The mind is the most formidable opponent a golfer confronts, so mastering the game of mental golf is essential.
The mind can be a golfer's best friend, helping to develop the mechanics of a smooth, reliable swing and devising clever strategies for moving the ball efficiently from the tee to the cup.
But the mind also produces anxiety and tension, which can tighten the muscles and destroy concentration. Suddenly the technically proficient golfer is slicing the ball deep into the woods and choking on a short putt. Trying harder only seems to make matters worse.
At that point, the mind is the enemy, and the only way to overcome its powers of self-sabotage is through applying the principles of mental golf - principles that yield benefits off the course as well as on.
"They say every golfer is just two shots away from crazy," said Joseph Parent, PhD, author of Zen Golf: Mastering the Mental Game. "One bad shot you can deal with. Two in a row and you go nuts. I try to stop that cycle after one."
How to Reap the Benefits of Mental Golf
The best way to break this cycle, Parent says, is to change the messages you send yourself as you assess your performance. Instead of focusing on the negative - the way a shot went wrong - he suggests emphasizing what went right.
"When golfers hit a poor shot, they're going to tell you all the bad things they did regarding their swing," says Parent. "The message they've given themselves is, 'I'm a poor performer.' I have golfers say something good first. They may have hit the ball in a direction that wasn't quite right, but maybe they hit it very solidly. So instead of the shot being 90 percent bad, they see that 90 percent of it was good, and 10 percent of it needs correcting."
Practicing deep breathing in times of stress can dissolve the excess tension that develops during the game, Parent says.
"The only tension you want is what is needed to maintain your posture and hold on to your club," he said. "Anything beyond that interferes with your performance. The most important part of the mental game is awareness, and you achieve that through mindful attention to your body, your breathing, and your thoughts."
Mindful Awareness Boosts Mental Golf
Parent developed these mental golf techniques by borrowing from his training in Buddhist philosophy and mindful awareness practices.
"One of my teachers was an American who became a great meditation master," he says. "He took up golf late in life, and he found that the Buddhist practice of mindful awareness had a lot of applications. At the end of each round we'd reflect on how our mind affected our performance. For example, if you want the ball to go extra far, you'll try to hit it extra hard, but that's a form of interference."
As he completed his PhD in psychology, Parent began developing ways to combine mindful awareness with stress management and apply both to the game of golf. Today, Parent is a well-known coach specializing in the mental golf game. (Golf Digest listed Parent among the 10 best mental golf coaches.) He also speaks frequently at corporate meetings on "Mastering the Mental Game in Business, Life and Golf."
"I help people get out of their own way so they can let their potential capabilities shine through," Parent says. "That's beneficial for overall health."
Fear Is the Enemy in Mental Golf
Gio Valiante, PhD, preaches a similar message in his book, Fearless Golf: Conquering the Mental Game.
"The golfer's greatest enemy is fear," he writes at the start of his book. "Every golfer's supreme challenge is to find a way to overcome this basic emotion that, even in the smallest doses, can undermine the soundest mechanical skills."
The first step, Valiante says, is to make a conscious decision not to be afraid, "or maybe, at least, to not be afraid of being afraid."
Most golfers are motivated by the desire to "earn recognition," he says. As a result, they fear embarrassment.
"While people are preparing to hit an important shot, their minds are often divided," Valiante says. "One side is trying to focus on executing the golf shot, but the other side is busy worrying about what other people will think if they blow the shot."
The golfer's ultimate goal, according to Valiante, is to play what he calls "mastery golf," which involves total focus on the game, not on the fear it generates.
"People who have a mastery orientation toward an activity engage in that activity because they want to continually learn, refine, and master it regardless of their level of expertise," Valiante writes. "Guided by the constant striving to improve their skills and do things better each time, mastery-oriented people are driven to elevate their abilities to new levels."
Using Mental Golf to Pursue Continuous Improvement
To accomplish that goal, golfers should embrace the Japanese concept of kaizen, or continuous improvement, Valiante says. That doesn't mean you need to subject yourself to a grueling practice regimen. Instead, the pursuit of continuous improvement should become a game in itself -- a playful pursuit of perfection. As an example, Valiante points to golf legend Ben Hogan, who considered his long hours of practice fun. "You hear stories about my beating my brains in practicing, but the truth is, I was enjoying myself," Hogan once told Golf Digest. "I couldn't wait to get up in the morning so I could go hit balls."
The pursuit of kaizen can also help you shift attention away from ego-oriented goals, such as winning praise from others, Valiante says, and focus it more intently on the game itself.
Use Mental Golf to Overcome Fear of Success
While mental golf coaches focus on fear of failure, fear of success also can be a problem, says Mary Lamia, a clinical psychologist in California. "People may say they're afraid of failing, but they're really afraid of succeeding," she says. "They may feel they don't deserve success, or they're afraid they'll hurt someone else by succeeding. Usually highly empathic people are prone to this. Narcissists don't care who they hurt."
To overcome this, become aware of this inhibition in yourself, Lamia says. "Tell yourself it's OK to succeed," she says.
"Also, think about your attitude toward your competition. Do you feel sorry for them? Are you afraid you'll hurt them if you win? Be mindful that your attitude toward the competition may unconsciously hold you back."
Mental Golf Techniques Apply to Daily Life
Troy Manning, a research assistant in the psychology department of the University of North Texas at Denton, works with golfers who are competing at the highest levels, where fear of success doesn't seem to be a problem, but anxiety certainly is.
"Sometimes in competition they become very aroused and anxious," says Manning. "So I suggest ways to get into the best possible emotional state. For example, if a player gets anxious when he arrives at the golf course and sees his name on the board, I might suggest finding a way to avoid seeing his name."
Manning has found that the techniques he teaches to golfers apply well to other sports, and to life itself.
"Controlling your emotions, focusing your attention, using visualization to help you imagine specific outcomes -- I would say these techniques work in daily life," Manning says. "We're just trying to apply them to a specific performance situation."