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 Simple Ways To Improve Your Golf Mindset

The 5 ‘What Ifs’ that can ruin your Golf Game:

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Sowing the Seeds of Doubt

There are two words that tend to be the downfall of many golfers. You may think those words are “double bogey” or “three-putt” but, actually, these two little words have a much greater impact. The two little, seemingly benign words, are ‘what if.’ How can the words ‘what if’ cause such detriment to your golf mindset? Well, ‘what if’ is the beginning of bad things to come… a premonition of disaster. ‘What ifs’ are generally accepted as realities by the golfers who create these statements within their internal dialogue. ‘What ifs’ are false expectations for future events that rob you of optimal play.

If not managed, or dealt with, ‘what ifs’ will overtake your mind causing your thinking to be negative, invasive and inhibiting. In essence, ‘what ifs’ move you from the present moment into catastrophizing every future possibility.

The 5 Big ‘What Ifs’

There are five BIG ‘what ifs’ that commonly destroy a golfer’s performance:

  1. “What if I shoot a bad score…” This statement is usually followed by a flurry of false conclusions such as: “My parents will be angry with me,” “Other golfers with think I’m a loser,” “I will be an embarrassment.” This statement causes you to be solely focused on the end result. With every shot you take, you are constantly doing “the math in your head” in regards to your score. The result is a misplaced focus.
  1. “What if my performance slump continues…” This statement is the main cause of you being stuck in your performance rut. You are conceding that you are helpless, have no power over the slump or achieving positive results. Your view is fatalistic and you resign yourself to another round of bad golf.
  1. “What if I miss this shot…” This statement can be followed by thousands of ‘thens.’ “…then I will lose this tournament,” “… then I will give up another stroke,” “…then I will be five strokes down” … “… then I will be beaten by so-and-so.” These conditional statements put increasing loads of pressure on you. The weight of your entire world is riding on this ONE shot. How can anyone perform well in this type of circumstance?
  1. “What if my swing falls apart…” This thought causes you to become overly focused on mechanics. We are not talking about positive cues on executing your swing but that excessive worry or expectation that your stroke will break down. You tend to mentally replay all the times your faulty mechanics caused your score to shoot through the roof. These intrusive thoughts are constant reminders of everything that is wrong with your swing and your golf game.
  1. “What if I choke again…” This statement has less to do with “what if I choke’ as it does with “when I choke” and becomes the prediction for the future. You have decided that choking is a foregone conclusion. Ultimately, this is a self-declaration about your lack of ability as a golfer or worth as a person. This ‘what if’ ups the stakes in your golf game because your value as a person is on the line.

These ‘what if’ statements create such intense negative emotion and immerse you in a state of anxiety. At this point, it is practically impossible to focus on your golf game.

‘What Ifs’ and Negative Emotions

Negative emotions caused by faulty thinking are, ultimately, the culprits of poor golf performance. There are three emotions (worry, fear and helplessness) that dramatically affect your golf game and produce poor performance.

Worry occurs when your mind shifts into future mode. You start agonizing over what might be. You torment yourself with the possibility of slices, sand traps, bad swings and missed shots. You bombard yourself with the fear of repeating past mistakes and project those mistakes into the future. Your judgment becomes so clouded that you cannot focus on what we need to do right now to hit a good shot.

Fear is more than nervousness about missing a shot. Fear is about what you believe missing the shot says about your abilities as a golfer. Fear of failure is about your ego, or your perceptions about yourself. Fear of failing could be more accurately described as fear of who I might be. Fear racks your nerves and wrecks your performance.

Helplessness is that out-of-control feeling that, no matter what, there is nothing you can do to change the outcome of a shot, round of overall tournament play. Helplessness eliminates your sense that you affect your outcomes and leaves you feeling overwhelmed. It takes you out of the driver’s seat and relegates you to merely going along for the ride. The helpless golfer feels the ball has a mind of its own.

Your negative thinking and intense emotions alter your physiology creating tense muscles, shallow breathing, elevated heart rate, increased adrenaline and dilated pupils. These physiological changes affect your focus and cause slight alterations every time you swing. These swing variations are the reason your play becomes inconsistent from hole to hole.

‘What ifs’ even Affect PGA Golfers

‘What ifs’ aren’t just for amateur golfers. Padraig Harrington won three Majors: the Open Championship in 2007 and 2008 and the 2008 PGA Championship. Since those three titles, Harrington’s performance has slumped greatly with only one win on the Asian Tour (the 2014 Bank BRI Indonesia Open) and one PGA Tour victory (the 2015 Honda Classic).

Think of all the ‘what ifs’ that probably crossed Harrington’s mind… “What if I end the year winless?” “What if I can’t recover my form?” “What if my earnings drop significantly?” “What if I keep missing Major cuts?” “What if I lose full playing privileges?”

All these ‘what ifs’ put an increasing amount of pressure on Harrington to perform. With all that self-imposed pressure, how can anyone expect to be in top form mentally and physically? ‘What ifs’ can keep you in a perpetual cycle of negative thinking, emotional distress and poor play and will suck the enjoyment right out of the sport you once loved.

At the 2016 Hyundai Tournament of Champions, Harrington spoke his slumping level of play during the past years, as well as his plan for this season.

HARRINGTON: “Last year was a tough year on the golf course. It really was… I certainly come out here with the idea, as much as we try making the effort, to really enjoy it and relax a little bit, I have done more than I had ever have wanted in this game of golf, so I don’t need to beat myself up too much.”

Harrington’s top-10 finish at the 2016 Hyundai Tournament of Champions is proof that a change in attitude will produce a change in your level of play.

The ‘So What?’ Approach

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Your mind can conjure up a tremendous number of possible disasters. So your worry is actually based on what MIGHT happen and the reality is that what we fear hardly ever happens. Worry is like being on an emotional treadmill… we expend a lot of energy but it gets us nowhere.

When what we fear does come true, it is because we focused on that negative outcome so intently that it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. We fed that worry, nourished it and dedicated so much time to it that we gave life to that worry.

The only way out of that trap is to change focus, give your mind a more present-oriented focus to distract it from worrisome thoughts. Focus on what you want to happen. That doesn’t mean everything will be all butterflies and rainbows. You will still hit the occasional bad shot but ‘so what?’

The ‘so what?’ approach acknowledges that there will be some mishaps but believes in your ability to bounce back and overcome those circumstances. For example, if you shank a shot, so what? Think of how you will approach the next shot… if you lose a tournament, so what? What can you learn from that experience to better your next round?

The ‘so what?’ approach encompasses an attitude of patience and seeing the bigger picture… You take the shot, see what happens, then prepare for the next shot… And there is always a next shot.


ACTION DRILL: 3 Valuable Strategies to Rise above your Doubts

Strategy #1: Make an argument for yourself Write down all the reasons and evidence to support why you should believe in your ability to perform well. What have you already accomplished? What have you overcome in the past? What are your strengths? Why did you become good at golf in the first place? When you practice the habit of fighting for yourself instead of against yourself, you will stop asking all the ‘what ifs’ and replace them with ‘what can I do now.’


Strategy #2: Ask yourself, “What if it doesn’t?” – When a ‘what if’ enters your mind, ask yourself, “What if it doesn’t?” For example, “What if I miss this ten-foot putt” may create the fear of 3-putting. So you might decide to play it safe and get close to the hole for an easy second shot even though you have easily made these putts in the past. Instead, ask yourself, “What if I don’t miss?” Countering your ‘what if’ opens you up to play more freely.


Strategy #3: Take decisive action – ‘What ifs’ can cause you to second guess your strategy for a hole or your ability to make a shot. You will never play your best golf if you give in to ‘what ifs.’ Make up your mind to go for the shot, choose your course of action, stick to it and take your shot. Your job is done once the ball leaves the club head. The result is the result, so get ready for the next shot.

Be the master of your mind instead a victim of doubts. This is what is called mental toughness. Mental toughness is not allowing you to beat yourself. Mental toughness is the steadfast belief in your ability to bounce back.

Let me know how doubts affect your game or how you deal with the ‘what ifs.’ Sharing your experiences is a great way to gain new insight into your game..

To further understand how your mental game affects your golf performance, why not take the 4 minute mental game assessment. Its fun and easy to do and you could win a free 30 minute coaching strategy session.

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