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Most golfers lose too many shots each round, not because their technical skills desert them, but because of mental mistakes that cause changes in the swing and putting stroke.
In this article, I’m going to cover what I consider to be the 5 biggest mental game mistakes that golfers make and how to overcome them, so you can get access to your best technical skills more often.
Mental Mistake 1: Going Into A Round With A Poor Mindset
“Setting” your mind before a round is key if you are going to give yourself the best chance of playing well. Too many golfers put pressure on themselves to play well by setting an expectation for their score and the end result of their round. When I ask a new student what their goals are for a round, they will typically say things such as “to shoot XX (a certain score) or better”, “No 3-putts” or “to hit at least 50% of fairways”, etc. They think that if they don’t perform well and achieve their “outcome goals”, the round is a loss. However, all these goals do is add pressure to the player and prevent them from playing with freedom.
A winner’s (or “mastery”) mindset is different. Sure, they have the belief that they can perform well, but they don’t put pressure on themselves to do so, or to avoid mistakes. Instead, they can play with more freedom, by focusing only on what they can control – their focus during each shot, responses to shots, body language, self-talk, being present, etc. If they can achieve these “process” goals, they did all they could to maximize their chances of success. This is why I created my “Mental Game Scorecard”, to hold a player accountable to these more productive goals. Whatever the outcome of the round, it is a learning experience with long-term gains. The round should be reviewed in these terms too: Did that player do everything they could to get the best out of their game on that day? If not, what can they do better, and how can they do it better?
Mental Mistake 2: Paralysis By Over-analysis
For many golfers, a few bad shots causes them to focus more and more on their swing. Instead of engaging with the target (being “external”) and their intention for the shot, there’s more focus on what the body “should” be doing during the swing. When this happens, tension increases and tempo and rhythm changes, meaning the sequence of the swing and the outcome of the shots become more erratic.
A golfer is always better off being “athletic” and focusing on the intention for the shot, rather than what the body has to do to hit that shot. Sure, there can be some (a little) conscious awareness of the body during the swing, but in the seconds before you start your back-swing, you have to be fully engaged with the intention, not prevention of mistakes or what you need to do physically to hit the shot. It should be the shot that makes the swing, not the swing that makes the shot!
Mental Mistake 3: Giving “Negative” Thoughts Too Much Power
Thoughts are constantly entering our minds every second and will quickly disappear unless we choose to focus on them. Scientists tell us that we have up to 70,000 thoughts per day and 2/3 of them could be considered “negative”. We can’t fully control our thoughts, but we can control our thinking.
If you choose to give a thought more power and allow it to grow, it can turn into feelings and emotions that change your mood and affect your play.
Being more aware of your thoughts and what you are focusing on is called “mindfulness” and it’s something that all my students practice through my mental game training program. “Negative” thoughts are inevitable in a round of golf. It’s normal have some self-doubt, thoughts about what you don’t want to happen or missing the 3 foot putt on the last hole, but it doesn’t mean that you have to turn that thought into feelings and emotions. Let them flow and disappear without paying attention to them and return to the present moment. With practice, negative thinking patterns in the big moments can be changed to more positive and helpful ones.
Mental Mistake 4: Reacting To Your “Mistakes”
Many golfers tend to see things in black and white on the golf course i.e. “That was a good shot..” or “That was a bad shot..”.
I prefer to think of no shots being “bad” shots. There are shots that are good, or good enough, and then there are shots that are learning opportunities. Instead of reacting to shots you consider “bad” and starting to think that it’s “just not my day” or “I’ve lost my swing”, look at them more objectively and choose to have a more neutral, constructive response. Of course it’s ok (and normal) to feel frustrated by missing the target, but what happens after that is very important in not letting it affect the next shot and the rest of the round. Asking questions such as “Did I go through my mental process?”,“How deep was I into (committed to) the shot?”, “How good was my tempo?”. Review it objectively, rehearse the shot how you would have like to have played it, and get back into the present, seeing it as a learning opportunity taken.
Becoming your best player-self requires focusing more on what is learned, than the outcome of a shot or round.
Mental Mistake 5: Not Having A Clear Intention
Even when I do an initial playing lesson with an elite level player, they can sometimes fail to be 100% committed to their shots. When this happens, there is no clear message to the muscles to make the necessary movement. Without a clear intention there is less focus over the ball, allowing time for doubt and outcome thinking to creep in. Whatever level of player you are, it’s imperative to have a clear intention for every shot you hit, and hold that intention in your mind.
Great players like Jack Nicklaus and Johnny Miller said that they would visualize shots in vivid detail, down to the number of bounces the ball would take. Even if you can’t see a shot in this way, you need to know what you are intending to do.
When I speak with players who have a caddie for a round, they often tell me about playing better because there is more commitment to the shots (from talking through it and getting confirmation from the caddie). Most of us rarely have a caddie, but that’s not to say that we can’t talk ourselves through each shot and experience 100% commitment to every shot.
Practice this: Before you start you walk towards the ball, verbalize the intention for the shot to yourself. Is it a low, medium or high shot? Draw, straight or fade? On what line will the ball start and where will in finish?
The mental game of golf can be learned and improved during every round you play. If you’d like to get access to my comprehensive, proven system to improve your focus, confidence and ability to perform under pressure, please check out my Ultimate Mental Game Training System 2019 edition.