The mental side of golf has been an enigma for decades. For some, it's something that they never even consider, for others it's a part of the game that "they'll deal with when their swing is good enough." Unfortunately for these people, they miss out on what has long been considered the most important part of the game by professionals, mastering the challenging mental aspects.
Many will argue that "that's fine for the pro, he already has a great swing," but the truth of the matter is, if you don't start learning about the mental side of the game and it's undeniable impact, you will likely never play anywhere near your potential consistently and the path to better golf will be a very rocky one.
It needn't be this way, learning to play the game can and should be a very enjoyable experience, not a frustrating one. But rest assured, if you continue to ignore the mental game, you will continue to struggle and go through another 1,000 or so swing "tips" looking for the "cure" when the answers have been right in front of you the entire time.
To begin this journey, let's start with one of the biggest predators on the golfing landscape, the ego. The ego is the Tyrannosaurus Rex of mental demons. He has a big appetite for destruction in the name of self-preservation, but he can be tamed. Just like taking down T-Rex, a BB gun won't do, but confronting each T-Rex head on with a rocket launcher isn't the most efficient way to deal with this monster either. For now, though, let's just look at some of his characteristics so that we can easily distinguish a T-Rex while "in the field."
The ego (self-consciousness) is one of the most destructive mental obstacles necessary to overcome to play golf consistently at your potential. It is always monitoring its status and always acting on its behalf to either protect itself from damage or boost itself to increase its sense of worth.
Unfortunately, the ego causes many very specific bad tendencies in a golfers game that are often blamed on other things such as faulty swing mechanics or other bad technique.
Don't get me wrong, swing mechanics are important, but if golf is said to be 90% mental, perhaps you should take a look at your golf swing from another perspective and realize the truth about what the pros have been saying for years.
Learning how to recognize the self-sabotaging ego and rid yourself of ego will not only actually improve your ability to score better immediately, but boost your enjoyment of the game as well while making the game seem more effortless. But in order to get rid of your ego in golf, you must first learn to recognize the symptoms of the ego sabotaging your game. Here is a list of just a few things the ego is responsible for that are detrimental to your game:
Focusing on shooting a certain score
It’s amazing how many golfers sabotage themselves from breaking their personal best scores upon being informed that they are close to doing so on the back nine by a golfing buddy. These so-called hurdles of breaking 100, 90, 80, 70 etc. are nothing more than self-imposed mental stumbling blocks made up of imaginary numbers that only have value if we give them value in our mind.
Once a golfer begins to focus on his score card, his focus can no longer be in the moment and on the task at hand which it needs to be in order get the job done. Realize that only your ego cares about your score. It cares about what others will think about your score and what "it" will think about your score.
The ego is only concerned with protecting its mental image of itself or inflating that image. Just like a T-Rex, when it realizes an opportunity for boosting or feels threatened, instinctively it will leap into action to make you aware of, and suddenly concerned with, your score.
If you start the round out with a score in mind, you'll have one eye on your score and only one eye left to focus on playing. Play golf as if there is no score, recognize that it is nothing more than some lead marks on a piece of paper and free yourself up to score your best. Ask yourself why you are so concerned with your score.
Do you measure your self worth and base your happiness on a number? No? Then let your score go and take the game one shot, and one breath, at a time. If your friends are overly concerned with your score, realize that it is nothing more than THEIR ego in the way now. They are only concerned with making their ego feel better or bigger by comparing their score with yours.
How silly does it seem for a grown man or woman to tremble over rolling a silly little ball into a hole in the dirt with a stick only three feet away? Watch a child play putt putt and you'll see the proper mentality to have standing over a three footer.
A 5 year old isn’t afraid to miss because he has no overly developed ego yet. He doesn’t care about his score, his focus is on the act and joy of simply rolling the ball in the hole, the results of which are inconsequential. If the child misses, he simply goes up and hitsit again. He derives pleasure from playing the game, not from his ego drivenscore.
It is your ego that inhibits your free stroke because the ego is concerned with looking good either to itself or to others, or both. The ego is concerned with the consequences of the scorecard and the reflection the scorecard will have on the ego. If the ego feels threatened, it will quickly let you know about it and can manifest itself in many ways.
If you find yourself trembling over a short putt or short of breath, step back and get proper perspective. Step up to the putt with the mindset of a child, carefree and full of energy,excited to be playing the game. I assure you, if you have no ego, standing over a 3 foot putt will cause you no concern whatsoever. You will fear it no more than you do when you step up to a putt hanging on the lip and mindlessly slap it in.
Playing good normally but then playing poorly in competition
The Latin definition of competition is “seeking together”, not “to beat this person’s brains in and make myself look good and feel better about myself.” Realize that a competitive round of golf is nothing more than an opportunity to grow and learn more about yourself. Your opponent is there to help you push yourself, explore your limits and reach new levels of awareness about yourself.
If you are focused on your opponent, you can’t fully focus on the task at hand. Realize your opponent is truly more a partner than enemy. I heard a great saying once that applies perfectly to competition, “I have no enemies, only teachers.” There is no pressure in competitive golf apart from self-imposed pressurethat is ego driven.
If you find yourself feeling pressure before a tournament round, ask yourself why? Are you concerned with winning? "Who" in your psyche is overly concerned with achievement and winning? Only your ego, my friend.
Coming up short, not taking enough club
How often have you hit the 7 iron when you knew the 6 was the right club. Your ego won that battle, and for what gain? What difference does it make if you hit a 7 iron to 10 feet or a 6 iron to 10 feet? Do you feel better because you hit the 7? Was it more impressive? Do you think you "should" be able to hit the 7 that far? There is no "should" in golf.
Realize there are multiple forces at work here and you can end up putting your conscious and subconscious minds at odds with indecision. The subconscious plays by intuition and if it feels that the 7 is not enough, it will try and “help” you by making you swing harder, basically ensuring that you won’t get the ball there because your timing will be off and your contact won’t be as solid.
Play smart and within yourself, none of your friends are ever going to remember that you took the 6 anyway and it really doesn't matter what they think - unless you're concerned with protecting your ego, of course.
Making a great practice swing and then making a terrible swing with the ball
This one is a classic. Your ego has expectations about where the ball should go and how it should get there. It “tries” to make the ball go there rather than letting your subconscious make the swing it just “felt”. Let your ego take a break, if the ball doesn’t come off the way you pictured it, go up there and hit it again.
You’re far better off letting the shot happen rather than trying to force it to go somewhere to please your ego. If you have no expectations about where the ball should go, you free yourself up to actually make it go where you want. As the old saying goes, you must give up control to gain control. As with all things in golf, "trying" to do something usually produces the opposite result.
For instance, into the wind you "try" and hit the ball low, causing you to hit down harder with your hands as you "try" and trap the ball. The steeper path causes the ball to come out with more spin and actually fly higher. Let the club do the work and don't try and force it.
Playing great by yourself and poorly in front of others.
Trying to play to your expectations and those you think others have of you is a lost cause and entirely driven by the ego. When playing by yourself, you are freed up, no one there to feel embarrassed in front of when you hit a bad shot, and ironically, you hit fewer of them.
But when your focus turns from being in the moment to wondering what everyone else thinks about you and your swing, your focus is scattered and your game will reflect it.
Fear encompasses a lot of things in the game of golf. Afraid to hit a bad shot, afraid to miss a putt, afraid to post a bad score, afraid to look dumb by hitting a bad shot in front of everyone. But ALL fear in golf is related in one way or another directly to your ego. If you are afraid of missing a putt, your ego is concerned with the results or the effect it will have on your score, which it takes as a personal reflection of its self-worth.
Afraid of hitting a tee shot OB? Same thing. It impacts how your ego will feel about itself because it will affect your score. Fear in golf is nothing more than a symptom of your ego, a red flag it throws into your consciousness when it feels threatened. It is foolish to learn how to deal with fear by dealing with case by case circumstances such as “how to fearlessly hit a good shot off the first tee” or “how to not be afraid of the 3 foot putt.” Why would you deal with a symptom when you can deal with the source of the fear? Rid yourself of ego and there is nothing to fear.
Tension in the golf swing is again, related directly to your ego. You only have tension if you are concerned with the outcome of the shot or you don’t trust your ability to hit the shot.
Either way, your ego does you no good because tension is counterproductive to an effortless golf swing. If you find yourself standing over a shot and becoming tense, step away and ask yourself why you are tense. Are you afraid of hitting the shot into the bunker or some other consequence? If so, ask yourself why. Because it will impact your score? Let go of your score and free yourself up to hit each shot, one at a time, to the best of your ability.
Hitting a perfect shot and then trying to hit it “perfecter”
Admittedly, I made that word up, but it just sounds as dumb as the act of doing it actually is. How many times have you hit a fantastic shot only to try and hit the next one even better, harder, further, etc? I see it almost daily when I teach. Of course, this always produces the opposite result and we learn our lesson the hard way.
The ego got a little boost on the first shot, “Look at how good a golfer I am!” and decided to really show how good he was by hitting the next one even better! Why, oh why must we do this to ourselves? As if perfect wasn’t good enough, we try and improve on something that was fine in the first place. As a personal example, I was practicing one day on a par three that was only about 115 yards.
I pulled out my sand wedge and hit a perfect draw into a tucked left pin and it landed right next to the hole and spun in for a hole in one. Feeling so proud of myself, I decided to drop another one and do it again. I did this about 6 or 7 more times, none of which went in. Why on earth would I hit more shots after just making a hole in one? Was I expecting to get the next one to go in on the fly?
Either way, while excited about my hole in one, I went to the next hole somewhat deflated because my shots kept getting progressively worse the harder I tried when compared to the first one that was already perfect. I went to the next hole, another par 3 and dumped my tee shot in a sand trap.
Leave well enough alone and don’t let your ego get too excited and start patting itself on the back. After you hit a shot, good or bad, forget about it. It's over, it doesn't exist anymore and has absolutely no bearing on how you will hit the next shot.
Pressure during a round of golf is nothing more than a self-imposed fear of failure (ie. a deflated ego) or some other ego related issue such as fear of not meeting expectations, fear of consequences, etc. If you are feeling pressure, stop and ask yourself why.
Are you afraid of looking bad in front of your friends, afraid of not meeting your expectations or those of others? Realize that pressure is nothing more than a defense mechanism by which your ego tries to protect itself and it is completely counterproductive to good golf.
Take for example, the seasoned golfer playing with his buddies who never play and he goes out and “tries” to beat them to show them how good he is. He ends up getting beat by his buddies who have no expectations until late on the back nine where he finally loosens up because his ego has been completely deflated and he starts hitting fine golf shots the moment he stops caring. There is no pressure in golf but self-imposed pressure.
First tee jitters
Again, the ego makes us nervous because it doesn’t want to look bad, so we get all concerned about what others will think about us when we hit our first shot. After hitting great shots on the driving range, we step up to the first tee and shank one into the trees. Once again, our ego and expectations got in the way.
Leaving a putt short for fear of having a downhiller coming back
I heard Paul Azinger once ask Tiger Woods how to learn to pound short putts into the back of the hole the way Tiger does without having to fear the long putt coming back if he missed.
Tiger's answer was simple, "I don't believe there will be another putt coming back." Again, all the same rules apply. The ego doesn't want to look dumb knocking the putt several feet past the hole, fear of a three putt, etc. Roll the ball in the hole, if you miss, step up and do it again.
How many times have you stepped up to hit a drive, made beautiful, relaxed practice swings, and then at the last moment something flashed across your mind to hit harder? You tense up and end up sending the ball offline and shorter than you would if you had just not tried hit it so hard.
Again, the ego is at work here, wanting to really crush that ball to get a few extra yards out of it to either impress your buddies or flatter your own ego. Your far better off playing from the middle of the fairway and having to hit one extra club than dropping up next to the lateral hazard hitting 3.
How many times have you or someone you know gotten angry on the golf course? Why did you get angry? There is no way around the fact that anger is nothing more than a childish response the ego puts forth when it doesn't get its way. Angry because you missed a putt? Why?
Because it impacted your score, because you "expected" to make it, because you think you "should" always make those putts? Give your ego a rest and start enjoying your time on the course. Your blood pressure will thank you for it.
Once you are aware of some of the self-sabotaging characteristics of the ego, you are ready to begin dealing with ridding yourself of this nasty part of your psyche.
For now, your task is to simply become aware of the internal dialogue in your head that is ego-driven. Pay attention to when you find your ego "trying to help" you with the next shot or getting ahead of itself. Golf is played one shot at a time and it is critical that you give your entire focus to each and every shot to consistently play your best.
Once you become aware of this "chatter" in your mind, you will then be ready to begin the process of ridding yourself of your golf ego once and for all. To begin your inner journey to better golf, monitor your ego's influence on each shot during your next round of golf. Each time you are aware that your ego impacted that shot, put a dot on your scorecard next to your score.
If you make a four and the ego was making its presence known on three of your four shots, then you will have three dots next to your score. You will need to pay attention and be aware of what is going on during your preshot routine and as you swing the club.
If you have never tried to hit shots with a quiet mind, it may be startling at first how "noisy" all this internal chatter is, but persevere. Just observe these thoughts and let them pass without analyzing them or judging them. When you finish your round, you will probably be shocked how many shots you played where the ego was involved.
For now, simply count them and be aware that they are there and are very influential. Soon, we will work on the process to rid yourself of the ego but you first must become aware of them.
In closing, I leave you with a quote from none other than Bruce Lee, a master of transcending technique and removing all self-consciousness:
"What man has to get over is the consciousness - the consciousness of himself. It is not "I am doing this," but rather that "this is happening through me," or "it is doing this for me." The consciousness of self is the greatest hindrance to the proper execution of all physical action." -Bruce Lee