The mental game of golf is the Holy Grail as far as playing your best and winning more games is concerned; it also determines whether you’re hitting more good shots than bad shots during a typical round at your club, whether it’s a friendly match with your mates or something more serious like competing in the club championship.
So what exactly is the mental game?
The mental game is an approach to golf which suggests that what you do with your mind, in other words, how you think, has an effect on how you swing the golf club and the quality and outcome of your shots.
This is the first mistake.
It’s not a deliberate mistake, but the typical approach used by psychologists and mental game coaches would have you believe (as they themselves believe) that the quality of your thinking affects the quality of your movement; thus if you think positive thoughts, you’ll hit the ball well, score more birdies and win more games.
What’s wrong with this approach?
This approach was fine when our understanding of the mental game was in its infancy, but the more research has been conducted and the more we know about brainwaves and their effect on producing fluid motion, like the golf swing or putting stroke, the more we understand that it’s the golfer with the quietest mind – i.e. the fewest thoughts, who can make a smooth swing and hit the ball sweetly.
Our understanding now shows that making the effort to quieten a busy mind with things like breathing awareness, mindfulness and meditation are far more valuable than psychological techniques, as these deep, deliberate and purposeful practises show us how to reduce mental chatter (80% of which is negative at any time). When this mental chatter or ‘monkey mind’ is pacified or subdued, then your subconscious and natural ability to produce a good shot is greatly enhanced.
Why is this so?
When your mind is quiet, the signal about your intended action (putting the ball in the middle of the fairway) goes directly to your motor-system, bypassing the analytical mind. In other words, there is a clearer channel of communication between your mind and your body when you reduce the amount of thinking you do before hitting the ball. The result? A more fluid, powerful effortless and precise golf swing.
What’s the second biggest mistake people make with regards to their mental game?
So, the first mistake is in thinking too much; and those thoughts can be anything from remembering what your golf pro taught you in your last lesson to recalling some tips or tricks you read recently in your favourite golf magazine. The tendency of course, is to think of these things while addressing the ball.
The second common mistake in golf’s mental game is in trying to swing like somebody else, instead of trusting your natural ability. The great Jack Nicklaus often remarked that this was a classic mistake made by recreational golfers of all handicaps; the desire to swing like someone else rather than playing with the swing you’ve already got.
How disastrous can this be to your game?
Let’s say you have an image in your mind of your club pro or one of your favourite tour players and you try to swing like them, so that rather than grooving your own ‘signature swing’ (the most natural and authentic swing that’s right for you) the temptation exists to tweak and fiddle with your swing during the actual round of golf itself! I call this game “Search for a Swing” and believe me, it’s not what you want to be playing this weekend if you want to relax, enjoy and actually make more of those birdies.
Why does this happen?
We try to swing like another person because we don’t really own the swing we’ve got; that means we don’t understand it, we don’t have the right image in our minds about our swing - in other words there is no ‘movement map’ in our brains that clearly identifies how we should be moving and swinging the golf club.
Tiger Woods once said that Ben Hogan understood his golf swing more than any other player ever and this was in part due to the fact that Hogan used a lot of slow motion training to really feel what was going on in his swing.
And this brings us to the crux of the matter.
Swing feelings, the tried and trusted approach of golf’s greats like Hogan and Nicklaus have been surpassed by our obsession with the mind and the incessant cramming of more and more information into our brains. As I often say, knowledge of technique without self-knowledge is a path leading nowhere.
What’s so frustrating about all this is that you know you’re capable of playing better shots but the default old-world approach to the mental game still tells you to think about how to swing the club while you’re swinging it and leaves your game in an ever decreasing circle of poor performance.
Again, the solution is simple.
The more you can learn to quieten your mind, reduce the internal dialogue and relax into your natural swing, the better you will play and the more you will enjoy being on the golf course.
And the third mistake?
The third most common mistake golfers make with regards to their mental game is to try and visualize without first quietening the mind.
All the research shows that focusing on the breathing, using mindfulness and meditation training actually increases activity in the occipital lobe with the production of ‘alpha-brain waves’ which are proven to aid your powers of visual acuity. This is nowhere more important than in your short game, when it’s paramount to keep your mind free of extraneous thoughts, breathe deeply and slowly and use your brain’s natural ability to create a powerful image of your intended outcome (the ball in the bottom of the cup).
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