Golf psychology and mental game tips

Been fielding a lot of questions from friends, colleagues, and playing partners on how to improve their golf without a lot of practice.  Perfect opportunity to discuss the mental game because it doesn’t take a lot of time.  I’m not a sports psychologist but have read many books and articles and will share several techniques that work for me and should help you.

What works best:

  • Develop a reliable and consistent pre-shot routine.  Do this for every club in the bag and execute on every shot no matter how important.  Akin to putting your body and mind on autopilot.  Works great to handle pressure situations.
  • Be decisive.  For every shot, carefully decide on your approach and then play without delay.  John Wooden’s “Be quick but don’t hurry,” comes to mind because delay allows indecision to creep in and is deadly.  Build the timing of your rehearsal swings and pulling the trigger into your pre-shot routine and practice them.   Super effective for chipping and putting.
  • Game plan every hole.  Step on the tee and know how you want to play the hole to the finest detail.  Consider these two approaches for playing a long par-4 where you know you can’t reach the green.  Approach One:  “I’ll play a 3WD into the right side of the fairway, layup with a 5-iron to avoid the bunkers in front which will leave an easy third with my sand wedge, that will give me the best chance for a par.”  Approach Two:  “Wail on a driver.”  Which do you think will be more successful?  Game planning improves your focus and will reduce the dumb shots which are usually played out of emotion or indifference.
  • Visualize Success.  Stephen Covey, author of “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” says that everything happens twice, once in your mind and then again in reality. It’s easier to execute on what your desired outcome is if you visualize it first.  See the shot in your mind in the finest detail, then pull the trigger.  Also helps to avoid playing those dumb shots like that 3WD off a hardpan lie from the middle of the woods.
  • Identify the smallest target possible.  Helps to focus the mind on where you want the ball to go and less on swing mechanics.  Pick a small target for every shot and you’ll increase your margin for error.
  • Stay in the moment.  Focus only on the shot you are about to play.  The 50-foot birdie putt you just sank or the ball you just hit out of bounds, or the long par-3 over water coming up in two holes are in the past or future and don’t matter.  Let them go and devote your full attention to the current shot.
  • You are your best friend on the course.  This is difficult, but you must not criticize but rather encourage yourself after a bad shot.  The first time I tried this it was awkward but it helps you to forget mistakes quicker.  Thinking positive thoughts and playing with confidence is always preferred, and positive reinforcement helps.

What does not work:

  • Thinking about swing mechanics.  Very difficult to do especially when you’re hitting bad shots.  Your best golf will be played using one swing key and keeping your focus on the target.  When you start hitting the ball badly, resist the temptation to tinker with your swing and just play more conservatively.  Throttle down and use whatever club you need to to keep the ball in play.  Continue making aggressive swings with conservative club selections, but don’t mess with your swing on the course.
  • Thinking about trouble.  Think where you want to hit the ball and avoid thoughts about hitting into hazards or out of bounds.  Always play with your target in mind and you’ll get there more often.
  • Staying angry.  It’s okay to get mad at yourself but let it go and do it quickly.  Golf is an incredibly frustrating and difficult game and you need to play tension and distraction free.  Anger builds tension and is the worst of distractions.  Two things I’ve found here are to think about trying your hardest on every shot and to have fun on every shot.  Know that you are human and will make mistakes.  This will keep your bad shots in the proper perspective and allow you to let go more easily.

What are some of your best mental techniques?

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About Brian Penn

Avid sports fan and golf nut. I am a lifelong resident of the Washington D.C. area and love to follow the local teams. Also worked as a golf professional in the Middle Atlantic PGA for several years and am intrigued by the game to no end. I love to play and practice and am dedicated to continual improvement.
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2 Responses to Golf psychology and mental game tips

  1. All good tips but here is what I call the mental mystery. Lets say you have a 10 to 20 foot putt for whatever. This is the distance that you know that you are not going to make all the time but it is one that you know you are going to make a good run at it. Lets say you read about a 6 inch left to right break. You are confident and then make this pathetic putt that trikles down to hole but it also happens to break from right to left, a total miss read. There was something in your subconscious or your body that knew this, hence the putt that traveled about 1 to 2 feet short, but if you had hit the putt with the correct speed it would have been an even worse putt breaking even farther from the hole. Why can this not be conveyed to your brain before you putt even though something inside you knows that this is a bad read and you hit this very weak putt. Have you ever had this experience and if the soultion to this senario could be found then your putting would improve by about 200%

  2. brianpenn says:

    I’ve certainly had a total misread before but I also believe you need to trust your first impression as the most reliable because somehow your brain processes information that way. Just read the putt and play without delay to give yourself the best chance for a make. Then if you’ve misread or mishit, so be it. You judge your performance not on the make or miss, but if you were totally prepared to putt when you struck it. Bob Rotella likens that to shooting a jump shot in basketball. You only get a quick second look and your brain makes all the adjustments needed for optimal performance. Not sure why it works that way, but it does. Fascinating stuff.

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