What I Learned From Talking to 23 Mental Game Experts in 6 months

Over the past 6 months, I’ve sat down and talked with some of the leaders in the field of mental performance: everyone from researchers such as Dr. Debbie Crews,psychologists such as Dr. Joseph Parent, and coaches such as Lynn Marriot and Pia Nilsson.

I’d like to extend a huge thank you to everyone who took the time to speak with me, and in this story I’m going to do my best to pass along what I’ve learned. I’ve spent some time trying to tease out the similarities and foundational elements that every golfer should know, and here this is initial list I’ve developed.

1. The Results Are Out of Our Control

“It’s just a whole lot simpler if we focus on the process and let the results take care of themselves. When we do focus on the results and when that is going to indicate how good we are … it’s a lot more difficult to deal with the expectations, with confidence, with self talk if we just could focus and sell out to the process.”

– Dr. Rob Bell

I also heard about this concept from Dr. Michael Lardon, talking about the mental scorecard that he developed with Phil Mickelson. Dr. Lardon shared that he didn’t want to know someone’s actual score. He wanted to know the mental scorecard. How well did they do with what they can control? Golfers can put their emotions and feelings of success or failure in something that’s out of their hands, for the most part, and score is out of their hands. Bad bounces and gusts of wind are all out of their control. The only thing they can control is their process and commitment for each individual shot.

So if golfers don’t have a mental process or system they use before they execute before a shot, they need one. When we leave things open to chance, we open ourselves up to stress on the course. Why? Because we have a choice. A golfer’s process should be one they can trust and know no matter the situation. And again, they can’t let the results dictate their confidence, demeanor and self image.

2. You Have to be Aware

“Mindfulness is being completely awake to the present moment: what you are experiencing, while you are experiencing it, and being aware of what you are doing while you are doing it. Awareness is a bigger sense of your place in the environment, mentally, emotionally and physically, as well as an internal awareness asking, ‘Am I present, or is my mind some place else?’ And if it is some place else, come back to the here and now.’”

– Dr. Joseph Parent

Awareness is a foundational element of good golf. It touches everything from a golfer’s mental state to the expectations he or she brings into a round (which are often way too high) to body awareness. If golfers want to hit a golf shot, they don’t want to be thinking about the past or the future; they have to be in the present moment hitting that shot. And every golfer gets caught up with the past — the last double bogey, or the memory of the last time he or she played the whole. But if golfers are pulling the trigger with those thoughts, it’s not predictive of good performance.

Golfers need to be present when hitting a golf shot, and most of us get that. But far too often, we don’t have the awareness or determination to back off a shot when we’re not. Sure, golfers don’t want to slow down play, but backing off a shot and spending 10 more seconds to increase their chance success isn’t going to slow down their round. Don’t do a pre-shot routine simply for the sake of doing a pre-shot routine. What you’re after is a brain state that’s predictive of good performance, and that doesn’t need to take 45 seconds every time.

3. Brain State Predictive of Good Performance

“I kept seeing this pattern of synchrony; so as the left is quieting in the last second before people move, the right may become slightly more active. But what you achieve is balance or synchrony in the brain, and it was the last second of data that was predictive of performance.”

– Dr. Debbie Crews

We’re looking for the brain to be synchronized. And if you think back to your best golf, you will probably say that you weren’t thinking about anything. You were just swinging.

When Dr. Crews talked with those who were performing very well, the last thing they thought about before they started moving was often either the target or a feel. These are great triggers to help get golfers in the right state.

4. The Power of Breath

“Breathing, mind and stress all go together. We are not only sending messages from our brain, but our brain is monitoring our body. So, if you take deep breaths and calm yourself down, your brain gets the message, ‘Hey, we are not in danger.’ If you are holding your breath, that’s what we do when we are in danger and the brain says, ‘Uh-oh, we are still in danger,’ and all sorts of tension and adrenalin flows from there.”

– Dr. Joseph Parent

When we’re in danger, in fight-or-flight mode, everything is on high alert: our heart rate, adrenaline and how fast we’re breathing. So if we can work on that aspect, we can control breath. We can impact our entire state. We run into a lot of fear on the golf course, because that’s how we’re wired. We don’t like to look bad in front of others and want to do anything we can to avoid it.

5. The Golf Course is a Threatening Place

“Human beings are completely dependent on other human beings to survive. What the golf course presents to us is an opportunity to make ourselves look great. We can hit the ball down the fairway. We can hole that putt out. We can hit the ball really close to the pin in a fantastic shot. But equally, we can’t do that as well. There is a chance that all might all go wrong and that’s very threatening to our brain.”

– Dr. Jon Finn

Golfers need to understand that all the things they feel on the golf course are natural. They happen to everyone, although everyone tries to pretend they don’t. It’s OK; being aware of it helps us figure out what to do.

6. Dealing with Stress

“Stress can be good and bad, but it all depends on how you interpret it, and also how you manage it. So, it’s important that when we experience stress, we do successfully manage it.”

– Dr. Adam Nicholls

Too many people don’t have the self awareness to recognize stress or pressure, so they far too often let whatever happens, happen. There is no plan implemented or coping strategy put into place. If golfers improve their level of awareness and have positive coping strategies, they’ll start to do better in clutch situations. But it’s a skill that needs to be built like any other, so don’t expect yourself to be perfect from the very beginning.

Take the time and put yourself in challenging and stressful situations with the goal of coping positively. Dr. Nicholls has done journal studies with elite athletes in all sports, and even though they might look calm and collected on TV, they’re not.

By Guest Contributor Corey Walker