Staying in the present is one of the most important areas of the mental game that sport psychologists work on with golfers. Nearly every week, winners from the PGA Tour to the LPGA Tour will attribute a part of their victory to their ability to stay in the present. They may use different terms (staying in the moment, focusing on the task at hand, or concentrating on the process), but their overall message is the same; they were able to manage their mind and stay focused on the present. Keeping your mind focused on the present is not a principle only reserved for golf’s best players; it’s one that should be practiced by all golfers who want to play their best.
Being focused on the present is a relatively straightforward concept in golf psychology. While a golfer’s body can only be found physically in the present moment, a golfer’s mind can wander nearly anywhere. It can think back to past circumstances like a mistake a golfer made on a previous hole. It can also go into the future and think about a shot or hole that’s coming up. Sometimes a golfer’s mind will even stroll to thoughts outside of the course to something like an errand or a business deal. There is no shortage of places the mind can go that are not occurring in that present moment.
Unfortunately, the more a golfer’s mind strays away from the present moment, the harder it is for that golfer to play his or her best golf. This is especially true right before a shot. There is no time more important to be in the present than during the pre-shot routine and while swinging the club. Being immersed in the moment and giving each shot 100 percent is one of the most important factors to a sound mindset and mental game.
While being in the present moment is one of the simplest concepts for golfers to understand, it is also one of the most challenging skills for them to consistently implement in their mental game. No golfer has ever mastered it, and no golfer probably ever will. I see countless golfers put so much pressure on themselves to do it perfect or not do it at all. They impose an all-or-none attitude on themselves, and this is potentially one of the biggest reasons in golf psychology that players struggle to stay in the present. They figure, “I tried it, but my mind wandered after two holes (or maybe two seconds). So, I might as well just accept my mind can’t stay in the present.”
The truth is that everyone from Jack Nicklaus to Arnold Palmer to Jason Day to Dustin Johnson are tested by the golf gods; on the course, their minds wander more than you would believe. That’s because no golfer’s mind comes “golf ready.” Staying in the present is a part of the game we all battle each time we go out on the course. In golf, you have “outer-game challenges” like bunker shots and “inner-game challenges” like staying in the present. Just as you wouldn’t abandon your swing after one bad shot or bad round, you shouldn’t abandon being focused in the moment on the course. The more time and energy you dedicate to staying in the present, the better you will become at managing your mind to stay in the moment.
Just as the idea of being focused on the present is a simple concept, and so are many of the solutions. I have found from my experience as a mental coach that the simplest solutions are often the most powerful and easiest to implement. As with every strategy in sport psychology, the more time you dedicate to practicing these techniques (on and off the golf course) the more ingrained these mental skills will become.
Each of the 5 strategies are great ways to manage your mind to be present focused on the golf course. The key is finding the strategies that work best for you. Try each of the strategies and use the one(s) that fit your personality.
1. Gain a Better Awareness for When You Start to Lose Focus with Self-Monitoring
Many times, golfers lose focus without even realizing it. They will be on autopilot thinking about something from the past or in the future without any awareness that they are even doing it. Just learning to become aware of when your mind shifts out of the present is often enough to help it get back into the moment.
In psychology, the practice of paying attention to your thoughts and actions is called self-monitoring. It is a very powerful strategy that helps people learn to manage bad habits that they would like to learn to control. In this case, it would include golfers setting a goal to monitor their thoughts and pay attention to when and how their mind wanders from the present moment.
One simple exercise I use to help golfers learn to monitor their thoughts is called: “Left Pocket – Right Pocket.” I recommend you do this drill during a non-competitive round the next time you want to work on staying in the present. Put about 50 golf tees in your left pocket and start with your right pocket empty. Every time your mind wanders out of the present, take a tee out of your left pocket and put it in your right pocket. Do not judge the thought or even try to shift your thoughts in the beginning. The initial purpose of this exercise is to heighten your awareness. If you naturally have fewer thoughts or manage the thoughts you have, that is even better. But when starting, let the primary purpose be to recognize the thoughts and over time you can build on the exercise – especially with some of the other suggestions from this article.
2. Know What You Want to Focus on Before You Start to Lose Focus
Many times, when a golfer tries to refocus they either try to do too much or refocus on the “wrong” thing. For instance, a golfer’s mind may begin to focus on the future and think about birdieing a hole. Their mind then refocuses to the present, but they make an overly aggressive decision or decide to make a swing that doesn’t fit their game.
I encourage all my players to have a game plan and process goals established before they tee off. A game plan is a strategy for how they want to play the course. Part of that game plan are process goals, which are a few objectives that are under the direct control of golfer. These are things they want to focus on during the round like their pre-shot routine, a swing thought, etc. Having a game plan and process goals established before you tee off will help you know what to think about when you want to refocus so you don’t overthink when your mind begins to wander.
3. What’s Important Now: Ask “W.I.N.ing” Questions
Often times, when a golfer’s mind starts to focus away from the present moment, their thoughts can go in a million directions and they have difficulty grounding themselves to one key thought. They have many thoughts about what they could do or have to do. This is rarely helpful. The mind works best when it has one clear thought. A great objective is to identify the most important priority in that moment.
Asking “W.I.N.ing” questions is a powerful way to identify the most important thing to do in that moment. W.I.N. stands for: “What’s important now?” When you ask yourself this question, your mind will have little choice but to focus in the moment.
4. Have Well-Established Routines
As previously mentioned, before the shot and during the shot are the two most important moments for your mind to be in the present. A close third place is directly following the shot. This is the time you process the shot by accepting it, learning from it, or managing your emotions. Well-established and practiced routines are a great way to help you manage these three critical times.
- A solid pre-shot routine helps golfers get into the moment before the shot and prepare them for the shot.
- A solid execution routine helps golfers get into the moment during the shot and make a fluid trusting swing.
- A solid post-shot routine helps golfers manage the moment after the shot and either accept or build confidence from the shot.
Golfers should practice these three critical areas on the range so they know how to best be in the moment before, during, and after the shot. The best routines are a combination of mental skills and physical actions.
In addition to these three critical routines, I also encourage golfers to develop solid morning routines, practice routines, warm-up routines, and end-of-the-day routines. The more golfers know how they want to manage themselves in important moments, the better ability they will have to conquer that moment with a present mind.
5. Harness the Moment with the Power of Breath
There is perhaps no more time-tested method to get back into the moment then to focus on your breathing. The practice of focusing on one’s breathing dates back to before 1500 B.C. with the practice of meditation. You don’t have to be a monk or cleric to enjoy the benefits, though. Golfers can adapt this practice into their game without any major changes to their beliefs or lifestyle. Sport psychologist have been using breathing as a method to enhance performance, manage emotions, and regain focus for nearly a century.
Breathing is one of the simplest and most powerful ways to regain composure and get back into the moment. When a golfer is truly focused on their breath, they are in the moment because they really can’t be anywhere else. Breathing is one consistent function within the body that follows golfers around no matter where their mind might want to wander to. I do not recommend golfers wait to realize they are getting out of the present moment to begin building a solid breathing practice. Just like with all the mental training strategies discussed, the more you practice honing in on your breath the better you will be able to successfully implement it when you need to.
There are many schools of thoughts on breathing ratios and methods of practicing breathing that I discuss with golfers. If you have one already, I recommend you continue doing it. If you don’t, one of the most popular I teach is inhaling for 3 seconds and exhaling for 6 seconds. Set aside time each day to practice your breathing. It can be as little as 3 minutes or as much as 40 minutes (20 minutes twice a day).
A Jedi Mind Trick For Improved Target Awareness
I think all golfers, at some point in their life playing the game of golf, has gotten stuck, or become frozen over the golf ball. Why? They’re trying to remember which of the 23 different swing thoughts they used for the day performed the best.
The disheartening reality: none of us are going to perform well on a consistent basis with our thoughts being so internally driven. Swing thoughts force our awareness inward. Is the shaft in the correct position? Am I making a proper pressure shift? Was that a reverse pivot? Close that club face! Regardless of the technique you are trying to manage or modify, these kinds of questions make you acquire sensations internally.
To complicate things further, we are taught to look at the golf ball, not the target, while hitting our golf shot. And yet instinctively, in almost all other skills of making a ball or object finish towards a target (throwing a ball or frisbee, kicking a soccer ball, skipping a rock across water, shooting a basket ball) our awareness is not on the ball or the motion itself, but rather the ultimate target.
So, can we develop a skill that allows us to still keep our eye on the ball, like the game of golf encourages, but have awareness of our target, like so many other target sports demand? Yes, the answer is (third rate Yoda Speak), and the skill can easily be yours.
Here’s where this gets fun. You already have learned this skill set, but under different conditions. Perhaps this example resonates with you. Did you ever play hide-and-seek as a child? Remember how you used to close your eyes and count to 10? During those 10 seconds of having your eyes closed, weren’t you using all of your senses externally, trying to track where your friends were going to hide? Weren’t you, just like a bloodhound, able to go directly to a few of the less skillful hiders’ hiding places and locate them?
Or how about this example. When you are driving down your own local multilane highway, aren’t you aware of all the cars around you while keeping your eyes firmly on the road in front of you? Reconnecting, recognizing and/or developing these skills that all of us already use is the first step in knowing you’re not too far away from doing this with your golf game.
Here’s what I want you to do. Grab a putter and place your golf ball 3 feet away from the hole on a straight putt. Aim your putter, and then look at the hole. As you bring your eyes back to the golf ball, maintain part of your awareness back at the hole. Each successive time your eyes leave your golf ball and head back to the hole, your eyes will be able to confirm your target. It hasn’t moved; it’s still in the same location; your confidence builds.
When you know for certain that your external awareness of the target is locked in while still looking at your golf ball, step up and execute your putt.
The wonderful beauty of this skill set is that you now have the best of both worlds. You are still looking at the golf ball, which gives you a better chance of striking the golf ball solidly… AND you are now target aware just like you are when you are throwing an object at a target.
As always, acquire this skill set from a close target with a slower, smaller motion. If you don’t execute properly, you have a better chance of making the proper corrective assessment from a slower, smaller motion and closer target. As you become more proficient with this skill, allow the target to get farther away and try to add more speed with a larger range of motion.
So give learning this skill set a go. I don’t think there is anything more valuable in playing the game of golf than keeping your “athlete” attached to the target. Become proficient at developing this awareness and you can tell all your friends that the primary reason your scores are getting lower and you’re getting deeper into their wallets is because of Jedi Mind tricks. Good luck!
6 things to consider before aiming at the flagstick
One of the most impactful improvements you can make for your game is to hit more greens; you’ll have more birdie opportunities and will avoid bogeys more often. In fact, hitting more greens is the key to golfing success, in my opinion… more so than anything else.
However, there is a misconception among players when it comes to hitting approach shots. When people think “greens,” they tend to only think about the flagstick, when the pin may be the last thing you should be looking at. Obviously, we’d like to stick it on every shot, but shooting at the pin at the wrong time can cost you more pain than gain.
So I’d like to give you a few rules for hitting greens and aiming at the flagstick.
1) Avoid Sucker Pins
I want you to think about Hole No. 12 at Augusta and when the pin is on the far right side of the green… you know, the Sunday pin. Where do the pros try and aim? The center of the green! That’s because the right pin is by all means a sucker pin. If they miss the shot just a touch, they’re in the water, in the bunker, or left with an impossible up-and-down.
Sucker pins are the ones at the extreme sides of the green complex, and especially the ones that go against your normal shot pattern.
So go back to No. 12 with a far right pin, and say your natural shot shape is right-to-left. Would you really aim out over the water and move it towards the pin? That would be a terrible idea! It’s a center of the green shot all day, even for those who work it left-to-right. Learn to recognize sucker pins, and you won’t short side yourself ever again.
2) Are You a Good Bunker Player?
A “sucker pin,” or just a difficult hole location, is often tucked behind a bunker. Therefore, you should ask yourself, “am I a good bunker player?” Because if you are not, then you should never aim at a pin stuck behind one. If I wanted to shoot at pins all day, I’d make sure I was the best lob wedge player around. If you are not a short-game wizard, then you will have a serious problem attacking pins all round.
For those who lack confidence in their short game, or simply are not skilled on all the shots, it’s a good idea to hit to the fat part of the green most of the time. You must find ways to work around your weaknesses, and hitting “away” from the pin isn’t a bad thing, it’s a smart thing for your game.
3) Hitting the Correct Shelf
I want you to imagine a pin placed on top of a shelf. What things would you consider in order to attack this type of pin? You should answer: shot trajectory, type of golf ball, your landing angle with the club you’re hitting, the green conditions, and the consequences of your miss. This is where people really struggle as they forget to take into account these factors.
If you don’t consider what you can and cannot do with the shot at hand, you will miss greens, especially when aiming at a pin on a shelf. Sometimes, you will simply have to aim at the wrong level of the green in order to not bring the big number into play. Remember, if you aim for a top shelf and miss, you will leave yourself with an even more difficult pitch shot back onto that same shelf you just missed.
4) Know your Carry Distances
In my opinion, there is no excuse these days to not know your carry distances down to the last yard. Back when I was growing up, I had to go to a flat hole and chart these distances as best I could by the ball marks on the green. Now, I just spend an hour on Trackman.
My question to you is if you don’t know how far you carry the ball, how could you possibly shoot at a pin with any type of confidence? If you cannot determine what specific number you carry the ball, and how the ball will react on the green, then you should hit the ball in the center of the green. However, if the conditions are soft and you know your yardages, then the green becomes a dart board. My advice: spend some time this off-season getting to know your distances, and you’ll have more “green lights” come Spring.
5) When do you have the Green Light?
Do you really know when it’s OK to aim at the pin? Here are some questions to ask yourself that will help:
- How are you hitting the ball that day?
- How is your yardage control?
- What is the slope of the green doing to help or hinder your ball on the green?
- Do you have a backstop behind the pin?
It’s thoughts such as these that will help you to determine if you should hit at the pin or not. Remember, hitting at the pin (for amateurs) does not happen too often per nine holes of golf. You must leave your ego in the car and make the best decisions based on what information you have at that time. Simple mistakes on your approach shot can easily lead to bogeys and doubles.
6) When is Any Part of the Green Considered a Success?
There are some times when you have a terrible angle, or you’re in the rough/a fairway bunker. These are times when you must accept “anywhere on the green.”
Left in these situations, some players immediatly think to try and pull off the “miracle” shot, and wonder why they compound mistakes during a round. Learn to recognize if you should be happy with anywhere on the green, or the best place to miss the ball for the easiest up and down.
Think of Ben Hogan at Augusta on No. 11; he said that if you see him on that green in regulation then you know he missed the shot. He decided that short right was better than even trying to hit the green… sometimes you must do this too. But for now analyze your situation and make the best choice possible. When in doubt, eliminate the big numbers!
Is There An Ideal Backswing?
In this video, I talk about the backswing and look into optimal positions. I also discuss the positives and negatives of different backswing positions.
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