Thinking Golf

As a Titleist Golf conditioning coach, I don’t believe there is one way to swing a club. Yet what I do feel holds true is that there is one efficient way for everyone to swing a club and it’s based on what they can physically do.

Golf is a mental game of focus and concentration. I am not about to tell anyone that a player who lacks physical skills can transform overnight into a winner by changing how they think. To play a strong game you have to attain a level of physical competence to play well, which takes focus and practice. Lots of focus and practice.

Having said that, I believe it’s impossible to overestimate the importance of your brain in golf. First off, there is no such thing as “muscle memory.” Your muscles have no capacity to remember anything. Memory resides in your brain. Therefore, no matter how long you practice a golf swing, no matter how skilled you become, your muscles alone can’t remember it and execute it when the need arises on the golf course. Bottom line your brain controls your muscles movement patterns. Unless your brain is functioning well when you play golf, your muscles are going to flounder. If your head is filled with too many thoughts, your scorecard is going to be full of poorly executed strokes.

Having control of your mind and body and using it properly can separate you from the competition, whether it’s at a club level or on the PGA Tour. My TPI coaching has strengthened my believe that every golfer has the potential to be much better than he or she is and that possessing a healthy brain is one essential way to improve your golf. You will never know if you have the ability to be the best player in the world, or the best player in your club, unless you commit yourself to developing both your physical and mental skills.

1. Think great play great.

Thinking is believing. There’s a fine line between focused playing to play great and senseless playing. Senseless players hit the driver off virtually every tee. They fire at any location where the risk-reward equation doesn’t add up in their favor (known as a sucker pins). Basically, a sucker pin is any location where the risk-reward equation doesn’t add up in your favor. If you take dead aim at a sucker pin, there’s usually a big penalty for a minor mistake. The flip side is, there’s often plenty of room to play it safe. Golfers who are playing to play great appreciate a great drive more than they fear the rough. They like making putts and chipping more than they loathe not getting up and down. But they may have a conservative strategy for certain holes. The conservative strategy is what permits them to always make a confident, even cocky swing. When the moment is right, when they’ve got a scoring club in their hands, they take dead aim at the hole. Conversely, players who play to play understand that good can be the enemy of great. They know that if they get too concerned about not being bad, they might not free themselves up enough to be great. They play to win.

If you golf with your brain, you become the architect of your round controlling your destiny on the green. I want clients to understand this. They have free will. The choices they make with that free will determine the quality of their golf game and the quality of their lives. If you consistently make the right choices, you’re destined for greatness. As a golf coach I am not suggesting that this means you’re going to win all the member guest, club championships or Grand Slam tournaments. I’m saying that if you make the right choices, you will someday look back on your life or that part of your life that was devoted to golf, and say, “Wow! That was a great time,” and you owe it all to how you think about your golf game.

2. Love the challenge of the day, whatever it may be.

Golf is a game of mistakes and unpredictability. If it were not, no one would ever miss a fairway, a green or a putt. On top of that, there would be no sudden gusts of wind, no unfortunate bounces, no imperfections in the turf. Every ball would go exactly where you wanted it to go, and the winning score in a golf tournament would be something like 50 strokes per round. This thinking is called an illusion.

If you truly appreciate golf, you must love the fact that no one shoots 50, that golf is an inherently imperfect game. An illusion at best. If you spend your time fighting the fact that golf is a game of mistakes and trying to make it a game of perfect shots, you’re really setting your mind up for disappointment. No one has ever perfected golf not Tiger Woods, not Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson, Roy Mcllroy, not even Jack Nicklaus or Annika Sorenstam.

Golfers who understand and live for the game accept it rather than try to fight or fix the reality that it is not perfect but rather a game of trials and corrections. They realize the essence of golf is reacting well to inevitable mistakes and misfortunes. They know they can separate themselves from their competition not by perfecting their games but by constantly striving to improve. I tell my golfers that if there’s one thing they should always be proud of in their games, it’s how well they react to mistakes. I tell them that they will never have complete control or even indirect control over the golf ball. Direct control being the ability to dictate the outcome and indirect control is the ability to at least anticipate the outcome. Yet what they can control is their attitudes and emotional state.

3. Get out of final outcome and get into the process.

There’s a goal that I speak of often with my golfers. It’s a thinking skill surrounding their “process goals” in golf. Success comes from patiently and persistently doing the right things over and over. Process goals are the “to-do lists” of players striving for excellence. The process is what gives you a chance to find out how good you can be. Setting realistic golf goals isn’t for every player but they can strengthen practice and pre-shot routines for those of us who enjoy competition. Setting golf goals can be tricky because as I have said so much of the game is outside our control.

Here is a set of process goals for a round of golf. If you follow them, you’ll give yourself your best chance to find out how well you can play in that particular round:

. Check your grip and alignment before every shot to increase directional accuracy off the tee and on the approach

. Use a practice/rehearsal swing before every shot/putt to ensure directional accuracy.

. Add a one-handed putting drill to practice green warm-up.

• Trust your self on every shot. You have absolute control of where the ball goes.

• Stay in the now be present. Don’t speculate in the middle of the round about what your score might be, or where your will stand in the tournament. Disruptive thinking will disrupt your swing thought. Simply top worrying about breaking 90, 80 or 70.

. Critique or analyze your shots. Instead focus on each shot as it comes, and that will be the only shot you think about. When it’s over, appreciate the game and learn what improvements might help next time.

• Refuse to allow anything that happens on the golf course to bother your emotional state. Accept bad breaks and mistakes and be tough in adversity. Be in the moment. Maintain a great state of mind for the entire round.

• Trust my instincts and be decisive and committed.

• Be mentally and physically relax to get looser freer and more confident as the round goes on, resisting the urge to get tighter, more careful and doubtful.

• Don’t assess your irons, wedge and putter.

• Maintain a constant, ideal level of intensity.

• Play to play great one shoot at a time.

In setting goals, you need to take an honest inventory of your game. Maybe your ball striking needs improvement. Maybe it’s chipping and pitching or bunker play. Maybe it’s something in your mental game. You might need to have a better attitude toward putting, or you might need to be better at staying in the present. Obviously, no one is perfect in any of these areas. Set the process goals that are correct for you.

4. Your mantra goes like this, “nothing will bother or upset me on the golf course, and I will be in a great state of mind for every shot.” When my golfers discuss their anger or irritation over a mis-hit shot or a case of the yips, I know one thing immediately; they were not staying in the present. My coaching advice is to focus on the next great shot not the one shot that’s already been played.

Anger and frustration are impediments to playing the game of golf. For starters, if you’re angry, you’re not focused on the only shot that matters, which is your next one. On top of that, anger introduces tension into the body, which will ruin your swing. Tension damages rhythm and tempo. It hinders your effort to get your mind and body into the state where you play your best golf.

I prefer my golfers to practice the virtue of acceptance. I want them to accept whatever happens to a shot and move on. To an ambitious golfer, the natural tendency becomes refusal to accept mistakes. But in golf, because humans are flawed and the game is mentally and physically challenging, mistakes are going to happen. Accepting them is not a weakness. It’s an important part of becoming more resilient and mentally tougher, a part and parcel of becoming more consistent golfer, of being able to hang in there during a round, and finishing with a good score card.

Acceptance is a critical component to be practiced on the course, during each round of golf. After it’s over, it’s fine to make a quick assessment of what part of your game needs improvement. Then lay out a plan to improve your weaknesses. Acceptance doesn’t preclude preparation and practice to improve our skills.

5.The biggest mistake most golfers make is to let “how” they play dictate their attitude. If the ball is going where they want it to go, they have a good attitude. When you’re playing well, it’s fine to go with the flow. But when you’re playing badly, you need the discipline to control your thoughts and think only about the way you want to play. Not about what you could have done.

I have to stop my golfers and point out the implication of what they’ve just said. I refer to this as “tee talk” Players who are truly in the present step onto the tee and think only of how they want to hit the tee shot. They don’t think about whom they are playing with, where their next golf trip might be or if they are going to sign up for the club championship. Rather, they feel the tee shot-they hit it-they accept it-and move on. Think trial and correction. Then they repeat the process on the next hole until the ball strike is efficient and consistent.

If your mind is truly in the present, you don’t evaluate how you’re playing, because that would mean you’re thinking about the past. You don’t pass judgement on your shot, compare or critique for the same reason.

Don’t keep a running tally of your score, thinking as you do that if you can par in you’ll break 70, or 80, or whatever. That would mean thinking about both the past (the score is, after all, the sum of the strokes you’ve made in the past) and the future (the total you’ll have at the end of the round).

Don’t pay attention to how others in the field are playing, and if you happen to see a leader board, it means almost nothing to you. Thinking about how others are playing is another form of thinking about the future, because the only reason you could care about how they’re playing is a premature interest in how the tournament will end and where your name will be on the board. I want my golfers to stay in the present just playing the shot at hand until they run out of holes. Then they add it up.

6. Believe in yourself.

If you have done your work set up the pre shot routine then believe in yourself. My confident golfers think about what they want to happen on the course. Golfers who lack confidence think about the things they don’t want to happen. It’s simply thinking about the things you want to happen on the golf course.

Given two players of equal skills, the more confident one will win nearly all the time. I believe the brain’s react to the degree of confidence we’ve nurtured in our conscious and subconscious minds. Play a shot confidently, and the body performs at its best. Remember there is no muscle memory cause muscle memory resides in the brain. Confident golfers play like athletes. They walk onto the course as if they’ve played that course a dozen times. The newness of each hole should feel like an adventure.

7. See where you want the ball to go before every shot.

When my golfers are properly focused on the target, it should feel like a  laser beam linking the brain and the spot where the ball should fall. They should become single-minded and nothing else matters. Even hazards don’t distract them. Once they have picked the target, they think only of the ball going there.

The more you’re consumed with your target, the more your instincts and subconscious will help you find it. It’s as if you have a golf ball with built in GPS, like a heat-seeking missile. Again not all missiles hit their targets, and you won’t always hit yours. Yet, if you’re into the target, the probability increases dramatically. You’re less likely to mis-hit a shot, and your misses will be more playable.

8. Trust is a must.

When we hit a golf ball in competition, we want as much as possible to connect our bodies with our subconscious neuropath ways of the brain. That’s because, in sport, the human body works most effectively when the conscious mind is shut off. Call it instinct, or intuition or the notion of the sub consciousness.

To go unconscious, to play instinctively and intuitively, you must trust your swing, you must believe that it will work. Most of my golfer’s tell me about how when they mis-hit there brain automatically try to fix their swing, and they start thinking mechanically simply hit worse.

The answer is that everyone has a flawed swing, at least occasionally, and thinking mechanically is not going to make it better. It’s going to make it worse. The timing and temp changes, the body get’s tight, and your brain goes into utter chaos. Regardless most players don’t know their own swing mechanics well enough to make an accurate diagnosis of what went wrong in a golf swing, particularly if it occurs on the course. Then I have golfers that tell me what their swing fault is and that their friends tell them what they are doing wrong as well and they can’t stop themselves.

The correct response to a bad shot is to forget about it. On the next shot, execute your pre-shot routine. Swing unconsciously. Believe in yourself. If you feel the need to fix your mechanics, wait till after the round and go to the range to do it.

9. The butterfly syndrome

When the stakes are a little higher you might get a sense of nervous tension or butterfly syndrome, that sense in your stomach that you’re in uncharted waters. You get butterflies when your brain senses a newness and adventure.

The only time butterflies become harmful is when we feel a loss of control. If you panic at the onset of butterflies, you can set off a very strong physical reaction in your body, the fight-or-flight response. It causes a gush of hormones that can turn the golf brain and body into a chaotic mess.

Taking deep, slow breaths can be helpful. Visualizing what you want can be helpful. Recognize that the physical sensations you feel are caused by adrenaline, which is a natural product of your body, a friend that will help you play better if you keep your mind clear. The calmer and clearer you can keep your brain, the more you can keep it focused on what you want, the more the butterflies will fade.


Sport psychologist quick tips:

Bob Rotella, Ph.D., and “Stop giving meaning to your missed shots If you don’t analyze why you didn’t get the desired result, there’s nothing to be frustrated about. You’ll play better.”

Gio Valiante, Ph.D., “Write down five happy memories, and you’ll be fearless, focused and free.”

Richard Coop, Ed.D., “Practice the way you’re going to play. Being ready will help you when it matters.”

Morris Pickens, Ph.D., “Stay focused on the shot at hand. When golfers have a birdie putt, the TV announcer in them says, ‘This, to go one under…’ Soon you’re thinking about everything but the shot.”

Pia Nilsson, “Jot down notes from a stretch of holes when you played great. Record how you felt and what you thought and saw during those holes.”

Neale Smith, M.Sc., “Play rounds where you focus only on creating memorable shots. Even if it’s a one-in-100 shot, go for it and enjoy the challenge.”

Deborah Graham, Ph.D., “See how many shots you can hit within a definite target, trusting your first impression and fully committing. Put a dot on the card every time you achieve it.”

Fran Pirozzolo, Ph.D., “For durable golf skills, rather than hitting ball after ball with the same club to no precise target, switch things up on the range.”

David Cook, Ph.D., “ Have a simple routine. Before every shot, make sure you ‘See it, feel it, and trust it.’ Even write that phrase on your golf ball.”

Joseph Parent, Ph.D., “It’s important to have a post-shot routine. After hitting a shot you don’t like, make swings until you’ve made one that feels right. Erasing bad shots eliminates negative swing thoughts.