Patrick Cohn, PhD sports psychologist and founder of Peak Performance Sports in Orlando, Florida. He is author of several books, including The Mental Game of Golf, The Mental Art of Putting, Peak Performance Golf and host of “The Golf Psychology Podcast.” PeakSports.com
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Golf is played mainly on a five-and-a-half-inch course,” said legendary golfer Bobby Jones, “the space between your ears.”
Every sport has a mental component, but the between-the-ears aspect is especially pronounced on the links because golfers have time to think. This isn’t tennis—the ball doesn’t come flying back at you moments after it’s hit. There’s time to plan how to handle the next shot…then to begin to doubt that plan…worry whether something is wrong with your swing…and ruminate about what went wrong on the last hole. Result: Overthinking and underperforming.
Here’s how to handle the mental hurdles in the game of golf—and how those lessons apply to life off the course…
Consistent results are best achieved by not focusing on results. Consistency is at the core of golf—an ability to reliably hit good shots is more valuable than the ability to occasionally hit great ones. But counterintuitively, when golfers are on the course, they need to pay less attention to the consistency of their shots. Golfers who focus on shot-by-shot results often try to make adjustments—My last shot went too far left, so I’ll aim this one a little right…or Maybe I’ll make some minor modification to my swing. The following shot went too far right, so I’ll aim back left or tweak my swing again. Soon these golfers are either playing “army golf”—left, right, left, right—or they’ve completely lost the swing they carefully honed on the range.
More effective way to achieve consistent results: Accept that some shots will not land where intended—that’s just the nature of golf…and life—and instead strive to have a consistent pre-shot routine. If you can accomplish that, your results will become more consistent over time. This consistent pre-shot routine should include the following four steps…
Do your homework. Check the lie and distance to the hole.
Form a plan. Pick a target and a club. That target won’t always be the pin—sometimes it will be the middle of the green, the middle of the fairway or some other landmark.
See and feel the shot. Visualize the shot you intend to make—or “feel” the shot if you’re not by nature a visual learner. The shot you imagine should be within your abilities and should be a desired outcome…it should not be a mental warning to avoid a negative outcome. Telling yourself, Don’t hit it in the bunker or Don’t shank it might lead you to do exactly that, or it might lead you to overcompensate. What it isn’t likely to do is increase your odds of achieving your desired outcome.
Commit. Follow through on your plan without waffling. Amateur golfers sometimes rethink their plans as they stand over the ball, perhaps opting for a slightly different target or putting line. That’s almost always a mistake—a plan created during calm and careful preparations is very likely to be stronger than one triggered by last-minute fear-induced doubt.
That’s true off the golf course as well—you’re almost certainly better off trusting a carefully constructed plan that’s rooted in logic over in-the-moment second thoughts that are rooted in panic. The only reason to change a plan in the heat of the moment is if the situation has changed—for example, if the wind shifts as you stand over your ball. But a rushed rethink is not the answer even here—instead, calmly step back and start your pre-shot routine from scratch.
Hold a single, simple thought in your mind as you swing. This thought might be tempo, balance, target, trajectory or something else related to the execution of your golf shot. It should not be directly related to the desired result of the shot—it isn’t helpful to think birdie, for example. If there’s some aspect of your swing that you’ve been working on with a coach, it might make sense to choose a single thought related to that.
What’s most important isn’t which shot-execution–related thought you choose, but that you choose only one. Having a single, simple thought in mind helps focus your attention. Trying to hold several thoughts in mind is more likely to create an unhelpful sense of being overwhelmed…and having no particular thought in mind increases the odds that distracting thoughts or poorly timed moments of doubt will creep in.
Helpful: Choose a different single thought for putts if the thought used for other shots doesn’t apply well. Line or pace are among the best putting thoughts.
This one-simple-thought strategy can be effective in high-pressure moments off the golf course as well. Example: Auction bidders and professional investors sometimes focus exclusively on the target price they’ve previously identified for their bid or transaction. That single-number focus reduces the odds that the pressures and emotions of a fast-moving auction or market will lead to a costly mistake.
Reset to right now after bad shots and holes. Amateur golfers often find themselves on the “bogey train”—they become frustrated when they hit a bad shot…that frustration detracts from the next shot…which deepens their frustration…which makes the subsequent shot even worse. Soon their scorecard features a long train of bogeys. Here’s how to break this pattern…
Consciously slow yourself down when you feel frustrated. Frustrated people tend to rush, which isn’t conducive to good golf…or to solid decision making in most other activities.
Forgive yourself. Have a coping phrase ready to put a poor shot into proper perspective. This phrase could be, No golfer has ever played a perfect round…Even the pros hit double bogeys…or I’m out here to enjoy myself. A bad shot can’t stop that enjoyment—unless I let it.
That wonderful shot you visualized during your pre-shot process? That was a goal, not something you or any golfer can realistically expect to achieve regularly. The great Ben Hogan once defined a good round of golf for anyone as one where the player hits just three shots that turned out exactly as envisioned.
Reset. Tell yourself that the bad shot was the final shot of one golf outing, and your next shot is the first of a brand new one. No, you can’t reset your score if you’re playing with friends…but you can silently grant yourself a mental reset, leave the past behind and move on. That previous shot belongs in the past—it’s gone forever. As Hogan said, “The most important shot in golf is the next one.”
Don’t think about your putting stroke and grip. You hit a wonderful tee shot and approach shot, and now you’re standing over a three-foot putt for par. Did hitting those two great shots fill you with confidence about your golf talent as you stand over this short putt…or are you thinking about how horrible it would be to mess up an easy putt after playing the hole so well? When success seems so close that you can reach out and touch it, it’s perfectly natural to worry about it slipping away. While such worries are natural, they aren’t helpful—the mental tension you feel about a putt can tense up your muscles, affecting your grip and stoke.
The best way to reduce the odds that something will go wrong with your putting stroke or grip on the golf course? Don’t think about them. The time to consider your putting stroke and grip is when you’re practicing. When you’re playing, focus only on the line and pace of the putt. Any attention you pay to stroke and grip is likely to make them worse, not better. Don’t deviate from this even if you miss a putt or two—make your read, launch the ball freely on your line, and accept the result.