A few weeks ago I began to conduct a bit of a random straw poll amongst my friends and fellow club members.  I asked one question:   “If you could have information about one facet of the game that would help you improve, what would you choose?”

I was surprised, but hugely heartened, by the answer.  Overwhelmingly, players wanted to know more about the mental skills side of the game and how to make the most of the technical skills they already possessed.  Humans are strange beings, though, and although a handful had attended a group mental skills session no one had sought out an individual lesson to furnish them with the information they sought!

Over the years I was fortunate enough to work with a couple of specialists in this mental skills arena and when I was playing my best I was certainly very sharp in my thinking on the golf course.  Two decades of playing only four or five times a year, however, inevitably led to a steep decline in my mental acuity.  After all, if you have a skill and don’t use it, you lose it.  When I joined Delamere Forest Golf Club three or four years ago with the intention of playing more again, I fell into the trap of golfers the world over – I pretty much spent my time thinking of my physical skills.  The penny dropped eventually that I was focusing far too much on HOW I WAS SWINGING the golf club and not on PLAYING GOLF.  I had certainly misplaced my good habits of thinking on the course so it was time to reacquaint myself with them.

A fraction of my library of sports psychology books. Still didn’t stop me falling into bad habits!

Firstly I had to remind myself that I have different areas of my brain at my disposal –  the thinking/analytical side and the intuitive side.  On the golf course you need the former to assess the lie, the yardage, the conditions, the club selection and your strategy.  This is also the side of your brain you mostly need when grooving a new feel or action on the range.  I have rediscovered that it is not in the least bit helpful to have this part of the brain taking over or being at the forefront as you hit your shots on the course.  That is the time to turn the responsibility over to your intuitive side and pull the trigger.

Many’s the time I have had the pleasure of interviewing the top players immediately after they have won a championship or shot a record low round.  When asked what they were thinking during this exemplary sporting performance, the answer is invariably the same:   “Er, nothing really.”  In other words, once they formulated in their minds the shot they wanted to play they then played intuitively.  This is very much within YOUR compass despite any reservations you may have.  After all, you do not give yourself a whole host of technical instructions as you walk, drive a car or brush your teeth.  You “know” how to do it and will accomplish the task better free from the interference of a stream of instructions.

Let me make it quite clear here that thinking correctly on the course won’t suddenly turn you into the best player on the planet.  It won’t suddenly magic up technical skills you do not possess.  What it will do is help you create a platform for producing the best golf of which you are capable.  That doesn’t mean you will always manage it – but you are increasing the percentages in your favour.

Tiger has trained his mind as much as his swing. It’d be hard to name anyone from any sport who is mentally tougher. [Courtesy of @TheMasters.]

So, once you’ve made your decisions re the shot what then ARE you supposed to have in your mind as you swing the club?

I like to imagine I have a private movie screen in my head and on it, in glorious technicolour, I see the shot I want to play.  The colours are vibrant, I can frequently smell the newly-cut grass and I can hear the birds tweeting.  I flood my mind with a picture of the way I want to see the shot fly to my target and I keep that there throughout the swing, all the while feeling a lovely rhythm in my body.  This works for me.  As my mind is busy with this picture there is no room for negativity.  Remember, also, your body will do its very best to reproduce the picture in your mind.  This is why set-up and aim are so important.  If you mistakenly keep lining up left of target, your swing will change to shove the ball to the right because you instinctively know that’s where the target is.  This is why as you walk in behind the ball it’s an important part of the process to concentrate on your aim and set-up and after that turn your brain over to pictures, feelings and sensations.  Then pull the trigger.  Isn’t that more than enough to think about each time?

So, you see, it’s not a case of emptying your mind.  It’s more cultivating the right sort of thinking that will be helpful to you and clear away the interference of endless instructions to self.  This is not even scratching the surface of the topic but it is worth working to acquire better habits of thinking.

Here’s one final little exercise to help you and one that is fun to do on the course.  I call it “Keep Away From The Anyways”.  An “anyway” is any shot you hit when you shouldn’t have.  For example, say you’re caught between a 6-iron and a 7-iron and you elect to go with the 7, but then as you are over the ball you feel the wind freshen into you.  You think to yourself you might now need a 6 – but you carry on and hit the 7 anyway.  Mostly it won’t turn out well.

Another “anyway” is when you miss a green and carry your wedge and putter over only to discover you’d really like to play an 8-iron run up…..but you’re too lazy to go and get the right club, so you hit it anyway.  We’ve all done it.  You may feel uncomfortable in your stance but you’re conscious of the group behind you waiting……….so you hit it anyway.  You get the picture.

This is all interfering with correct thinking skills.  So, next time you go out just notice and mark on your card any time you commit an “anyway”.  Increasing awareness will help you catch yourself before committing an “anyway” and you’ll become stronger, more  focused and attain better results.

Have fun with it!