Much like the physical skills golfers work so hard to develop and maintain, good mental skills require consistent awareness and effort. Even the best sometimes get away from what got them there. This year, Dave Stockton and Greg Norman won to end what some had been calling slumps. Each acknowledged a lapse in their usually diligent efforts to set goals, each for different reasons but with the same results.
Those on their way to being great at golf will probably find items on this list that need improvement to maximize their play. Those who are already great will recognize all the items, yet may need to renew commitments to a few to stay mentally strong.
1. Let go of control to get control.
In the endless process of trying to improve their skills and be successful, many golfers become much too involved with trying to control the game by perfecting their swings, strokes, and results of shots while playing competitive golf. The best players do designate specific, quality time to maintain, fine-tune or change fundamentals, but not during competitive rounds. They resist urges to pursue perfect mechanics, hit precise targets, or to protect, steer or force shots and putts while competing. Instead they challenge themselves to maximize the physical skills they bring to a competitive round by maximizing mental skills that encourage reactive, “feel” oriented play. They focus on relaxing their bodies, quieting their minds, using first impressions, using a single, simple swing thought, etc. Most important of all is trusting that by focusing on playing the game, instead of controlling the game, they will play their best.
2. Learn from your failures.
One of the easier ways to distinguish between average players and champions is to observe how they handle mistakes and failures. Champions learn the most about themselves and their weaknesses with their bad rounds, missed opportunities, poor play under pressure, mental mistakes, physical mistakes, etc. With this knowledge, they then set goals for improving their performance when faced with those same circumstances.
Champions become adept at rallying quickly to use their bad experiences as motivation to maximize their efforts on their next shot or round. Average players, on the other hand, are more likely to use these experiences as reasons to get angry, berate themselves, blame others or feel like victims. This is dramatically illustrated in the ways that players handle slumps. Champions (yes, even champions have slumps!) will patiently and methodically work their way through them, learning and gaining insight as they progress. Average players are more likely to panic, make major or radical changes, often abandoning important aspects of their games and gaining little insight into themselves or the origin of their problems.
3. See all adversities as challenges.
Golf, like life, is rich with challenges, if you choose to look at them that way. Weather, slow play, poor course conditions or design, annoying playing partners, buried lies, bad bounces, bumpy greens, wind, rain, cold, heat, hazards, noise can all be seen as frustrating nuisances or as motivating challenges to maintain the inner calm necessary for peak performance. Average players see these things as aberrant conditions there to sabotage their play. Champions see them as normal, stimulating challenges to be overcome in their efforts toward playing their best. Some champions even aspire to be role models for demonstrating the strength of character required to maintain your composure while facing adversity.
4. Create an attitude for competition.
Successful golfers are mindful of going into competition with the best attitude possible. Before competition, take time to check your attitude for anything that might be causing you to feel unsettled for any reason, such as playing partners, conditions, excessive desire to play well, etc. Then take steps to change your obstacles into challenges to maintain a peaceful focus. Take a few moments to vividly imagine how you feel when you play your very best; confident, peaceful, focused, patient, etc., then challenge yourself to maintain these feelings throughout the competitive round regardless of the challenges you face.
5. Develop habits of positive thoughts and actions.
Negative attitudes, negative thinking and negative mannerisms can all quickly become bad habits that detract from the skills of a golfer. Going to the course with a positive outlook, searching for something positive to say after every shot and putt: as well as walking, talking and carrying yourself with confidence can all have a tremendous impact on your abilities to maximize your skills when in competition. While it is easy for us all to give into negativity, champions challenge themselves to rise above it. Average players practically announce and telegraph negative attitudes when playing poorly, while champions become so good at managing it, they make it almost impossible to distinguish their level of play by their mannerisms and talk.
6. Tune into your nutritional needs.
Our genetic codes make each of us unique and different, both on the outside and on the inside. Energy levels, fine motor skills and abilities to concentrate can all fluctuate dramatically with the rise and fall of blood sugar, which can be dramatic, moderate or minimal, depending on our genes, body chemistry and diets. The better players, by luck or by effort, seem to know whether they function better on a high carbohydrate diet, a balance of carbohydrates and proteins, or simply three square meals a day. You need to determine what works best for you. Irregular meals and a poor diet can create moderate to extreme fluctuations in blood sugar, signs of which can be fatigue, impatience and difficulty concentrating. You can minimize these symptoms by simply eating three moderate, well-balanced meals and two healthy snacks, with no caffeine, sugars and alcohol. When tee times do not line up well with meal times, carry healthy snacks that fulfill nutritional needs during the rounds.
7. Maintain inner peace.
When asked to reflect on their best rounds of golf, almost all players describe feeling a calm and peaceful focus that remained with them during their round, allowing them to play to their potential. Instead of waiting for this sense of well-being to come to them, champion golfers are actively involved in creating this inner peace. The most important thing you can do is to play golf for the right reasons. If it takes you hours and sometimes days to recover from a bad round, there is a strong chance you are playing golf for the wrong reasons. Several reasons for playing golf, when given too much importance, can become deterrents to inner peace. If you are playing golf to escape personal problems, attain self worth, prove something to others, make money, or because you do not know what else to do with yourself, you are playing for the wrong reasons. To reach full potential, it is important that competitive golfers retain as primary motivation for playing golf, a great love of the sport and an appreciation of the tremendous personal and competitive challenges it provides. Also essential to inner peace is maintaining a healthy balance of quality and quantity time for all areas of your life including career, personal/spiritual, relationship, family and friends.
8. Pay attention to bodily needs.
Because physical aspects of maintaining inner peace can be just as important as mental aspects, it is common for the most successful golfers to be well tuned to their bodily needs. If you are prone to high levels of stress, find and practice methods of relaxation that work well for you, such as cardiovascular exercise, music, meditation or a martial art. Knowing that stress can deplete vitamins, and minerals, you can enhance your diet with nutritional supplements formulated for stress. If you are prone to anxiety and mood swings you can supplement your diet with nutrients and foods known to reduce both. Finding and meeting personal needs for sleep and relaxation is very helpful.
9. Enjoy the process.
In golf, as in life, “happiness should be found along the way, not at the end of the road.” Many golfers fall into a habit of working too hard at their games, either by over-thinking on the course, over-practicing on the range or by over-emphasizing golf in their lives. The most successful golfers are the ones who keep it fun. They are the players who are most effective at reverting to a child-like approach of simply seeing, feeling and hitting their shots with little concern for, or fear of the results. They are masters at putting 100% of their mental energies into simply hitting the shot at hand, then finding it and doing it again. Seldom do they waste mental energy during a round by keeping a close watch on their scores, fearing failures, or dwelling on anything they truly cannot control.
10. Use anxiety as a “cue.”
Anxiety for most golfers is a result of worrying about OUTCOME. Worrying about hitting stray shots and putts, not playing to potential, shooting high numbers, etc., are all going to make it more difficult to focus on the right things. Also creating anxiety is a tendency to get too mentally involved in uncontrollable issues such as; what others will think of you or your game, how others will score, unfavorable pairings, bad weather, low cuts etc. Better players learn to use their anxiety rather than succumb to it. Each time you experience an unsettling, anxious feeling, use it as a “cue” to identify the outcome or non-control thought causing it. Then consciously replace the thought with something empowering that is within your real CONTROL and that is more related to the PROCESS of play. Work harder to commit to decisions, visualize shots, feel good tempo, manage thoughts between shots, stay committed to your game plan, etc.
11. Practice with a purpose.
Avoid the trap of going to practice without a goal. Mindlessly hitting balls can often do more harm than good, as mechanics falter and bad habits develop. Set goals for your practice that target weaknesses from your last competitive round. As often as possible incorporate games, or mental challenges, which emphasize focus, touch, timing and feel. Work on fundamentals and mechanics on an “as needed” basis.
12. Manage your emotions instead of letting them manage you.
The easy thing for most of us is to give in to anger, frustration, disappointment, fear, dread, hopelessness or any of the many emotions that can be common to a round of golf. More challenging is the task of catching and changing the thoughts that can fuel those emotions. Better players get very good at (1) identifying the “not allowed” thoughts most likely to interfere with their play, such as looking ahead or behind in the round, and (2) being prepared with “allowed” thoughts that are calming, positive and reinforcing, and can be used to displace not allowed thoughts, such as enjoying the landscape or consciously relaxing between shots.
13. Manage expectations.
It is common for many golfers to have their worst rounds when their ball-striking and putting is at its best. For most this is a direct result of conscious or subconscious expectations placed on their games. The best players prepare themselves for the “traps” of expectation, including impatience, tension and increased emotional reactions to poor shots and putts. When you have reason for high expectations, challenge yourself to place even greater emphasis on relaxing, remaining patient and attempting to judge your success more by the process, such as tempo or commitment to shots, than by results, such as how well the ball was struck or where the ball landed.
14. Plan your rounds.
Almost without exception, the golfers who are most organized in their approach to playing a particular course are the ones most likely to remain mentally strong and competitive under pressure. Many great strategists find it more productive to plan shots, targets and clubs by starting at the hole and working back to the tee. This helps the particularly aggressive players incorporate more finesse, especially when choosing how to play their tee shots. Better players choose and commit to shots they feel afford them at least a 50% chance of success, regardless of how the course was “meant to be played.”
15. Manage your tension.
Peak performance in golf requires carefully balanced and well-managed tension. Too little of it and your mind wanders out of boredom. Too much of it and your physical game breaks down while your ability to concentrate is compromised. You can become adept at learning to read and manage your tension during your competitive rounds. Learn methods for relaxing on cue, such as deep breathing, and look for signs of tension during the round, such as difficulty visualizing shots. Take steps to insure that everything you do just prior to a round, such as eating, driving and warming up, is done in a way that supports a relaxed but motivated state.
16. Be yourself between shots.
Insightful players are in tune with their natural tendencies toward being either serious and serene, or enthusiastic and lively, then strive to remain true to these aspects of their personalities between shots. Sometimes you need only reflect on your best competitive rounds (or your best practice rounds) to recognize what “being yourself” is. For some it is opening their focus slightly and taking their thoughts from the round to simple, internal and relaxed thoughts, which ideally have little to do with their play. For others, it is opening their focus a bit wider, engaging in small talk when possible, perhaps even entertaining those around them with humor or wit, to the extent that they can still focus on their next shot. The most difficult time to be yourself between shots is typically when you need it the most, when feeling extreme pressure to play well or when playing poorly. Strive to retain your most natural composed tendencies, regardless of score or quality of play. This will give you a better chance of maintaining a peaceful focus and your odds of staying mentally competitive are considerably improved.
17. Use a mental pre-shot routine.
The best players compliment their physical pre-shot routine with a strong mental pre-shot routine. Even more important than a consistent physical sequence is a consistent mental sequence that allows you to think the same for every shot or putt, whether it is the first shot of the day, for eagle or bogey, or to win an event. The mental routine is the foundation of a strong mental game. A good one effectively narrows your focus, quiets your mind, and allows you to see, feel and react to the shot or putt. The three most important steps to include in a solid mental routine include commitment, visualization and feel.
18. Correct mental skills before physical skills.
Successful golfers understand the importance of distinguishing between mental mistakes and physical mistakes before making corrections. We have found that a very high percentage of shots and putts are missed because of poor tempo or fast swing and lack of commitment to the club, target or type of shot. Because both lead to poor shots and mechanical mistakes, it can be difficult to tell where the real problem lies. The average player automatically goes to work on correcting or improving swing mechanics. This will usually do little more than make matters worse if the original problem was swinging too fast or lack of commitment over the shot. You can save time, effort and confidence by first correcting mental problems to ensure there really is a physical problem that needs correcting.
19. Debrief after your rounds.
Most great players take a few minutes after each competitive round to assess their mental and physical strengths and weaknesses, especially the bad ones, even though some can be painful to re-live! You want to learn as much a possible from every round. From each you can identify physical goals for your next practice session or lesson, and set mental goals for your next competitive round. Keep notes on your particularly good rounds so that you have a ready reference to thoughts, feelings, attitudes and swing thoughts most helpful to your game.
20. Keep clear goals and objectives at all times.
Vital to every golfer’s success are clear, measurable and challenging goals. Not vague and general goals, like “to be the best I can be,” but definite accomplishments you want to achieve, along with specific steps you will take to get there.