17 Golf Psychology Tips to Simplify Your Mental Game
Most golf psychology tips focus on trying to control or manage your thinking. On trying to get out of one state of mind and into another, preferable one.
I believe this approach is flawed.
Because a human being does not control their thoughts.
Unfortunately, we have been led to believe that we do. And that doing so is beneficial or advantageous.
Let’s look logically at the evidence.
Do you play your best golf when you have more on your mind, or when your mind is clear. When you have four or five swing thoughts, or when you just let the shot go with freedom and enthusiasm? When you are striving for a predetermined result or outcome, or when you are relaxed and enjoying the game?
Most golfers would say it’s the latter in each case. Yet much of what is promoted and advised under the label ‘golf psychology’ pushes us in the opposite direction.
Towards techniques and strategies, more thinking and striving and controlling.
This essay will help you evaluate the conflicting ideas and advice, simplify the way you approach the mental side of the game and help you play with more joy, awareness and creativity.
These ideas are explored in more detail in my books about the mental side of the game
You will probably have questions as you read. Perhaps get a pen and paper now so you can write them down? Then please feel free to get in touch is you would like to discuss them.
Golf Psychology Tips #1.
How do I control my thoughts out on the golf course?
Have you ever lost your keys, forgotten someone’s name or missed your turning off the main road?
If you have, ask yourself the question:
How could these things happen if I was truly in control of the thoughts that arise, and of when they arrive and when they depart?
The evidence of your own experience contradicts the belief that you choose what you think about.
The belief that you do control thought and state of mind is one of the main reasons why golfers find the mental game so confusing!
It means that when an errant thought arises, you feel compelled to do something about it. This requires more thinking.
Can you see the problem here?
Thoughts arise in your awareness whether you like it or not. You don’t choose them before they appear. Life would be very different if you could!
You can test this for yourself. Whatever you do, don’t think of a green monkey with a red mohican haircut and a gold earring.
Or try this: Sit quietly for a minute and think of nothing. Completely empty your mind. Block all thoughts from entering your awareness.
How did you get on? How did you feel?
Attempting to control or manipulate the flow of thought actually complicates matters. In order to not think about something, like not hitting a ball in the water, you have to think about hitting the ball in the water. You can only control your thinking with more thinking.
It’s like trying to bite your own teeth.
The good news is, when you understand the nature of thought, you know you don’t need to control what comes into your awareness and when it leaves. When you see thoughts for what they really are – harmless, neutral packets of mental energy – the desire to control or dismiss them just doesn’t make sense any more.
Understanding something is the best way of neutralising anxiety about it. Coping strategies or trying to use willpower are far less effective. When you understand that a thought has no power to influence the flight of a golf ball, you’ll stop being bothered by your thinking and you can get on with your game.
Golf Psychology Tips #2.
How do I manage my emotions after a bad golf shot?
Nobody likes hitting a bad golf shot. But unfortunately they are an inevitable part of the game. Even the best players in the world make a poor swing from time to time.
And it’s perfectly natural and normal to feel annoyed, upset or frustrated. But as with trying to control your thinking, trying to control your emotions in the moment will just make things worse. Telling yourself to relax when you are uptight is no more helpful than when someone else makes that suggestion.
Again, as with the role of thought in creating your experience, the key to not allowing your emotions to get out of control is to understand where they come from and how they arise.
Ask yourself a question: Am I angry because the shot didn’t go where I intended, or because I had a belief about where the shot should have gone and what it will mean that it didn’t?
What you will probably find is that you have a story about how reality ‘should’ be. And this made up reality probably doesn’t include bad golf shots. As described above, everyone hits bad golf shots. Even the best players in the world.
So, was it the bad swing that caused the problem, or the story you have about how golf should be?
If you’ve ever chipped in from off the green, or holed a bunker shot, you perhaps don’t recall that you were probably frustrated with the shot that ended up in that spot.
Maybe that’s just how things were meant to unfold?
Golf Psychology Tips #3.
How do I stop thinking technical thoughts about my golf swing?
Most golfers I know play their best golf when they are focused on the task they are trying to accomplish – hitting the ball to the target.
Not when they are thinking about how to achieve it. The position of their right elbow, or where the club might be pointing at the top of the backswing.
There is a limitless amount of information about the golf swing. A good way to get away from technical thinking is to stop watching swing tips on YouTube and listening to golf commentators – at least during the golf season when you are focused on shooting the best score you can rather than working on your game.
The intellect is like a starving wolf when it comes to information. Stop feeding it!
Your job as a golfer is not to understand ‘the’ golf swing. It’s to understand your golf swing. And normally this means becoming aware of the one or two persistent faults that creep in from time to time. Check your basics regularly. Make sure your alignment is good and your grip is sound.
The true value of technical instruction is to get you to the point where you can stop thinking about ‘how’ in your golf swing. Not to give you more stuff to have to hold in your mind and worry about when you play.
If you need to think about how to do something, it means you haven’t really understood and assimilated it fully yet.
Golf Psychology Tips #4.
Do I need a routine before taking a golf shot?
Do you have a predetermined routine that you perform before making a cup of tea? Or shaving? Or putting on your makeup? Or driving to work?
No? Me neither. So why are we told we must use one for the simple task of hitting a ball with a stick?
I have some film of myself practicing. I prepare for each shot in a very similar way time after time. But I’m not following a routine. I’m just doing what I need to do in order to get set up and hit the ball.
In the same way that I would fill the kettle, get a mug out of the cupboard and place it on the worktop, get a teabag out of the jar and put it in the mug in order to make tea.
Indeed my routine might vary slightly depending on the end result that I want. Maybe I fancy Earl Grey rather than PG TIps? Maybe with lemon rather than milk? Why would I want to limit myself by having a predetermined set of actions that cannot be varied by a fresh insight or intention arriving.
It’s the same with a golf shot. I might prepare in a slightly different way when I’m feeling confident than when I’m feeling a bit insecure. Or when the shot is straightforward compared to one that needs a little more planning. This is normal and natural and consistent with how we behave in other areas of life.
When you have a clear mind and a well defined intention, you will do what you need to do to accomplish the task in the most simple and efficient way. It might look like a routine from the outside, but from the inside you are just doing what needs doing in the moment to get the job done.
Having to think about whether you have performed a routine correctly or not is another layer of thinking that is unnecessary and more likely to distract than enhance your experience.
Golf Psychology Tips #5.
How can I stay in the present during a round of golf?
We often hear golfers and other sports people talk about ‘staying in the moment’. This makes it sound like you can be somewhere else!
You will often be on the course for 3 hours or more. Your attention will often drift during the round. That’s normal and completely OK.
Golfers who are completely self centred and only worried about their own game aren’t much fun to play with.
Again, the key is understanding how your mind works and the nature of awareness or attention. Sit for a moment and relax your attention. Notice where it goes. The second you notice that your mind has wandered, you are back in the moment.
You have become aware of being aware.
This is the essence of understanding how your mind works. Of understanding how your experience of life and golf is created.
Awareness is the backdrop to everything that takes place within it.
This includes your thoughts, feelings, perceptions and sensations.
All of these come and go. It’s unrealistic to imagine you can only have one train of thought for a whole round of golf. The trick is to notice when your thoughts have drifted to the past or the future.
When you have a memory, it is a thought about the past, but it is experienced now.
When you imagine the future, it is experienced as a thought now, in the present moment.
You cannot ever be in another time and place except here and now. Staying present isn’t something you need to do.
It’s what happens when you become aware of your awareness and get curious about what is happening.
It is the most natural state of being you can know.
Golf Psychology Tips #6.
How do I visualise a golf shot or putt?
Many golf psychologists will tell you that visualising a shot before you swing is essential for a good result or outcome. But let’s run this theory through the filter of logic and reason to see if it is true.
Have you ever visualised a shot that didn’t end up where you intended?
And have you ever just wandered up to the ball without really thinking too much, had a swing and sent it soaring straight to the target?
Most golfers have experienced both of those scenarios. Which surely casts doubt on the idea of a causal relationship between imagining the shot you want and the eventual outcome?
This highlights one of the main misconceptions that I see in many of the ideas advanced by golf psychology: there seems to be no acknowledgment of the difference between causation and correlation.
This difference is not recognised or explained in most of the information and advice that is offered to golfers.
The key to understanding visualisation is understanding that imagination comes to you, rather than you creating it. There isn’t a neuroscientist or brain specialist in the world that can tell you where a thought comes from or how it arises.
But if you are thirsty after a long round in the hot sun, I bet at some point as you come down the last few holes, the thought of an icy cold, refreshing beverage will come into your awareness.
How hard did you have to try to visualise the drink? Did you make it happen it, or did it just arise?
It’s the same with a golf shot. If you stand behind a putt with a clear mind, I’m pretty sure a picture of the ball rolling into the hole will appear at some point. What else is there to imagine?
What might get in the way are some thoughts about what might happen if you miss. But if you don’t take those thoughts seriously, like all other thoughts they will fade away.
You don’t go through a deliberate process of visualising yourself ordering a cup of coffee or a sandwich, or reversing your car into a parking space in order to make them happen.
Why is rolling a golf ball into a hole so different?
Golf Psychology Tips #7.
How do I take my driving range game to the golf course?
Practice and improving in modern times is becoming more science than art. This leads to more and more information, and if you aren’t careful, more and more layers of complexity. We judge ourselves by the numbers and the results, rather than the feeling and the aesthetics of the shots we are creating.
Technical instructions, statistics and measurement are part of the game. Trakman numbers, fairways and greens in regulation, scoring averages and handicaps. Some golfers are fascinated by breaking the game down and evaluating and comparing.
When you see your golf in terms of external outcomes, measurable milestones and targets, it’s inevitable you will make judgements and put labels on the game you are playing.
You separate learning, improving and practice from tournaments and matches. You make distinctions between big rounds, and smaller or less important ones.
In doing so, it is easy to get caught up in the story you are telling yourself, or that other people are telling you about what a game means.
You attach your wellbeing and sense of self to an outcome and all the feelings of pressure and insecurity follow.
When you don’t have this narrative, it’s just golf. A shot on the range or on the practice putting green is no less or no more important than a shot faced coming down the stretch in the club championship.
When every single swing you take is an opportunity to enjoy the game, learn from your experience and express your talents, there is no such thing as pressure.
Golf and life are seen as a whole. A continual journey of finding out how good you can be. There is no destination.
Breaking the journey down into stages can be useful sometimes for learning and improving. But it’s important to zoom out again and to regain a holistic perspective.
It’s one game. It only ever becomes anything else when you believe you are the central character of the story you are creating in your mind.
Golf Psychology Tips #8.
How do I take ‘one golf shot at a time’?
This is a similar question to #5. The expression alludes to a tendency to project thoughts into the future. To worry about what may or may not happen later in the round rather than being in the moment and playing the shot you have in front of you.
To reiterate a point made earlier, I don’t think it’s possible to block or manipulate the flow of thought. So the first thing is to not be perturbed or annoyed if these thoughts arise. The more you understand the way your experience is created, the less bothered by your thinking you will be.
The good news is, the moment you notice your mind has wandered, you are back in the present moment. We will explore concentration and focus in depth in a later question, but to become aware of your thinking is the first step.
The next step is to become more interested in what is happening now, than the story you are telling yourself about what might happen later on. When you get really curious about this shot, you become absorbed in the task. You become present.
Notice the details of the situation as you approach the ball. The way it is lying in the grass. What is the wind doing? How is your body feeling? What shots are possible? How far do you want to hit the ball? Is there any danger in the target area?
When you become more interested in the process and the task at hand rather than anything else, one shot at a time is easy. It is the natural way to play the game.
Golf Psychology Tips #9.
How do I stop thinking about bad golf shots from the past?
As I suggested in question #1, I have yet to see any evidence – either from my own experience or from that of others – that a human being can pre-choose the thoughts that arise in awareness.
If it were possible to avoid a particular thought, it wouldn’t happen. The fact that troubling memories or imaginings do arise from time to time is evidence that we do not choose our thoughts.
So, rather than attempt to stop it happening, it seems to me that a much better approach might be to understand this aspect of our experience more deeply so we are less affected when it does happen?
Again, there is a common misunderstanding prevalent in golf instruction that thinking positively about a golf shot will cause the ball to go to the target, and thinking negatively can cause the opposite outcome.
And again, I would ask you to check in with your own experience to check the veracity of this assumption. Have you ever had good thoughts and feelings over the ball and failed to execute? Have you ever felt nervous and insecure and hit a shot that was surprisingly successful?
If either of those things have ever happened, it might make you wonder why thinking about a bad shot is such a problem. The more you believe that a certain type of thinking can affect the fight of your golf ball, the more you will be at the mercy of the ebb and flow of thought.
The more you understand that you can hit great golf shots regardless of what you are thinking and how you feel, the more resilient and consistent your game will be.
Golf Psychology Tips #10.
Do I need to practice acceptance or surrender on the golf course?
Acceptance or surrender has become a fashionable strategy for dealing with the ups and downs of golf and life. But what most people think of as ‘acceptance’ is just a slightly more enlightened form of resistance.
Something happens. A judgement is made as to whether it is good or bad in relation to a preconceived idea about how life should be. If the judgement is negative, then some uncomfortable feelings will probably arise.
Another judgement is made. ‘These feelings are not good. But I mustn’t fight them. I must accept or surrender to them’. The fact that you are now resisting the feelings as well as the situation gets covered over by the concept of acceptance.
But pushing feelings away or attempting to subdue them is rarely a good thing in the long term.
True acceptance is when there is no judgement about the situation in the first place. ‘It is what it is’ as Tiger Woods often says. When you are fully open to whatever unfolds, without any preconceived ideas about how things should be then acceptance happens as a matter of course.
There is no need to surrender, and there is no one doing the surrendering.
Golf Psychology Tips #11.
How do I stop trying too hard when I play golf?
Most golfers are familiar with the expression ‘gaining control by giving up control. But very few really understand what it means.
We are conditioned from a very young age to struggle and strive when things get tough. Yet most people would accept that they are at their best when they are just allowing things to flow.
The concept of individual ‘do-ership’ or agency is strong in our culture. The archetype of the Hero if not innate, is woven into virtually every narrative we encounter from an early age. As such, we are identified with the central character, the Hero in the story of our own lives. This is the ‘ego’ that most people will be familiar with.
The more strongly we are identified with this fictional identity, the more important it becomes that that story plays out along lines that fortify and aggrandise it.
Overcoming hardship and battling through to ultimate success is one of the main ways the ego strengthens itself. A story where success comes easily is less attractive than one where the odds are stacked against.
But have you noticed, that when you are at your best, there is no struggle? No willpower is required? No demons are overcome? Often when we hit a great shot, you don’t really know how it happened.
You weren’t really in control of what you were doing. You were just in the moment, enjoying yourself and allowing things to unfold.
Unfortunately, this is anathema to a strong ego. The ego loves drama. So it will often embellish the story in order to exaggerate its role. Its version of events is often confirmed when we get praise from a well meaning parent or coach for ‘working hard’ or ‘grinding it out’.
So, this becomes our ‘go to’ state, even though we know deep down it is less productive, and less enjoyable than when we just let go and play with freedom.
Golf Psychology Tips #12.
How do I stop ‘choking’ in golf tournaments?
Choking, or succumbing to pressure is a feeling most golfers have experienced. It isn’t pleasant.
The anxious and insecure feelings that often precede a choke, arise from the fact you have attached your wellbeing and value to the outcome of the tournament. The ego feels threatened by the possibility of failure and the imagined consequences, and the ‘fight or flight’ response most golfers are familiar with results.
Snakes in the stomach, tightness in the muscles, sweaty palms and a racing heart. It’s hard to play your best golf when you are shaking and your mind is all over the place.
So how does this happen?
When you get drawn into the story of what a game of golf means, you place the outcome on a higher pedestal than both enjoyment and learning. You are identified with the central character in the story, and naturally you want there to be a happy ending.
Your anxious and insecure feelings are sending an important message, but unfortunately most people misunderstand them. It seems that the situation is making you feel the way you do, and that you need to do something to regain control.
In fact, your feelings are telling you something else. They are telling you that you have made a mistake. You have identified yourself with an activity of your mind (your ego), and are trying to do something that is impossible:
To control and bend reality to its wishes.
The moment you realise your error, you are back in the present. The ego disappears and you simply attend to the process of hitting the shot you have in front of you.
Golf Psychology Tips #13.
How do I get into ‘The Zone’ when I’m in a golf competition?
When Performance, Enjoyment and Learning are in balance, the game feels easy, effortless and fulfilling.
The club just feels comfortable in your hands, like it’s part of you. The swing feels free and uninhibited. Every shot comes out of the sweet spot. The ball tracks to the hole as if it was magnetised.
This state of being is sometimes referred to as flow, or The Zone.
It is the most magical experience a golfer or any athlete can have. For many, it’s the reason why they play the games they love.
It is also one of the most mysterious, and misunderstood aspects of sport, and life.
You can’t deliberately get into flow. It just happens when you are immersed in the game. The moment you realise you are in the zone, you are out of it.
You find this elusive state by letting go. Not by seeking it or through willpower. It’s like falling asleep. The harder you try and the more frustrated you feel, the further away it gets.
The opposite of flow is resistance.
Recognising the feeling of trying too hard – of judging and putting pressure on yourself, is a key skill.
When you feel it happening, the remedy is to let go. Not to push back harder.
The trick is to let the zone find you, rather than seeking it.
Golf Psychology Tips #14.
How do I improve my concentration and focus on important golf shots?
A key element of flow is the feeling of focus, or concentration.
They share many of the same attributes. The harder you try to concentrate or focus, the more difficult it becomes.
Concentration or focus is simply the directing of attention onto an object or a thought. Our attention is naturally drawn to the most interesting thing in our perception at that moment.
It begins with curiosity. When you are intensely curious about how the ball is lying, the direction of the grain on the green you are putting on, the feel of the ground beneath your feet, you are concentrating.
When you notice how the wind is pushing the flag in one direction, but the clouds above the trees are moving in the opposite direction, you are focused.
Losing concentration is simply becoming more interested in something other than what you think you should be focused on. This usually happens when you get drawn to some thinking about the past, or to an outcome somewhere in the future.
But notice that ‘losing concentration’ is also how insight occurs. Backing off a shot because you suddenly notice the out of bounds behind the green and you have a slight flyer lie could be called a loss of focus, or it could be deemed a valuable insight. Often the judgement is only made with hindsight.
The best remedy for a loss of focus is simply to be fully open and curious again about what is happening right here, right now. Curiosity leads to interest, interest leads to absorption. When you are so completely absorbed in the task that you have forgotten who you are, you are as focused as it is possible to be.
Golf Psychology Tips #15.
How can I stop overthinking and analysing my bad shots?
It might help to first define what you mean by ‘overthinking’. Check with your own experience. Have you ever had more than one thought at a time?
It seems to me that thoughts are sequential. One thought leads to another which leads to another and so on. Seeing the nature of thought more clearly starts with the realisation that ‘you’ are actually the space in which those thoughts arise. You are not the train of thinking. You are the station that the train is passing through.
The moment you see this, you have jumped off the train. You are still. You are back in the present moment. You will see the last thought for what it was, either an insight to be acted upon, or a triviality to be allowed to disappear from whence it came.
Analysing bad shots is a thought train that many golfers find irresistible. We are meaning seeking creatures, addicted to the concept of cause and effect. In some aspects of life this habit can be helpful. But in other situations, and a round of golf is one of them it can be a curse rather than a blessing.
For a start, you are dealing with incomplete information seen from a limited perspective. There are a number of variables that can affect the outcome of a golf shot. How aware of all of those variables were you during the swing? How do you know that the feeling you had about what happened was correct? To a greater or lesser extent, depending on your experience, ability and understanding of your own swing, you are guessing.
Secondly, what are you going to do about it? If you have been playing the game for a while, you probably have a reasonable idea about what you need to do in order to play your best golf. If the shot didn’t go where you wanted it to, something went wrong.
But does that change what you need to do on the next swing, if you know the recipe for a good shot? Changing what you are trying to do on each shot depending on the outcome of the previous seems to me to be a pretty good prescription for confusion, frustration and inconsistency.
Rather than overthinking and analysing based on subjective and incomplete information, perhaps it would be better to forget what just happened and stick with the formula for a good shot that you know and trust?
Golf Psychology Tips #16.
How can I become a more consistent golfer?
It’s the most common request golfers make when they come for a lesson.
‘Please can you help me play more consistent golf ?’
When pressed as to what they mean by this, they will usually point to something along the lines of wanting to play their best golf more often, and closing the gap between their best shots and their worst.
This is a tricky situation for most instructors, because once the basic fundamentals of the golfers setup and swing have been acquired, by far the most common reason for errant golf shots is errors in timing.
Momentary hesitation or rushing at a crucial part of the swing can mean the ball ends up yards from the intended target.
Despite the advances in the technology available to golf instructors and coaches, timing remains one of the things which it is nigh on impossible to teach.
The best an instructor can do is point the golfer to awareness of what a well timed golf swing feels like, and the way in which a poorly timed one feels different.
Yet again, we see that awareness is a crucial part of not only playing the game, but learning and improving as well.
Notice also that the concept of consistency is intrinsically linked to the question about staying in the present. What would consistency mean if you had no memory of the past, or imaginings of the future to compare?
When there is no story about how you have played in the past, or how your golf needs to be in the future, the desire for consistency disappears. You just want to hit this shot, the one in the present moment as well as you can.
Ironically, the desire for consistent golf drags you out of the present moment, and might be the very thing that is causing you to play your best golf less often.
Golf Psychology Tips #17.
How do I stop my ego from sabotaging my best golf?
This is the most simple question to answer, but also the most important.
Just see the ego for what it is, and in so doing, understand who you really are.
As we saw in Question #11, the ego is simply a thought. It is an activity of the mind to explain the continuity of our experience. It isn’t an entity. We have the sense that life is a string of experiences linked together by ‘something’.
The true nature of our experience – continuous, infinite awareness – is ignored by our culture and the main narratives of our society, and is replaced by this fictitious character that is believed to be the ‘something’ to which life is happening.
This character has a story. It has needs and desires. It has beliefs and values and often these conflict with each other. This leads to suffering.
The ego wants you to play well, to be successful, but it doesn’t want this success to be easy. Why? Because it wants to claim the credit for overcoming the challenge.
The ego wants you to enjoy your golf, it wants you to be happy. But not for long. Why? Because when you are happy you stop seeking and resisting and the ego disappears.
In happiness, in the present moment, in just being – the ego does not exist. And this is what it fears more than anything. This is why success only feels good for a short time before the doubts and the need to prove yourself again reappear.
This is why the freedom of the zone and the ease of the flow state are so elusive. The ego wants to take the credit so it jumps in to claim ownership of the achievement. And in doing so it gets in the way and sabotages the very thing it was desperate for.
Understanding that you are not your ego. That your true nature is the awareness of your experience, not that which appears within it, is the understanding that will set you free.
It is what we are all aspiring to. The game of golf and indeed all games are paths to reach this understanding.
I hope these golf psychology tips will be helpful next time you head to the course. It seems to me that the route to playing your best golf more often lies in simplifying. In stripping away layers of beliefs and concepts that give rise to often illogical and unnecessary patterns of thinking and behaviour.
When you have less going on you are free to play with clarity, creativity and intuition.
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