding. Frustrated and unchanged, most golfers will default to their previous mindset disillusioned about the effectiveness of the mental game.
Related to frustration, another stumbling block to embracing the mental game is our natural resistance to change. On every level, neurological, psychological, and socio-cultural, we don’t like to change. Meaningful change requires motivation, conscious effort, hard work, and full commitment. We would much prefer things to be simple, automatic, and effortless. Thus, anytime we are presented with something new to work on, in this case the mental game, and even though it might be in our best interest to do so, we resist and inevitably fall back on our old routines and habits.
So, as I ask you to consider adding some aspects of the mental game to your practice and play, I am fully aware of the challenge this presents, but I am confident that if you push through the resistance it will pay off in the long run and you will play better golf.
Here are some fundamental ways you might consider integrating the mental game into your practice and play:
- Slow things down – There are many reasons slowing down (mentally and physically) is beneficial to improving performance in golf, but the reason I would like you to slow down is so you can begin honing your skills of self-awareness. So often, in golf, our minds are racing cluttered with extraneous thoughts making it difficult to accurately perceive what is happening. If you’ve ever watched your swing on video you are bound to have had the experience of watching yourself do something that you didn’t realize you were doing. As a result of seeing what was actually happening on the video, it became much easier to make adjustments and corrections due to the fact that you were now working with accurate information. This is no different for the mental game, but since we can’t video our minds we need to rely on self-awareness. By slowing down, you will begin to develop an awareness of what is actually happening rather than what you thought was happening making improvement more viable.
- Pay attention to your body and your breathing – Our bodies and our breath can be powerful indicators of our mental state and much easier to observe and correct than our minds. When you practice and play, notice if there is any tension in your body. Pay specific attention to where you carry your own stress. Common places people physically carry stress are in their neck, shoulders, and lower back. By simply noticing where the tension is it will help to reduce it. Obviously, tension and an effective fluid golf swing don’t mix as it significantly reduces our ability to swing the club efficiently. Also, pay attention to your breathing. Is it short, fast, restricted, and in your chest? Or is it long, slow, free, and deep in your abdomen? When you practice and play you should be striving for the later as it is conducive to improved focus, concentration, decision making, and tension reduction all of which will increase your chances of improving your performance.
- Develop a consistent and repeatable pre-shot routine – As I noted earlier, we don’t like change and a good pre-shot routine can take advantage of this. The more consistent and repeatable an action or behavior is, the less stressful it is to us, which will in turn increase the chances of performing that behavior effectively. Thus, a pre-shot routine can be incredibly helpful to consistently achieve the proper mindset needed to hit a quality golf shot. In addition, pre-shot routines are an opportunity to re-focus on the task at hand and reduce mental interference (i.e. fear, anxiety, anger, elation, overconfidence).
- Visualize your shots – Research from the world of neuroscience tells us that the same regions of the brain are active whether we are imagining, or visualizing, ourselves doing something versus actually do it. In essence, by visualizing your shots you are giving yourself an opportunity to “virtually” hit the shot before it even happens, priming your mind and body to more effectively execute the shot you want to hit. When you visualize the shot, be as descriptive and specific as you can trying to include as many of your senses as possible. What will it look like? How high will the ball fly? Will it fade or draw? Where will it land? How will it roll out? What will it sound like? Given the shot you envisioned, how will the swing feel that’s needed to execute the shot? You can decide on your own when to visualize, but I would recommend making it a part of your pre-shot routine.
- Just because you think it, it doesn’t mean it’s true – This is a bit more abstract, but extremely worthwhile nonetheless. The things we think about ourselves are just thoughts, they are not truths, or facts. If you make the mistake of believing the things that you say about yourself are facts, you can find yourself stuck in an identity that will guide your behavior in ways not helpful to your performance. For example, I played with someone recently, who after missing a short putt, declared, “I’m the worst putter in the world!”. This refrain, in various iterations, continued throughout the round. Now, it might seem fairly innocent to pound away at yourself when you don’t live up to your expectations, but there are significant consequences. It was clear that my playing partner did not think very highly of his ability to putt and I have no doubt that the identity he created for himself as “The Worst Putter in the World” contributed to why he struggled so much on the greens. If you are someone who is really tough on themselves in your practice sessions or on the course, start challenging the negative self-statements, judgments, and criticisms you make.
You can have the best technically sound swing in the world, but if your mental game isn’t strong, your chances of performing well significantly decrease. Take some of these ideas out to the range or course the next time you play. I am confident that not only will your scores improve, but your overall enjoyment of the game will also increase.