The Mental Game of Golf

Golf player

Everyone who plays the game agrees that golf is difficult. One day you can feel on top of the world: the next you can be left wondering if you’ll ever strike another decent shot. This is where sport psychology can help. There are no magical golf mental secrets that will work for everyone, but by making the best use of psychology in golf you can perform close to your best more often than most. Tiger Woods was legendarily tough because his father Earl spent many years teaching him how to deal with distractions, and to thrive under what others might consider pressure.

Many amateur players are more likely to respond as Jean van de Velde did, when playing the 72nd hole of the 1999 Open Championship with a three shot lead. Instead of calmly choosing the shot which would guarantee him the win, he made a series of rash decisions which led to a triple-bogey and a play-off loss. Appropriate mental training could have helped Jean, and it can help you.

As a sport psychology consultant, I have worked with amateur golfers, international tennis players, and even a European diving champion. All had different needs, but all improved their performances after reflecting on their own thought processes and embracing some key sport psychology techniques. I am a keen club golfer, and I have enough experience of the highs and lows to be able to understand the psychology of golf first hand. So, what kind of golf mental tips can you, as a keen amateur player, use to boost your consistency and calmness under pressure?

Golf Mental Game Tips

Golf swing thoughts

Many good players like to focus on a single thought when they are hitting a shot. This prevents their mind from becoming overloaded with technical detail, and stops doubts from creeping in during the swing. My main recommendation here is that you choose a thought and stick with it. It does not have to be something technical- Keegan Bradley, for example, has said that he focuses on relaxing his facial muscles as this helps the rest of his body to relax- but whatever you choose, keep it simple. You will have done the technical work on your swing elsewhere: when playing a competition you need to keep your mind clear and let your body do what you have trained it to do.

Focusing at the right time

A competitive round of golf might take over four hours, yet most of that is spent walking. Nobody can retain peak focus for that period of time, so the key is to relax for most of the round and use some golf ‘pre-shot routine’ psychology to get yourself ready for each stroke. Between shots, feel free to think about something that has nothing to do with golf, whether that be last night’s football or the Bake Off. This is far better than dwelling on that pushed tee shot on the sixth.

When you get close to your ball, you can begin your pre-shot routine. Crucially, this needs to be consistent from shot to shot- Annika Sorenstam claims that her routine always took precisely 24 seconds! Different routines are possible, but a good one will probably include the following elements.

Strategise. Consider the type of shot you want to play, the club you want to use, and where the safer ‘miss’ is. Pick a target.

Visualise. Jack Nicklaus was particularly meticulous about visualising the shot he wanted to play. It may help to close your eyes for a couple of seconds in order to ‘see’ the shot: try to experience the feeling of hitting the shot just the way you want in your mind.

Physically rehearse. Take a set number of practice swings each time, and make sure they are rehearsals of the shot you aim to play, not just looseners.

Address the ball. Align your clubface and then your feet for the shot, take a deep breath, and look at the target. Look back at the ball and execute the shot just the way you visualised. Do not delay hitting the ball for too long, as this can allow tension to build.

Accept the outcome and move on.

Golf Swing Relaxation Techniques

If you are finding it difficult to relax during your shots, there are some useful golf drills to reduce tension. The first thing to perfect is deep breathing. Breathe in through your nose, hold for a few seconds and breathe out slowly. Try to ensure that the exhalation takes twice as long as the inhalation- count if this helps. Secondly, loosen your grip on the club: a tight grip leads to tense arms and a tight swing. Finally, try breathing out a little on the downswing. Once you have done these things a few hundred times on the range, you should be able to consistently perform a relaxed swing on the course.

Psychology of Golf Books

If you want to learn more about mental training for golfers, there are some excellent books out there.

A Round in my Mind‘ by Mark Wilson and Paul McCarthy. Follow a fictitious amateur golfer around St Andrews, and get the advice of a sport psychologist as the round progresses. Almost as good as your own on-course consultation!

Be a Player‘ by Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott. The authors are keen to emphasise the importance of self-awareness and self-management on the course, dealing with your own emotional state as a priority. Jean van de Velde might have benefited from reading this! They also explain why you should practice on the course as much as possible.

How Champions Think‘ by Bob Rotella. If you like to learn how sporting greats train their minds to produce peak performance, Dr Bob’s book is the one for you. Contains many fascinating anecdotes, and you’ll definitely want to try out some of the ideas.

Final Thoughts

Golf is tough, but you can learn to be tougher, while still enjoying the game. Work on your pre-shot routine as a priority, and consider the other tips listed here, maybe treating yourself to one of the books listed above. Put in the effort and you will reap the benefits.