The Self Talk Of A Champion Golfer

We all experience negative thoughts and plenty of emotions on the golf course, but champions deal with them differently. They have a filter which helps them stay positive and not let emotions such as anger, frustration and disappointment turn into negative self talk, insecurity and a loss of confidence.

How do they do it?

In this lesson, I’m going to show you how you can observe and experience thoughts and emotions without them causing negative self-talk – so you stay confident and mentally tough and push yourself to higher performances.

Let’s start with a simple concept:

Thoughts/Emotions -> Self-talk -> Mood/Confidence

Are you aware of how you talk to yourself on the golf course (and on a daily basis) and do you know how big a difference it can make to your state of mind and performance?

Thoughts (positive and negative) come and go and emotions will naturally occur during any round. We apparently have between 50,000-70,000 thoughts per day. Some of them are positive and some of them are negative. Self-talk is your interpretation of those thoughts and emotions. It’s important to realize that it’s ok to experience emotions such as anger and disappointment, but it’s how you respond to them that counts. You can either regulate them, or let them control your behavior. Just because you feel angry or disappointed (every golfer feels that way at some point during a round), doesn’t mean you have to start beating yourself up. If you choose to have negative self-talk, you’ll turn those emotions into self-doubt and questions of your ability. In golf, this means more tension, a lack of focus and poor shots.

E.g. Let’s say you’ve just hit the ball into the water or out of bounds. It’s perfectly normal to feel however that outcome makes you feel. Most golfers are very competitive so it will be natural to feel something (frustration, disappointment etc.) in response to seeing their ball land in the water or out of bounds. But having those emotions doesn’t mean you have to start having doubt caused by negative self-talk. Experience and acknowledge the emotion and then move on using positive self-talk.

“Confidence is the most important single factor in this game.” – Jack Nicklaus

A big factor in maintaining and building confidence is utilizing the power of self-talk.

Using Positive Self-talk to Deal With Doubt

Perhaps the most important time to be aware of your self-talk is when you’re struggling or feeling under pressure. As I tell my students, the mental game is easy when things are going well, it’s not until you experience adversity and those emotions that go with it, do you find out how good your mental game really is.

All my students “practice” positive self-talk (using mantras) and prepare/visualize overcoming adversity in those tough moments on the course. Have a script ready that can help you deal with emotions such as anger, frustration, excitement etc. What can you say to yourself to respond to it instead of reacting? Confidence is a choice!

Remind yourself that you are a mentally tough competitor and that you have a champion’s mindset! The more you can train yourself to acknowledge (“I feel …”) and reset using positive self-talk, you’ll get better at bringing yourself back to your optimal performance state. By reflecting upon this (the emotions you experienced during the round and how you dealt with them) after your rounds, and you’ll increase your awareness and get better at it.

Using Positive Self-talk For Motivation and Changing Your Beliefs

Your belief system (aka your subconscious mind) which controls most of your behavior at any given time, can be shaped by self-talk. The subconscious listens to all your self-talk and accepts it to be the truth.

Many of my students follow a morning routine, which includes meditation, visualization and self-talk. I recommend that you spend a little time each morning visualizing and verbalizing all those things you would like to be and say them outloud, e.g:

“I am a PGA Tour Winner”.

“I am the Club Champion”.

“I am a mentally tough competitor”.

“I remain calm and composed under pressure”.

Repetition of these phrases and visualizing those goals vividly can change your belief system and bring them closer towards you. Notice what words have the best affect on you and add them to your motivational script for when you need it.

Using positive self-talk during your rounds (be your inner caddie)

One of the ways my students review their rounds is by how good their self-talk was. This exercise makes them more aware of how they are talking to themselves throughout a round, so they can improve it over time.

Some of the players I work with use self-talk during their pre shot routine to keep themselves committed to the shot. It’s amazing how many players I talk to who tell me how well they played when they had caddie. The reason is that they are able to verbalize the shot which increases commitment and results in better shots. The good news is that you can easily do the same thing with your self-talk! Experiment with describing the shot you want to hit (not the one you don’t) during your pre-shot routine.

During your rounds, notice the tone of your self talk and whether you are talking to yourself in the form of negatives or positives. I wouldn’t want any of my players to give themselves instructions in the form of a negative (don’t do this…). As Tony Robbins says, “Where the focus goes, the energy flows”.

Examples of this would be:

“Don’t hit it in the water” or “Don’t miss it left”. Replace with “I can hit the ball down the right side of the fairway”.

“Don’t get distracted”, replace with “Stay in the present”.

“Don’t 3 putt”, replace with “Stay in my process”.

“Don’t make double bogeys”, replace with “Stick to my smart course strategy”.

Using Positive self-talk to keep you emotionally neutral and in the present

Notice if you’re focusing on what the consequence of a shot will mean for you in the future. I often hear from players whose success rate is higher for par putts than it is for birdie putts (from the same distance). The simple explanation is the thought of what a birdie putt will mean for them in the future e.g “I’ve got this for birdie and if I make it I’ll be 2 under with 4 to play…”. They are no longer in the present and emotionally neutral (like they are for other putts), but in the future thinking about how that birdie will make them feel. This creates higher performance anxiety and less focus on the process resulting in fewer putts made. Notice if your self-talk is taking you into the future and out of the emotionally neutral state.

Using Positive Self after shots

You might be frustrated after hitting a bad shot, but do your best not to turn that into negative self-talk. I play with golfers all the time who call themselves names and tell themselves how bad they are (outloud not just in their heads!). Invariably those players don’t go on to achieve success until they are able to learn how to improve their self-talk. Choose your responses to bad shots by having some prepared script for your self-talk. Shots you don’t like or missed opportunities to score are an inevitable part of the game, so it’s important they don’t change your mood. If you wouldn’t say it to someone else, don’t say it to yourself!

If you hit a shot particularly well, remember to celebrate and anchor success. Use some positive self-talk to enhance that positive feeling and store that memory.

Every day is a new opportunity to change your belief system and how you deal with negative thoughts. Notice how you are interpreting the world around you and decide to see it a more positive way – you’ll benefit enormously from doing so in the long-run!

Photo courtesy of US Air Force

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David MacKenzie

is a mental golf coach and lives in Washington DC. He is the founder of Golf State of Mind, a teaching program designed to help golfers condition their minds to overcome fear and play with confidence.

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