Mental skills for golf can be worked on with every round you play.
20 years ago, it was generally considered that the mental game of golf was something that you were born with, or not. But thanks to scientific research and growth of the field of sport psychology, we know that it’s something that can be trained and learned to improve a player’s performance.
One of the reasons that mental skills for golf are often overlooked is because they are invisible. A swing or equipment change can have visible effects immediately. Although mental skills for golf are less measurable and more intangible, they are essential if you are to access your best skills during your rounds and tournaments.
In this week’s lesson, I’d like to 1) identify the mental skills for golf necessary to play your best, 2) show you how to assess and measure your skill level and 3) how to improve your mental skills so you improve your scores and performance. Just like you do the technical reps each week to work on your swing, you’ll need to do mental reps to work on your mind.
When I start working with a new student, as part of their mental game assessment, I have them score themselves (out of 10) for the following mental skills for golf. I will also have their coaches do it (for the student) and compare the results. By doing this exercise yourself, it will help you get a better understanding of your mental game strengths and weaknesses.
What we choose to focus on while practicing, before rounds, and during rounds will have a big impact on our performance and our progress. Getting the best out of each moment requires “Deep Focus”, which needs to be trained daily – it’s a skill.
The skill of focus is being challenged in our modern world – our mobile devices next to us at all times, social media feeds constantly updating and entertainment and information at our fingertips, is limiting our ability to get deep into tasks and stay in the present moment for long enough to experience deep focus. Focus is now at a high premium – if you can learn how to improve it and increase your ability to stay immersed in a task, you’ll have an advantage over your competitors.
The pressure of tournaments and the “big moments” will ultimately reveal the strength of your focus. When you are nervous focus becomes harder, so if it’s weak to begin with, pressure will only weaken it further and limit your chances of success. E.g. Can you stay focused on the line and speed of the putt in front of you, or are you going to get distracted by thoughts of missing?
To improve focus, we need to:
a) Establish what it is we need to be focusing on (we need a clear plan for shot routines, strategy, practice, etc.)
b) Train it daily so we can execute that plan under pressure
A key factor in your performance and long-term success is being able to be aware of where your mind is and how you feel at any point in time. What are you choosing to focus your attention on and what are you thinking about? Without awareness, the mind can drift towards unhelpful thoughts which can take us off the path to success.
The ability to be aware of one’s thoughts, emotions, body sensations and environment is called Mindfulness.
Thoughts are just thoughts. We don’t have control of them appearing – it’s our ancient brain doing its job of trying to keep us safe and away from danger. But many of those thoughts are not going to help us perform and if they are focused on for long enough, they will turn into feelings and emotions. This is where self-awareness comes in.
If we can notice ourselves being distracted by negative or unhelpful thoughts, we can gently shift our focus away from them and back to the present moment, where our focus needs to be for high performance.
Getting out of your comfort zone and pushing your boundaries is a prerequisite for reaching higher levels of performance. In these moments, the nervous system becomes “activated”. In other words, it’s not uncommon to feel nervous while playing, even more so when there’s more at stake. Being aware of how you feel and being able to calm yourself down is another important mental skill for golf.
Slight or moderate “arousal” is necessary for peak performance – your focus sharpens, senses become heightened and intensity increases.
However, when the nervous system is too activated:
The muscles can become tense turning a fluid swing into a jerky one
Tempo becomes inconsistent
The mind can race, making it harder to focus
Negative thoughts can flood the mind
Through mindfulness practice and good breathing techniques, the nervous system can be controlled and kept at the optimal level for high performance.
Few people think of confidence as being a skill. Instead they think that it’s directly related to how well you’ve performed in the past. But confidence also comes from how you talk to yourself every day, especially during the big moments in your rounds.
Are you your best coach during your rounds or your biggest critic? Words can have a powerful emotional effect, especially if said out loud.
Self-talk is a skill. Knowing what to say and when to say it requires thought and practice. Self-talk is more effective when it’s believable, telling yourself you are the world’s best player is positive, yes, but you can’t validate it (unless you are Dustin Johnson).
Spend some time reflecting on different situations that you will, or could be faced with in any round, and decide what the optimal self-talk would be to raise your confidence.
Self-talk can be used at any time to navigate difficult situations or to set intentions for your future. The story you tell yourself everyday will become your reality.
Are you a glass is half empty person or half full? Another skill that is required for high performance is optimism. The true test of a person’s optimism is their attitude when they are being challenged and experiencing setbacks – in golf this could be a poor start, hitting some wayward tee shots or having a big number on a hole. In these moments, can you still see something positive and believe that it will turn around? You need to learn to love the challenge and grow from it, instead of thinking of how unfortunate it is that it occurred.
Your ability to visualize your future is another skill that needs to be practiced.
Can you see yourself being successful in your next round? What will go into that success? What mindset will you have? How will you get into that mindset? How will you deal with the challenges you will face? If we can see it in our minds before it happens for real, we will be prepared for anything that can happen and increase our chances of success.
Spend 5-10 minutes daily and as part of your pre round routine, practicing mental imagery. Bring the senses (colors, smells, sounds, feels, etc) into it and make your future success as life-like as possible.
Goal setting and time management is another skill that needs to be worked on. How well do you know yourself and your game? We need to do some self-discovery to decide where we want to go and what we need to do to get there. A plan needs to be developed, with clear goals/milestones and a time-frame. Uninterrupted time needs to be blocked out for each activity so you can focus deeply.
Reaching any of your goals (in golf or in life) involves being able to execute daily and weekly goals – the combination of them improves your skills, develops positive habits and takes you closer to your long-term goals. Accountability to others (mentors or coaches), can help with your motivation.
Thanks for reading. I’d now like you to go back through the article and give yourself a score out of 10 for your current ability level for these mental skills, so you can identify which ones you need to work on. The mental game scorecard below can help with this process.