The Mental Game of Golf

Updated: Aug 18, 2021


Golf is 90 percent mental; the other half is physical... Well, of course that was a baseball quote from the great Yogi Berra, but it certainly translates well into golf. It is so easy to ruin a great round of golf, or to start out bad and never receover because you get in your own head. It's the mental aspect of golf that truly seperates the greats...Well, that and 300+ yard drives. In this short story, our goal is to help you overcome the mental portion of the game. If you do, you will notice an imemdiate improvement in your scores. So, let's get started!


When you begin to address the golf ball and prepare for your swing, it’s essential that you have a sense of relaxation. If you are tense when you swing your club, the chances of you hitting a bad shot are increased by leaps and bounds. However, you don’t want to be TOO relaxed lest your grip isn’t tight enough to hit the ball solidly.

Without relaxation, it is more difficult to maintain your tempo or rhythm from swing to swing and stay in good balance from start to finish. Because it is essential for the golf swing to function properly, relaxation of the mind and body should be our first priority. Please keep in mind that this also applies to the short game, even though I will be referring to the full swing.


Tension restricts movement. A quiet, relaxed mind and body allows you to swing more freely. Simply stated, muscle groups respond more easily to a natural, balanced swing motion.

If your mind is tense, your muscles will be too. If you have had a hectic day at work or at home, chances are you will take that tension and anxiety to the first tee. This tension not only causes tight muscles, but can also increase the speed of your swing.

When that happens, the little muscles (hands and arms) take over the big muscles (shoulders, hips, and legs) throughout the golf swing. The big muscle groups cannot move as fast as the little muscles. All body parts must be given time to do their jobs efficiently and in harmony.


First, clear your mind. Picture your mind as a blackboard, and written on it are all the thoughts and happenings of the day. The key is that you've got the eraser! Erase your mind of everything and take a moment to put yourself in an environment that makes you relaxed, quiet and happy.


Envision yourself listening to soft music, reading a good book, relaxing in your favorite chair, strolling in the park, hiking, fishing, walking on the beach, or simply being in the mountains.

Basically, pick whatever image that helps you relax, and then put your mind and senses in that personal place. Be explicit. Actually hear the music or the waves. Feel the warm breeze or the water flowing around your body. See the mountains in all their glory. Smell the flowers. Take a deep breath and let it out slowly. Allow your mind and body to come down so that you can be up and ready to play a good round of golf. Now your mind and body can focus more clearly on one shot, one hole at a time.


Second, practice more relaxation in your grip, stance, and swing. Check the tension level in your grip. The hand pressure on the club should be light. If it is too tight, your takeaway will tend to be jerky and too fast. If you are not sure of the amount of pressure, let your hands feel the difference by squeezing tightly and then releasing to a very light grip.

Notice that when you squeeze tightly, your forearms are tense. This generates tension throughout the body. You want just enough grip pressure so that you won't lose the club during the swing. No white knuckle! What little pressure you do feel should be in the last three fingers of the let hand, and the third and fourth fingers of the right.

When addressing the ball, your arms should hand relaxed. The forearms should be soft - like ashes, wet noodles, or any other descriptive word of your choice that triggers relaxation. If your left arm is jammed straight, tension is created in the shoulders. I've seen some golfers who looked like they were trying to jab their left shoulders into their left ears.

The left arm should hang comfortably straight and the shoulders should droop. The legs should also be set in a relaxed starting position. Trying to force your weight to your insteps can cause lower body immobility.


Now waggle! The waggle helps keep the body loose and in motion. Freezing over the ball can cause tension. Chances are you are thinking too much, and paralysis of analysis can set in. Develop a waggle that is comfortable to you.


Most waggles consist of moving the club to and fro over the ball (not up and down) with a slight weight shift back and forth from foot to foot, while you look at the ball, then to the target, then back to the ball.


If you do not have a clear picture of what a waggle is, observe golfers on television or other golfers on your course. Waggles vary, but good golfers always stay in motion.

Most importantly, your waggle must be one that you are comfortable with. Each person has his or her own waggle personality. Find yours and practice until it becomes ingrained in your swing routine. You can work on this in your backyard.


Initiate the swing and swing relaxed. To practice a relaxed swing, take continuous swings back and forth without stopping. Be aware of any tension you might feel during these swings. Try to stay totally relaxed and loose as you swing back and forth. Don't be in a hurry to start or finish the swing. When you get to the finish, allow your body to be lazy in returning the club to another backswing. No jerks!


Notice whether your hands and forearms tense when initiating the first swing of the series. If they are tense, then repeatedly practice starting your swing with a feathery grip pressure so that no tension runs through to your forearms and thereby to the rest of your body.

Tension can cause quite an array of problems such as reverse pivots; fast takeaways; forced swings; loss of club head speed; rolling on the outside of the right foot; incorrect swing plane; fat or topped shots; big and little muscle groups not working together; lack of balance; or a fast tempo that your swing cannot handle with any efficiency.

A major problem with even professional golfers is that it is so easy to let our minds take a wide sweeping view of what the next shot means:

· "How will it affect my score?"

· "What does it mean to me personally?"

· "Is this the best round I have ever played? Is it the worse round?"

· "If I sink this putt it will put me one up on my opponent!"

· "My dad is watching, I really want to do well."

All of these comments, questions and statements are possible, along with hundreds more, at the very time you need to be focused on the elements of planning and executing the shot. If you are doing this, you are not "boxing out" the shot.


"Boxing out" means that you mentally put up a fence around what you need to do, so that you are not distracted by the things and thoughts that have no real bearing on the shot or putt. By not "boxing out" you allow your mind to wander to distractions.


Remember: even pleasant thoughts of success are not relevant to making the shot. Sometimes this lack of limiting your thoughts is called "outcome thinking". In other words, you spend time and energy thinking of what the outcome could be and how that would feel. This is truly an unwise way of spending the time and energy needed to make the shot.

Think of a piece of paper with words and pictures covering it. All of these words and pictures are in some way related to the next shot, but only a few of them are helpful in making the shot. Now group the needed and useful elements together on the page. Now draw a box around these few things.


Some of the things in the box would be: a solid plan to make the shot, a solid pre-shot routine, feeling the swing or putt in your mind, seeing the ball go to where you want it, and ending up looking at the back of the ball as you swing or putt.

Things left out of the box are: past mistakes, thoughts of how bad it would be to miss the target, thoughts of how good it would be to make the shot, or just about anything else you could think of. All of these are left out of the box because they do not help you make the shot.


It is important to really understand what should be in the box. Make a list of what is important to making the shot. You may even what to consider the sequence or order of the included thoughts. Any other thought or picture is out of the box and not allowed. If you find anything in the box that does not belong in there, simply pick it up by its tail and drop it outside the box. Practice limiting your thinking to only what is in the box.


Begin by practicing at home. Practice "boxing out" fifty times at home before you begin to practice it in physical practice. After two or three weeks of practice you will be ready to begin to use this in competition. Remember, you must first practice mental training at home and then in physical practice before you can expect to use it in competition.


One of the most effective changes that a golfer can bring into his or her game is called step-breathing. The benefits of using step-breathing are many. You give yourself a solid, focused mental and physical place from which to hit your shots or make even the longer putts, you have a time to find the best level of mental arousal, and you gain more control over your playing tempo.


Another advantage of taking the time and centering yourself with step-breathing is that it places a nice dividing line between the thinking part of your golf swing and the hitting part. The old saying is; "The thinking must stop before the hitting begins."


You begin to learn step-breathing at home. You simply sit in a comfortable chair and imagine a side view of a set of stairs. When each stair drops down, this is your exhale. When the stair is flat, and horizontal to the ground, this is your inhale.


In normal breathing your breath in and out and really never move lower in your body. If you were to graph a normal breath it would be a "U" shaped curve. It would go down on your exhale and back up on you inhale. Your breathing would be one long line of "U" shaped curves. This is fine for taking in oxygen, but not very effective for centering your mind and body to maximize your golf.


You continue your training by practicing lowering your center of breathing from high in your chest, near your throat, down to your lowest point in your stomach. Following your six or seven steps down into your body, remember the exhales are when you drop a little further down and the inhales are the flat part of the step. On the inhale you do not go down, but you also do not go up, as in a normal breath.


Once the breathing is very low in your body practice keeping it there for four or five breaths. Then let it gradually come back up. If you practice this exercise one hundred to one hundred and fifty times you will begin to find that the breathing begins to anticipate your lowered center of breathing and your breathing will automatically drop on the second or third breath.

When this happens you have learned the ability of using the short form of step-breathing. The short form of step-breathing utilizes this learned reaction and allows you to become fully centered using only two or three breaths. On the course, or even in practice, you will need to use this short form of step-breathing so that you can quickly get centered and ready to take the swing or the putt.


After you have learned the short form of step-breathing you are ready to make it part of your pre-shot routine. After you have planned your shot, addressed the ball, recalled a successful shot like the one you are about to make, you can use the step-breathing to end your thinking, relax your body, lock your expectation on the exact target and be externally focused on the ball. No thinking, no worrying, no wobbling of focus and fully ready to put the ball where you want it.


Now that you can center your breathing, begin to use it on the practice tee. Practice your pre-shot routine before each shot. (Did you think the practice tee was only for physical practice? How will you find your best game if you only practice the physical aspects of your game?

Establish your exact target, complete the step-breathing short form, focus on the ball and let yourself hit the ball. By practicing the entire routine you will soon be very comfortable with the procedure and your scores will reflect your new level of mental and physical control.

Do not try to utilize this or any other mental training technique until you have understood the theory and concepts involved and practiced the mental technique to the extent that you are able to fully use the procedure. Then bring it into competition after you have used it in practice several times. There are no short cuts to improving your game. You need to do the work and do it in the right order before you can really enjoy the higher level of play it brings.

Start practicing your long form of step-breathing today and soon you will have the mental control you need to play your best game.


After a mild winter many golfers are ready to hit the links with renewed vigor. Unfortunately, high hopes will be dashed quickly if you can't keep your emotions in check. Here's an example of how we like to have 'Pity" parties for ourselves when we aren't playing too well.

There was this guy in west Texas delivering a package to a house out in the rural countryside. He pulls up and sees an older gentleman on the porch in his rocking chair. A few feet away there was a dog-moaning and whining away. "Excuse me, Sir." said the concerned delivery guy to the older man on the porch. "What's the matter with the dog?"


The old man, with an attitude of indifference replied. "Oh, he's layin' on a nail."

The delivery man asks "Why in the world is he doing that? Why doesn't he just get up?"

The old man shrugs his shoulders and says, "I reckon he ain't hurting bad enough yet!"

Well I think we have all met people like that pitiful dog-spending time whining and complaining about how their golf game is so bad and why they can't play well. Instead of complaining about how life is treating them unfairly they won't take the initiative to do something about their situation and change their circumstances. Sometimes people like to take umbrage in their miserable plight and they enjoy company whenever possible.

Nothing is going to change until you start hurting bad enough to do something about it. This of course applies not only to your golf game, but life in general. In fact, if people spent as much time looking for the solutions to their golfing problems as they do complaining and making excuses most of their problems would scurry away like that frightened dog.

Instead, they throw a "pity party" and are put out when no one shows up to attend. Life is too short to waste time and energy on such negative thoughts so move on and get some help for your game.


So "get off layin' on the nail." and you can start having success and fun on the course again. "Break that old broken record" that has you playing that same sad song and taken your game into tailspin. There's a great old saying that goes,” If you always do what you've always done. You'll always get what you've always got." It's time to start seeing the 'Light through that dark tunnel' you have built for yourself.


Mark Twain once said, "You can't depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus." There is a multitude of reasons why we bury our games into submission and none of them are good. It's time for you to start believing and seeing yourself pulling off the shots you dreamed about instead of worrying about where disaster is lurking ready to strike you down on the course and ruin your round.


Many players say that even when they're playing good they are anticipating the proverbial wheels to come off at any moment. I read a statistic somewhere that 92% of what we worry about or fear never comes to fruition: meaning that you’re wasting your time on meaningless things distracting you from your goals.


Stop concerning yourself with past events or things in your game that you have no control. "You can't water yesterday's crops with today's tears." Let it go and move onward!

It's a good practice to mentally play a round in your mind where you control the ball and place it where you want it to go avoiding all the problems such as water, out of bounds, sand, etc. Try it sometime and let your imagination run wild.

Take notice of this mental exercise to see if you allow bad thoughts to enter your mind even in your pretend round. Bad habits die hard and the first place to attack them is in your conscious mind.


In order to eliminate bad habits that you have formed in your game try this 3 step process:

1. First confront your fears in your game and admit them by writing them down on a piece of paper.

2. Replace it-it's time to trade in bad habits and negative behavior for good ones.

3. Stick with it-by being persistent, diligent and remaining disciplined your game plan you'll be soon forming a new habit.

We can't change our circumstances about how the ball bounces so to speak, but we can alter our response to them. It's all about choice so choose wisely. Having a brighter outlook about playing and excepting occasional bad breaks that are inevitable will help you start getting over being "Teed off" about yourself and your golf game


However, sometimes losing your cool can be good because it can help you let off some steam and help you refocus on the task at hand. Often, as all golfers know we keep it bottled up which can impair our performances for the rest of the round.


The key is to allow yourself to completely vent, then refocus again immediately. By venting I don't mean throwing or breaking clubs, or cursing. The skill of refocusing lies in knowing what the most important element to master is. How does a person learn to regain composure after losing it?


Just remember that losing your cool is nothing more than focusing on what went wrong, and allowing yourself to get frustrated, angry, ticked off, etc. Think about how you respond when you’re angry - you breathe faster, your body tightens up, your heart rate increases and so on.

These stress messages you’re sending to your brain only make your body tighten up more sabotaging your abilities to perform properly. This unfortunate cycle will continue until you learn to break this broken record set on self-destruct.


In a tense situation the best way to regain your composure is to work in the opposite direction, to get your body to calm down, this in turn will allow your mind to calm down by taking several deep breathes, and by pushing away any negative thoughts.

There's a good method called "Treeing" which seems appropriate since you’re on the golf course with plenty of trees. What you do is take your emotions in this case negative thoughts and put them onto something else.


Some older cultures throughout the world have used this technique for centuries. They learned to pass their bad feelings or negative emotions to a tree, hence the name. So next time when you’re on the golf course and you’re losing your cool find a tree and push or touch it physically releasing your pressure that you’re feeling into the object and leave it there.


After you have dealt with the past it's time to move on to the future which in this case is a new hole, or shot at hand. Remember you can't change the past, but you can profoundly affect your future with the proper mind set. There's no longer a reason to carry all this emotional baggage to the next hole so let it go. So next time you see a player in the woods a lot during a round maybe they’re just getting rid of some issues that are bothering them.

This is all easier said than done, but like all things with a little practice and some discipline you'll be recovering from poor shots quicker and salvaging your round instead of going from bad to worse. The best players in the world all have their own particular methods for staying cool, so watch how they handle poor shots while they are in town.


It's traits like staying cool when everyone else is losing their heads that make the difference from being a good player to becoming a great player.

So many people are harder on themselves than they need to be. Constantly berating yourself is a recipe for disaster. The dialog that you hold with yourself is critical to your development as a player and as a person.


Self-talk can be encouraging or it can be detrimental, according to how you present it to yourself. Remember: Your mind doesn't have a sense of humor. If you program it to do something and the message is negative, it will respond accordingly.


This is why it's important to monitor your inner dialog; what you say to yourself after a poor shot can be self-destructive. Even the best players in the world are guilty of this mistake, and if they don't make corrections immediately, the round or tournament is lost.

We've all beaten ourselves up after a bad day on the links, or when things don't go our way. If you watch a tournament on television, periodically you'll see a player bad-mouthing themselves. They might be saying things such as, "I'm the worst golfer in the world," or "Why can't I hit that simple putt? I stink." These statements or other expletives will bring the golfer down.


The key is to change how you talk to yourself while practicing or on the course. I've taught and worked with a number of sports psychologists over the years who gave me some good insight about how to break negative self-talk patterns.


First, you need to be aware of situations when negative thoughts can occur.

Here's a simple method to get you started on the right track: The next time you head out to play a round of golf, put a handful of pennies in your right pants pocket. Not too many to weigh you down, though.


Every time - and I mean every time - you become aware of negative images or internal dialog where you're speaking poorly to yourself, transfer one penny from your right pocket to your left pocket. By learning to monitor your thoughts, you're on the right path to correcting your inner demons.


When you're finished playing, count out the number of pennies that made the journey from one pants pocket to the other. Then write down the total. Try to remember what words you used, and what situations prompted them.


Then, start setting some new, clearer goals. In this case, the goal is to attempt to cut down on the number of negative self-talk speeches. Just like you have goals to shoot certain scores, you need to apply this same attitude with correcting this debilitating self-talk.

Once you have been able to calmly re-examine your round and your outbursts of negativity, imagine yourself reacting to those circumstances in a different way and replacing those negative statements with positive thoughts. Learn to laugh with yourself and say, "I can do this shot," and other such positive feedback to reinforce your self-worth.

With each round, make a conscious choice to reduce the negativity and try to remain positive - remember it's only a game. With some diligent practice and commitment, you're on your way to erasing bad thoughts about your golf game.

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