When a golfer comes to me seeking help with their mental game, it really gets me excited because I know that not a single thing I teach them about the mechanics of the swing will have as dramatic an impact as what I can teach them regarding the mental game.
My approach to the mental game, something I call “Mushin Golf”, is very different than what most golfers expect at first. If a golfer comes to me and thinks I’m just going to focus on course management and when to lay up on par 5’s, their experience will be far different than what they expected.
If I were to sum up my work in a simple sentence, I would say that “I teach golfers how to not think.” On the outside looking in, that may not make a lot of sense at first, but once you’ve experienced “Mushin Golf”, you’ll understand in a way you can’t currently imagine. So, what exactly is Mushin Golf?
By definition, the word “mushin” means “no mind”. In some dialects, you will see it as “mushin no shin”, literally translated from Japanese to mean “mind of no mind.”
While that may seem vague and ethereal, I believe the second definition is most fitting. In essence, having a “mind of no mind” allows a golfer to be in complete harmony with his body; his mind and body becoming one with no interference from the conscious mind. To think of it in simple terms, think of Mushin Golf as having no conscious thought while playing golf.
It is a mental state where your mind is completely clear and devoid of interference, one of complete flow and effortless focus, a mind that is completely free from fear and worry and uninhibited by doubt. It is a state of being completely in the moment, or simply just “being.” You’ve no doubt experienced brief moments of Mushin Golf at some point in your golfing career, whether it be perfect, effortless shots on the driving range that seem to "just happen" or that second tee shot you pured down the middle after hitting the first one O.B.
For just a brief moment, your mind was free and clear from disruptive conscious internal dialogue and ego. There was only the moment and you were merely a participant in something effortless. Yet, for most, the moments of golfing at one’s potential are exactly that - moments.
These brief glimpses into our infinite potential come without warning. Very few have learned to harness their potential on a consistent basis. It can be a struggle because there are so many factors pulling you in the opposite direction. When you hit a bad shot, you instantly begin to analyze what went wrong with your setup, backswing, grip pressure, ball position, etc. instead of just playing golf in the moment.
In the moment, that shot doesn’t exist, it’s in the past, nothing more than a figment of your imagination. But, instead, that bad shot is given even more negative power and influence by dwelling on it, analyzing it, getting angry and frustrated because of it, until that one simple missed shot sends you on a downward spiral that careens the rest of your round off a cliff.
It can be almost imperceptible if you are not aware of your mental state because your thoughts morph from one thing to another so seamlessly. In an instant you can go from hitting the ball like a pro to a hacker, all because of the changes in your mind. But I assure you, if you can hit one great golf shot, you can hit a million and I’m going to help you discover how.
But first, let me briefly discuss the things that destroy Mushin Golf and keep you from playing at your potential on a consistent basis. In a previous article I discussed the detrimental effects the ego has on your golf game.
If you have not read the article, it is important you go back and read it before going any further. Once you begin to recognize the ego’s negative impact on your game, you can begin to move in to the second phase, which is recognizing your internal dialogue.
No matter what level of golfer I work with, the moment I ask them to stop thinking over a shot and have absolutely no thought, they are amazed at just how “noisy” the internal chatter is in their mind.
This pointless chatter is very disruptive and must be controlled, or rather abolished, in order to play consistently at one’s potential because it not only distracts you from the task at hand but it is often very negative things that are running through your mind.
Thoughts such as “don’t hit it left” that pop up at the last second or “hit it hard!” These thoughts often pop up right at the very worst time and produce completely undesirable results. Most golfers have no idea how to control their minds and these thoughts, but through practice, they can be completely controlled. It’s a matter of learning to control your mind rather than having your mind control you.
So, how do we rid ourselves of both the destructive ego and the internal dialogue? You could address each and every issue, one by one, each fear and doubt, each random thought that keeps reoccurring, but that would take a lifetime of counseling and isn’t necessary.
What you must learn to do is clear your mind of all these things through being in the moment and the simplest way to return your mind to the present is through a simple technique called “Breath Watching.”
Breath Watching - Entering the “Mental Driving Range”
On the surface, the following technique will seem simple and innocuous, but make no mistake; it is incredibly powerful and an important fundamental of Mushin Golf. Why is Breath Watching so important?
For starters, breathing is ALWAYS in the moment, THIS very moment. You’re not breathing yesterday or tomorrow, you’re breathing RIGHT NOW. In other words, the moment you focus on your breathing, you’re no longer worried about that long carry over water, what your playing partners are thinking or what score you might shoot.
Instantly, your focus is returned to the moment and you are then able to fully focus on the task at hand with a clear mind. When your mind is clear you can effortlessly focus and concentrate. There are also numerous physiological benefits such as improved oxygen exchange, reduced heart rate and tension and stress reduction to name just a few.
It is important that you breathe through your nose when performing the exercise, critically important. All humans are “obligatory” nose breathers from birth; breathing through the mouth is actually something we learned as a response to stress.
Because of this, your sympathetic nervous system is wired in such a way that when breathing through your mouth, it considers itself to be in a “ready” mode to handle stress or respond to an emergency. Because you’ve likely been doing it for so long now, your body has made accommodations for it, but the fact remains that breathing your nose has a calming effect and is the natural way for humans and all animals to breathe.
Breathing through your nose will provide you with a much deeper breath, one that will take longer and naturally make you slow down and relax, creating a calming effect in your mind and body.
Note! If you have any respiratory or cardiac illnesses, it is important that you consult your physician before doing this or any other breathing exercise.
To begin, find yourself a quiet, undisturbed place and set aside 10 minutes for yourself. Lay down or sit comfortably and close your eyes. To begin, take a slow, deep breath through your nose and breathe all the way down into your belly.
Your chest should feel relaxed and your belly should be pushed out as you breathe, if it does not, you are only taking shallow “chest breaths” and are not using your full lung capacity. Visualize yourself in a cool, foggy mist and you are breathing in this pure mist into your body.
See the clean, moist air enter your nose and travel down your throat as it fills your lungs and replenishes your body. Count to 8 in your mind as you breathe in and pause for a count of one once your lungs are completely full. Then, slowly exhale to a count of 8.
As you exhale, visualize the mist being blown out into the air, removing all the stale oxygen from the bottom of your lungs. Repeat this 10 times. You are entering the “Mental Driving Range.”
During this time, you will take your normal respiratory rate of about 18 weak, shallow chest breaths per minute (bpm) to about 3-5 bpm! You will be taking far fewer breaths, but the quality of the breaths and oxygen exchange will be much higher and more efficient.
You will likely notice your heart rate slow down and a very deep calm come over your entire body. You will feel at ease, relaxed and peaceful. As you continue the exercise, it is important that you focus on nothing but your breathing.
At first, it will be necessary for you to count to keep random thoughts from entering your mind, but as you practice you will become in tune with your body and find it no longer necessary to count and be able to move into more productive stages at the “Range” that I will discuss later.
For now, enjoy the relaxation you feel and the clarity of your mind. If you find it very difficult to take such deep breaths, find the number that is right for you. Perhaps your lungs will only take in air to a count of 6, that’s perfectly fine, it’s just important that you breathe slowly and deeply and focus completely on your breathing right now.
As you are doing this exercise, notice how all your worries about the past and present completely disappear as your focus is completely on what is happening at this very moment. Any anxiety you felt before will be totally gone.
Now, take this tool with you onto the golf course and you instantly see how there is no room for fear, ego or doubt to sabotage your round. Each shot should happen completely in the moment with no interference from the conscious mind.
As you are playing, return your mind to the present before hitting each shot as you stand behind the ball. Take a deep breath before you step into the shot and then let it happen. Let your mind be completely consumed with the moment, not the results. At this point, you are no longer thinking, you are simply “being” and “doing.”
You are allowing your body and mind to work as one to play to your potential, even though it will feel as if you have completely given up control. It is simply your ego, your conscious mind that has given up control and it will seem strange at first.
You are “getting out of your own way” so that you can perform the tasks as you knew you always could, with unconditional confidence. You are instantly ridding yourself of all the negative self-talk, mindless mental chatter and indecision. You are beginning to tap into your infinite potential that you’ve always known you had.
As you walk between shots, try focusing on nothing but your breathing for three holes. Note how it instantly removes tension, relaxes your body and puts your mind at ease. You will feel as if the round is slowing down. Don’t fight the feelings that you begin to become aware of.
You will notice things that will feel strange at first, an eerie sense of calm and confidence or a feeling that you aren’t actually doing anything when swinging the club. Things may feel as if they’re “just happening” and it may feel like you aren’t in direct control. Don’t worry, these new sensations are perfectly normal and ok and even desirable.
It is important that you simply observe them when they come up, don’t judge them or even try to understand them, simply let them be. Enjoy the moment. As you become more proficient at using Breath Watching to clear your mind at home, you will be able to carry it over onto the course with ease.
When you’re standing on the first tee and everyone is watching, you will be able to step up the ball with no concern for what is going on around you. You will be able to carry this technique over to each shot.
At first, you will likely struggle to maintain a clear mind when hitting shots because you have not had control over your mind when playing golf in the past. You will find yourself clearing your mind behind the ball and right when you get ready to swing, a flood of thoughts may come rushing in. Often these are swing thoughts that you have used in the past or other conscious thoughts about where to “not” hit the ball.
Do not get angry or frustrated with yourself or these thoughts, nor should you try and “force” them out of your mind. Imagine that each thought is like a cloud in the sky passing overhead. As a cloud comes into view, you notice it, but you let it pass by, simply observing it.
How Often Should I Go To The Mental Driving Range?
If you agree that golf is 90% mental, then you know that you should be spending a substantial amount of practice time at the Mental Driving Range.
To begin, you should “go to the range” first thing in the morning, right after you get out of bed. Take 10 minutes and go through your Breath Watching exercises. If you can, also take 10 minutes mid-day and then again, 10 minutes in the evening before you go to sleep.
All in all, you will have spent 30 minutes developing a fundamental aspect of your mental game each day, 7 days a week. That will give you 6½ hours per week of quality practice time. Keep in mind, you will only get out of your time at the “range” what you put into it.
If you are diligent about your focus and concentration, you will come out of each “range session” with a clear mind and a feeling of total relaxation and mental clarity. If you go to the “range” and just “slap shots around” in your mind, you will reap the same benefit as you do when you are at the physical driving range.
As you progress and become more proficient, you can add other “drills” or “exercises” that I will provide, but for at least two weeks, stick with nothing but your breathing. Begin to recognize your thoughts that keep popping up as you are at the “range.” You may want to write them down because you may revisit them later when I provide you with other tools and techniques. For now, enjoy being in the present.
Let it carry over into everything you do, from washing the dishes to playing golf. Know that you are taking the first step to an entirely new golfing experience, one that will change your game forever.