I am not a mentally strong golfer. I am mentally strong enough to admit that, but I know the major deficiency in my game generates from the six-inch area between my ears, as they say. I can hit most of the shots – some fairly creative ones if I say so myself – but pulling them off, even the simple straightforward ones, under the pressure situation of needing to execute those shots, doesn’t always work out.
So, if I know I can hit the shots, why does my confidence still crumble under the pressure of the moment? That is part and parcel of the game of golf and why it confounds us — and compels us. I played recently with a group that included two players who were better than myself and periodically, during the round, exclaimed how much they hated golf. Both were reasonably facetious in doing so. They had no true intention of giving up the game, but their statements were made with the intense frustration we can all feel when playing this beguiling game.
The answer to my conundrum, then, is that I must work to improve my mental game strength. That is neither easy nor a quick fix. The improvement required is constant and ongoing and never ceases to need maintenance, but it starts with a good idea of what is required to make those improvements.
Have Awareness of Your Thoughts
We asked Christopher Foley, PGA Master Professional and Director of Instruction at Cragun’s Legacy Courses (plus a U.S. Junior National Team coach), to get to the heart of the matter – being mentally strong on the golf course.
“Having a strong mental game is all about having an awareness of your thoughts,” Foley said. “All players have negative thoughts and doubts throughout a round of golf. The difference between the elite player and the average player is that the elite player has awareness of those thoughts and is able to redirect them. To improve your mental game, you have to gain a greater awareness of your thinking and develop mechanisms to eliminate anxiety and doubt.”
That is easier said than done, particularly for a mental golf midget such as myself. But I have certainly found that when I am focusing on success rather than failure, it has helped me carry out tough shots I originally feared. After a bad drive on the previous tee, a playing partner suggested that I think about what the golf architect wanted me to do on the next hole, rather than what he didn’t want me to do such as hit my drive into the water hazard in front of me. And it worked!
There are other ways to improve your mental strength. Golf Magazine suggests a couple I like and can use:
Play in the Present
Many golfers are shocked by the errors they commit. For instance, they top a drive and let it preoccupy them for the next three holes. If history shows you occasionally top the ball, don’t be blown away when it happens. Stick it in your memory bank as something to work on and play your next shot.
“A good way to stay in the present is to focus not only on individual shots but on pieces of shots. For example, if you’re facing a tough drive, concentrate on the preparation process. Pick a safe target, aim the clubface and align your body, key in on one swing thought, and then let it go. If you get lost in the process, thinking positive, constructive thoughts, your performance will improve.”
Use Your Emotions
With some practice, you can learn to benefit from your emotions. Anger can be an energizing force. It increases the flow of adrenaline and raises the body’s energy level. Learn how to tap into that boost without letting it turn your swing into a mad lash. At the other end of the spectrum is exhilaration, which seems positive but can also take you out of your element. Let it charge you up, but then quickly return to your game plan.
“When poor shots snowball and you feel your emotions taking hold, draw on positive experiences you’ve had. Remember, whether good or bad things come along, there are usually plenty of opportunities for them to go the other way. Don’t get too up or too down — a steady burn wins the race.”
Use Your Thoughts to Your Advantage
Just as Foley says, “having a strong mental game is all about having an awareness of your thoughts.” So, read your own thoughts and emotions and have a plan for responding to, dealing with or using them to your advantage.
That’s a great thought. My bad shots causing me the greatest grief can be channeled into my next great shot. I’m already fired up to try it out!