How To Think In Golf

Are you Thinking or Playing Golf?

Have you ever noticed that when you’re playing your best you’re not really “thinking”? You’re not judging your performance or your score, you’re just focused on hitting quality golf shots? This is called “the zone” and with the following techniques I’m going to show you how to replicate this mental state more often.

Being in the zone is simply looking and reacting. You’re not focused on anything but that shot and that target, not what your body needs to do to execute it, or what has got you to this position or what the consequence of this shot is. It’s like you’re in a bubble and all that matters is the present moment and the shot before you.

Getting into the zone more frequently, instead of it just happening by chance, requires some understanding of good and bad thinking for golf and most importantly, you need to believe that you are in control of it.

Golf is unlike most other sports. In games like soccer or basketball, you don’t get much time to think, you just look and react, which in a way makes them easier. They’re also a lot shorter in duration, so a player doesn’t have to hold their focus for as long. The reason that golf is more of a mental game vs other sports, is because there is a lot more time to think vs play. And it’s the thinking that’s done when you’re not playing, that most affects a golfer’s performance.

Switching on and switching off

The human brain can’t concentrate for 4-5 hours, it performs best in short periods of high concentration followed by complete relaxation. The best golfers in the world have learned the ability to switch their focus on and off and make each shot it’s own separate game. The only “thinking” they do about their game is done in the 30 seconds or so before a shot. That is, the “analysis” part of the pre-shot routine. The rest of the time they’re just following the sequence of their shot routine and then completely switching off, until the routine starts again.

The quality of one shot does not affect the next, they are completely independent. So however well the last shot was played, you have to completely detach yourself from it and be ready to start over on the next one, and do this repeatedly 60-70 or 80 times a round. Get into the mindset that each shot is the most important shot of your life (in practice and play) and you’ll start to understand what I’m talking about.

How To Think In Golf

The only thinking you need to do during a round of golf is “What is my strategy?” and “Where is my target?”. The rest is to follow the steps of your shot routine, which if you’ve practiced it well enough should be on autopilot. It’s that simple.

Analysis and Enagagement

The pre-shot routine needs to be separated into the “analysis” and “engagement” phases. Once you’ve decided on your strategy and shot (analysis phase), all your thinking is done and it’s time to get engaged with the intention for the shot. Then you can take your practice swings (thinking about nothing but that shot and that target) and get yourself aligned. Try to train your brain to do this and catch yourself if you don’t. Once you cross the imaginary line between the analysis and the engagement it’s all about trusting your body and focusing on the target.

The shot routine doesn’t finish there. When you’ve finished your shot, you can throw in a deep breath or make something like putting the club in the bag as the signal that the shot is over and you have to accept it and switch off until your routine starts again. There’s no benefit to thinking about the next shot either, until you are up at the ball.

There are plenty of examples of negative thinking in golf but here are a few:

“I need to make a par here because…”

“I thinned that last chip, so on this one I must…”

“If I keep this run going I could shoot…”

“These guys are way better than me, this is going to be embarrassing…”

Over thinking creates tension

One of the reasons the pre-shot routine is so important is because is keeps the preparation for a shot quick and smooth. It eliminates time for over-thinking that creates tension. Imagine if you were about to give a speech and instead of listening to the person before you, you just sat there and rehearsed your speech word by word. By the time it’s your time to speak you would be stiff and tense and most likely not perform well. Tension ruins a golf swing of any ability level, so no thinking reduces stress ahead of playing a golf shot. Once again, all the thinking you need to do can be done in your pre-shot routine, and if you include “go triggers”, your momentum will keep going right up to the takeaway, so there’ll be no time for any tension-creating pause.

What should you think about in between shots?

ANYTHING BUT YOUR PERFORMANCE OR THE PERFORMANCE OF OTHER PLAYERS. Any thoughts about how you are playing or your swing are counter-productive to a good score. It creates tension and pressure to play well. Enjoy playing golf, you’re not at work. Between each shot it’s time to relax and just enjoy where you are and what you’re doing – which is playing a sport you love. Other examples are:

  • Chat with your playing partners about something unrelated to your game
  • Look at the natural beauty – notice the trees and the sky
  • Be grateful that you’re fortunate enough to be playing the game
  • Look at the course design and try to figure out what the design strategy is
  • Think about something completely unrelated to golf such as the World Cup or other sport.

As Ben Hogan said “As you walk down the fairway of life you must smell the roses, for you only get to play one round.”

Try this next time you play and be sure to enjoy it no matter how you play. If you do, you should find “the zone” a lot more often.

Photo by SD Dirk

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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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