Sooner or later (and usually sooner) every golfer realizes the game is mostly mental. Is it mental because we think too much or, because we think about the wrong things?
We hear announcers say over and over how ‘mentally tough’ Tiger is and how his mental toughness separates him from most of the other players. You probably heard how Henrik Stenson had such a mental breakdown in his game in 2000-2001 that he almost quit golf. Six years later he’s one of the best in the world, because something happened with his mind that allowed his body to make a golf swing unencumbered. So what can we take from all of this?
What is it that we are supposed to do with our minds when we play golf? My own humble opinion after thinking about this for decades is that we must keep the mind out of the way. We can’t just turn our minds off, so the task becomes one of keeping the mind focused on something so it can’t try to take control of the swing. When pros are playing very well we hear about them being in ‘the zone’.
You’ve probably heard that about athletes in almost every sport when they’re doing well. The basketball player that hits 8 three’s in a row was ‘in the zone’. The batter who can come to the plate with two out in the ninth and got a hit to win the game was ‘in the zone’.
Being in the zone is having your mind occupied and keeping it out of the way of your body. It’s not about your mind taking control and telling the body what to do step-by-step. It’s not about the mind focusing on how much is at stake on any given shot, putt or hit. Good mental coaches get their players to learn how to keep their minds occupied and out of the way.
One approach is to learn a pre-shot routine and let your mind run the tape. That way it’s doing something but it’s not getting in the way. It doesn’t become a third person sitting on your shoulder and whispering all sorts of foul ideas in your ear.
Some players learn to occupy their minds with more esoteric thoughts that put the game in perspective. You see this with players who have suffered a recent personal loss that forces them to realign their values. What’s nerve wracking about a 3 foot putt when a loved one is facing a fight with cancer. Players that are involved in charities have many images to draw upon to keep themselves grounded in reality.
In the grand scheme of things, how important is any putt, or chip, or drive? In the moment, the pressure can be almost unbearable. Perspective changes all of that. The trick is learning to focus your mind where and when you want. This is more than an act of will, it can be practiced in the same way you practice any golf shot – through repetition. Make your practice time be both physical and mental.
Learn to focus your mind on something other than swing mechanics on every shot. Even when you’re trying to learn a particular move – like a one piece takeaway – use your mind as an observer during the actual move, don’t let it try to run the show. Use it to gather data. Or focus it on the target. And then practice, practice, practice.
If you’re like me, you get into the zone every once in a while when you putt. It can be for a few holes, a few rounds or even a few weeks. Think back to that time, was your mind guiding you how to make each putt? No way! More than likely the confidence you had allowed your mind to relinquish control and be peacefully at rest just focused on the hole or maybe even the smell of a freshly cut green.
Tiger has perfected his mind control as much, or even more, than he has perfected his swing. And I believe the average golfer has a better chance at learning Tiger’s mind control than his swing.