There’s no doubt about it; the mental side of the golf game can quite literally “do your head in,” but does it have to be that way? Or, are there measures to improve your mental game, and with it, your handicap?
Thankfully, you can implement strategic steps and actionable advice to take your mental game to the next level. These are proven methods utilized by some of the greatest players the game of golf has ever seen.
Sport requires a delicate balance of focusing intensely when needed and immediately flipping the switch to letting your thoughts wander. Ask any professional athlete, and they’ll tell you, the mental game is the real challenge, and learning to harness your mental power separates the best from the rest.
But its golf, in particular, which seems to be the one game that baffles, bamboozles and frustrates the heck out of pros and amateurs alike. That little white ball is just sitting there, and it looks so easy to hit, but therein lies the problem. Golf, unlike tennis, is an “action sport,” meaning it requires “you” to take action. Tennis, for example, is “reactionary” because you have an opponent at the other end of the court.
Time is another factor. Golf is an incredibly slow game when compared to other sports. This “extra time” between shots and holes can either do wonders for your mental game or leave you a nervous wreck. Standing on the tee box can be nerve-racking, too; with all eyes firmly fixed on you, it’s easy to forget your pre-shot routine and shank your drive straight out of bounds.
This mental guide will provide you with proven strategies that have been tried and tested by the game’s greats. Some strategies may seem apparent, while others are less obvious. However, one thing is certain: we all need to improve our mental toughness. In most cases, it’s the one critical factor standing between you and the next level.
Understand your Game
One of the easiest and most straightforward strategies guaranteed to improve your mental strength is an honest appraisal of your golf game.
Start by purchasing a notebook or journal dedicated to analyzing your game. After every round or practice session, jot down the good and the bad. The key here is honesty, and I’m talking about being brutally honest. If you’re serious about improving your mental game, brutal honesty, although difficult, is the most effective way to evaluate your game.
You can create your own evaluation system but keep it simple; there’s no need to overcomplicate things; a simple handicap score system is fine. For example, you might be a ten handicap but are an excellent bunker player, so you score yourself a handicap of scratch. Alternatively, your long irons might be the weakest area of your game, so you score yourself a 17 handicap.
Brutal honesty and self-evaluation can be a therapeutic and cathartic experience. Self-evaluation also provides you with two significant benefits that will transform your mental game and improve your handicap.
- Positive Reinforcement: Physically writing down a good score next to an area of your game you know you excel, boosts your confidence, and reinforces your ability to analyze your own strengths.
- Actionable Plan: After each appraisal session, you’ll have a clear picture regarding your strengths and, more importantly, your weaknesses. Now you can plan and implement specific training drills and practice programs designed to improve your weaknesses and reinforce your strengths.
These self-appraisal strategies lead to increased productivity, improved confidence in your mental game, and a renewed appreciation and enjoyment for achieving an achievable goal.
Positive Self Talk
Positive self-talk is one of those strategies you’ve probably read about a million times, but there’s a reason for that. The world’s best athletes have identified positive self-talk as being one of the most critical elements in helping them achieve success.
Whether you’re a professional golfer or a beginner, positive self-talk can help transform your mental game translating to lower scores, improved confidence, and increased enjoyment for the game of golf. Basic human psychology means that many players find it uncomfortable to praise themselves, especially after topping a lob wedge straight into the water.
But let’s be clear, you’re talking to yourself internally, so only you can hear what you’re saying. Like any other part of your game, it takes time, but consistent practice will lead to improvement.
Let’s say you’re playing your club championships, and you’re in with a chance to take the victory.
You’re in the middle of the 18th fairway, staring down a five iron from 180; there’s water to the right of the green and a bunker to the left. Now is the perfect time to say to yourself, “I’ve practiced this shot a thousand times before, I know my yardages, and I’m confident in my pre-shot routine; I’ve got this”!
The same goes for bad shots; don’t let them linger too long in your mind because it can have an “avalanche effect” on the rest of your game. After you’ve played a bad shot, tell yourself, ” don’t worry, bad shots are bound to happen and part of the game; let it go, and let’s focus on the next shot.”
Trust me; I’ve seen and experienced the power of positive self-talk at the highest levels of sports. Positive self-talk can be challenging to master, but the benefits can quite literally revolutionize your game. So, unless you plan on having your mom caddy every round for you, taking the time to practice positive self-talk is paramount.
Every golfer has certain shots or holes that always seem to give them trouble no matter how many times they’ve played them. These demanding shots can play on your mind and cause the golfing demons to appear, but fear not, there is a way to quash the demons and stiff your three-iron to 2 feet.
You’re walking up to a shot you dread playing, and you can feel the panic kick in; the first thing to do is take some extra time; this simple strategy clears the mind and provides perspective. Now it’s time to relax. Numerous methods are used to relax, with the most well-known strategy being deep breathing.
There’s no steadfast rule for relaxation and calming techniques. Every player has their own methods to loosen up before playing important or challenging shots.
The famous Seve Ballesteros had an unusual approach: crossing his arms and pressing them forcefully into his lower chest for about 15 seconds. Once he would release his arms, he would exhale. Seve said he felt a significant release of tension and felt a calming effect after performing this routine.
So next time you approach a shot you’re not confident with, wriggle your toes, shake your arms or take a deep breath. Whatever you can do to help release tension and get you relaxed is well worth the time and effort.
Flicking the Switch
Despite popular belief among the general public, professional golfers and athletes alike do not maintain pinpoint focus throughout the entire round or competition.
Learning how to change your thought process and switch from focused to letting your mind wander, is one of the most critical yet challenging mental skills to acquire. Far too many amateur golfers feel the need to maintain a laser-like focus for the entire 18 holes. They think they’re doing the right thing, but in fact, they’re doing more harm than good.
Whether it’s talking to your playing partners, chatting with your caddy, or reminiscing about the good times, letting go clears your mind and keeps you mentally fresh for the rest of the round.
You can start this process immediately after playing your shot and then switch back to “focus mode” as your approach your ball. By switching back as you approach your ball, you gain your focus and can analyze your upcoming shot.
You can check the wind direction, the undulations of the greens, and any hazards or bunkers that might be in the way; it also speeds up play.
Post Round Practice
Planning to do some practice is an excellent way to correct any technical issues you may have had during the round. Fixing these technical problems immediately after the round does wonders for your confidence and your overall mental game.
Choose one or two shots that you struggled with during the round and hit a couple of buckets of balls to see if you can rectify the problem. You don’t have to practice for another two or three hours, just long enough where you feel you’ve got the issue sorted and confident enough for the next day’s play.
Let it Go
If you’re reading this article, then chances are you’re a regular golfer struggling with the mental side of the game. You’re technically and physically in tip-top shape, but your mental game is languishing.
But let’s put things into perspective, as the old adage goes, “it’s only a game” Now, I know it’s cliche, but it’s a cliche because it’s true. Shanking an iron, shooting 20 over your handicap, and losing the club championships all pale in importance compared to things with real significance, like spending time with family and friends.
Those of us who have experienced sport at the highest levels understand and accept that the stark reality is that you’ll lose more than you’ll win. The same thought process can measure the quality of your shots. Suppose you’re a high handicapper or weekend warrior. In that case, chances are you’ll play more bad shots than good, at least until you improve your handicap anyway.
I’m not saying golf doesn’t play an important role in your life; it does. You’ve invested vast amounts of time and money in the pursuit of improving your handicap, but as the 1946 US Open Champion Llyod Mangrum said,” ‘It’s not your life, It’s not your wife, it’s only a game.’
Take a deep breath, put it into perspective, let it go, and move on.
Don’t Take the Advice
Let me clarify what I mean; as a professional coach, if I give you a golden nugget of advice, then you’d better take it.
I’m referring to the countless “driving range” and “putting green” experts that you find at every club on the globe. You’ve had interactions with them before; “Hey John, you’re eyes aren’t over the ball, and your take back looks rushed,” sound familiar? Golf is already tricky enough, so why make it harder by listening to players who most likely have a higher handicap than you.
A good coach you can trust and rely on is paramount when it comes to the success and improvement of your game. Your coach is an expert; he has the knowledge, experience, and qualifications to develop and take your game to the next level.
So next time you’re practicing some putting, and you see an “expert” approaching, shut him down before he gets started or pop in some headphones and pretend not to hear him.
Forget the Results
Research has shown, and experienced coaches understand, that athletes who are “task-focused” instead of “results orientated” are typically more successful.
Everyone wants to win and shoot a good score; ask players if they’d prefer to win or lose; How many players do you think would say lose? I’d bet none. The very best players understand the focus needs to be on “how you plan to win” and not the winning itself.
Task-focused simply refers to players whose main priority is to get the best out of themselves. They play for the love of the game and judge their success on the minor improvements they make over time, not the last score they shot.
Results-oriented players are just that, solely focused on shooting the best score. Typically these players judge their performance on their score rather than making small incremental modifications.
Stay task-focused and concentrate on the small things one step at a time.
Golf is a game that can play with your mind if you let it; the emphasis here is on the phrase “if you let it.”
By implementing some or all of the strategies that I’ve outlined here, you’ll improve as a golfer, become mentally tougher, and enjoy and appreciate the game more than ever before.
Remember, golf is a great game played in the fresh air and amidst the beautiful surroundings of mother nature, but when it’s all said and done, golf is just a game.