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The Mental Game: Training vs. Trusting

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Do you stand over EVERY shot running down a mental checklist of the 24 basic swing components and their variations? I promise you that tour players don’t, which is why they are able to look and swing so confidently.

Regardless of your skill level, here is the key to lower scores. Know how to train your golf swing, and then know how to trust it.

The concept of training vs. trusting is not a new one. It’s the basis sports psychology and motor learning concepts (how your mind and body learns, develops and refines a complex motor pattern of movement). Sports psychologists have known for a long time that at the top levels of professional golf, it’s not as much a golfer’s physical abilities as his or her mental skills that separate the best of the best. Unfortunately, most golfers NEVER leave the stage of training on the golf course. That means that they will never free up their bodies to accomplish the swings that their bodies are truly capable of!

The Training Mentality

The Training Mentality is a hypersensitive level of awareness dedicated to a particular facet of your present stroke pattern that is incorrect or faulty. It could be caused by a lesson from a teaching professional, a fellow golfer’s comment about your swing or maybe even your own internal feelings of what is causing your swing to do weird things. Therefore, you will now enter into the training mode where you are very cognizant of what you feel and sense in your golf swing. Staying in the Training Mode means only one thing — every time you step up to the ball either on the range or on the course your thoughts are zoned in on your mechanics. You are paralyzed by over-analysis!

As things progress further you continue to focus more heavily on this aspect of your swing. You practice on the range longer, and stand over every shot consumed with 400 swing thoughts — not a very nice way to spend the day! Now, I am NOT telling you to overlook what you feel and hear, but you must know when to turn those thoughts off and on. When you are in a lesson or practicing a particular swing mechanic, you must be very focused and over-sensitive about the move you are trying to change. After all, it is the training mode.

After a lesson, my students are highly focused on changing their faulty move(s) when I show them how it will improve their game. But I prescribe a different approach than most teachers to help my students improve at the quickest pace thanks to my knowledge of the training vs. trusting mindset. I like to have them leave the Training Mode on the range and here’s how!

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  1. You MUST change visual perceptions into physical feelings through mirror work. Use a mirror to compare your old move to the new one. What do you feel? This is what you are looking for on the range. If you hit 10,000 balls right after your lesson without gaining this feeling of old versus new, how many repetitions are going to be correct? What mirror work does is establish a new “feeling” so on the range you can make a high number of CORRECT repetitions, not just a bunch of swings.
  2. After you establish the correct feelings of how the new move is to affect you sensations, then start with SMALL swings and work your way up. Take it from me, you cannot fix swing flaws effectively with a driver in your hand right at first. Use your wedge and partial swings. When and ONLY when you can do it every time with a wedge should you move up to a less lofted club. Don’t beat your head into the ground. Start slow and do it right, because one more ball you hit incorrectly is just one more you will have to hit correctly to rid yourself of your old habit!
  3. Now that you have worked yourself up to full swings, it is time to go to the course. For all those people who must think about something over the ball (we’ll get to that trusting mentality shortly) this will help you. Take two practice swings per shot on the course thinking about all the mechanical thoughts you need to on the first one. On the second one, think of only the feeling and visualization of where you want the ball to end up (not where you don’t want to go). On the third swing, stand over the ball prepared to hit it with a free mind and TRUST it and let it happen!

These are the stages that I tell all my students to go through from the best professionals on Tour to the beginner golfer. It never varies. How can you trust your swing when it causes you to hit shots all over the place, you might ask? Well, that is an interesting point, but let’s discuss it in our Trusting Mentality section.

The Trusting Mentality

After training and focusing extra hard on changing a swing flaw, there comes a time when you have to trust what you have done on the range and in front of the mirror! You must allow your body to react in the new manner naturally. That is why you practice and pay attention to the new feelings your swing gives you. You take these conscious feelings and manipulations of new swing motions and through lessons and proper practice (described above) you MUST move them into your subconscious. Then you can play the game as it was meant to be played (without 4,000 swing thoughts).

Unfortunately, most people never achieve this trusting mindset because of their over-analytical state. When people ask me to describe this sensation to them I usually cite two impacting examples:

  1. If I put a 10-foot 2-by-6 flat on the floor and told you to walk across it, you would have no trouble at all. If I placed it 50 feet in the air, all of a sudden after years and years of walking you would suddenly forget how to put one foot in front of the other! Why does this happen? People lose the Trusting Mentality necessary to walk across that plank. By thinking about how to walk, people interfere with their bodies’ natural homeostatic mechanisms that they use for balance. Guess what happens next? Another one bites the dust. It is the same on the golf course — after working on a new motion in the Training Mode, allow yourself to slip back to the Trusting Mode when you are on the course. You do this in stages by using small partial swings with a high percentage of successful repetitions, building your way slowly up to full swings. My theory is that if you cannot hit small shots the proper way, then it will be impossible to move hit larger shots the proper way. Start small until you are successful in implementing the new move! If the ball goes sideways, it only tells you that you need more practice on the range and in your mirror. You cannot expect to have any shot consistency if your mental checklist includes several hundred things!
  2. My final example of trusting comes from everyone’s experience of hitting balls or putting while talking with one of your friends. It’s then that something weird can happen. Every shot is effortless and pure. Why does this happen? For a brief time, you are allowing your body to do what is natural for it to do, propelling the ball at your target without allowing your mind to tell you how to do it! Your body knows how to swing if you will let it work thought-free. It’s just your mind intercepting the muscles’ natural motions on the big shots (you know, trying to kill the ball for no reasons whatsoever), the stigma of trying to hit long irons in the air off a tight lie, trying not to chunk the ball into the pond on No. 8, and so on. This trust must be gained slowly and in stages; if not you will never reach the level of shot purity that you can. That is a promise from me!

caddyshack-chase-be-the-ball

You don’t have to “be the ball,” but freeing your mind of swing thoughts after working on a new swing motion can result in the same level of golf nirvana.  

If you don’t believe in this idea, I will give you one test. Hit 50 balls with your 5-iron and consciously think during the swings about your mechanics and how to make your swing correct during that full shot. I bet you hit 80 percent of those balls horribly unsolid and offline.

Now, wear your iPod and playing soothing slow music and hit the same number of balls allowing your mind to only do one thing be free of any thoughts. I’ll bet you hit a far greater percentage of those shots better and tension free! Any teaching professional will tell you that they do not want you to focus on too many things on the course. That is what the range is for. The practice facility is a conscious place for thought and swing mechanic experiments. The course is for getting the ball into the hole however it takes regardless if it’s pretty or not!

I teach my students to identify their problems and solve them objectively though mirror work, follow-up lessons and proper efficient practice. My goal is not tie my students’ minds up in knots on the golf course, because if you do, it is you own fault. I firmly advocate keeping the mind free and thinking simple on the golf course. Leave mechanics on the practice facility and for your mirror!

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Tom F. Stickney II is the Director of Instruction and Business Development at Punta Mita, in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico (www.puntamita.com) He is a Golf Magazine Top 100 Teacher, and has been honored as a Golf Digest Best Teacher and a Golf Tips Top-25 Instructor. Tom is also a Trackman University Master/Partner, a distinction held by less than 15 people in the world. Punta Mita is a 1500 acre Golf and Beach Resort located just 45 minuted from Puerto Vallarta on a beautiful peninsula surrounded by the Bay of Banderas on three sides. Amenities include two Nicklaus Signature Golf Courses- with 14 holes directly on the water, a Golf Academy, four private Beach Clubs, a Four Seasons Hotel, a St. Regis Hotel, as well as, multiple private Villas and Homesites available. For more information regarding Punta Mita, golf outings, golf schools and private lessons, please email: tom.stickney@puntamita.com

6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Josh

    Oct 1, 2013 at 8:30 am

    When I am working on my swing, I like to hit balls with my back to the sun so that my shadow is in front of me!! It is like using a mirror, but you can check body mechanics on the range!! Also when working on swing mechanics on the range I typically will hit 5 shots with whatever drill or swing thought and then back off go through my routine and hit one shot with nothing in my mind. When you do this and that one shot is a perfect shot you gain instant trust that what you are doing is working!!

    I like to be my own ipod on the course. When I am playing my best I have one song stuck in my head singing it over and over while playing any shot. Makes the game more fun and less stressful!!!

    Great article

  2. Zeeraq

    Sep 25, 2013 at 12:03 am

    Good article, but a lot of it taken out of Bob Rotella’s book, “Golf Is Not a Game of Perfect”. Down to the plank in the air. I do love the iPod idea though, I’ve been doing it for a year now and it REALLY gets you in a clear, empty state of mind. The mirror’s a great method as well.
    For those who liked this article, I highly recommend Rotella’s book. I spent a year choking and believing I wasn’t cut out for the big stage until I read that book. Needless to say, times have changed 🙂

  3. Kenny

    Sep 24, 2013 at 5:46 pm

    Great article….so know i can play with music ….and not listen to my playing partners…

  4. naflack

    Sep 24, 2013 at 12:56 am

    i like having 1 swing thought, that works for me.
    i have learned however that it is often easier to concentrate on the swing thougt than to concentrate on the aspects of the shot.
    i can tell im doing this because ill be hitting quality shots but scoring poorly.
    careful with those swing thoughts, even if they work for you they can take your concentration away from some of the required aspects of shooting good scores.

  5. Joey

    Sep 23, 2013 at 4:54 pm

    Fantastic article. I’m one of the worst for over analysis, I can play at a high level, often playing to a single digit handicap.

    When I’m thinking, I play into the 90’s, it’s so frustrating. I appreciate the advice!

  6. AJ Jensen

    Sep 23, 2013 at 4:16 pm

    Great article. So much goes into analysis, so little addresses application. This article was a much-needed emphasis on letting go of analytical thinking during play.

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Instruction

Stickney: The deadly double-cross

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OK. Here we go. Number 17 at Punta Mita. Water all down the left side. OK. Aim right and hit a slight draw—been hitting the ball wonderfully all day, scoring conditions are perfect—I’m ready to make a birdie!

Over the ball. Check my alignments—good! Last look—where we want the ball to end up—good! No swing thoughts—great! Go!

Ball begins on the line I wanted—so far so good—apex perfect. Oh no! Now it’s not drawing! In fact, it’s fading! Crap! There’s out of bounds right! Don’t hit the path…

BOING! Gone. UGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGG! The dreaded “double-cross.”

Why does this seem to happen to all of us from time to time (only when there is a problem on one side we’re trying to avoid?) The answer is simply one of three things normally

  • Not committed
  • Poor pivot
  • Faulty grip pressure

Not Committed

This one is simple: Anytime you have conflicting thoughts over the ball and you are unsure of what to do next, step back and regroup! Easy sounding right? Not at all! This take a ton of self-discipline and awareness to actually notice the signs and make the choice to stop yourself in the middle of your routine. If you can, you are one of the few.

Not being committed comes in the physical, mental, and emotional forms. Regardless of which you are fighting on the tee in this situation, it’s best to stop and regroup. If you do not, a double-cross and double bogey can be lurking!

Poor Pivot

Whenever you have doubts about your ability to pull off a shot mechanically the first thing to go is your control of the “pivot” which is how you twist and turn and displace weight. The pivot, per “The Golfing Machine,” controls things like rhythm, balance, the head, the club shaft, etc. so if you “stall out or outrace yourself” then your ball can go anywhere. Usually, when you have trouble that you are trying to avoid, you will tend to slow down in efforts to try and guide the ball—when this happens you will hang back and either hold on or flip it through impact, and this will cause you to lose control of the clubhead and clubface. No bueno!

Faulty Grip Pressure

As stated above, you will find non-commitment in one of three forms, and normally when you have emotional or physical issues your grip pressure will spike. Anytime you have a grip on the club that’s in death-mode, you will find that having any type of normal or consistent release is impossible. When your release becomes an issue so will your ball’s flight. Try your best to relax and let things happen without trying to force them; squeezing the grip too hard can only make things worse.

Now that we know what the issues tend to be, what can we do besides step back? Your goal is to swing the club, just like you do every other time, as normally as possible. The fewer “thoughts” you have, the better. Usually, if you try to stay aggressive, you’ll have a better chance of having the ball land on grass. Try it and you’ll surprise yourself!

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Instruction

TXG: 8 handicap fairway wood & hybrid fitting

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Finishing the full bag fitting for our Mizuno contest winner by dialing in a fairway wood and hybrid!

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Instruction

6 reasons why golfers struggle with back pain: Part 2

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This article is co-written with Marnus Marais. Since 2011, Marnus has worked with some of the world’s best players on both the PGA Tour and European Tour, helping them to maintain optimal health and peak physical performance. His current stable of players includes Dustin Johnson, Patrick Cantlay, and Louis Oosthuizen, amongst others.

You can find more information on Marnus and his work at marnusmarais.com

Following on from Part 1 of this article, we examine reasons 4, 5 and 6 for why golfers suffer from low back pain.

Reason 4: Weak Core Muscles

Before we make start making exercise recommendations for this complicated area of the body, it’s worth asking—what is the core exactly? There is considerable debate about this often misunderstood region. Back pain expert Professor Stuart McGill, explains it as follows:

‘The core is composed of the lumbar spine, the muscles of the abdominal wall, the back extensors, and quadratus lumborum. Also included are the multijoint muscles, namely, latissimus dorsi and psoas that pass through the core, linking it to the pelvis, legs, shoulders, and arms. Given the anatomic and biomechanical synergy with the pelvis, the gluteal muscles may also be considered to be essential components as primary power generators’

In a golf context, there is a common myth that the core muscles are our main source of power in the swing. In reality, the main role of the core is to provide stiffness and stable support for force/power transfer from our legs to our upper body

If we can create stiffness and stability in our core, we can help protect our spine and surrounding structures from unnecessary strain whilst also improving swing efficiency—pretty sweet combo!

Due to a combination of perpetual sitting, poor posture and other detrimental lifestyle factors, our cores tend to lose this ability to provide stiffness and stability. We can combat and correct this with a solid core conditioning program. Below are examples of some of our favorite exercises.

Dead Bug with Fitball – the combination of squeezing the fitball whilst extending arm and leg delivers all sorts of great stimulus for the core muscles.

Bird Dog – great for glute, core and back strength

Pallof Press – fantastic anti-rotation exercise. Good for strengthening the core whilst using the ground efficiently

Reason 5 – Not Warming up Properly/Not Warming up at All!

As we’ve explained above, mechanical back pain arises from too much stress and strain placed on the back. During the game of golf, we treat our spines terribly—expecting them to twist, turn and contort with the aim of producing decent golf shots!

If we don’t prepare our bodies for an activity like golf and just go out cold, we significantly increase the chances for strain and stress being placed on the lumbar area.

I’m sure many of you have had the experience of throwing a ball or a stick hard without warming up, and received a nasty sharp pain in your shoulder. Now, if you were to warm up before doing that; stretching your shoulder, making a few practice throws etc, you’d likely avoid strain altogether. Same goes for the low back and the golf swing – without a decent warm-up, there’s every possibility of a strain when trying to rip driver down the first!

By incorporating a warm-up into your pre-golf routine, you can significantly reduce the risk for injury AND help avoid that card wrecking double-double start! As a side bonus, warming up regularly can help your general health, fitness, and wellbeing too.

We know that most amateurs don’t warm up; a study done by Fradkin et. al showed that around 70 percent of amateur golfers seldom warm-up, with only 3.8% reporting warming up on every occasion!

A decent warm isn’t hard and doesn’t have to take ages to complete; research shows that a warm-up of 10-20 minutes is sufficient. In the video below, Marnus gives a thorough guide to a solid warm up sequence.

Reason 6 – Swing Faults

Let’s not forget the golf swing. One of the most common reasons I see golfers struggle with low back pain is that they are unable to “get to their lead side” and “get stuck” on the downswing. This causes the aforementioned excessive side bend and rotation from the low back, which we need to avoid! 

“Getting stuck” on the trail side

Now we aren’t golf coaches and therefore don’t deliver swing advice. However, there are some fundamental movement patterns that most golfers could benefit from practicing. In the videos below, one of our favorite body orientated swing coaches, Richard Woodhouse, is using one of our favorite training tools, the GravityFit TPro, to help teach an efficient movement pattern. The aim is to develop a strong connection between arms and body, using the hips and thorax to rotate, thereby helping to avoid “getting stuck.”

Summary

The absolute best practice for a healthy golfing lower back is working with a golf swing instructor and also a health/fitness professional that understands the body and swing connection. As a team, they would be able to identify and improve your individual swing faults, movement pattern dysfunctions, range of motion deficiencies, muscle weakness, imbalances, and alignment issues.

If you don’t have access to such expertise locally, you may want to check out the online services offered by Marnus and Nick here:

Marnus – https://www.marnusmarais.com

Nick – https://www.golffitpro.net/

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