How many times have you heard various well-known tour pros say: “golf is 90% mental”?
Many great tour pros over the years have declared that the golf mental game rules.
But, many teaching pros have countered, “what good is the mental game if you do not have the physical skills to play golf?”.
Then we hear the mental game coaches argue back, “What good are the physical skills if the player is not mentally strong enough to keep them from breaking down under the pressure of competition?” Just like the old “nature vs. nurture” argument, it can go ’round, and ’round, and ’round.
In reality, if you want to play great golf you cannot really separate the physical skills from the mental skills.
It’s a lot like a peanut butter sandwich. If you want a good peanut butter sandwich, you cannot have just the peanut butter, or just the bread, because in either case it then would not be a good peanut butter sandwich!
O.K., maybe that is not the best analogy, and maybe you do not even like peanut butter, but you get the point.
How can you have a great golf game if you do not have strong physical skills, and the strong mental skills to use those great physical skills in competition with the pressure to perform?
Why is golf the hardest sport?
The golf mental game, in our estimation, is one of the most challenging in all of sport. Because you are a competitive golfer, the odds are high that you will agree.
Unfortunately for most competitive golfers, they spend the vast majority of their time on the same thing that the major golf magazines do, perfecting the technical aspects of the game, spending little or no time on mental skills training.
In one of our early 2000 studies of golfers, we were surprised to find that when asked if they felt the golf mental game was important to their success, more than 90% of the golfers surveyed said “yes”.
But when we asked the same golfers if in the past year they had actively done anything specific to develop their mental skills for golf, only 15% said “yes”!
As a competitive golfer, you might take some pride in knowing that you are competing in one of the toughest mental games on the planet. Many of the world’s greatest athletes have found their “second” sport of golf to be much more mentally challenging than their “first” sport of tennis, baseball, football, or basketball.
Why Is Golf Mentally Tougher?
Early into our 1980’s research and work with tour players we noted two primary reasons the golf mental game is so demanding. Both are simply related to aspects of how the game is played. There are many more reasons it challenges us.
The golf ball is stationary when in play.
Very simply, you are hitting a ball that is not moving. That may sound quite easy to do but in reality it is much easier to react to something that is moving than it is to something that is stationary, especially in the heat of intense competition.
Why? When the ball is moving you have less time to “analyze” the complexities of the athletic skill that you will need to use, or to ponder the importance, or to determine all the ways you could fail before you actually do!
In sports like tennis, baseball or basketball, the ball and competitors are moving when in play. This makes it quite natural and easy to “react” and perform “athletically” rather than “judge” and perform “intellectually”. If you are not sure what I mean by this, let me explain with this example that we sometimes use with our clients.
Say you are sitting on the sofa in my office, across the room and about 6 feet in front of me. I surprise you by pulling out my dog’s favorite tennis ball and throwing it at you with little warning except to say “here, catch!”.
Being an athlete you will probably quite naturally and athletically react and catch the ball by physically doing something like this. You will raise your dominant hand with your palm forward, and your thumb at about a 45 degree angle, with your other 4 fingers pointing upward. As the ball gets but a few precise inches from your hand you start to simultaneously close your fingers, snapping them tightly around the ball as it touches your palm. And you will successfully catch the ball without consciously thinking of even a single one of these things.
Now we do it again.
This time I give you all the instructions of how to catch the ball in detail. I tell you that you cannot deviate from any one of them. I warn you that you will not get lunch today if you miss. Then I tell you I am going to post word of your fumble on the internet for all the world to see if you miss. Then I throw the ball.
Think you will you catch the ball quite as easily the second time? Usually not. Will your catch be as smooth and graceful as the first time? Not likely…unless you are an enlightened golfer and you have been working on your golf mental game. Then you would be able to easily over-ride all those instructions & warnings to again simply react to the ball!
Yes, this ball was moving, but the point here is that you cannot perform as well in golf when you are analyzing vs. reacting.
Which brings us to the second reason the golf mental game is so tough.
There are large amounts of empty time between shots to “over-think”.
Using the above example with the tennis ball, can you see why this could be a problem? Especially considering that you must turn off the analysis and turn on the reaction at least 60 times each time you play. And you must do this over a period of 4–plus or minus–hours each time you compete?
Golf requires that you be disciplined enough to put yourself into a mental state to react, even when circumstances are not natural for doing so. You will find this challenge only a bit in the other sports: in basketball with the free throw, in tennis with the serve, and in baseball with the pitch.
Kids Are Mentally Tougher Than Some Pros!
Here is an interesting side note. In our work with young players, we have observed that before the ages of 12 to 16, young golfers are naturally quite good at playing creatively!
During and after this age range interesting changes begin to occur in their bodies, and in their minds. To name a few, they have growth spurts. They become more interested in learning about the technical aspects of their games or their equipment. Score and social standing rise in importance as they search for their identities. Soon they are analyzing and thinking more about “hows” and “whys” and “what ifs” than they ever did before. For many, this is when the game gets hard.
If only we could remember how we played so athletically as kids. In the simplest terms, this is a lot of what working on your golf mental game is all about…learning to play like a kid again.
We hope the articles posted on this site help you do just that. We will be answering some of your best questions in the regular articles, so feel free to send us your biggest challenges.
Some Other Articles:
The Most Important Mental Game Technique
Learning From Adversity
Find Your Learning Style
5 Tips to Lower Scores
Conquer Your Yips!
Do You Know the Eight Basic Mental Skills for Golf?