Head Games: Psychological Tools for Competitive Golf
Updated: Jul 15
I came out of my first golf competition not knowing whether to cry, grab a drink, or beat my opponent over her head with my clubs. My “just for fun” competition turned out to be a full-out internal psychological battle. After some reflection here are some take-aways that will help any competitive golfer and/or weekend warrior.
#1: We cannot control our opponent’s behavior or game. The more we concern ourselves with someone else’s score or how they are behaving the more we are distracted from our own game.
Sam Snead once said, “Forget your opponents; always play against par”. Bottom line focus on your game: What are you doing well? What do you need to do more of? Start thinking about your next shot as you walk or drive to your ball. If you opponent is getting in your head it is okay to politely but firmly tell them that you don’t want to talk. It is okay to set boundaries. Play YOUR game.
#2: I am sure you have read or heard that you need to forget the bad shots and focus on the next one. Easier said than done when you just duffed your chip or sliced your drive into the woods. Multiple golf experts talk about your need to focus on the next shot but they don’t give you psychological tools to help you move forward. Telling yourself that “I need to move on” or “stop” may be a start but will likely result in more anxiety or even anger if you don’t help yourself shift your mind set. How many times have you caught yourself ruminating on a bad shot even after you told yourself to stop?
Here are some steps that you can take to reset:
1) Briefly acknowledge what happened and why (without JUDGEMENT). “I sliced my drive because I didn’t turn it over quick enough”. DONE. MOVE ON. The reason it is important to acknowledge what happened is twofold; 1) we need to know what we did so we can correct it; 2) by acknowledging the shot we are helping our mind let go of it. It will be easier to move on if we determine what went wrong (“I didn’t turn it over”) versus yelling at ourselves (“I am so stupid, I can’t believe I did that”).
2) Focus on what needs to happen next. “I need to chip out of the woods and get back into play”. I caution you not to be overly ambitious with the next shot in effort to compensate for the last one. In stroke play this can lead to risky decisions that may hurt your score for the hole. It is better to be one behind rather than two or three behind because you didn’t pull off your “hail Mary” shot.
3) As you address your ball, use positive self-talk (internal or external) “I got this”, “Chipping out of the rough with my seven-iron is a walk-in-the-park”.
4) Breathe! Take a deep breath (in through your nose, fill your belly with air, feel the belly expand). Breathe in all the positive aspects of your game and exhale all the negative and critical statements. This should be a slow and controlled breath (breathe in for three and out for three).
Reasons it is important to breathe: 1) Slow and controlled deep breathing helps you regulate your sympathetic nervous system (this is the part of our nervous system is responsible for our fight or flight automatic reactions which in golf may lead to death grips and over swings).
#3: Pre-Round Rituals. I am a HUGE fan of creating good head-space with pre-round rituals. This could be anything that you do on a consistent basis to prepare for your game. A pre-round ritual is more than having a practice round or warming-up. In addition to learning the course and working on the mechanics of your game, this time will help you mentally and physically prepare for the game ahead.
Visualization. Whether you visualize your game the night before or before each swing, visualize yourself hitting a solid shot: What did it feel like? What does a great shot sound like? What are the results that you expect to see? You can even go as far as visualizing yourself holding your trophy and giving your press interview.
Meditation and Breathe work. As noted above, breathing helps us regulate our sympathetic nervous system. Incorporating a meditative practice will help you learn to control and/or manage anxiety or jitters that you may get prior to or during a round. The more you practice the better you will become at controlling your nervous system.
Music, Food, Etc. Again, pre-round rituals can be ANYTHING you do to get your head in the game. Maybe you listen to an inspiring song (my favorite is DJ Khaled’s “All I do is win”), always have your pre-round iced americano, or have a motivating chat with a friend or caddy.
I welcome you to try the above techniques which will help you improve your mental game at your next competition. Remember to stay positive and have fun!