First Aid for Your Golfing Brain
By Robert K. Winters
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2014 Robert K. Winters, Ph.D.
All rights reserved.
I Don't Believe in Myself
The greatest mistake you can make in life is to be continually fearing you will make one.
— Elbert Hubbard
LIGHTS ... CAMERA ... ANXIETY!
Here is the situation: You are on the practice tee and a large group of reporters and camera crews from ESPN, Fox Sports, and Golf Channel show up with their lights and cameras to film and interview you! What would you think? You may be asking yourself, Why do they want to film me? Is this a joke or some sort of golf reality show? Then, what if one of the sportscasters puts a microphone in front of your face and asks, "Are you mentally strong?" How would you reply? Would you look directly into the camera and say, "Yes, absolutely!" Or would you be more reserved and hesitant? Would you need a bit of time to think it over before you gave your answer? What if they asked the question in a different way: "Do you ever make mental mistakes when you play golf?" Now what would your answer be?
If you replied to the first question that you are mentally strong, then good for you. Having a self-concept that brims with self-confidence is vital to playing consistently well. But the majority of us tend to be a bit more restrained in our estimation of our golf worth. It's not that we don't value our talent, but we know firsthand that golf is a tough game to play in general and especially at a high level of consistency. Humility tends to be learned on the course via the school of hard knocks and unexpected results. So, our guttural response is going to be a bit guarded due to the challenging nature of the game itself.
However, in response to the second question, many of us fess up and admit to making mental errors. We all realize that in our golfing lives we are not bulletproof or invincible. We have all asked ourselves when playing the best round of our lives, Will I be able to close the deal? Will I be able to hang on and finish well? Is today the day that I succeed? These questions of doubt and suspicion rule our innermost thoughts and desires. We have all faced these demons, and sometimes we succeed and other times we fail. But when we fail, the fallout from the emotional devastation is more lasting on our psyches than the joys of the minor victories.
Let me ask you one more question: How many times have you said to yourself "that was stupid" or "I just wasn't into it" or "I just knew that was going to happen" immediately after a poor shot? (Think about that one for a minute.) The point I am trying to make is, if you could eliminate every mental mistake or hesitation in your golfing round that led to a shot below your ability, how much better could you be? I imagine you would say much better! That is what playing mentally strong golf is all about. It is about stepping into your shot with the freedom to swing with trust and know that your ball is going to your intended target!
THE GREATEST INTERFERENCE: SELF-DOUBT
Many golfers that I have counseled over the years have told me that when they are over the ball, they feel doubt and anxiety. They are worried that they will hit a poor shot, embarrass themselves, or that others are judging them. They become "self-aware" rather than "target-aware." That is, their mind is focused on past poor performance rather than on where it needs to be ... the target. These players become so immersed in their thoughts that they fail to trust their talent and second-guess their decisions. They start to hit poor shots and eventually lose confidence in themselves. These internal issues are directly linked to the mind-body connection of how thoughts affect feelings and vice versa. Even if your feelings or thoughts are unfounded, the fallout from them remains the same and creates ineffective shots and results.
The greatest interference that you will have in your life is not negative evaluation from others, but your self-doubt. Your doubt and the incessant worry about your ability to play the way that you expect is the greatest roadblock to your golfing success. More important, every mental mistake you make is woven directly into the doubt and fear that you carry into every shot you play. In discussing doubt and mental mistakes with golfers of all levels for this book, I often found mixed feelings about how a player interprets success, confidence, and failure. It seems all golfers have their own story to tell, and when discussing doubt and fear, they feel as if they are the only ones that feel this way.
Part of the odd nature of golf is that it often creates feelings of doubt and uncertainty about one's abilities even when those talents have been honed to precision over years of practice and competition. Despite knowing that doubt and indecision affect their behavior, many golfers with multiple years of experience still struggle with doubt and an inability to believe that good things will happen. They worry that bad events will happen, and they eventually sabotage their talent. They end up second-guessing themselves and before long they become mentally frustrated and lose confidence. Thus we have a multitude of golfers who stymie themselves with self-limiting thoughts and feelings even before they step onto the first tee.
There are as many error-producing thoughts and worries that plague golfers as there are players of this vexing game. Many of these thoughts are of failure, anxiety, and the inability to pull off a certain shot in a particular situation. Worries about whether other players will respect your swing or even acknowledge you as a good player affect your self-image and self-confidence. The following section highlights but a few of the mental errors that established players of every faction of professional and amateur golf suffer. As you read these passages, you may find yourself immersed in their words and suffering from the same calamity.
MENTAL ERROR REVELATIONS
Here are a few excerpts from some of the touring professionals and top teachers who were kind enough to share their experiences of doubt. The first is from Cameron Yancey, a young touring professional whom I coached at the University of Virginia during the 1990s. Cameron was the first player to graduate from the University of Virginia and qualify to play on the PGA Tour. Cameron discusses the frustration of losing himself when he was on tour and finding that his self-doubt and the expectations of others reinforced his concerns about his ability to play at golf's highest level.
THE MENTAL MISTAKE #1
My biggest mental mistake is not staying true to myself and believing in my talent. In my rookie year on the PGA Tour, I guess I was just unprepared for the stargazing that went on and I got out of my comfort zone and got away from being Cameron Yancey. I guess I just lost my own game and was trying to be someone else, and when you do that, you are done.
Also, when I would miss a cut, it seemed that everyone is coming up to you and asking you what is wrong and you need to be doing this and doing that, and before long, your confidence is shot and you start to question your ability to play. It's as if you miss a couple of cuts and you can't play anymore, and I don't know if anyone else feels like that, but that's what I felt like. I mean my confidence would be shaken and then I would start trying different things and I got away from doing the things that I normally do that got me on the PGA Tour in the first place!
So, my mental mistake is not being me and trying to be someone else. For example, I normally draw the ball and I can control it very well. Well, when I got to the tour, there was just player after player who said, "You need to learn how to cut it. If you don't learn how to fade the ball, you will be done in no time." Well, I listened to those guys and what happened? I screwed myself up and lost the confidence in my playing ability because I was trying to hit the ball like everyone else and I am not like anyone else. I am Cameron Yancey and I need to play like Cameron Yancey.
DR. BOB'S RX FOR SUCCESS
Just like Cameron, many of us have a game that works well for us and brings us success. However, in trying to improve and get better, we immerse ourselves in new training procedures and abandon what it is that we do well. We start searching for other ways to do the things that we have done well, and by virtue of experimentation we end up losing ourselves and our game. In Cameron's case, his belief in his game and what he could do with the golf ball is what earned him the chance to play on the PGA Tour in the first place! However, Cameron was seduced by many of the common mental dilemmas that often face young players who are not familiar with or are unable to recognize mental mistakes when they appear.
The first mental mistake that Cameron committed was the "stargazing" when he first arrived on the PGA Tour. This is a very human yet overwhelming mental mistake. When you place more focus on the people around you than on taking care of number one (which is you), your concentration is off and can only lead to poor performance. One can only imagine walking onto the practice tee alongside the likes of Tiger, Phil, and Paula and knowing that you are now among players whom you had only before seen on your flat-screen TV. Talk about being out of your comfort zone!
This is similar to what many of us go through when we play in our local tournaments or even when we have our weekend skins game with a couple of new players. We size up our competition. We start to wonder, Do I have the ability to compete with these other players? This self-reflection often leads to speculation and doubt. Much like Walter Zembriski, Cameron needed to let go of the other players and remind himself that he had the game to compete ... otherwise he wouldn't have gotten on the tour in the first place!
Dr. Bob's Rx for Success is basic: Let go of all those around you because you cannot control their games, nor can they control yours. You must understand that your game ... is your game ... and no one else can play or think like you. The golf course and the challenge of the game is your true opponent, not the other players! So, the next time you go out to play, play the golf course with the game you have and let the name players do their thing and you will have a much better day on the course.
The next mistake that created doubt is that Cameron listened to the well-intended advice of other players; he got away from being true to himself and the way that he played. He wasn't playing Cameron Yancey golf. He talked about how other players insisted that he needed to fade the ball rather than draw the ball, which was his dominant and "go to" shot. Allowing others to influence his thinking and basic beliefs about his game created doubts that sent Cameron on a search mission to find something else that might work even better than what he already had. But what happened isn't what Cameron intended at all; it only heightened the problem.
Think about what Cameron experienced and put yourself in his shoes. If everyone around you is asking, "What's wrong with you? Why aren't you playing well?," how would you react? If all that is being said to you creates a question mark in your mind and is constantly being hammered into your head ... eventually you will start to doubt yourself and begin looking into the mirror and asking, What is wrong with me?
What Cameron learned from this experience is the ultimate life lesson we must all learn: we are individuals. No one else on this golfing planet is the same or thinks the same as ourself. We must disallow the good intentions of others and stay true to our gut instincts and do our own thing. In trying to be perfect or to play like other golfers, we often give up our personal genius and end up losing ourselves and our self-confidence. As the old saying goes, "no one is more qualified at being you ... than you!"
I am not saying that self-improvement and searching for excellence is a bad thing, because we are all striving to improve our technical, mental, and physical abilities in golf. But when you alter or make compromises that interfere with the innate and developed talents that have taken you to a high level, then you must assess thoroughly if change is warranted. The Cameron Yancey story is vital to understanding that to be truly self-confident, you must assess your talent, believe in yourself, and learn to dismiss the good intentions of others who want you to change and be untrue to your real self. Remember, all that you have is yourself, but that should be more than enough if you truly believe in your ability.
THE MENTAL MISTAKE #2
The second example of the mental mistake of doubt and a poor belief system comes from South African Deanne Pappas. Sometimes our most egregious golfing mistakes come about from lost opportunities or having failed in the past. The emotional fallout from these miscues causes us to worry whenever we face similar situations again. Deanne faces his greatest mental challenge on the putting green:
I guess my biggest mental mistake would have to be that I question my ability to be a good putter, and I know that over the years I have had a lot of success. It is a funny thing, but I am over the putt now and I am thinking after I hit a good putt and the ball is halfway to the hole, I am talking to myself and saying, "How am I going to get screwed out of this one!" Now what is that all about?
I don't know how I got to this position in my career, but I know that I have a good stroke because everyone tells me, "Wow, you have such a good stroke and the ball rolls so well," but I think ... if that is true, how come I am always missing the putt? I make great rolls but the ball doesn't go into the hole. It just becomes so frustrating after a while and it wears your confidence in putting way down.
DR. BOB'S RX FOR SUCCESS
Worry and doubt seem most clearly evidenced in golf on the putting green. This is because putting is black-and-white. Either you make the putt or you miss. The golf ball does not discriminate nor does it play favorites. The golf ball does not care how much you want to make the putt or how scared you are of missing. You cannot hide from your lack of belief in your putting ability because the ball will not lie. It only goes where your mind is focusing. If you fear missing, then that is what you create in your mind, and your body will respond to that directive. Hence, you putt and you miss. If you feel confident and self-assured that you can putt well, you will hit your putt solidly and it has a good chance to go in.
From his statements, Deanne is making the mental mistake of sabotaging his success even before his ball has finished rolling! Deanne may not perceive it, but through the years he has perhaps talked himself into the habit of reacting negatively to his putting. By instantly reacting to the feel of the putt before it finishes, he dismisses all of the positive memories from years past and the affirmations that he has received from people who tell him that he has a great stroke.
Interestingly, he has a history of success on the greens, but even with his success, he is still finding ways to undermine his belief that he is a good putter! This situation needs a fix and fast! If you share Deanne's problem, then here are two things that you need to do:
1. First, you need to suspend evaluation and judgment by the result. That is, you need to develop the philosophy that a putt is not good or bad because of the result, but should be judged by your overall commitment to and execution of the stroke of the ball. You must place more emphasis on your commitment to your read and to the execution of a good stroke than whether the ball goes in the hole. When you place too much value on whether the ball goes in the hole, you have created "must" thinking. You feel that you "must" make the putt and nothing else is more important. The focus of "must" makes it simply all or nothing on the green. If you make your putt, then all is well with the world. That is the way it is supposed to be.
However, if you miss, then you are an awful putter or you hit a crappy putt. This type of distorted thinking is perhaps what has led Deanne to second-guess himself on the greens. All-or-nothing thinking, the "must" mind-set, places too much pressure on the performer. The sooner you can get into your routine and trust your putting process, the sooner you will start to sink more putts.
2. The second thing that Deanne can do is create positive self-talk. That is, after a putt or shot comes to a stop, instead of beating himself up because the results weren't what he wanted or expected, he can say something good to himself. By saying something positive after the ball is hit, he can direct his energy into the effectiveness of the process rather than into worry about the result. For example, if Deanne left his putt short but it was dead center toward the hole, he can say to himself, "That was just one roll shy of perfection. I hit the ball exactly where I wanted to hit it and my routine was flowing." By doing this, he is focusing on the good aspects of his putting procedure versus focusing on results. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Mistake-Free Golf by Robert K. Winters. Copyright © 2014 Robert K. Winters, Ph.D.. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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