Unconscious Golf is the new buzz word, replacing “The Zone” in golf to describe optimal performance states that are automatic, precise, and free from thought. Unfortunately, Unconscious Golf doesn’t properly describe optimal performance states because the only times we are unconscious are when we’re sleeping, in a coma, or dead. None are optimal performance states. Unconscious golf is not the same as Focused Golf, which is how you really play the mental game of golf. You can’t just swing, putt, etc. without the proper focus. You will not achieve the results you expect. The only focus that produces optimal performance states is a Target Orientation. Archers, marksmen, basketball players shooting free throws, and many other athletes don’t think about what they’re doing; they focus all their energies on some distant target. We must do the same in golf, even if we don’t get to look at our target.
To play golf in an optimal performance state requires specific training that starts when practicing or learning physical fundamentals. Humans are creatures of habits; habits are difficult to break. Just ask anyone who’s made a New Year’s Resolution. If you think about your mechanics, ball flight, the ball, and/or the consequences of making mistakes, you will be programmed to do the same thing when you play. This type of thinking also creates unnecessary eye movement that compromises your ability to make solid contact with the ball. “Where the mind goes: the eyes and body follow.”
There is a way to practice that creates physical precision, keeps the mind properly focused for golf, and inhibits eye movement, without thinking. This comes as close to Unconscious Golf as it gets. The process works equally well for beginners as it does as for Touring Professionals and elite amateurs. This process is simple and leads to precision quicker than traditional practice strategies.
Once you’ve developed the fundamentals of golf (mental, physical, and visual precision at the range), you need to alter your practice strategies so they transfer to on-course conditions. The range bears little resemblance to a golf course that is landscaped with ponds, streams, lakes, trees, shrubbery, sand bunkers, and areas of out-of-bounds, all lying in wait to trap your ball. These hazards may redirect your attentional focus (Target Orientation), interfere with your mechanics and destroy your performance. Altering your mental game strategies will prepare you to block out the distractions that increase conscious thoughts and create unwanted eye movement. These strategies are simple and lead to successful skill transfer and consistency when playing. If you perform flawlessly in practice but transform from Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde when playing, hitting more balls won’t solve your problems.
Golf is an achievement activity with specific expectations governing our participation. Whether success is defined as winning on a Pro Tour, not making fools of ourselves, beating our playing partners, or somewhere in between, our performance is important to us. Success is never guaranteed. Performing in important, uncertain situations create pressure to succeed that creates concern (fear of failure). Fear, at any level, tigers the fight-or-flight reflex, releasing chemicals into the body designed for survival in life threatening situations. Because golf requires incredible precision, even mild levels of fear can destroy performance. As the human nervous system has not evolved since the time mankind first stepped foot on this planet, fear of failure on the golf course causes the same physiological changes as being chased by a saber-toothed tiger. These changes wreak havoc on our golf performance.
To return to a state of optimal performance, golfers must first be aware of their physical, attentional, visual, behavioral, and emotional changes when pressure intensifies and then redirect their attention so they can reverse/inhibit the effects of the fight-or-flight reflex. The process used to address our fears and the concomitant changes is simple, but requires specific training over an extended period of time to establish and maintain its effectiveness. Once inner conflict has been resolved you will naturally and automatically return to a state of Optimal Performance (Unconscious Golf) with little-to-no performance degradation.
When you’re refining your techniques the most important part is undoubtedly the effectiveness and planning of your training (or retraining, depending on which way you look at it) but your clothing and equipment are important too-comfortable clothing appropriate to your training conditions can help you to get in the right place mentally.
Photo by Brian McDermott