How many times has this happened to you?
Mid-round you start hitting it sideways, your score balloons and you for the rest of the round you literally don’t know where the next shot is going. Confidence is zero and you just want the round to end so you can go to the range to begin the reconstruction project that is your swing that has left you yet again.
The round mercifully ends and you immediately make your way to the range with a couple of buckets of balls. You hit your first shot and…wait, that one was perfect! Must have been a fluke. You hit another, What? That one was flushed too! You hit shot after shot and most are struck just like the old you. You ask in total frustration, “Where was that when I was playing!!!?”
We’ve all been there.
I’ve seen this scenario more times then I can count. When I was a University coach often during a tournament round I’d have a player really struggle. Afterward we’d go to the range to sort things out and he’d immediately and without much if any instruction from me hit it perfect. After seeing this pattern happen over and over I started to ask myself, Why? What I eventually determined is that a player doesn’t lose their SWING, they lose their FOCUS.
On the golf course everything is set up to make you uncomfortable. At it’s core that is really a course designers job. Beautiful lakes and brilliant white sand are fun if you are on holiday, but in golf those are the places of misery. The courses that are considered the greatest in the world are not easy, they are torture chambers. Course designers who are considered genius’s are really diabolical sadists.
Golf courses are set up to make you question every decision, see things that aren’t there, worry about things that actually are there and to create confusion and doubt with a variety of unpleasant obstacles. And if you know a course well, many times you’re worrying about holes you haven’t even played yet! Bunkers, water, trees, OB, etc. All of these distractions make it difficult to fully commit to your shot which translates into a swing that is not committed, which means that the ball is probably going fly to places you don’t want it to. After a while, you’ll feel helpless, which leads to even less committed swings which makes you think you perhaps you should be committed (institutionalized). Pause for laughter.
When this happens your focus becomes very wide. Meaning you see everything. Especially the bad things. You become so focused on the things you don’t want to happen that it becomes hard if not impossible to focus on the things you actually do want to happen. This confuses the brain which makes your body tense. The result, a weak and uncommitted swing. Time to re-load.
To combat this mental warfare we need to focus our attention on the smallest target possible. Try this, stare at something very small and notice that pretty quickly everything else seems to disappear. This is called Tunnel Vision. This tunnel vision sends clear signals to the brain on what you want to have happen. The result will be a far better shot.
This can also explain why you hit balls on the range so much better. There are no hazards or OB to worry about. Nor is there any scoring consequence for a shot flying off line. Since you are not playing for a score, your attitude is more carefree and thus you are more able to swing free. Which of course leads to a better result.
So the question is, How do you take your range swing to the course?
There are 3 things you need to do:
- The first thing I want is to completely focus your attention on the smallest possible target. Look where you want the ball to finish, refuse to look at where where you don’t want it to go. Try this and notice how the “tunnel vision” effect takes over. You won’t see much else other than your target. This sends clear signals to the brain on what you want to do. The result will be a far better shot.
- The second thing I want you for you to do is to have an empty head over the ball. There should be no technical thoughts and especially no worry or negative thoughts running through your mind. Now is the time to be an athlete, it is not the time to be analytical. It’s time to react, not think. If you do have negative thoughts over the ball, step away and go through your pre-shot routine again. You’ll end up saving a lot of time because you won’t be off somewhere looking for your ball.
- The last thing I want to see my golfers do is commit to make a full finish on each swing. A full finish to me means the club finishes well behind your head. Preferably the shaft touches you somewhere on your back, neck or head. This will help you get off your back foot and a million other things that encourage a good shot.
Regardless of level, a non committed swing leads to bad results. Even pros get nervous over shots or feel uncomfortable. They overcome this by being able to commit to their swing and live with the consequences. If it works for them, it will work for you too.
This article also appears in the September, 2018 issue of New Zealand Golf Magazine.
Most people who take golf lessons are impatient. They believe that their instructor has a magic wand and can fix their swing flaws in an instant. This is a myth. There has never been a student whose handicap has gone from 15 to scratch after a single lesson.
When you have a golf lesson you will get solid information from your instructor on why your shots do what they do, and then you’ll get equally good advice on how to fix the problem. After that it’s mostly up to you. Are you willing to change and put in the time and effort? If you hit a few bad shots and get frustrated then revert back to your old bad habits, you won’t improve. If the only time you practice the new technique is when you have a golf lesson you won’t improve very fast, if at all. If you only play rounds of golf and don’t hit balls on the range, change is not likely to happen.
It is proven that it takes 28 days of practice for a new motor skill to feel natural.
That means you need to practice away from the course so you won’t be influenced by outcomes like score. When practicing, you also need to be patient with yourself and your progress. You must have faith in the process and stick with it. As I tell my clients when frustrated while trying to learn a new skill, “The old you is fighting the new you, and one is going to win. If you allow the old you to win, this is as good as you will ever be. BUT if you stick with it, the new you will eventually win out and then you’ll go to another level. But it will take time an patience.”
The other thing I impress on my students is that improvement is not a constant. There will be ups and downs. The analogy I use is a stock chart. The stock I will use to illustrate my point is Apple. Perhaps the best company in the world. As you see in the chart, even Apple doesn’t go up every day. Each little spike on the stock chart represents a day.
Learning works the same way. Some days are easy, others are a struggle. That is because what you are doing is uncomfortable and/or you just don’t trust those new feelings yet. This will especially be the case on the golf course. These “dips” in your learning are learning opportunities. Wise investors don’t panic and sell when this happens. They understand that this is completely natural and if they stick with the stock, over time they will see a tidy profit. Also, you can be assured that following the dips, as shown in the chart, the stock rises to new highs as new skills are ingrained. That being said, notice the TREND of the stock. The trend is very positive. If you were in the market for a good stock, this would most definitely be a BUY! You need to look at yourself and your progress in the same philosophical way.
Progress may not be happening as fast as you would like, but it is happening. Focus on your trend.
Often you’ll hear a tour pro in an interview when he/she is working on a swing change say something like, “I know I’m working on all the right things, I just have to be patient and wait till it all comes together.”
Why not take that same approach. Work on the right things. Don’t revert back to what frustrated you in the first place. Take a long term approach. Don’t expect it all to happen instantly.
If each time you practice you only improve by 1% then over 20 practices you’ll be 20% better! That is enough to see some real improvement.
During post round interviews you’ll often hear tour pros talk about “Go Pins.”
A “go pin” is an approach shot that compliments a player’s natural shot shape. It allows a player to begin the ball safely toward the middle of the green and let it curve toward the pin. Everyone has go pins, regardless of handicap.
Simply put, drawers of the ball don’t feel comfortable fading the ball nor do faders trust their ball to draw. Which is why some hole locations make you feel uncomfortable. If you are flag hunting a pin you shouldn’t, your brain senses this and mid swing will say, “I don’t want to do this!” That is why you make an uncommitted swing. The next thing you usually see is your ball flying toward an undesirable location. We’ve all done it.
Accepting your tendencies and being disciplined in your strategy will allow you to swing confidently, thus increasing your chance to shoot your best score. When you hear a winning pro say, “I tried to stay really patient out there today.” It means he or she wasn’t going to hit a shot that could get them in trouble or allow them to lose a shot. Meaning not going after pins they shouldn’t.
If you are a fader of the ball your “go pins” are in the center or on the right side of the green. This way you can comfortably start the ball on a safe line and have the ball curve toward the hole. The pins you should NEVER go after are on the left side of the green. That is your No Fly Zone! On those pins hit to the middle of the green and be happy with two-putting. You’ll have chances to be more aggressive later. That’s called patience!
If you curve the ball right to left, the exact opposite is true. Your “go pins” are in the middle or left side of the green. Your No Fly Zone is a pin tucked on the right side of the green.
If you can be disciplined, you’ll see without doing anything special, your score will magically come down.
There are 3 distinct factors that determine the strength of your mental game and your ability to play solid, consistent golf.
1. Attitude. Attitude is everything. Golf is a tough game. If you let your attitude get bad, it’s just a matter of time before your round unravels AND you become an unpopular playing partner because you’re bringing everyone else down. If you can keep a good attitude, good things seem to happen eventually, or at the very least you’ll be better able to cope when bad things happen.2. Belief. Your belief in yourself and how you think the game should be played are also a huge factor in your ability to score consistently. Do you have belief in your skills? Do you believe in taking risks or are you more comfortable playing the safe shot? All play a huge part in how the round will play out.
3. Circumstances. These change constantly during the round. Example: You have to hit from under a tree, it starts raining, you go through a rough stretch, you get a bad break, your playing partner is a tool. The list of these irritants is endless. Changing circumstances can affect the decisions you make.
Mentally-weak golfers are controlled by the one thing they can’t control – their circumstances. Playing golf this way is a lot like being in a casino. You can never predict the outcome from day to day. You will find you will play your best golf when you don’t allow circumstances to determine your decisions, actions and attitude. This will eliminate the rollercoaster effect out of your round. The graphic shows that if circumstances are your foundation, golf is an unstable and volatile game. If your attitude or belief waver in the slightest, then everything falls apart.
A mentally-strong golfer’s foundation is based on the things that he or she can control – Attitude and Belief. Circumstances have little affect on their attitude and belief, so they make better decisions. They can cope with whatever comes knowing that, in the end, they will succeed. It’s like investing, rather than gambling. The mentally strong golfer is disciplined and has a strategy. This allows a golfer to have a high degree of self-belief and a good attitude, even if things aren’t going well.
And, when you play golf, you’re sort of signing up for some degree of misery. Also, remember it happens to everyone. So, if that is the case, why get chewed up over what is inevitable. Adapt and overcome. It’s really your only choice.
After decades of coaching I have noticed that almost all golfers, regardless of skill level, make the same silly mistakes over and over again. Many of these mistakes are not swing related. Most result from a lack of awareness of course design, or a failure to play the odds.
Long ago when I was a university coach I began listing the most common mistakes I saw golfers make on the course. I created 11 rules—known as “The Commandments”—to help my team eliminate common mental mistakes that cost them valuable strokes. Each Commandment was our do’s and don’ts list. We knew if we did not break one of these Commandments in competition that we would be successful. Following The Commandments gave our team a definite competitive advantage and had an immediate and lasting impact on our success year after year. In future articles I’ll discuss other Commandments. This month, I give you Commandment #6: Love the fat! In other words, aim for the widest part of the green. The area where the pin usually isn’t. The rationale: If most of the time you aim for the middle of the green, you will avoid short-siding yourself in bunkers, ponds and grassy areas. You will see your scores drop– dramatically and consistently. I know that aiming for the widest part of the green seems simple, but it takes discipline. Another added benefits of adopting this philosophy is that it will increase the odds of your ending up on the green by as much as 200-400%–- odds you should like! Because you’re hitting to a much bigger area! It allows you to post a good score, even when you’re less than perfect. Your rounds will have less stress and be more fun.
Here’s a story from when I was a collegiate coach to illustrate the impact of this Commandment. One year my team was fortunate enough to qualify for a prestigious tournament called the Gordin Classic. Only the top 13 teams from the previous year’s NCAA National Championships are invited to play. That year we had an advantage: one of my golfers, Clint Colbert was the #1 golfer in NCAA Division III.
The tournament was a 54 hole event. The first day, the field played 36 holes. In the first round, Clint fired an effortless 7 under par, 65. AND he had to assess himself a stroke penalty because his ball moved on the green after he addressed it! Between rounds he revealed to me that he forgot to pick up his pin sheet. While collecting his scorecard from round one, I asked him if he wanted the pin sheet for the second round. I’ll never forget his response. In his Oklahoma twang he said, “Nah, I’ll just keep hitting the center of the green. I figure I can’t miss everything (putts)!” We both laughed.
Clint went on to shoot 69 in the 2nd round, and had a 7-shot lead on the field after the first day. Remember, this was the best field in the nation on a tough course. He went on to win the tournament easily. His 36-hole and 54-hole score are still a record for that tournament to this day.
A version of this article also appears in the February 2018 issue of New Zealand Golf Magazine.
The mental game has been one of the biggest topics in golf for over 30 years.
I’ve coached golf for decades. I have read all the books, watched the videos and have even been trained and certified as an instructor to teach the mental aspects of playing golf. After years of observation and study, it seems to me that the entire golf community—instructors and golfers alike—tend to over-complicate the issue. I like keeping things simple so I’ve reduced all that information into a 12-word question that you can ask yourself before you hit a shot: “Do you feel something good is going to happen, or something bad?” If you believe something good will happen, then you’re in great shape. Most likely you’ll play good golf. But if you don’t feel confident over a shot, obviously there is work to do. While technical problems can be addressed with drills on the practice areas, negative attitudes require discussion and introspection.
You’ve got to make your brain your best friend, not your worst enemy.
To create an environment in which you feel confident and believe in yourself, you need to get to the bottom of the hows and whys of the negativity between your ears. Changing negative attitudes and the scar tissue that builds up takes time. The brain like a computer runs on data that is programmed into it. If you think negatively or believe you will ultimately fail, you will. Your good thoughts need to outweigh the bad ones if you have any hope to improve.
Here are two of examples of how I’ve successfully coached golfers to overcome the demons in their heads.
1. The Worst Putter in the World
A player who was new to my team told me he was the worst putter in the world. His dad even echoed those same words about his son. I said, “The first thing that is going to happen is neither of you are ever going to let those words come out of your mouth again.”
During the course of his first year with me we would constantly speak about attitudes and his own belief in himself while working on his technique. As his mindset changed his confidence soared. The story had a happy end: his senior year, he was named All-America.
2. Paralyzed with Fear
One of the most talented young men I’ve ever coached became terrified of chipping and pitching as he entered college. During his freshman season his fear of chipping was so bad that he would use his putter from well off the green and even from long grass, which was useless. So, we got to work. During practices over the next few months we would pitch and chip ball after ball with his wedges. I forced him to say out loud after each shot that he hit well, “I’m awesome!” It was hard for him at first. He felt silly but I would not let him off the hook, I thought it was important for him to speak positively about his chipping. I strongly believe that what you hear goes directly into your brain and will ultimately determine what you believe and/or become. Over time, he saw that he actually had become awesome. He was so good, in fact, that in his sophomore season he was named 1st team All-America.
In both instances, the golfer’s brain had to be re-wired. I’m a big believer that Thoughts Become Things. Negative thoughts breed negative results, positive thoughts breed positive results. The mind is powerful weapon – for good or for evil.