After suffering a devastating loss on the golf course recently, I slammed the clubs in my trunk and tore out of the parking lot, mumbling under my breath. “Why do I struggle to connect the dots when the pressure is on?” I thought to myself.
When the pressure is on, there is no way around it; I am a choke artist. After 25 years experiencing the same problem, I decided to get some professional help. This is the story of how Mental Performance Coach Iain Highfield helped me learn the skills to go from mentally weak to master of my own universe!
After distancing myself from the golf course, still tearing down the road in rage, Iain serendipitously called me. He’s a good friend and colleague; we have both done consulting for junior golf academies over the past couple years. I picked up and snarled at him. Immediately, he quipped back and I laughed. We spoke about some business and then came the moment of truth, “Iain, I have a problem, and I need help!”
Iain fired back, “Ya, no kidding…”
Realizing I had left the door open for further criticism, I interrupted him: “My mental game is a joke… I am a choke artist,” I admitted. I relayed the story of the destruction that had just occurred on the course.
“I just feel like I could not feel my swing out there,” I said. “The whole time I was thinking about trying to fix it. First it was thinking about my left wrist, then it was shifting weight into my lead foot. By the 12th hole, I was completely done. I had no idea where the ball was going and my confidence was shattered. I just could not figure out a way to perform.”
“Ouch!” Iain said. “I’m not going to lie, that sucks but it happens.”
“All the time,” I added.
Laughing, Iain said, “Do you know the difference between internal and external focus?
“The difference between external and internal focus is important for a player to understand,” Iain explained. “When you described your round, you were describing internal focus; directing your attention toward what your body is doing. Examples of internal focus are thinking about things like your weight being forward.”
“Guilty,” I thought.
“The best players have external focus; they spend their time building a plan and then focusing on the target,” Iain continued.
“Hmmm,” I thought. “But the best players have swing thoughts, don’t they?”
“Yes, Brendan, they have swing thoughts,” Iain said. “However, external focus is important because when we gaze at the target we are connecting our visual system to our motor control system. By allowing them to communicate, we increase the odds of you accessing your best shot.”
“OK, that makes sense,” I said. “I get the theory, but what do you want me to do about? How can I become better?”
“This is where your pre-shot routine is critical,” Iain said. “As you know, your pre-shot routine is what you do before each shot. The key elements of the routine are making sure once you commit to starting the process of hitting the shot, you are calm. Then, once you are set, you narrow your focus to only what you want to accomplish. Let me give you an example. Obviously, you know the 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass. After checking all the variables and committing to the club and style of shot, you will begin your pre-shot routine. When going through this process, you need to direct your attention toward creating the shot in your mind and using your eyes to focus on the target.”
“OK, I get it,” I said, hesitantly.
Iain must of sensed the nervousness in my voice, because he immediately responded. “Next time you play, instead of focusing on the score or the result of the shot, practice focusing on the process. I want you to make your shot decision, then try and direct all your energy into creating a picture of the shot and holding that idea in your head while having a couple long looks at the target. It’s not going to be easy and will require some practice. Over your next couple rounds, practice doing this. Every time you are successful, give yourself a check. Every time you fail, put an ‘X.’ Start to evaluate what your doing by how well you can utilize these skills.”
My next test on the golf course came as I was walking up to an island-green par 3, much like hole No. 17 at TPC Sawgrass. It was the perfect opportunity to see if I had made improvements on my mental game. My laser rangefinder read 136 yards; a perfect pitching wedge. I stood behind the ball and took two deep breathes. I looked up and saw a large red box in the sky; that was my target. Meticulously, I moved into position with my attention directed at hitting a bullet right at the red box. You know that sound you hear when you absolutely flush an iron shot? Yeah, that’s what I heard. Flawless contact into a balanced finish. The ball climbed perfectly toward the red box and finally landed softly on the green, 10 feet right of the pin.
I smiled. Thanks Iain!