I have found the modern sports psychologist like to use the word “mastery” to encompass all that it takes to become really good at something. By studying these masters of performance we can understand the mental makeup it takes to achieve greatness. Personally, I have found the mental side of golf to be a roadblock in my path to improve. I believe for everyone mastering our own mental state while in pressure situation is an ongoing battle, because it has been proven that the brain is ever evolving throughout our entire life.
Improving performance comes in many categories, physical training, practice habits, fundamentals, developing skill, mental mastery, etc. When I became a PGA professional, I was not the best player compared to other club professionals in the golf business. I played in high school with some success, but did not play in college. When I say I did not play, I mean I hardly played golf at all. When I got in the golf business, I decided to dive all in at becoming a good player. I did this for many reasons, to feel comfortable playing with members and their guest at the club, and I wanting to compete in the summer against other club professionals. I practiced hard, worked out, took lessons, etc. Even though I got better I never performed under pressure like I desired. I tell you this story because I believe many golfers have the same struggle I did. Even though I am much better at the mental side of golf, I am just a novice at understanding this aspect of performance. However, I would like to share some of the education that has helped me in the last few years.
Michael Gervais, a sports psychologist, for sports teams such as the Seattle Seahawks, U.S. Ladies Volleyball, and others, has a podcast on iTunes called “Finding Mastery.” He has guests on the podcast that have found “mastery” at such things as coaching swimming, coaching football, playing volleyball, violin, strength training, etc. He adds commentaries to the interviews, which helps with an understanding from the mental side on why these people are masters of their craft.
I have read many books about the mental side of golf, but these podcast gave me a better understanding of what it takes to perform in pressure situations. It is easy to see the commonalities in all of these great performers’ mind-sets.
The common denominator that sticks out to me the most among all the guests is that their enjoyment comes from the process of trying to get better, not from the glory of winning. They all have had success at a high level. They appreciated winning trophies or medals because they worked hard, but it wasn’t about winning to them. The main goal was always to keep improving.
Also, all these “masters” had the commonality of deep focus, with the ability to come in and out of that deep focus when needed. If we play golf for four hours, and are totally focused on our golf game the whole time, the intense focus will fade fast. During a casual round with friends we talk, we laugh, we think about what we have to do later in the day. Then when it is our turn to hit we go through a process to hit the shot desired. When we play in a tournament, this seems to change for most golfers. We become serious, we stop talking, and have an intense focus to start. This intensity will not last the whole round, and focus might be lost at the wrong time, because we did not give the intense focus a break. It is important to focus on every detail while determining a golf shot, and when trying to execute the shot. Then it is important to have a quick evaluation of the golf shot after the shot was played. Good shots should be evaluated much more than bad shots. Bad shots should be focused on more after the round, if at all. After a quick post-shot evaluation we should come out of the deep focus and go back to our normal mental state. This will allow us to get back into the deep focus on the next shot. The pattern repeats for the entire round.
There are other commonalities that I noticed in the guests of the Finding Mastery podcast, such as daily meditation (or setting time aside for thought), hard work and making sacrifices, but I want to discuss one more that I believe will help others. Great performances can happen in different states of mind, but the best performers find the state of mind that works for them. Most golfers I talk to are always trying to calm down when they are in a pressure situation, but a totally calm state of mind is not possible in a situation of excitement or anxiousness. Great performers do not fully calm down, they learn how to handle themselves mentally when they feel their body acting differently, such as their heart beat getting much faster. An increase in heart rate can really get to a players head. There are two options, get freaked out by the change in the body, or learn the best way to control the body even though the body is functioning differently. Some players play better by trying to calm themselves down with breathing exercises, other do better by channeling anger, others do better by physically acting out the anxious feeling in their body. Again, the best method is finding what works for you, but to not let the change in your body affect your brain.
I believe the first, and most important step to improving the mental game is when we play in a pressure situation we need to accept the fact that our body is going to be affected. Your heart rate will go up, mind will race, and you will be nervous, excited, and anxious. Just accept the fact that being nervous is normal, it happens to everyone, but those who perform to the best of their developed skill and ability learn ways to handle their excitement. If you fight the excited feeling, and it makes you feel uncomfortable for multiple reasons, you will most likely perform poorly. Understand that the others standing next to you on the first tee are nervous as well. Go on about your business of deep focus with every shot, and accept the fact the body is not quite the same.
I am not sure that I am the best source of information on this issue. However, my only goal was to spark your interest in getting educated on how to tackle mental roadblocks while playing golf. Check out Michael Gervais’s podcast on iTunes called “Finding Mastery.”
Todd Elliott is the PGA Head Golf Professional for Hideaway Beach. Todd is TPI (Titleist Performance Institute) Certified as a golf professional. This gives him the ability to give golf specific physical screening to detect any physical limitation that might affect the golf swing. Todd is also a Coutour-certified putting fitter, a Titlteist-certified fitter and a Titleist staff member. Follow Todd on Twitter @elliottgolfpro or for any question or comments email firstname.lastname@example.org.