Every golfer in the history of the game will tell you that it's a mental game and if you let it -- it will beat you.
Regardless of skill or duration of how long you’ve been playing, golf requires a certain level of mental toughness. A few weeks back, one of the world’s best, Rory McIlroy suffered a catastrophic meltdown in Dubai. And he’s no stranger to these major blow-up moments -- none of us are. Bad decision-making and errant shots are going to happen…it’s inevitable in this sport, but how do you stop the bleeding before it gets too bad?
When you’re standing over that little white ball you’re probably thinking about a million things. Your alignment, the pressure of your feet, keeping your head down, your weight shift when you begin your down swing, turning your hips, I mean seriously the list is endless. Just look at our friend to the right.
If you’re in tournament-style play, you’re thinking about the conditions of the course and their impact, comparing yourself to your playing partners, and how many opportunities you have to make a move on the leaderboard.
And chances are, the more you cloud your mind with the overflow of thoughts, the worse the shot will end up being.
I will take a step further and say that in the middle of a lesson and the days following said lesson are the WORST if you’re prone to too many swing thoughts. You’re trying your hardest to remember everything your coach said to you, but you’re also unlearning a pattern or habit you unconsciously formed, but you also read that tip on Golf Digest so you want to incorporate that too, and now you’re in a mess. And your game is in worse shape than your brain.
So what can you do?
Here are a few things that I have picked up on over the years that have helped me clear my mind when thoughts become overwhelming:
First, I developed a consistent pre-shot routine. Consistency in your preparation will take you far in life -- period, but having a pre-shot routine allows you to focus your attention to the moment. It’s a way to ground yourself, whether if it’s first tee jitters, or if you’re coming off a quad from the previous hole, you have to reset and focus on the task at hand.
My routine is pretty simple, regardless if I’m on the tee, in the woods, or in the center of the fairway I will take three steps back and take three practice swings. Now the practice swings are essential, so read carefully, the first practice swing I focus on mechanics. Meaning I methodically work through how each segment of my swing is working together, how my arms are moving, how my torso is turning, and how to engage my hips and legs. This swing is slow, to place emphasis on movement. The second practice swing is where I focus on power. I literally try to swing as hard as I can, simply because it’s fun! The final practice swing harnesses both mechanics and power. I try to emulate the kind of swing I will be using for the actual shot.
After my practice swings, I hold the club in my right hand and step up to the ball, eyeing my target the entire time. I break that eye contact to place the club face directly behind the ball (mind you I have already picked out a target) and set my feet to be aligned with my target. I place my left hand on the club, look up at the target once more and from there I’m ready to rock.
I first started using this pre-shot routine at age 13, so I’ve had almost a decade of practice with it, but it works for me and it’s efficient. It sounds like a lot, but in real time it takes me roughly 25 to 30 seconds to work through the progression. It’s something I practiced on the range and on the course to establish the habit in my tournaments. I only share it with you, so that you can find something that works for you!
My next piece of advice is to come up with cues. Something short and simple to remind you of the movement or pattern you want to use for the next shot.
During lessons, your coach may give you a skill to work on. For me personally, I have what’s considered a weak grip, so to remedy that, my coach suggests that I “DJ my wrist” at the top of my back swing.
I don’t want to get too technical, but this is a cue that I can see in my mind and try to emulate myself during my swing. I am an extremely visual learner so I always ask to have my swing recorded so I can see exactly what I’m doing.
As a coach of four to six year olds, I use a cue like “club next to ball and stand tall” when we are teaching them chipping and full swing techniques.
These tips aren’t exactly fool-proof, I still let my mind get the best of me, but it happens -- we are human! But I stand by them and can say that they contributed to a lot of my successes in my junior golf career.
But in case you’re still skeptical, here’s what a few professionals think about before they take their next shots.
I hope you all find what works for you and your mental game, and remember, if you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.