What makes the golf mental game so challenging, and how do you improve your mental game? We’ll give you the complete picture. (Updated: Jan 12, 2021)
The best athletes from other sports struggle to play golf professionally. Tony Romo has no chance. Michael Jordan loves it but cannot play it at a high level. Ivan Lendl failed to qualify for the U.S. Open. John Smoltz gave it a shot. No professional athletes from the other top sports have made it in golf recently.
John Brodie, former quarterback for the 49ers, made it on the Senior PGA Tour in 1990 and won one tournament. Frank Conner played in the tennis and golf U.S. Opens and then made it onto the PGA Tour and Senior Tours, but had no wins on those Tours.
Babe Zaharias is likely the most successful professional golfer to start with other sports. She was a three-time All American in basketball and three-time Olympic medalist in track and field. Then she took up golf. She won 41 career LPGA tournaments. Bobby Jones called her “one of the 10 best golfers of all time, male or female”.
We all consider athletes like Jordan and Romo fantastic athletes, a cut above the great athletes they competed against.
But being a great athlete does not convert directly into being a great golfer. Athleticism is important and some of today’s top golfers are great athletes too. Tiger Woods, Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy are very athletic. They probably could have excelled at other sports professionally but chose to focus on golf early.
What Makes Golf So Much Tougher
Unlike other sports, there is no optimum physical shape, size or strength that gives a super advantage in golf. A great athlete from another sport has little chance against today’s top golf professionals no matter how superior they are physically.
Without the long years of practice and playing experience that most golf professionals have, other athletes have little chance to be a Pro, regardless of what coaching they receive and how hard they work. The almost infinite number of shots and situations you are presented with in golf make it harder than the other sports to be proficient without this long experience.
Learning to use 14 clubs in more than 14 ways is one part of the challenge. Making adjustments to accommodate all the variables of each shot increases the difficulty. Adapting your game to the different grasses, conditions, green speeds and breaks, and the weather which can vary while playing adds even more variables. Then playing over a period of 4-6 hours and counting every shot followed by several more rounds with varying weather and conditions increases the degree of difficulty dramatically.
The physics of the game make it very hard to play intuitively. While some golfers claim to be self guided, none at the highest level do. You cannot see the club hit the ball on full shots. It is too fast. You will struggle to monitor where the club is during the swing. Often on video we are surprised by what we actually look like while swinging and where the club is. We feel like it is one place but see it is in another place.
The ball is not in our hand. It is resting on the ground or on a tee. The club is between us and the ball so we cannot go by feel alone.
The exact position of the club face through the ball is critical to where the ball goes. Fractions of an inch translate to big differences in direction and distance. The path of the club face through the ball also has large effects on the resulting direction and movement of the ball.
Then there is putting and short game. Reading the greens is crucial to your ability to pick a good line and speed for the putt or chip.
Sand shots are challenging because the condition of the sand, the lie in the sand and the distance to the hole, along with the height of the lip are all impacting what is possible.
The same sorts of variables make chipping an art too.
All of these variables affecting every shot are impossible to evaluate fully and to control. You and your caddy or coach, but primarily you, must consider all the variables and then choose the shot. No team, no support of teammates, no handing off of responsibility that is possible in team sports. No relief from this choosing.
And it is easy to choose wrong.
That just describes the basic physical challenges of the game of Golf. Then there is the human trying to play it.
“Nothing surpasses the complexity of the human mind.”
Frank Herbert, “Dune Heretics”
The many mental challenges in golf
1 Golf has one of the biggest challenges of all sports: The ball is not moving and you have lots of time to think, prepare to swing and then swing.
This time available to think makes playing the shot much harder than hitting a baseball, or throwing a pass, or shooting a basket from the three-point line.
Shooting a free throw or throwing a pitch are similar but there are far fewer variables and the action is identical each time. You can practice that identical free throw or pitch thousands of times. In golf every shot is different, a little or a lot.
In the other sports you do not have time to think. You must react more naturally without trying to control your action. Quickly you find out that thinking about your body while shooting hurts your ability to shoot well. Our ancestors lived and survived because they could do this well. It is built into us.
But in golf, there is no urgency, no strict time limit for acting. You have time to think of all kinds of things and try to control your actions, trying not to make a mistake.
2 In golf, every shot counts. That means that every shot and outcome are important.
In baseball, if you get a hit every third time to the plate you could be in the Hall of Fame. No quarterback realistically expects to make every pass.
The natural response to golf for most of us is to get more careful and deliberate in our preparation to play the shot and then we often try to control our swing or stroke to get them just right, or perfect because the outcome counts. We may be trying to avoid a miss or making a mistake.
This makes us more Left Brained and less athletic. It messes up our trained swing or stroke.
Many play their best golf when they stop worrying about the outcome or making a mistake. For most players this happens by accident. It is not the natural nor normal response to every shot counts.
3 Most of us have been coached that a “consistent routine leads to consistency”. You then attempt to make every routine the same. This leads to focusing on the number of steps, the number of looks, the number of waggles, the checking of alignment, the checking of posture and grip and stance, checking and monitoring the takeaway and the all important swing keys every time.
Your coach may reinforce this by noting that your routine changed that time, after a miss.
This also makes you more Left Brained and less athletic. It has you focusing on things that do not matter and blocks a full athletic swing. It makes you slow down and get more careful and deliberate when the shot or round is more important. It does not improve your consistency. It hurts it.
This creates a lot of frustration because you are following the coaching but it is not working. It can create lots of self doubt.
4 You have been coached that there is such thing as muscle memory, and it takes repetitive swings on the range to build or strengthen your muscle memory. This is a fallacy and not a great way to practice to play golf. It is only practice swinging the golf club in a certain way.
Most of you spend all your practice on technique and repeated swings and swing keys because of this coaching. Then you go out on the course and play golf swing trying to remember all your swing keys and making perfect swings.
There are multiple problems with this approach.
- You cannot control your swing effectively. Your neurological system is not fast enough for the golf swing.
- Focusing on your swing means you are not fully connected to striking the golf ball in the necessary way and to the target.
- It makes you more Left Brained and less athletic.
- As your level of Arousal changes, your swing changes. If your level of Arousal on the golf course is different than it was on the range, then your swing will be different. It won’t feel right or work as well as it did on the range, no matter how many balls you hit repetitively on the range.
5The frequent winners on Tour have these 8 Champion personality traits for golf. The other Tour players do not, yet they are all physically skilled golfers.
These personality traits determine how they process information, make decisions and think on the golf course. It is the secret of the frequent winners on Tour. They are naturals for stroke play golf. We discovered this with our studies of the PGA Tour and LPGA Tour players and understand it well through our work with over 400 of the Tour Pros.
You are unlikely to think like the champions when you are playing because you don’t match all the traits and/or because of 2, 3 and 4 above. Even the Champions get off track because of these challenges.
6Our natural inclination is to work on our physical skills, our swing, and our short game. We can see these. We can feel these. Often they work well in some situations on the golf course and the range. They may work well in practice or fun rounds. They may work well in rounds where you have lots of confidence because of your experience.
We spend lots of time, effort and money on our physical skills and equipment. We have been promised that if we do these things well and have the latest and best equipment, that we will play well and hit it farther. The golf industry makes its living from these promises.
We see others doing this. We are told working hard on our game will pay off. If we hit poor shots or have bad holes, then we need to work on our physical games more.
We have had many clients who have worked very hard on their physical games and find that they do not score as well as they used to. “My swing is the best it has ever been but my scores are rising?”
Working on your mental game is not the first place most people go to improve their golf. Yet your mental game is most likely the reason for that missed shot or bad hole.
The analogy would be building an incredible race car and not training the driver. Thinking in the wrong ways about the wrong things will degrade the best physical skills when the pressure is on.
7Our natural tendency is to respond emotionally to our outcomes. Good outcomes and we get excited and celebrate. Bad outcomes and we react with frustration or anger. The outcomes are important and in other sports we are the fans, celebrating successes and booing failures. Being your own fan and riding the emotional roller coaster will make your performance a roller coaster too.
The chemicals released when we react to our results all reduce our physical and mental golf abilities. We care so we react and emote releasing those chemicals. We try to hide the reactions but they are still there. This often leads to multiple bad shots in a row and more reactions. We only recover when we have enough time for the chemicals to subside.
8There are optimum levels of arousal for golf performance. Those levels vary depending on the shot we are playing. A bit higher arousal helps hit the longer shots. A bit lower arousal helps play short game shots and putts.
Most players are unaware of their level of arousal on the golf course unless it is really high.
We can measure your level of arousal with our Mind Meter. Our research and experience with this tool have enabled us to define your optimum levels of arousal for your short game and for your long game. Too high or too low is not good for your performance.
If you are unaware of your current level of arousal then you will struggle to understand why things are not working as well as you know they can or think they should. This makes the game more mysterious and frustrating.
Often it has players practicing things they don’t need to. It certainly hurts your self-confidence in your abilities. This quickly hurts your ability to play with full commitment.
9Everyone is unique mentally and in experience. Trying to do something a certain way because others do it that way is most likely not as good as it could be for you. You are complex, and the game is complex.
You have to find your way, your swing, your mental game to perform to your potential. Beware of trying to develop the perfect golf swing or to swing like somebody famous. They may or may not be a good model for you. You can waste a huge amount of time and effort trying to be like someone else.
Lifting weights before competition seems to help Brooks Koepka. Swinging like Jim Furyk works great for Jim. Beating balls for hours works for some frequent winners and not for others.
You need to find your way, your game.
Golf is the toughest game. The physical game is very difficult. The Golf Mental Game is more difficult because what we naturally want to do and have been coached to do is mostly wrong for good performance.