Master your emotions and improve your game
Face it: you suck at golf. But that’s OK, because so does everyone else – including the TOUR pros you see on TV week in and week out. Sure, they suck a little less than the majority of the golfing population. Still, their success (or rather, minimization of failure) is due to something more than hitting thousands of golf balls.
Golf is challenging. You’re swinging a small piece of iron at the end of a crooked stick that’s on a tilted axis in an attempt to hit a tiny ball. Yet, underneath the complexities of the physical mechanics of your swing lies something that golfers of all skill-levels will inevitably struggle with – the mental game.
Let’s start with the basics: what is a “mental game,” and why is it important?
Simply put, the mental game is every thought that goes (or doesn’t go) through your mind while you’re on the course. More specifically, the mental game includes four key areas of focus:
- emotional homeostasis and expectation management;
- course management and decision-making;
- pre/post-shot routine; and
- situational control and adaptability (specificity is key).
This first installment of a four-part series, in which we’ll dig into the IGP GritGolf approach to the mental game, will consider emotional control and expectation management.
Control Your Emotions
While technique and mechanics are crucial components of successfully navigating your way to a low score, many players neglect emotional and mental training, which are equally important. It becomes much easier to reproduce the mechanics required for good ball-striking when you can stay level-headed throughout the round.
Have you ever paused to think about all of the different emotions that golfers experience during a round? Positive and negative emotions are part of the game: fear and confidence; anger and serenity; disgust and joyfulness. Many of us experience all these during a given round, and we may even experience them all on a single hole! How can we expect to win our war against the golf course if we can’t win the battle between our ears? We must first understand what produces these emotions before we can begin to control them.
The answer lies somewhere between neuroscience and psychology. Emotions are the manifestation of neurotransmitters – super-tiny molecules that the body and brain interpret as “feelings.” There are six different types of neurotransmitters. We’re going to focus on three in particular:
These protein building-blocks serve a variety of functions in regulating brain activity. There are two amino acids that golfers should be aware of:
- Gamma-aminobutyric acid (“GABA”) – responsible for motor-function control, vision, and mitigation of anxiety; lowers heart rate and blood pressure.
Ex.: taking a deep breath before stepping up to the ball.
- Glutamate – plays a crucial role in cognitive functions like memory and learning; an essential amino acid necessary for synaptic activity.
Ex.: enables neurotransmission for effective course management and critical thinking.
While there are several monoamines relevant to a golfer’s mental success, there are four to take note of:
- Epinephrine – also known as adrenaline, this neurotransmitter is released when a golfer is significantly stimulated (fear, anger, etc.)
Ex.: the “nerves” you feel when standing over a three-foot putt to win the watch (“fight or flight”).
- Norepinephrine – increases general wakefulness and alertness; responsible for stimulating numerous biological processes; important for regulating the release of epinephrine.
Ex.: ability to maintain focus and awareness when making the turn after nine holes of your club championship.
- Dopamine – regulates positive reinforcement; increases the desire to perform the action that previously produced pleasure.
Ex.: sense of relief/well-being after successfully attempting a pressure shot.
- Serotonin – responsible for regulating body temperature, pain perception, emotional control, and sleeping/rest patterns; the inability to secrete/absorb may increase the difficulty of controlling emotions.
Ex.: helps keep frustration/anger in check after a “bad stroke.”
Acetylcholine is a unique molecule responsible for muscle function and regulating the parasympathetic nervous system. This hormone slows the heart rate and dilates pupils in response to stimuli. It helps when you are, for example, focusing at the address before hitting a pressure shot.
These neurotransmitters are released when a specific stimulus is presented. Dopamine and serotonin are released when we hit a good shot and are inhibited when we hit a bad shot. For instance, let’s say you sh**k one off the first tee, right into the drink. Seeing your ball disappear into the murky pond is a visual stimulus for which your brain has already queued a reaction, because seeing the ball go in the water means an extra stroke on the scorecard.
These neurotransmitters cause most golfers to experience negative emotions due to cognitive conflict – for example, a golfer fails to meet an expectation (300 yards straight down the pipe) that they’d manufactured in their mind. It’s this failure to meet an unrealistic expectation that produces an adverse reaction, rather than the mere let-down of having to add a stroke.
Managing the release of these neurotransmitters is crucial to maintaining emotional composure on the course, but that’s no easy feat. That’s where psychology comes into play. Following are a couple of concepts you can concentrate on to improve your emotional control and expectation management.
Expectation Management & Growth Mindset
Golf is a game that revolves around expectation management. This is especially true for most of the amateur golfing population, who genuinely believe they’re better than they are. As a result, many amateurs compare themselves to the unfair standard presented by the TOUR pros. Here’s some data from Trackman that corroborates this disparity:
The following graph shows the distribution of AMA Driver club speeds. As you can see, 45% have a club speed between 91 and 100 mph. (insert picture and site https://blog.trackmangolf.com/performance-of-the-average-male-amateur/)
With these stats in mind, amateur golfers will find it much easier to set realistic expectations.
Even further, amateurs can significantly benefit from tracking expectations on a scorecard, rather than focusing on the scorecard itself. You may want to keep your scorecard mentally for each round.
Keeping a mental scorecard is easy. Firstly, set a mental goal that you can track for each shot over the entire round. For example, you might say “committing to every shot” is your mental “par” for a given game. After each hole, tally up how many strokes you truly believe you committed to.
Know Your Patterns; Manage Accordingly
Bad shots are bound to happen in golf – they’re as much a part of the game as the Bryson/Brooks rivalry or the smell of fresh-cut grass. However, we can’t play golf assuming every shot will be sub-optimal. It’s best to consider the bad shots as outliers.
But how does a golfer learn their shot patterns (A.K.A. shot dispersion)? Of course, utilizing a Trackman to understand your dispersion is the easiest way, though block practice at the range is equally as effective.
- Find a target that is a suitable distance for your 7-iron or 9-iron, then draw a circle on a piece of paper or your phone.
- Hit 25 shots at the flag, taking note of where the ball lands relative to the flag. It’s essential to note the carry distance here instead of the total distance.
- Mark each shot on your phone or the piece of paper as you go. This will eventually result in a circle with a bunch of dots that represent your dispersion pattern.
Now that you know your shot-dispersion pattern, it will be significantly easier to manage your expectations of individual shots across the course. This enables you to make effective decisions and address the ball with confidence, knowing that, even if you have a suboptimal shot, you’re still in a position to get up and down.
If you’d like to learn more about this topic, Scott Fawcett of DECADE Golf has made a career out of simplifying the game of golf by utilizing, analyzing, and applying shot-dispersion patterns of competitive golfers at all levels. It’s not just for competitive golfers, either – beginner golfers can make use of DECADE principles to manage expectations through improved decision-making. (We’ll dig deeper into this in the next installation of this series.)
Golf is a game that requires continuous growth, not only physically/mechanically, but also mentally. Even the TOUR pros have thoughts along the lines of, “Well, if I can just get this part of my game a little bit better, I’ll finally be where I want to be.” This endless pursuit is one of the greatest joys of golf. At the end of the day, you’re in an ongoing battle against yourself, trying to do just a bit better than the last time you played.
The GritGolf approach requires a growth mindset, and two activities can help develop a growth mindset for golf and beyond.
Mindful meditation is not a new concept, but it is powerful. For example, fostering a mindfulness will make it increasingly easy to manage your emotions on the golf course. Mindfulness doesn’t focus on ignoring your feelings, but on observing them for what they are, accepting them, then moving on. Here’s a good resource for getting your feet wet with mindful meditation.
As an extension of mindfulness, the GritGolf approach also encourages golfers to read books focused on developing skills that support mental fortitude and emotional control. Here are a few books that we’d recommend:
- Mindset by Dr. Carol Dweck
While this is a non-golf-centric book, it’s an invaluable resource for teaching golfers how to develop a growth mindset that applies to both golf and life.
- Golf is Not a Game of Perfect by Dr. Bob Rotella
- Zen Golf by Dr. Joseph Parent
Now that you’ve wrapped your head around the importance of emotional control and managing expectations, get out there and play a great game. Remember, only the next shot matters.
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