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Mentally Yours


CarlSpackler

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There is a lot of discussions on here about the impact of the mental game. Opinions range from it being the most important thing about golf to it having no importance whatsoever. Bobby Jones said, “Competitive golf is played mainly on a five-and-a-half-inch course... the space between your ears.” Ben Crenshaw said, “I'm about five inches from being an outstanding golfer. That's the distance my left ear is from my right.” The movie Tin Cup is primarily about a psychologist who helps a driving range pro get his head straight to compete in the US Open. He does until he blows up at the end. There are numerous books about the mental game that promise to have you shooting better scores and many people swear by them. All of this seems like compelling evidence that working on your mental game can help you shoot lower scores, but can it?

Golf is a strange game. It costs you 2 strokes to advance the ball 350 yards onto a small patch of closely cut grass where it costs you another 2 to advance the ball another 30 feet doing this thing called “putting”. It seems an odd scoring system where a 3’ shot costs the same as a 280 yard shot. There are boundaries and hazards placed throughout the course that can cost you additional strokes, as well as other potential rules infractions like causing your ball to move. It’s quite mind boggling and takes near perfection to regularly score par. Even a novice player can occasionally attain a score of par which undoubtedly will plant a seed in their mind that they are getting better at the game, but reality often sinks in very soon.

Aside from playing the game of golf, you have practice sessions where you learn how to swing the club and hit the ball. There are different clubs with varying lofts and shaft lengths designed to make the ball go higher or lower and different lengths. Then you have a flat putter that is designed to make the ball roll across the ground on the green and into the hole. It’s possible that the ball will go into the hole from off the green, but that is a rare occurrence even for the most accomplished players. Conventional wisdom has taught us that putting is the most important skill to scoring since you use your putter on a majority of shots assuming that you reach the green in regulation. Harvey Penick used to say that the driver was the most important club because a good drive builds confidence. I tend to think that they are all important, but there is a lot of conflicting information out there.

Given that playing golf is a physical activity of swinging a club whether it’s a driver, wedge, or putter, how could anyone possibly think that your mind plays a significant role in moving the ball? Unless someone is telekinetic, their mind does nothing to move the ball, and the game is all about moving the ball closer to the hole. I played with a guy a month or so ago who kept saying out loud, “You suck!” before almost every shot. Dr. Bob Rotella is a proponent of the mental game who insists that playing with confidence is key to scoring to the best of your physical ability. Although that guy’s assessment of his swing was correct, he certainly wasn’t doing himself any favors with the constant reminders. The bottom line is that a bad swing full of compensations will produce inconsistent results, and no level of confidence will improve your swing. That takes education, preferably by a good instructor and dedicated practice. So again, why is the “mental game” such a big topic in golf?

I have read several books on managing the mental game. Even Dr. Rotella says that a player cannot become a winner simply by changing their thinking. Here is the way I look at this subject. Your physical ability to swing a club sets your potential score. Having a solid mental game cannot improve your potential, but it can help you shoot closer to it on a more consistent basis. One of the main benefits of a sound mental game is the reduction of tension. If I am not hitting the ball well, it is usually because I am tensed up for some reason. There are all sorts of things that can create tension whether it’s dealing with tough situations in life or perhaps a stressful situation on the course like hitting into an island green. Learning how to control your emotions on the course will not guarantee that you hit that green, but it will help you hit it more often. It will also help you deal with the situation better if you fail. How many times have you seen someone miss a tough shot like this and throw a tantrum? All too often I’m afraid. One of the key aspects of a sound mental game is focusing on the shot at hand and not the result. Whether you are facing a bogey or a birdie putt, each stroke counts as one. My best scores have happened when I played in a calm state where I didn’t have a care in the world. If only I could bottle that and sell it.

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Yeah, I'd agree that the mental side of things is primarily about tension (either from anger/frustration, or fear) interfering with a smooth, effective, repeatable swing or stroke. It's also about using your desire to perform well to create deep, calm focus on the task at hand vs. trying to 'make it happen'.

Edited by natureboy
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I don't believe the mental side of golf is completely irrelevant, but I do agree with what you posted here:

Quote

The bottom line is that a bad swing full of compensations will produce inconsistent results, and no level of confidence will improve your swing.

For mid to high handicappers, blaming a bad round on a mental lapse is a bit different than Bobby Jones or Ben Crenshaw doing it.

Still, the mind does tell the body what to do. If we take our jobs or even chores we do on a regular basis, there are days when everything is just easy. Then there are others when I'm all thumbs - like there's a breakdown in communication between my brain and my body.

As far as my thought process causing a worse than normal round of golf, the only time I might blame anything but a bad swing would be if there was some really important or serious event happening in my life.

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32 minutes ago, JonMA1 said:

I don't believe the mental side of golf is completely irrelevant, but I do agree with what you posted here:

As far as my thought process causing a worse than normal round of golf, the only time I might blame anything but a bad swing would be if there was some really important or serious event happening in my life.

I'd largely agree, but within the small variance of a good swing and the large variances of a bad swing, the potential for tension to interfere and increase that variation lies in wait.

I have definitely had range sessions where I was frustrated with either strike quality and distance and responded with stiffer and more aggressive swings for a couple of balls, trying to 'force it' or 'kill it'. Typically results were poorer than usual and improved when I mentally re-set and tried to back off on the tension and focus on being smooth.

I think there's a Seal saying that slow is smooth, smooth is fast. There might be a little bit of overlap (at least as far as swing intentions go) where a Klesha interrupts smooth muscle action leading to 'powerless effort'.

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21 hours ago, natureboy said:

I'd largely agree, but within the small variance of a good swing and the large variances of a bad swing, the potential for tension to interfere and increase that variation lies in wait.

I have definitely had range sessions where I was frustrated with either strike quality and distance and responded with stiffer and more aggressive swings for a couple of balls, trying to 'force it' or 'kill it'. Typically results were poorer than usual and improved when I mentally re-set and tried to back off on the tension and focus on being smooth.

I think there's a Seal saying that slow is smooth, smooth is fast. There might be a little bit of overlap (at least as far as swing intentions go) where a Klesha interrupts smooth muscle action leading to 'powerless effort'.

If the results are the cause of the tension, it's hard to blame the mental game.

There have been times when I've gone to the course with a positive attitude and even started my round off well. When the inevitable bad shots start to occur, I take the attitude of "riding them out". Meaning, I expect them to happen and make a conscientious effort to stay relaxed. Sometimes the good swings come back, sometimes they don't. If they don't, I'll eventually become frustrated and at the point, you're right, it's hard to recover.

But that's kind of my point. We look back at our rounds and think, I was really relaxed during that good round, and angry during my last bad round. We then conclude our emotions are what drive our success or failure when, in fact, our success or failure is what drives our emotions. And the success or failure is caused by how well we are controlling our unpredictable swing that day.

I will agree with you that keeping emotions in check will help. This is true even when things are going very well. If I keep my focus and concentrate on each shot - as opposed to thinking ahead of how good of a score I'm can get - I've a much better chance at a successful round.

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25 minutes ago, JonMA1 said:

If the results are the cause of the tension, it's hard to blame the mental game.

Have you heard of virtuous / vicious cycles. Bad shots will happen in golf. Being able to put them in perspective (was it part of the random expected misses or maybe it reflected a possible swing flaw for the day) is aided by a tension / anxiety free attention to detail, potentially keeping you in the virtuous cycle. Hitting the next shot in a rush of anger / trying to kill it after hitting a frustrating bad shot is likely to put you on the vicious cycle path. But some are able to channel that anger / annoyance into focus so it depends on the individual and probably the level of tension (simmer vs. boil).

25 minutes ago, JonMA1 said:

I will agree with you that keeping emotions in check will help.

Every player has variability in their performance. Having the right expectations for your level of game is useful for avoiding elevated blood pressure (with the caveat for individual reactions above). Say a group of golfers was like a bunch of runners with widely different average times over a distance. Adding tension in golf would generally seem like running with a training parachute attached. The individual range of performance is going to be held back by some amount, but it wouldn't close the gap between them if only the fast runners had the chute on.

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I have concluded that golfers go through a mechanical phase and a feel phase, just like someone learning to drive. In the mechanical phase, you have to consciously work on the mechanics of the swing, which is uncomfortable. In the feel phase you have already internalized the mechanics of the swing, you just need to execute. This where confidence comes in to play. 

A lot of frustration comes from golfers getting ahead of this process. If you are still trying to internalize the mechanical components of the swing like a "golf engineer" then confidence is basically just wishful thinking. However, if the golf swing has migrated from your brain to your heart, then confidence is the difference between having a good experience and just trying to survive the round. 

I'm currently between crawling and walking. I need to learn to welcome every shot on the golf course as a challenge to do something great.  

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