All in the mind – the mental side of playing golf
Possibly more than any other game I know, golf is a mind game. Of course, it’s about technique, and practice, and raw, natural talent – but it’s also about what is going on inside your head at the crucial moments.
There can be few games where someone’s mental condition is so plainly (and sometimes painfully) obvious – who can forget poor Jean Van de Velde’s dramatic collapse as he arrived at the 18th tee needing only a double bogey to win the 1999 Open Championship at Carnoustie – and then proceeded to throw it all away with a series of disastrous shots.
Moments like this show vividly how overpowering negative thoughts can be once they take control in moments of pressure. Ultimately, while a golf swing is performed by muscles and sinew, it is the mind that controls every aspect of that action. If the mind isn’t clear, or is confused or distracted, this internal conflict will be played out physically.
So, I thought it would be interesting to look at a few of the ways in which you can help yourself to stay mentally strong during your next round.
Have a pre-shot routine
The pre-shot routine is absolutely crucial in golf. Just as lighting an incense stick might prepare a meditator’s mind for focus, or rolling up their football socks might calm someone just before taking a penalty, rituals are a vital part of mental and physical preparation. They essentially act as a cue for the mind to get ready to do something it has practiced many times – it is your way of saying to yourself: ‘stop thinking about that last shot, now it’s time to focus again on this one’.
So, whatever your routine is, stick to it, and make it something you practice as rigorously as every other part of your game. Use it as a process that helps you to clear your mind and prepare your body.
Focus on the ball
This might seem obvious, but there is a good point here about focus. Once you’ve chosen your club, and decided where you’re trying to land the ball, what do you actually focus on? From a mental point of view, this is hugely important – there are a lot of potential distractions as you prepare to take your swing, both externally and internally. But the object of your attention has to be the ball: trust your swing, trust your club and shot choice, and forget about everything else. Look at the ball – pick a dimple – and clear your mind.
Stay in the present
A crucial lesson, that so many golfers (including myself) often forget. The past has passed, the future is still to come – and so the only thing really to focus on is this moment. And yet this is actually incredibly hard to do properly – largely because the most powerful mental aspects of the game of golf often play out as the emotions you’re feeling as a result of the shot you’ve just played. You might be angry with yourself for a poor shot choice, or even feeling full of confidence because of a fantastic one. Either way, don’t bring it into the current shot. Being present, clear-minded and focused will relax your body and mind, and will allow you to execute your swing without any interference.
We’re all different, as people and as golfers. Because golf is such a mental game, you can often tell a lot about a person simply by how they play. So, don’t try and be the player that you’re not. If you’re a steady, conservative kind of person, don’t try and force yourself to be reckless on the course. Or, if you’re someone who is instinctive and impetuous, don’t try and stamp this out completely when you’re playing. The mind and body work best together when everything feels natural, and not forced – so always play the way that feels right to you.
Choose your moment
So much of golf is about choice – club choice and shot choice most obviously. But it’s worth reminding ourselves that we also have a choice about the mental attitude we take into a game – even into individual holes. Some holes demand a more open, confident approach, while others demand something more cautious. Managing these differing mental attitudes, hole by hole, is absolutely crucial – especially in terms of balancing how far you take them. It’s all too easy for confidence to become over-confidence and recklessness – or for caution to descend into fear.
So, be very alert to your internal emotional weather – learn how to recognise the warning signs of when things are going wrong, and develop the mental strength to choose the right attitude for the right moment.