Golf and its Mind Games
Ever since I started playing competitive golf, I’ve been looking for ways to strengthen my game. Finding a coach to strengthen the technical and mechanical aspects of my game and swing wasn’t difficult, but when I looked to improve my mental game, I had to get creative.
I’ve always enjoyed watching shooting, and after watching interviews with some of the world’s best shooters and golfers, I started to draw some parallels. In this article, I have tried to connect competitive shooting and golf, outlining tactics that are used by world-class golfers and shooters alike. They helped me improve my game, and I think I can help improve yours too. Here are some interesting ways you can boost your mental ability.
IMAGINATION IS KEY
Before every shot we hit, we have a rough idea of the kind of shot we want to execute. We look at the yardage and the pin and the layout of the hole and then build our shot around it. Some of us might visualize the shot before us, while some of us get into it straight away. The same is seen in the sport of shooting.
Rifle and pistol shooters primarily use “internal” imagery. This is where you are imagining what you want to see through the perspective of your own eyes, like looking through a camera held at the tip of your cap.
“While preparing for the Olympics, I used imagery and relied on it a great deal. I was able to see myself shooting perfect shots all day long, even at a record-level pace in my mind. My discipline’s mental imagery paid off, and I set an Olympic Record in the preliminary match using it on every shot in my shot plan, just like I rehearsed thousands of times.” – Launi Meili, Olympic gold medalist, U.S. Air Force Academy Rifle Coach.
The same principle can be applied to improve one’s golf game. By developing this habit and incorporating it into your routine, you’re setting yourself up for the chance to hit a better shot.
Tip: If you can build the ability to imagine your shots in your mind, you have a better chance of executing them on the golf course. This is a technique used by some of the greatest golfers in the world. Jason Day closes his eyes and visualizes each shot before he hits it.
It’s a technique he incorporated after talking to Tiger Woods, who emphasized the need for a deeper focus. “Focus on getting the shape right to your end target. And that’s exactly what I’m trying to do,” Day said.
To do this, incorporate internal imagery into your game and practice sessions. Next time you’re on the range: pick a target and the type of shot you want to hit, step back and close your eyes, visualize the shot up to the end target, and then just go for it. Then work on bringing this onto the golf course, and you’re bound to see better results soon.
GET IN THE ZONE
You often hear some of the most successful athletes talking about being in the “zone” when they pull off the best performances of their career. In this sub-conscious state, everything clicks, and one’s visualization and execution of shots come together. Although we all have experiences of being in the zone, the key to consistent scoring is trying to stay in the zone.
“Shooters usually come out of flow because of mistakes that need to be identified and corrected, such as: loss of concentration; negative self-talk; self-doubt; worry; and/or anxiety increase. If you want to be able to re-set yourself to attain ‘flow’ during a match, set up a routine that leads you into that mindset.” – Launi Meini.
Tip: If you ever find yourself slipping out of the zone, press the reset button and start again. Step back from the ball and restart your routine, but this time focus on every element of it. Focus on the smaller things like your alignment, grip and ball position. Drawing your attention to minor, mechanical components help pull you into the zone and reduce your chances of getting distracted.
Catch your mind when it wanders or goes off track. The more often you can do this, the less likely you are to hit shots without being fully committed to them. Being less than 100% committed to a shot is what leads to less than ideal outcomes.
Keeping track of your mental state and self-talk are more subtle indicators of areas of improvement. A great way to see where your mind is wandering during the course of the round is to write down a stray thought as soon as you realize it. At the end of the round, this will give you a glimpse into where you are slipping out of the zone. Gathering this data over the course of several rounds will help you identify and so avoid topics of thought that distract you. It’ll also help you catch stray thoughts faster and more frequently in the future, thus preventing you from losing focus.
POSITIVE SELF-TALK IS GOLD
Out on the course, when you’re standing over the ball, what you tell yourself before you make your swing is one of the deciding factors on the outcome of the shot. Self-talk is the inner dialogue we have with ourselves, and the kind of self-talk we engage in plays a role in the outcome of our game.
One theory breaks up self-talk into two categories – positive and negative. Studies show that engaging in positive self-talk (“hit this one down the middle of the fairway”) instead of negative self talk (“don’t hit this one in the water”) enhances our attentional focus and directs our attention to the task at hand.
This can be seen from the work of Albert Bandura, a renowned psychologist. Bandura proposed the Theory of Self-Efficacy. He defined self-efficacy as our belief in our ability to carry out a task. Based on Bandura’s theory, positive self-talk also increases self-efficacy. This increase in self- efficacy leads to us seeing ourselves as successful or skilled our own minds. This in turn increases confidence and helps us execute better shots.
Dr. Judy Tant is a clinical psychologist and American National Bullseye Pistol Champion. She describes self-talk as a mental hygiene regimen, one that should be used routinely to maintain a positive attitude, just as one would brush their teeth. It is a practice she has employed in his shooting career. Studies show that older negative learning in our mind can only be replaced with newer positive learning if we consistently refresh our minds with desirable thoughts and beliefs.
Tip: When you’re on the course, or even on the range, talk to yourself to try and stay positive. Many times, after a few bad holes, you may find that you lose your drive and feel like you don’t have the ability to save the round.
Tiger Woods once said, “Days when you just don’t have it, you don’t pack it in. You grind it out.” It’s in these that we require positive self-talk the most. Building the strength to stay positive and talk to yourself continuously throughout the round will help you “grind it out” and turn those seemingly hopeless rounds into decent ones.
Research into the adaptability and plasticity of the brain revealed that different regions of the brain enlarge based on their activity during practice. It shows that the brain is capable of forming new synaptic connections (links between nerve cells that conduct impulses) and change its structure with activity and repetition. This is termed as neuroplasticity.
For example, research by the psychologist Eleanor Maguire into the brain structure of cab drivers revealed a larger posterior hippocampus to accommodate their larger knowledge and memory of spatial and geographical layouts.
Every time an athlete performs or practices a task, they utilize a specific motor pathway in the brain. Due to neuroplasticity, this pathway is continuously refined with practice. The active regions in the brain also undergo change and develop. What proficient athletes refer to as “muscle memory” is nothing more than a refined motor pathway in the brain.
Research into shooting revealed that shooters adept at practicing in a non-judgmental and non-controlling manner developed growth in the middle prefrontal cortex, a region concerned with creating associations between actions, memory and triggers.
Launi Meili says: “Many inexperienced shooters use different techniques in training than they do during matches. Most learn to train by setting up a comfortable rhythm and shooting many shots down range.
"Their scores are usually acceptable during training, but when they shoot under match conditions, they completely change their technique. In a match, they shoot much slower and labor on each shot, which is a completely different technique than that used during training.”
She explains that, because of this, they score more poorly in matches than during training. “Basically, their training has been mostly a waste of time because they have not learned how to perform for a match. As shooters progress, they learn how to train smart and utilize their training to combat match pressure, which leads to improved performance in competition.”
Tip: Keep in mind that while you practice, you are exercising your brain and it is growing with each repetition. So, when you practice, try and emulate the routine you follow on the golf course. High-intensity practice and continuous repetition will help refine that motor pathway in your brain, leading to more consistent scores. Even when you’re doing a drill, remember to continuously check the move you’re trying to learn. Practicing the wrong movement could lead to you creating the wrong memories and associations, which will make it harder to correct in the future.
Another thing to keep in mind is creating a fixed pre-shot routine that you follow religiously. Be as particular as you can, maintaining things like the number of waggles of the golf club to the number of times you look at the target. But most importantly, decide a trigger that will signal the start of your swing. Keeping a fixed trigger in your routine will help the medial prefrontal cortex (the part of your brain that retrieves long term memory) form that association to the muscular movements of your swing, helping you make a more consistent swing every time.
NUMBERS DON’T LIE
You know what they say: numbers don’t lie. Maintaining statistics of your round is key. Sit down after a round and break down your round into categories like G.I.R, which side you missed the green on, fairways hit/missed (if missed also note which side you missed the fairway on) and others.
Not only do these give you clear indications of the strengths and weaknesses of your game on the day, but noticing trends over collections of these rounds will concretely point to weaker areas of your game and help you identify what you need to improve.
Furthermore, these stats will help boost your self-confidence and self-efficacy. Imagine standing on top of a dicey 4-footer, knowing you make 97% of putts 5 feet and under. That same double-breaking, downhill knee-trembler now looks like a straightforward knock into the back of the hole.
Maintaining statistics of your rounds will also help you identify your tendencies and areas in which your self-efficacy may dip. If you’ve consistently been missing the ball left, holes having trouble on the left may cause your self-efficacy to dip. Identifying this tendency in advance can help you keep your self-talk positive and build up more self-efficacy leading up to this shot.
These tips and techniques are used by world class professionals across the sports of golf and shooting. They have helped me drop my scores and become a better player, and I am sure that if you internalize them, they will help you strengthen your game too.
A 12th grade student in the Cathedral and John Connon School, Mumbai, Aryaman has been playing golf for 7 years, has a handicap of 5.6 and has competed on the IGU Junior National Tour for 3 years. This article lies at the intersection of his academic interest in Psychology and love for golf and shooting.