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Most good players prepare for competition by playing practice rounds, developing a strategy for best managing the course, identifying clubs they will need, and practicing particular shots they will likely use. Great players do even more. They prepare their mindset as well. In this GolfPsych Update we summarize a few simple but very effective strategies for enhancing your pre-round mental preparation for golf.


Turn Your Obstacles into Challenges

One of the best ways to start your mental preparation is with a little insightful reflection on the mental obstacles you will likely face in your competitive event. These vary from person to person and each event, with its related circumstance, may hold obstacles unique to you. Identifying these obstacles and choosing to acknowledge them more positively as challenges is your first step toward managing them instead of letting them manage you.

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Following are examples we often hear from our clients:

  • “I expect to play well and will be disappointed if I don’t”
  • “I am concerned about what some people will think of my play”
  • “I have a really frustrating (or intimidating) playing partner”
  • “The weather is bad and I hate playing in these conditions”
  • “My tee time is late and I dread the slow play”
  • “I worry about how low I have to shoot on this course”
  • “This course plays so long for me”
  • “I hate these bumpy greens”
  • “I have such bad memories on several of these holes”
  • “I have to play well this week—many things depend on it”
  • “I have so many personal problems I can hardly enjoy my golf”

Writing your list of personal obstacles on paper will help you convert them to challenges. Once written, your goal is to keep them out of your thoughts and on your paper until you have finished your event. Be prepared to catch related thoughts as they pop into your head and mentally send them back to your paper. You can even try changing the thought to reflect your new view. For example, “I don’t like these bumpy greens but they are now my challenge to stay relaxed and use full smooth strokes.” Choose not to use mental energy on topics that detract from your peaceful focus. All items on your list should now represent your challenge toward maintaining a peaceful focus.


Emphasize What You Can Control

If you are having difficulty identifying whether an item should be on your list of mental challenges, follow the simple rule of deciding whether you truly have control over that item. If you do not, it goes on the list so that you can redirect your mental energy toward more constructive subjects over which you do have some control.

Many players unknowingly go into competition with unidentified lists of concerns that dominate their thoughts and diminish their skills. Examples include concerns regarding:

  • “How well I will hit the ball”
  • “What I will need to shoot to be competitive”
  • “What others will think if I do not play well”
  • “How important it is that I play well in this event”

When unmanaged, these and thoughts like them leave the golfer feeling tense, anxious and unsettled, inhibiting their play. Great players recognize these thoughts as a poor use of their mental energies, choosing instead to focus on things over which they have some influence or control. Examples include:

  • “I can maximize whatever physical skills I show up with by staying relaxed and keeping a good tempo”
  • “I will play my best by thinking of only one shot at a time
  • “I will be ready for all my challenging thoughts, staying relaxed and carefree between shots—daydreaming, deep breathing, meditating or small-talking when necessary”.
  • “I will use a great mental routine for every shot and putt, committing to, visualizing and feeling each one—I take care of the process and let outcome take care of itself.”

Players who effectively convert their thoughts from topics outside their control to items that are in their control will feel anxiety quickly give way to a greater sense of peace and comfort.


Use Anxiety as a Cue

Once you get good at distinguishing between thoughts that are outside or inside your control, you will be able to help yourself both before and during your rounds by using anxiety or any unsettled feeling as a “cue”. Very simply, anytime you find yourself anxious, fearful, jittery, nervous and unsettled, use these feelings as a cue to check for thoughts related to items outside your control. Once identified, replace these thoughts with constructive ones.

The following are examples:

  • Cue: Anxiety on 1st Tee. Related thought: “I am terribly afraid I will not get off to a good start and everyone watching will question my abilities. Replacement thought: I trust that I will play my best if I go into my imaginary bubble, let everything outside become a blur and concentrate on seeing my target and feeling my tempo.
  • Cue: Anxiety between shots. Related thought: “I just realized that I am within two strokes of the lead! I’m thinking about winning and that makes me tense and quick.” Replacement thought: “The better I play, the less I will think about my score and the more I will relax and get into my mental routine.”
  • Cue: Fear hitting into small target area surrounded by hazards and trouble. Related thought: “I could give back two or three strokes here if I’m not careful—I’ve got to hit a great shot”. Replacement thought: “I can hit this shot eight out of ten times if I relax, commit to my target and concentrate on my best, smooth tempo.


Golf Imagery Practice

Identifying particular situations where you will most benefit from using anxiety as a cue also tells you situations where you can start your golf mental game preparation in advance with imagery practice. Select the situations where you anticipate feeling the most anxious. Let’s use for example a particularly difficult hole on which you have had little success off the tee. Your anxious feelings as you approach the tee will be your cue. This cue is a reminder to stop worrying about where the ball might go and use your mental energy to: take a deep breath, commit to a definite target and club, visualize your shot and swing with a great tempo.

Use guided imagery to practice using your cue in competition:

  • Begin by putting yourself in a relaxed position, releasing all tension from your body.
  • Mentally take yourself into a competitive round (past or future) creating such detail – seeing trees, feeling wind, playing shots—that you actually feel you are there. If it is detailed enough, you will likely feel some of the same anxious feelings as you mentally approach your challenging tee shot.
  • Now imagine taking the deep breath, relaxing, committing to, visualizing and feeling your shot, again using as much detail as possible. Do this until your see yourself calmly executing the shot just as you planned one or more times.


Create An Attitude for Competition

Once you learn to use imagery practice as part of your golf mental preparation, you can use the same skill for creating your attitude for competition before your competitive round. Following are simple steps.

  • Put yourself in a relaxed position for a few moments before going to the course, or simply stay in bed a few extra minutes before preparing for the day.
  • Take a few moments to assess how you feel. Compare this feeling to what you have felt on days when you have played your very best golf.
  • Replace any anxious, unsettled or negative thoughts and feelings by imagining your thoughts, mood and attitude during one of your greatest rounds. Visualize the words that describe you that day as if they were being flashed on a large billboard. As each word appears, feel its meaning. You should be seeing and feeling words like calm, peaceful, confident, patient, committed, unflappable, rhythmical, happy, in the moment, and anything else that describes how you feel when you are playing your best.
  • Finally, imagine keeping these feelings as you visualize getting ready, eating, driving to the course, warming up and playing at least your first hole.


Warm Up Your Golf Mental Routine

Once you get to the course with your great attitude and begin warming up for the round, take a few minutes to warm up your mental routine as well. This will allow you to go to the first tee prepared to narrow your focus over the ball. Use these steps.

Once you are loose and swinging with good tempo, simulate playing one or more of the more difficult shots you expect to have that day.

Find similar targets on the range, then one at a time, mentally put yourself on those holes in position to hit each shot. Describe the hole in your mind, as if it was in front of you then use your full mental routine to play the shot just as you would on the course. This includes committing to the club, target, and type of shot then going behind the ball to visualize the shot and taking a smooth full practice swing to feel the shot. Now hit your shot using the same smooth tempo.

Warm up your focus for putting in much the same way. Using one ball, hit various putts using a full mental routine for each. Just as if you were on the course, commit to your read and speed, visualize your line from behind and feel the tempo of a smooth stroke.


Set Mental Goals and Monitor Them

Reinforce your competitive mindset by setting mental goals for using these strategies while you play. Monitor these goals throughout the day.

  • See how many times you can effectively convert obstacles to challenges.
  • Keep track of how often you catch and redirect your thoughts, from things you cannot control, to things you can control.
  • Monitor how often you are able to recognize and use anxiety or any unsettled feeling as a cue to relax and get back to a good mental routine.
  • Challenge yourself to play all your difficult shots exactly as rehearsed in your imagery practice.
  • See how much of your round you can maintain your imagined attitude, both between shots and over the ball.


Improve Your Golf Mental Game Preparation

Mental preparation for golf can look different from one player to the next, but the Tour champions benefit from emphasizing what they can control, using imagery, creating a competitive attitude, warming up their mental routine, and setting mental goals.

For more tips about golf mental game preparation, feel free to contact us or leave a comment below. You can also take the first step towards improving your mental game with the Mental Skills Assessment, allowing you to find out which parts of your mental game need work and offering recommendations on improving.

We look forward to helping you with your mental golf game.