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Mental Game In Golf

Published: 2021-01-16
Mental Game In Golf
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A Caveman, a Chimp and a Golfer walk into a bar

By Iain Highfield
Once upon a (long, long) time ago there were two cavemen – let’s call them Tiger and Phil.

One day, these two Neolithic rascals were out hunting for food when they walked past a big, ominous cave.

As Phil strolled jauntily past the mouth of the cave, a huge lion leapt out and gobbled him up like a Jolly Rancher. Witnessing this, our friend Tiger turned around and ran squealing back to the camp.

The next day Tiger had to go hunting again – cave folk are notoriously hungry characters. Just like the day before he walked the same route, in exactly the same manner – except for one significant difference.

This time, as he approached the mouth of the cave, he experienced a strange sensation. His prehistoric man sense was tingling, he felt tense, his heart thumped. Confused by this sudden rush of apprehension he tripped over a nearby dinosaur egg, an act which focused his mind ever more intently on the strange reactions in his body.

Then he remembered. Hold on. This is where caveman Phil got gobbled down like a Jolly Rancher. I should probably be careful.

Of course, this tale is not merely applicable to our caveman friends, its applicable to some pretty fundamental aspects of modern-day life. Every day, innate human survival mechanisms that have evolved in our brain fire off feelings in our body like an alarm system designed to keep us alive. We stop at red lights for fear of getting slammed into by a truck. If we climb a ladder, we get a trusty companion to secure the base. We don’t accept candy from sinister looking men.

This innate human survival mechanism (that I often refer to as the Chimp) is a vital component of human ascendency, a key factor in our rise to become the planet’s most dominant, if not always most responsible, species.

Oddly, this very same mechanism, so fundamental to our evolution and endurance, can also be a significant weakness on the golf course. And if you don't believe me, simply ask Doug Sanders about his experience in the 1970 Open, Jean Van der Velde about 1999 or Adam Scott about 2013. The very instinct that has kept these three men alive throughout all the hazards of modern life, became activated when they were on the edge history – and torpedoed their chance of glory. Their brains sensed an imminent ‘danger’, failing to distinguish golf from that red light or wobbly ladder. And because these three experienced professionals did not have the processes to regulate this response, the only thing their minds had rescued them from was the sort of injuries you get from lifting trophies and receiving too many pats on the back.

For now, let’s focus on the example of the ladder. With someone we trust holding the base while we climb, our thoughts are of safety, stability and support. This creates a palpable sense of confidence and relaxation, helping us ascend to the top of the ladder and retrieve, I don’t know, let’s say a kitten from the roof. From a position of certainty and safety, we achieve our goal.

Golf is no different. The key to having a strong mental game is, quite simply, developing the ability to match our thoughts and feelings to our intentions.

The Professional athletes I work with at Game Like Training Golf and the future college golfers I train at the David Leadbetter Golf Academy learn a simple 5-step process to help them achieve this internal synchronicity on the golf course.

OSVEA – an acronym for Options, Selection, Visualization, Execution and Acceptance – acts as a framework, guiding players to create a process focused, totally malleable mind. Process focused thinking helps reduce the ‘noise’ made by the innate human survival mechanism (or Chimp) and triggers a response in the body to create feelings of calm, control and relaxation. This physiological response enables a golfer to swing the club more efficiently and brings them closer to their intended outcome – whether that’s winning a Tour event, national selection, triumphing the Sunday medal or reducing their handicap.

Master your understanding of OSVEA with this video


Examine any golfer not in possession of process focus and you quickly understand the adverse effect it can have on performance. Outcomes, like winning events and medals, are uncontrollable. We can’t expect to control a concept so fickle and intangible as winning. You can’t control the subjective thoughts and feelings of a national selector. And you certainly can’t control what your pal Bob shoots in the local medal to snatch the trophy.

The brain knows how little control we have over these outcomes. So, when we allow our mind to be penetrated by thoughts of ‘what if’ or ‘if only’, we wake the Chimp. Threatened by these impending goals, the Chimp feels exposed, precisely as he would if we were about to cross a busy road. His only response to this is to cause a fuss – a fuss that our body responds to with a classic stress response. Now, gripped by the Chimp’s anxieties, our relaxed fluid swings are a million miles away, our grip is clammy and strangled, our shoulders tighten and our heart pounds. Cumulatively, this adds up to one fundamental state: we are now a long way from achieving our intentions.

Here are 2 great drills that can help you silence the chimp and become a mental game master

Drill 1 – Self awareness, Get to know your chimp 

How it works

Take a red pen with you onto the golf course every time you play competitively. Each time you have an ‘outcome thought’ pertaining to the past or the future (for example: ‘I cant believe I made double’, ‘I’ve got to make par’, ‘ don't 3 putt!’) put a red dot on your hand and add up the dots at the end of the round.

How it helps  

The reason I ask you to do this is not to shock you by the frequency of these debilitating thoughts, but rather because any positive psychological change begins with psychological awareness. In other words, an inky red hand is a great place to start our journey to silence to Chimp.

To learn more, watch me coach a professional golfer using this this drill

Drill 2 - Silence the Chimp with tension awareness

This simple exercise can help you build tension awareness and create an effective process goal, helping you to silence the unhelpful screeches of your inner Chimp. It can be a productive exercise, particularly for players with a propensity to ‘tense up’ under a perceived pressure – ferociously squeezing the club over the last few holes every time victory is in sight.

How it works

Step 1: Place your club on the floor at your feet and relax your jaw, neck, shoulders, hands and abs. We’ll refer to this state as ‘level zero tension’.

Step 2: Now slowly dial up tension in each of these areas of your body from zero to level 2, 4 then 6 going all the way to maximum tension (your level 10) in each of these body parts.

Step 3: Repeat this process 5-6 times and then pick up your golf club and immediately make some practice swings, with the tempo and speed you desire to have when you’re on the course. As you do this try to quantify the level of tension in your hands and in your jaw – as- sign a number from your scale for the tension you feel in these parts of your body. It may help to close your eyes to enhance the sensations of your practice swing.

Step 4: After completing several practice swings, the ball is introduced only at the point when you feel your tension levels are properly under control.

Step 5: When the ball is introduced, you’re effectively going to sign a mental contract with yourself – committing to a swing that maintains a certain level of hand or jaw tension. Don't be afraid to change the levels and find your optimum. (Also, a handy way to maintain low jaw tension is to balance a potato chip between your teeth.)

Watch this video to see me put a Wake Forest College golfer through this drill


How it helps

By forcing you to recognize how the body acts and reacts under tension you become able to manage it and gain fluid movement. Through this tension management technique, you’re able to identify an optimum level that you are then able to take into competition, in the form of a process goal, and silence the Chimp. This Process goal can become an integral part of your Visualization and or Execution segments of the 5 step OSVEA process.

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