How important is the mental game in golf?
Well, if you think about it, you are probably on the course about four hours for a round of 18 holes. Let’s say you take 4 strokes per hole… that’s, conservatively, 72 strokes. Most golfers take more than that per round. How many seconds are you actively engaged in swinging the club? A PGA Tour golfer averages about 0.75 seconds for the backswing and approximately 0.25 seconds for the downswing. For the sake of those not professional, we will add an additional second for the full stroke. So a golf swing takes, at the most, two seconds. That is 144 seconds of physical exertion during a round, or less than two and a half minutes. What does this all mean? It means that for the other 237.5 minutes of the round you are you are left with only your thoughts. That is a 95:1 ratio of thinking to physically swinging the golf club. Just as a note of interest, you are still thinking during those minutes where you swing the club, but this time breakdown is just to demonstrate the importance of the mental game.
The big question is then, if competing on the golf course is 99% mental, why do so many golfers dedicate little, if any time, towards sharpening their mental game?
The Mental Game of Golf
We have established the importance of a strong mental golf game. Now let’s see the mental game in action. With so much time on the course where you are not engaged in the physical component of swinging a club, the ability to focus or choose the direction of your thoughts is critical.
For example, let’s see how thoughts can interfere with your putting stroke. Putting is a relatively simple motion that golfers have repeated countless times, most of the time without conscious thought. It is you, the ball and the hole. There are no defenders, no rowdy crowds waving furiously, no physical obstacles impeding the path from the ball to the hole and no moving target. All you do after reading the greens is set your feet, eye up the target, pull back the putter and stroke the ball. Simple… Right? You are basically just repeating the stroke that you performed thousands of times in the past.
What could possibly go wrong? The answer is, if your mental game is not strong, your thoughts can push you off-course. The biggest obstacle you will ever face is yourself. As you stand over your putt, so many thoughts compete for your attention: thoughts about what you are doing, what you have done in the past and what may happen in the future. The thoughts you feed will be the thoughts that grow and affect how you play in that particular moment. A strong mental game is like a suit of armor protecting your invading, negative thoughts.
Imagine what you could shoot for a round if you were not worrying about:
- Your score
- The leaderboard
- Having to make a putt
- How poorly you are driving the ball
- What you parents or coach are thinking
- Always playing poorly on this course
- Why you seem to choke under pressure
- Noisy crowds
- The course or weather conditions
- How nervous you are
- Fear of missing a shot
- The last ball that landed in a sand trap
- (Feel free to add any of the other hundreds of thoughts that can run through your mind.)
Mental Strength in Golf
Distractive thinking increases the amount of stress you experience during a round of golf. When you ruminate about 4-putting the last hole, you will fear repeating that result on the next hole. When you focus on the where you may place, you will experience greater anxiety. As pressure increases, you will notice that all eyes are on you and the pressure snowballs from there. You feel, “I have to make this shot” or “There’s so much riding on my performance in this tournament.” It is mental strength that helps you direct your thoughts when your mind wanders back to the past or projects into the future during a tournament.
In order to be on top of your game, you need to train you mind to direct and redirect, when necessary, your thoughts when they go astray. Mental strength helps you quiet your mind by turning the mental clutter volume down so you can focus on the shot in the present. By training your mind to choose certain thoughts, so you can focus on your shot strategy or what you need to do to perform successfully in the present moment: “How am I going to play this shot?” then it’s a matter of relying on your instincts and trusting your mechanics.
Mental strength training:
- Improves your ability to focus on what you need to do to in the moment
- Increase you ability to focus for longer periods of time
- Helps you recognize when your attention drifts
- Assists you in re-focusing back on task when necessary.
Lessons from the Final Stage of LPGA Qualifying Tournament
In professional golf, amateur golfers try to earn their Tour card by competing in annual qualifying tournaments. A fixed number of players in the event win membership for the following season meaning they can play in some Tour events without having to qualify.
Qualifying tournaments are highly competitive and the majority of golfers never achieve a Tour card. The pressure at a qualifying school can cause some golfers to crack under the pressure. Only those golfers with a strong mental game can rise to the top.
Lesson #1: Focus in the present
Christine Song, 24, admitted she has not been hitting the ball but states the key is focus on the next shot.
SONG: “Striking the ball wise, it is not as good as I want it to be. The key for my success now is I’m just hitting the ball with no regrets.”
Lesson #2: Don’t allow one shot to ruin your round
Amateur golfer Gaby Lopez doesn’t focus on the result of one hole but tries to see the big picture in the midst of a tournament.
LOPEZ: “This is a marathon not a sprint. There is a lot of golf ahead and staying in the moment and staying patient is going to be the key for this week.”
Lesson #3: Trust your preparation, skill and instincts
Top-ranked amateur Ashlan Ramsey stated that preparation helps her squelch tournament nerves.
RAMSEY: “I worked really hard. I figured I’m not going to not make it for lack of preparation so I really prepared hard for this week. I did the work then so I can just relax this week and focus on what I need to do and not stress.”
If you want to play big, you must be willing to develop a big-time mental game.
ACTION DRILLS: 3 Strategies to Master your Mental Game
Strategy #1: Practice under stress.
Replicate tournament conditions in practice rounds (making critical putts, rebounding after a mistake, playing aggressive after a bad hole, etc.). By practicing under duress, you can normalize tournament stress. We fear the unknown. By experiencing pressure situations in practice rounds, you strengthen your response to those adverse tournament situations.
For example you can play against your playing partners for a drink. You can play a game where you play two balls and always take the worst one.
Strategy #2: Don’t Dwell
Dwellers stay in the cellar. You cannot rebound if your head is still thinking about the last shot. Understand that golf is a marathon consisting of a total score, not just one shot. So you hit a bad shot… get over it; it happens to the best golfers in the world. Take a deep breath and remind yourself to “let go.”
Strategy #3: Catch Phrase
Find a key phrase or mantra that catches your mind when it drifts and brings you back to the current moment. Pick a phrase that has personal meaning to you, “Steady wins the race,” “Cool, calm, compete” or “My time is now.” This ‘catch’ phrase is designed to keep your focus on the shot in front of you instead of past shots or results that have yet to occur.
It takes mental strength to climb to the top. Are you ready and willing to do the work? The time is now.
Decide to play your next round using your chosen catch phrase after each hole. Notice the difference it makes to your mindset over the course of 18 holes.