Plain and Unvarnished
Padraig Harrington helped crystallize my reason for writing this book. Padraig is a very thoughtful, analytical man. He's been a client and a friend for ten years, but I wouldn't call myself his mental coach or his sports psychologist. Padraig and I have conversations. My role usually amounts to listening to the things he's figured out and nodding my head. I learn as much from Padraig as he learns from me.
Not long ago, Padraig mentioned that he recommends the book I wrote in 1994, Golf Is Not a Game of Perfect, to the people he plays with, including fellow pros. I was intrigued, and not just because word of mouth is the best advertising. I know that Padraig is a friendly, generous fellow, but I also know that he's a competitor down to the bone. I know he thought Golf Is Not a Game of Perfect had helped him, so I was curious as to why he'd recommend the book to players who were trying to take away what he has the top ranking among European players.
"I'm not worried if someone reads it," he said when I asked him about it. "That's fine. It's an easy read. They'll enjoy it. They'll gain from it. But they won't get the real benefit unless they live it and that's the hard part. So I can tell my competitors to go and read Golf Is Not a Game of Perfect and I know I'm not giving anything up unless they actually do the work."
Padraig's statement meshed with thoughts I'd been having for a while. As a sports psychologist, I go to my clients as often as they come to me, especially after I've been working with them for some time. Since many of them are tournament golfers, I see them at tournament venues generally on the putting green or the practice range. Players who have worked with me often need only a quick conversation to clear up a specific question and prepare their minds for a competitive round.
Frequently, as I move down the range or around the green, I chat with players who aren't clients, at least not in the traditional sense. They may not have worked with me personally, but they've read Golf Is Not a Game of Perfect or another of my books on golf and the mind. They're generally complimentary. Increasingly, though, in recent years, I've heard something like this:
"Doc, I read Golf Is Not a Game of Perfect eight years ago, and it really helped me. I was able to play my best golf in the clutch, coming down the stretch. In fact, I won a couple of times right after I read it. But lately, it doesn't seem to be working as well. I think you ought to write another book."
This is that book. But it's not going to be another iteration of Golf Is Not a Game of Perfect or any of its sequels.
I'm afraid I may have been inadvertently misleading in those books. It's not that they contain any misinformation. They don't. When I wrote Golf Is Not a Game of Perfect, I conveyed the truth about the mental side of golf under pressure, truth I'd learned working in several sports and field-tested over fifteen years with professional golfers. Those years of field-testing have now stretched close to thirty, and I'm more convinced than ever about what works for golfers. You've got to follow your dreams. You will become what you think about yourself. You've got to train your swing, then trust it. You've got to accept the mistakes that inevitably happen on the golf course. You've got to manage your temper as well as the course. You've got to fall in love with the short game, the part of golf that most heavily impacts scoring. Above all, you must be confident.
But in my previous books, as Padraig and other pros have helped me realize, I failed to stress one very important aspect of the mental game. I may have left the impression that mastering the mental game was like riding a bicycle, something you could learn and then always be able to do.
It's not. The fact is that having the sort of mind that stands up to clutch situations and wins golf tournaments is much more like having a fit body. Yes, you have to work to reach a desired level of fitness. But, once you're there, you have to work to keep it. Your body will slide back into softness and weakness if you don't continue to work out. Your mental game, too, will become soft and weak if you don't continue to monitor it and work on it. That's the work Padraig was talking about.
This, I think, explains the statements I've heard from players who say that an earlier book helped them for a while but doesn't seem to work as well anymore. It's because those books didn't make it clear enough that for golfers, having a strong mind in the clutch is part of a process. While the books were fresh in their memories, these players were unconsciously engaged in a process that strengthened their minds. They came through under pressure and played the sort of golf they had always sensed they could play. But golf is a little bit like the ocean's waves. Just as the waves will work relentlessly to erode the dunes at the top of a beach, golf will work relentlessly to erode a player's confidence. Just as beach towns have to work constantly and vigilantly to strengthen and protect their dunes, golfers must work to maintain their confidence and the strength of their minds.
Maybe, like the players I sometimes meet on Tour, you read Golf Is Not a Game of Perfect a dozen years ago and find that your mind seems to work less effectively now than it did right after you read it. If so, it's not because that book is any less valid. It's because I failed to emphasize that you need to commit yourself to a constant process of strengthening your mind. It's as if you hired a personal trainer a dozen years ago and worked with him until you could bench-press 200 pounds and run a mile in six minutes. But the trainer left town without giving you a workout plan to sustain that level of performance. For that omission, I apologize.
The book you're holding will correct that deficiency. Like my previous books, it will have a few stories and anecdotes about players. I hope it will be, in places, entertaining to read. But I will do a bit less storytelling in this book, because I want to emphasize the process of developing and maintaining a strong mental game. I want you to be confronted on every page, not with stories about other golfers, but with things you need to know and do to strengthen your mind so that you can play your best golf in the clutch. I want reading this book to be like sitting with me in my basement in Virginia, where I counsel players, or talking with me on the practice range at a Tour event. I don't often tell stories in those settings. I tell players what I think they need to hear. I give it to them plain and unvarnished.
Sometimes it can be hard for golfers to hear this. People want quick results. I've yet to see someone try to sell a diet program that will give you the body you want a year from now. The automobile companies don't advise you to save your money and budget carefully if you want a top-of-the-line luxury model. They all know people want instant gratification. I'm not promising immediate results in this book. I'm talking about a process that will steadily strengthen your mind and keep it strong for as long as you stay on it. But that doesn't mean you'll win tomorrow if you read the book tonight.
There's another reason why the things I am going to tell you in this book may not appeal to everyone. For some reason, in our culture, it's a lot easier for many people to admit they're working on their golf swings than it is to admit they're working on their thinking. People will go for years to golf professionals for lessons on their mechanics. They'll spend weeks on drills that are designed to improve their swings and groove good movements. They'll chat with their friends on the practice range, sometimes a bit too much, about the things they're doing to make their swings better. Or they might go see a fitness trainer and get a new stretching routine. They'll drop to the ground and twist like a yoga master at the first sign someone's interested in seeing a demonstration of what they're doing. And I'm glad they will. I'm the first to say that success in golf is a product of both body and mind. If you want to be the best golfer you can be, you've got to master certain physical fundamentals.
But if players are eager to talk about the changes they're making in their mechanics, why do they shy away from talking about a mental overhaul? On a logical level, this doesn't make sense to me. Why should someone show you, without embarrassment, a drill that requires him to hit balls standing on one foot like a flamingo and yet be reluctant to discuss the fifteen minutes he spends at night visualizing success? I don't know. If I told people that they could win a major championship by spending an hour a night walking across a bed of hot coals, many of them would immediately start taking off their shoes and socks. But the thought of spending that same hour working on their psyche doesn't appeal to them. Maybe it's because a physical or mechanical flaw seems to be a little farther from the core of a person's identity. A thinking flaw strikes closer to who we are.
This, I believe, is why a lot of golfers hit a wall when they reach the stage where their mechanics are no longer the primary obstacle. They've put in lots of hours learning to strike the ball well. Whether their goal is winning major championships or getting to a single-digit handicap, they have the physical skills to do it. But they start to lose traction. Often, they regress. They can't admit to themselves that it's their thinking that's holding them back. They don't commit themselves to a program to strengthen their minds. They fail to change.
So the first thing I'm asking you to do as you read this book is to be honest with yourself. Is your present way of thinking consistent with the level of golf you'd like to play? Does it help you in the clutch, or does it handicap you? Does it enable you to find out how good you could be?
And do you dare to change it? Copyright © 2008 by Robert J. Rotella