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Automatic Negative Thoughts: How To Control Your Golfing ANTS

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One of the biggest score killers sport psychologists and mental coaches see in golf are ANTs, but they’re not the insect-type fire ants you see on the golf course. The ANTs I’m referring to are the Automatic Negative Thoughts that seem to enter golfers’ minds without warning. These ANTs can be about nearly anything that either distracts or detracts from performance. While every golfer has their own personal negative thoughts, some general recurring ANTs include questioning your ability with phrases like, “I can’t hit this shot” and focusing on what you don’t want to do with thoughts like, “Don’t hit the ball in the water.”

Automatic negative thoughts are not new to the game of golf; they’ve been challenging the mental and psychological space of golfers since the inception of the game. Even the great Bobby Jones admitted that, “Competitive golf is played mainly on a five and half inch course…the space between your ears.” Negative thoughts don’t only occur during competitive rounds; they’re also a large component of where non-competitive golf is won and lost. Whether you’re a professional or weekend warrior, if you want to get the most out of yourself, it’s vital to learn how to effectively manage your thoughts.

When learning to manage golfing ANTS, the advice “out of sight out of mind” is generally an ineffective strategy. Just because golfers can’t see these negative phrases doesn’t mean that they’re not real. Negative thoughts literally release neurochemicals and electricity that activate areas in the brain that increase negative emotions like fear and anxiety. Negative thoughts have also been shown over-activate physiological systems in a golfer’s body like heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension.

Once a golfer understands that ANTs are real, they have the power to learn to control them; specifically, they have the power of choice. Golfers have the power to choose how they react to ANTs, as well as the power to choose to condition themselves to better manage their ANTs. Persistent training can actually decrease the number of automatic negative thoughts a golfer experiences.

The ability to learn to think more effectively is a skill that can be honed through consistent practice, just like a swing change or fitness regimen. The power of choice takes conscious thought, deliberate effort, and patience. It can be challenging at times to learn and implement, but it can also be exceptionally rewarding to your golf game.

There are many strategies used in sport psychology and mental coaching to manage automatic negative thoughts. The most effective strategies are often the simplest solutions. It’s not always about learning “better ways” of dealing with adversity as it is mastering the fundamentals.

If you’re looking to deal more effectively with ANTs and have less negative thoughts over the course of 18 holes, start with the following mental toughness building blocks.

1. Change Negative Thoughts to Positive Thoughts 

Positive thinking doesn’t always occur naturally. Many times, a good attitude takes conscious effort. This is part of the idea behind the concept of learned optimism; you can learn and train yourself to be more positive. One of the best ways to do this is to pay attention to the conversation you are having with yourself and learn to manage or edit your negative thoughts. When you catch a negative thought entering in your mind, literally change it to a positive phrase. For example, many golfers often criticize themselves after a poor golf shot with a self-deprecating phrase such as, “I’m such an idiot. I can’t believe I hit that shot.” This type of self-talk almost never helps and often makes the situation worse. It’s important to catch yourself and replace the conversation with a phrase like, “Everyone misses shots. It’s not what I wanted, but let’s accept it and focus for the next one.”

You can enhance this practice by journaling. Simply write down negative statements that enter your mind over the course of a round of golf in a journal and actively write out the positive statement you want to say to yourself in place of the negative statement.

2. Develop a Physical and Mental Pre-Shot Routine that Creates Positive Thoughts

The purpose of a pre-shot routine is to not only get the body ready for the shot, but prepare the mind for the shot. Many golfers are good at repeating their routine, but there is a difference between going through the motions and immersing yourself in the process. An effective pre-shot routine should engage and move the mind in a positive direction. It’s important to create a clear plan in your mind of what you want to do and use strategies like rehearsal swings and imagery to instill commitment. Revisit your pre-shot routine on the range to double check that you are using your thoughts and actions to best prepare you for the shot at hand. For further recommendations on pre-shot routine, I suggest you visit my previous article: Adding PEP to Your Mental Game.

3. Practice Your Routine to Effectively Deal with ANTS

Once you have a pre-shot routine that creates positive thoughts, it’s important to practice your routine in a way that gets you ready for the course and competition. Play games and set up challenges that create competitive tests to help you learn how to deal with negative thoughts when they occur in your routine. When a negative thought creeps in your mind, restart your routine. The purpose of creating a challenging practice environment is to train how to deal with adversity. That allows you to train yourself to react better on the course. The more you repeat positive reactions in challenging situations, the more mentally tough and resilient you will become.

Start with these simple, yet powerful suggestions, and you will be well on your way to managing your golfing ANTs and shooting your scoring potential.

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Dan Vosgerichian Ph.D. is owner of Elite Performance Solutions. Dr. Dan earned his doctorate in Sport Psychology from Florida State University and has more than 10 years of experience working with golfers to maximize their mental game. His clients have included golfers from The PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Web.com Tour, PGA Latin America, as well as some of the top junior and collegiate players in the country. Dr. Dan has experience training elite golfers on every aspect of the game. He served as The Director of Mental Training at Gary Gilchrist Golf Academy, as well as a Mental Game Coach for Nike Golf Schools. He’s also worked as an instructor at The PGA Tour Golf Academy and assistant golf coach at Springfield College. Dan's worked as a professional caddie at TPC Sawgrass, Home of The Players Championship, as well as an assistant to Florida State University's PGA Professional Golf Management Program.

9 Comments

9 Comments

  1. Pingback: Master Your Mind, Perfect Your Swing: Golf Psychology – linkedgreens

  2. Pingback: Mastering Golf’s Mental Game with Positive Thinking – linkedgreens

  3. Dave r

    Jul 8, 2017 at 11:43 pm

    NO . There get it .

  4. Tom54

    Jul 5, 2017 at 9:07 pm

    Nice article. A lot of what was written is obviously easier said than done. Kinda like telling someone with a yippy putting stroke “don’t do that, make it smoother “. My experience has been visualize a good shot and sometimes your body magically creates a good swing. Notice I said sometimes

    • Jason

      Jul 12, 2017 at 2:52 pm

      Like the physical side of golf, it takes practice.

  5. Nick

    Jul 5, 2017 at 1:58 pm

    I can’t tell if this is a piss take or not.

  6. Old Putter

    Jul 4, 2017 at 6:03 pm

    Is there any proof that saying hit it down the right is better than don’t hit it left….
    Or is this another layer to the snake oil

  7. hb

    Jul 4, 2017 at 3:29 pm

    brutal

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Instruction

The Wedge Guy: The easiest-to-learn golf basic

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My golf learning began with this simple fact – if you don’t have a fundamentally sound hold on the golf club, it is practically impossible for your body to execute a fundamentally sound golf swing. I’m still a big believer that the golf swing is much easier to execute if you begin with the proper hold on the club.

As you might imagine, I come into contact with hundreds of golfers of all skill levels. And it is very rare to see a good player with a bad hold on the golf club. There are some exceptions, for sure, but they are very few and very far between, and they typically have beat so many balls with their poor grip that they’ve found a way to work around it.

The reality of biophysics is that the body moves only in certain ways – and the particulars of the way you hold the golf club can totally prevent a sound swing motion that allows the club to release properly through the impact zone. The wonderful thing is that anyone can learn how to put a fundamentally sound hold on the golf club, and you can practice it anywhere your hands are not otherwise engaged, like watching TV or just sitting and relaxing.

Whether you prefer an overlap, interlock or full-finger (not baseball!) grip on the club, the same fundamentals apply.  Here are the major grip faults I see most often, in the order of the frequency:

Mis-aligned hands

By this I mean that the palms of the two hands are not parallel to each other. Too many golfers have a weak left hand and strong right, or vice versa. The easiest way to learn how to hold the club with your palms aligned properly is to grip a plain wooden ruler or yardstick. It forces the hands to align properly and shows you how that feels. If you grip and re-grip a yardstick several times, then grip a club, you’ll see that the learning curve is almost immediate.

The position of the grip in the upper/left hand

I also observe many golfers who have the butt of the grip too far into the heel pad of the upper hand (the left hand for right-handed players). It’s amazing how much easier it is to release the club through the ball if even 1/4-1/2″ of the butt is beyond the left heel pad. Try this yourself to see what I mean.  Swing the club freely with just your left hand and notice the difference in its release from when you hold it at the end of the grip, versus gripping down even a half inch.

To help you really understand how this works, go to the range and hit shots with your five-iron gripped down a full inch to make the club the same length as your seven-iron. You will probably see an amazing shot shape difference, and likely not see as much distance loss as you would expect.

Too much lower (right) hand on the club

It seems like almost all golfers of 8-10 handicap or higher have the club too far into the palm of the lower hand, because that feels “good” if you are trying to control the path of the clubhead to the ball. But the golf swing is not an effort to hit at the ball – it is a swing of the club. The proper hold on the club has the grip underneath the pad at the base of the fingers. This will likely feel “weak” to you — like you cannot control the club like that. EXACTLY. You should not be trying to control the club with your lower/master hand.

Gripping too tightly

Nearly all golfers hold the club too tightly, which tenses up the forearms and prevents a proper release of the club through impact. In order for the club to move back and through properly, you must feel that the club is controlled by the last three fingers of the upper hand, and the middle two fingers of the lower hand. If you engage your thumbs and forefingers in “holding” the club, the result will almost always be a grip that is too tight. Try this for yourself. Hold the club in your upper hand only, and squeeze firmly with just the last three fingers, with the forefinger and thumb off the club entirely. You have good control, but your forearms are not tense. Then begin to squeeze down with your thumb and forefinger and observe the tensing of the entire forearm. This is the way we are made, so the key to preventing tenseness in the arms is to hold the club very lightly with the “pinchers” — the thumbs and forefingers.

So, those are what I believe are the four fundamentals of a good grip. Anyone can learn them in their home or office very quickly. There is no easier way to improve your ball striking consistency and add distance than giving more attention to the way you hold the golf club.

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Clement: Stop ripping off your swing with this drill!

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Not the dreaded headcover under the armpit drill! As if your body is defective and can’t function by itself! Have you seen how incredible the human machine is with all the incredible feats of agility all kinds of athletes are accomplishing? You think your body is so defective (the good Lord is laughing his head off at you) that it needs a headcover tucked under the armpit so you can swing like T-Rex?

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How a towel can fix your golf swing

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This is a classic drill that has been used for decades. However, the world of marketed training aids has grown so much during that time that this simple practice has been virtually forgotten. Because why teach people how to play golf using everyday items when you can create and sell a product that reinforces the same thing? Nevertheless, I am here to give you helpful advice without running to the nearest Edwin Watts or adding something to your Amazon cart.

For the “scoring clubs,” having a solid connection between the arms and body during the swing, especially through impact, is paramount to creating long-lasting consistency. And keeping that connection throughout the swing helps rotate the shoulders more to generate more power to help you hit it farther. So, how does this drill work, and what will your game benefit from it? Well, let’s get into it.

Setup

You can use this for basic chip shots up to complete swings. I use this with every club in my bag, up to a 9 or 8-iron. It’s natural to create incrementally more separation between the arms and body as you progress up the set. So doing this with a high iron or a wood is not recommended.

While you set up to hit a ball, simply tuck the towel underneath both armpits. The length of the towel will determine how tight it will be across your chest but don’t make it so loose that it gets in the way of your vision. After both sides are tucked, make some focused swings, keeping both arms firmly connected to the body during the backswing and follow through. (Note: It’s normal to lose connection on your lead arm during your finishing pose.) When you’re ready, put a ball in the way of those swings and get to work.

Get a Better Shoulder Turn

Many of us struggle to have proper shoulder rotation in our golf swing, especially during long layoffs. Making a swing that is all arms and no shoulders is a surefire way to have less control with wedges and less distance with full swings. Notice how I can get in a similar-looking position in both 60° wedge photos. However, one is weak and uncontrollable, while the other is strong and connected. One allows me to use my larger muscles to create my swing, and one doesn’t. The follow-through is another critical point where having a good connection, as well as solid shoulder rotation, is a must. This drill is great for those who tend to have a “chicken wing” form in their lead arm, which happens when it becomes separated from the body through impact.

In full swings, getting your shoulders to rotate in your golf swing is a great way to reinforce proper weight distribution. If your swing is all arms, it’s much harder to get your weight to naturally shift to the inside part of your trail foot in the backswing. Sure, you could make the mistake of “sliding” to get weight on your back foot, but that doesn’t fix the issue. You must turn into your trial leg to generate power. Additionally, look at the difference in separation between my hands and my head in the 8-iron examples. The green picture has more separation and has my hands lower. This will help me lessen my angle of attack and make it easier to hit the inside part of the golf ball, rather than the over-the-top move that the other picture produces.

Stay Better Connected in the Backswing

When you don’t keep everything in your upper body working as one, getting to a good spot at the top of your swing is very hard to do. It would take impeccable timing along with great hand-eye coordination to hit quality shots with any sort of regularity if the arms are working separately from the body.

Notice in the red pictures of both my 60-degree wedge and 8-iron how high my hands are and the fact you can clearly see my shoulder through the gap in my arms. That has happened because the right arm, just above my elbow, has become totally disconnected from my body. That separation causes me to lift my hands as well as lose some of the extension in my left arm. This has been corrected in the green pictures by using this drill to reinforce that connection. It will also make you focus on keeping the lead arm close to your body as well. Because the moment either one loses that relationship, the towel falls.

Conclusion

I have been diligent this year in finding a few drills that target some of the issues that plague my golf game; either by simply forgetting fundamental things or by coming to terms with the faults that have bitten me my whole career. I have found that having a few drills to fall back on to reinforce certain feelings helps me find my game a little easier, and the “towel drill” is most definitely one of them.

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