Challenges golfers face on the golf course
When a golfer approaches their golf ball, they could develop concern or worry about the outcome of the shot depending on the golf course’s design. An example could be the 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass. On this hole, a player could become concerned about hitting the ball into the water, or worried that they may embarrass themselves by making a high score.
Academic research refers to this type of thinking in response to a golf shot as Cognitive Anxiety.
These thoughts can then generate nervous feelings, such as butterflies in the stomach. This often happens to golfers on the first tee, and is explained as “first tee nerves.”
The physical symptoms that arise from cognitive anxiety are referred to as Somatic Anxiety. Research also suggests that higher confidence and higher ability players are able to perform with cognitive stress, as they have developed processes that limit the somatic response to a level that will not create a loss in performance.
Often golfers will get so nervous that their body feels completely different when compared to how it feels hitting on the range. Their body may become tense, heart rate may increase, and the player will be unable to access their best golf swing as the state of their body will not allow this to happen.
Golf performance research often refers to this as Physiological Anxiety.
Golfers that encounter negative thoughts before a shot will often experience butterflies in their stomach and increases in body tension, as well as an increased heart rate. These feelings often lead to a rise in negative thoughts that will lead to yet another surge of nervous feelings and increased heart rate. This cycle of unwanted thoughts and feelings occurs as the language of the brain (thinking), influences, the language of the body (feeling) and they begin to drive each other in the direction a golfer does not desire.
The scientific term for this is Psychophysiological Change.
A player that goes through the above processes will struggle to focus on the factors they need to execute a good shot. For example, on a 150-yard par 3, a golfer that hits their 8 Iron 150 yards may select this club, but then leave the shot 20 yards short of the green as they didn’t account for the strong wind they were hitting into. Golfers often miss these basic observations when their mind is pre-occupied by nerves, worry and the tension in their body.
Research suggests that cognitively anxious golfers experience a loss of Attentional Capacity to focus on the task at hand as mental resources are being used by worry. Attentional Narrowing is another cognitive process that research cites, this causes the performer to ignore important cues or information.
A golfer that gets stuck in these negative mind-body cycles can end up becoming focused only on hazards and danger. This is because your innate human survival mechanism, or inner chimp as team GLT like to call it, is now on overdrive and trying to protect you from what it perceives could be life threatening danger. Your inner chimp does a nice job helping you stay safe when you drive as it advises you to stop at red lights, but when it’s active on the golf course it can really screw up your golfing performance.
Scientists refer to this process as Selective Attention to Treating Stimuli and have concluded that it leads to a loss of performance on the golf course.
A golfer that finds themselves stuck in one of the previous states will often begin to think different swing thoughts like ‘fold the right elbow’ or ‘bow the left wrist’ in an attempt to hit better shots. This, however, is a poor strategy, and will often lead to further decreasing performance. GLT team member Iain Highfield says his dad refers to this as “too many thought bubbles in his head!”
Multiple studies have been conducted on this topic and concluded that conscious control of mechanics is shown to result in a dramatic loss of performance. Motor learning experts have termed this Freezing Degrees of Freedom, and again concluded that this leads to a loss of performance, except in novice golfers.
Memory is a very powerful part of golf performance. The inner chimp has a big effect on us remembering our bad shots with more clarity than our good shots. Often golfers will hold discussions in the club house after they’ve played very well for 17 holes, yet they will only talk about the shots they hit on their one bad hole. This affects a golfer’s confidence, and while overcoming this process is challenging it can help increase future performance. Players need to break the thought process that leads them to believe that they “always choke,” or “never hit a good first tee shot.”
Research done on confidence often examines Self Efficacy. This is situational specific self-confidence, and is proven to impact performance.
One of the biggest challenges a golfer faces is that the task of hitting a golf shot involves different types of thinking at different times of the process. Assessing the shot options, selecting the club, and deciding where you want the ball to finish involves analysis. This is a little like solving a simple math equation, and it becomes more challenging if you have to also assess wind and slope. The challenge really presents itself after this analysis, when the golfer is then required to think less and be more free-flowing as they approach the ball and swing the club. The familiar type of thinking a player should be experiencing here is like when they brush their teeth or drive their car. Utilizing the correct type of thinking at the right time can be a problem for many golfers.
Research into golfing performance has concluded that elite players have the ability to change their Attentional Focus at appropriate times. Shot analytics requires a Conscious Analytical state and then the player shifts to what is called an Automated State during the golf swing.
Now a golfer that is thinking multiple swing thoughts and hitting the ball poorly may tend to get angry, and we don't have to be a great player or coach to know that anger is not going to help you play any better. In fact, anger will more than likely contribute to your play getting worse as it clouds your ability to focus on the right factors at the right time.
Science has proven that high levels of negative emotion and cognition are associated with low levels of concentration and automaticity.
It is very challenging for a golfer to develop the kind of thinking that results in them focusing on the correct factors at the right time. This is because golf presents you with something many sports do not: time. Elite athletes from other sports such as soccer, tennis, and the NFL, have all struggled to adapt to the mental demands of golf as they fail to develop strategies to address the extra active thinking time involved.
Golf is typically classed as a Self Paced Skill and has conceded that elite golfers Over-learn Psychological Skills to the extent that they are performed with very little cognitive involvement. When a player achieves this, they are classed as being in an Autonomous by motor learning experts. It is concluded in the research that this is an elite level skill.
Over the next section of this guide, Team GLT will discuss what the best players do in their pre-shot routine that helps them combat all these mental challenges that face a golfer.
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Solutions to the challenges of playing golf
To effectively deal with all the mental challenges posed by a round of golf, what mental skills does a golfer need to affectively evolve? Quite simply, they need to be able to focus on the right things at the right time. They need to develop the ability to be their own best coach, caddie, and cheerleader when talking to themselves during a round. A player must also be able to relax to keep their mind and body in a state that will help them access their best golf swings.
Research has proven that Attentional Focus, Self talk, Relaxation, and Preparatory Arousal (or activation awareness as we like to call it at GLT headquarters) all contribute to the successful execution of a Motor skill.
A good pre-shot routine can help a player encapsulate the solution based strategies detailed above. A pre-shot routine is made up of physical movement and thoughts that all happen at the correct moment, and allow a golfer to access their best golf swing.
Research uses slightly different terminology stating that a pre-performance routine can encapsulate all the above in the form of Cognitive and Behavioral Strategies.
Imagine if you had a tool that could reduce worry, butterflies, tension, heart rate, negative thoughts, anger, technical thoughts, and could help you increase your focus and confidence. Well you do; the pre-shot routine is precisely this.
Research has concluded that routine leads to Increased Attention to Task, Lower Arousal (activation), increased Intrinsic Motivation and lowered Negative Introspection. Scientists also believe that a consistent pre-shot routine leads to Psychophysiological Patterns that are associated with successful performance.
So, what exactly is a pre-shot routine?
Quite simply it is the setting of multiple goals that the payer has absolute control over and engages in them before every shot. It is impossible for a golfer to control exactly where the ball goes, for them to swing the club exactly the same way on every shot, and it’s impossible for them to control their score. These types of thoughts must be avoided in a pre-shot routine and thoughts that a player can control should be focused on. Examples of these thoughts may be controlling breathing, tension or where your eyes focus.
Controllable goals are referred to in the academic literature as Process Goals. And a good pre-shot routine is made up of multiple process goals that when linked together to form a coherent flowing process that a player engages in before each shot.
Is the mental game of golf really that simple?
Maybe not! Everyone is different so every golfer will need to find a routine that works for them. The way Jason Day engages in his pre-shot process is different to the way that Jordan Spieth does. What works for your four-ball partner may not work for you.
The research details cognitive processing as Idiosyncratic. The challenge is to find the most efficient combination of strategies, that when coherently integrated into repeatable routine prior to each shot result in Optimal Psychophysiological Engagement in the task.
How do you know if you are picking the best goals for you?
The goals that you select in your routine must ultimately lead to you hitting the golf ball with freedom and flow. Where you put your focus should be making playing golf feel less of an effort. Just look at Ernie Els for a great example of this.
The research backs this up by suggesting that process goals must encourage Automaticity and support required changes in Attentional Focus.
Should your process goals include swing thoughts?
Well some of the best golfers in the world have had success when playing with swing thoughts, so absolutely swing thoughts can be used. But it depends on what type of thought! We want the thought to encourage freedom and flow so thoughts of tempo, rhythm, balance or swinging into an Adam Scott like follow through could be great. Thinking about your wrist hinge on the back swing and how your pelvis moves on the down swing are unlikely to help performance for any player more advanced than a novice golfer.
Research concludes that Holistic Swing Thoughts not part swing thoughts provide something constructive to focus on. Part swing thought often attempt to reduce or freeze degrees of freedom and this leads to decrements in performance.
So now you know that certain types of swing thoughts can be beneficial as part of your routine what else do you need to add?
Well quite simply, you can have the greatest swing thought in the world - in fact you can have the greatest swing in the world - but if your heart rate increases, body gets tense, and you strangle the grip tightly, then the chance of you swinging the club how you intended to is low.
Research backs up this point by concluding that regulation of Physiological States as well as Psychological Sates is an important part of a performance routine. Regulation of Psychophysiological States leads to consistent Behavioral Cognitive Patterning and facilitate consistency
Is there anything else to add?
If you ask an elite player like Jason Day about his routine, he will explain how part of his pre-shot routine is to see and feel the shot he wants to hit before he actually hits it. This helps Jason relax and access his best golf swing more often.
Research evidence supports the systemic application of Imagery being associated with improvements in motor performance. It has also proven that mental rehearsal can reduce anxiety during competition, boost self-confidence, modify negative self-talk, and even assist in the learning of new swing habits.
But what if you’re a golfer that struggles to see a shot?
Don't worry. Imagery also includes feeling or hearing a shot. If you have a desire to be more like Jason Day and see the ball flying through the sky in your mind before you hit it, imagery is a skill that can be learned, it just takes time and effort.
Science classes Visual, Olfactory, Auditory and Kinesthetic skills under imagery. Science has also told us that the image ability of an individual needs to be considered when looking at interventions that have potential to increase performance and that this ability can be improved through training.
Is seeing the shot the only use for imagery in golf?
Well no, you can also use it for motivation. Perhaps seeing a Tiger Woods fist pump would motivate you to bounce back from a 3 putt? Or you can use imagery to help you relax, imaging yourself on a beach in Jamaica may be a nice escape from thinking that you are just 2 pars away from wining the club championship.
Research has been done on Motivational Imagery for arousal purposes and it has been concluded as an effective cognitive intervention.
So, once you’ve built a pre-shot routine, should you do it on every shot?
Absolutely! If you are a golfer that wants to improve, you need your routine to be a habit. This will mean that when you have the chance to shoot your top score, you continue to play with freedom and flow.
Research has concluded that Suppressing Conscious Control becomes increasing important under pressure.
So, will you always play your best if you have a pre-shot routine?
Team GLT cannot promise that you will play your best score every time with a pre-shot routine. But what we can promise is that if you can begin to focus on your pre-shot routine rather than your score, you will begin to enjoy golf more and become more motivated.
Moving from an Ego oriented athlete to a Task orientated athlete leads to Intrinsic Motivation.
What about strategy - is that an important part of a golfer’s pre-shot routine?
Yes! Developing the ability to assess the shot options and select the most appropriate shot is very important. The first part of any good routine is a player taking their time and assessing the environment. This is the thinking part of the routine that we discussed earlier. Once this section is complete it will allow us to see, feel, and hear the shot, and then keep us relaxed to access our best swing.
Elite golfers have individualized process goals that get chunked effectively and then automated. This Automaticity is an important component of a peak performance state and is promoted using effective pre-shot routines that include imagery, attentional strategies, lower arousal (activation), increased intrinsic motivation, and lower negative introspection.
If you want to get better at golf, do you also need a post-shot routine?
Yes. A post-shot routine is just as important as it can help you get your mind and body in the correct sate for the next shot. A good post-shot routine will help you perform your following pre-shot routine to a higher standard.
Post hole routines enable players to Quarantine their Reaction to what has happened. This helps players manage their thoughts and emotions, increasing the chance of Optimal Psychophysiological States on the next shot.
So next time I arrive at my golf club it should be easy to have a good pre-shot routine because now I have a lot of knowledge on the subject.
Unfortunately, it’s not that fast. Developing a good pre-shot routine takes time, just like developing a good swing or big biceps in the gym. So, if you want a good routine you must train it.
Research shows that pre-shot routine training Increases Adherence and improves performance.
In the following and final section of this guide, team GLT will give you some advice on how this can be achieved.
Click Here For GLT's FREE Golf Psychology Online Course.
How do coaches and players translate this theory into practice?
The learning sciences have told us that the best way to learn is to be faced with a challenge and work out the solution for yourself. This way you actually learn to apply these solutions instead of just going through the motions of following instructions provided by a coach.
Research has concluded that Implicit Learning leads to players being less prone to anxiety and creates increased Retention and Transfer of the skill. Explicit learning can lead to increased attempts to consciously control.
A new skill can only be classed as learned when it is retained. This means that you can only say that you have mastered your pre-shot routine when you can do it on the golf course during the pressure of competition.
Practicing Under Stress and in Context can help a player automate their pre-shot routine and increases the chances of automating their golf swing.
Be patient, it will take time and effort for a player to be able to fully learn and apply their best routine.
This is referred to as Latency. This highlights there is a lag time on improvements.
“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I remember, involve me and I learn.” -Benjamin Franklin
Team GLT member Iain Highfield loved this quote so much he has created a book that is designed to enable coaches and players to become involved in training tasks that help players actively discover their very best pre-shot routine. The practical nature of the book allows a coach to create a training environment that pushes a player to actively discover their best mental game and apply it to their pre-shot-routine.
Here is an example of such a task below.
Click to buy a copy of OSVEA - Practical Ways To Learn Golf's Mental Game