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Golf Psychology: How to Stay Focused on the Task at Hand

Updated: Dec 29, 2023

Your mind can be a real nuisance on the golf course. Often it will take an opportunity to jump on a mistake or a bit of bad luck, throwing a thought or emotion at you that sucks you into an internal battle. This takes your focus away from the battle you're having with the course! I'm not saying your mind hates you and is out to destroy your scorecard, it's just detecting something threatening and encouraging you to avoid it. But this isn't too helpful to you when you're setting up to play a tricky bunker shot or you've just pulled your drive into the trees. In these situations, staying focused on the next key performance action, instead of on what your mind is telling you about yourself or the situation, can prevent a disappointing shot from becoming a disappointing round.

A golfer playing a shot down the fairway

When things are going well on a round, your mind tends to stay a lot more quiet. But, one disappointing shot can give it a reason to become loud. There are countless examples at the very highest level of players shouting out what they think of a disappointing shot, and then continuing to play disappointing shots for the next couple of holes. This is (partly) because they've allowed their mind to dominate their thinking and attention. The difficult thoughts and emotions that their mind kindly threw at them suck them into an internal battle with their mind, and their focus on the preparation and execution of their shots decreases.


Golf requires present-moment focus to play at your highest level. The shots you've hit previously, whether you were pleased or disappointed with them, can't be changed. The lie, position, and distance of the shots following the shot you're about to hit, are dependant on that next shot. So, the next shot is the only one that matters in the present moment. Despite this, on your next round count how many times you notice yourself thinking about a shot on a previous hole, a tricky hole coming up, or your overall score. This will give you a sense of whether you allow yourself to be distracted and sucked out of the present moment, which can result in your performance decreasing. Why? Because increased attention on unwanted thoughts and feelings leads to decreased attention on the present moment, club selection, approach to the shot, and pre-shot routine. You begin making these important decisions and actions mindlessly, instead of mindfully, which leads to rushed processes and worse shots. Suddenly, one disappointing shot has become two, three, or four, because you didn't manage your mind. And, whilst staying focused only on the next shot for 18 holes requires considerable mental skill and self-discipline, it is a key ingredient to better and more enjoyable golf performance.

 

Golf psychology tip: Find comfort in the discomfort, focus on what's important, execute the skills you've trained.

Every player's approach to the game is unique, but an effective approach to managing difficult thoughts and feelings on the course and continuing to play at the level you want to can be fit broadly into this process: Find comfort in the discomfort, focus on what's important, execute the skills you've trained. Let's break each part down in more detail.


Find comfort in the discomfort

This part of the process involves learning and using two skills. The first is 'unhooking' from difficult thoughts. All players experience thoughts that aren't pleasant (a few probably spring to mind right now that you have after a disappointing shot). However, not all players let those thoughts pull their focus away from their key performance processes. Instead, they create separation between themselves and their thoughts by using unhooking skills, so they aren't as dominant over performance behaviours. Here are a couple of basic and quick techniques you can try on the course (remember, you're not getting rid of the thought, you're just weakening its influence):


1. 'I notice I'm having the thought that...'

When you notice a difficult thought or belief about yourself or your game, start by saying, 'I'm having the thought that ... (e.g., I've ruined my scorecard)'. Repeat that. Then, add to it, 'I notice I'm having the thought that I've ruined my scorecard'. See if you feel yourself separate from the thought so that you can focus on your next performance action. If not, try this technique below.


2. Thank your mind

Your mind is just trying to help when it tries beating you up with thoughts and beliefs, so, silently just thank it for its input, but let it know you're going to focus on the next controllable aspect of your round. It might go a bit like this:


Mind: Awful shot! You're terrible at golf (belief). Might as well give up now (thought).


You (silently of course): Oof. Thanks for the input mind, but I'm going to focus on my club selection for this next shot so I can recover.


The second skill here to find comfort in the discomfort is called 'acceptance'. With disappointing shots and difficult thoughts often come difficult feelings. Emotions such as frustration. Urges to play an overly aggressive recovery shot. Like thoughts, your feelings can also pull you towards decisions and behaviours on the course that you wouldn't engage in if you weren't under the influence of your mind. But can you 'get rid' of frustration? Can you put frustration on the tee and drive it into the car park? Unfortunately not. What you can do, however, is make room for it being there. You can open up to it as a natural reaction to a disappointing shot, and let it rise, peak and fall without hitting a frustrated next shot. This would be an example of an acceptance technique called 'emotion surfing', where you notice the emotion and ride the wave of it instead of resisting it. To learn more about emotion surfing, read my blog on it here.


Focus on what's important

Once you've skilled up on unhooking from difficult thoughts and accepting unwanted feelings, you should be able to focus your attention on what you need to do to prepare for your next shot. Instead of quietly stewing in your own thoughts and disappointment, you can engage in conversation with your caddy or playing partner about how to play the shot as well as possible. Instead of thinking about how you hit your last shot slightly fat, you can really analyse the lie of your next shot and make a focused club and shot selection. And most importantly, instead of walking to your ball with your head down, convincing yourself that your round is ruined, you can take in the beautiful course you're playing on before starting your pre-shot routine. Nothing is rushed or forgotten when you're dialled into the present moment. To help maintain this contact with the present, really engage with the conversation you're having or with the environment you're in, using your senses to notice what you can see, hear, smell, and touch. If your mind is still throwing thoughts and feelings up, just let them be, like a radio playing in the background. They aren't harming your performance this way.


Execute the skills you've trained

In an unhooked, accepting, present-focused state, you have put yourself in a great position to not only play your next shot as well as possible but the other shots after it, as you carry that mindset around the course. Additionally, if you do play another disappointing shot or get an unlucky break, you're equipped with the skills to manage the difficult thoughts and feelings that might come with that, so that you can refocus on executing your next shot successfully. That is, after all, all you can control at that moment.

 

Golf challenges you to perform with much more than your body and clubs. Your mind is under a constant state of demand to regulate, focus, and enjoy the game! Too often, golfers say that they didn't enjoy a round due to how they felt mentally around the course, and often a disappointing scorecard comes with that. This makes complete sense. It's very hard to play well and enjoy yourself doing it if you spend the entire round inside your own head, dwelling on disappointing shots. But it doesn't have to be this way. By learning to get comfortable with uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, you can focus on key performance behaviours even when they stick around. This allows you to go back to executing the shots that show your true ability, instead of turning a disappointing shot into a disappointing run of shots that truly derail your scorecard.


Not quite sure how to implement the techniques in this blog? Our mindset training packages are designed to support you on that journey, to make sure you're fully equipped with the knowledge and tools you need to prevent your mind from ruining your rounds. Book a FREE 20-minute enquiry call here, or, get in touch via Whatsapp at 07950378048 or by emailing Ross@challenger-mindset.com. Take the first step in building a challenger mindset today!

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