Silent Mind Golf - Introduction
Whenever I ask a professional golfer how much of the game (in their experience) is mental the answer I get is usually somewhere between 65 and 80% – and those figures generally hold true when I pose the same question to weekend club golfers, too. So, as our starting point, I think it’s fair to say that the majority of all golfers accept that a significant part of the game is played between the ears.
As a follow-up question I then ask the pro how much time he or she spends working on the technical aspects of the game on the practice ground or short-game area. And, with varying degrees of pride, they happily tell me all about their dedicated and methodical regime, of the hours spent in all weather conditions out on the range each and every day. Which explains why the vast majority of professional golfers out there hit the ball very, very well indeed.
When I then enquire as to the percentage of their time dedicated to practising the mental side of the game, I am usually met with a blank stare, a shrug of the shoulders and a string of comments along the lines of ‘I know it’s important but you can’t really practice the mental game, can you?’. A handful of those golfers might tell me they have read a book on positive thinking, but that’s about as far as it goes. So while most of the players I talk to acknowledge that golf is significantly influenced by the mental game, very few seem to believe that it is possible to improve those skills through dedicated practice.
Why is that? We know that if we go on a diet (and stick to it!) we will lose weight. Equally, we know that if we go to the gym and follow a regular fitness programme there is every chance we will become fitter and stronger. All of us who play golf understand the importance of working on our short-game skills, and that if we do this conscientiously with a teacher we will help improve in that critical department and shoot lower scores. Yet – as confirmed in my research – there remains huge antipathy towards the notion that our physical performance can be improved through dedicated regular practice on the conditioning of our mental skills. Sure, the majority of golfers understand the benefits of having a positive mental attitude, banishing negative thoughts and staying calm on the course. But very few (if any) dedicate significant time to improving perhaps the single greatest influence on their playing ability: the inner game.
As in life generally, in golf you reap what you sow
It really is not stretching a point to say that every golfer in the world is looking for a ‘quick fix’ to their (many!) problems. However life teaches us that the effort we put into something is generally proportional to what we get out of it. The guy who spends the most time in the gym conscientiously working out is usually the guy with the best physique; in the same way, the golfer who puts in the hours on the short game area is usually the one who gets it up and down from anywhere. When it comes to the inner game, the notion that mental strength and the ability to perform well under pressure boils down to good fortune – or a consequence of genetic predisposition – is simply erroneous.
There is no mystical hocus-pocus attached to mental mastery. In fact, research has shown that even 10 minutes per day engaging in basic meditation techniques will benefit your health (specifically in reducing blood pressure, relieving stress and improving the immune system).
When the meditation involves active visualisation, research has also shown that we improve our ability to perform well mentally. So the big question is ‘why don’t we do it’? And the answer, I believe, is that most people would rather go out and hit balls for 20 minutes than sit in a chair and learn to ‘still’ their minds and visualise images to help them improve their performance on the golf course. Because the latter appears, well, boring.
I have spent the last 25 years of my life looking specifically at the attributes and qualities of successful individuals and organisations. My studies into the top performing individuals – be it in sport, business or life itself – has conclusively proved to my satisfaction that success is not found in the way that we work, it is found in the way that we think.
My father was a very good golfer who played to a low single figure handicap for most of his life. He was a GP in Glasgow, and he frequently told me that for many of his patients, their illnesses were psychosomatic – i.e. there was really nothing wrong with them. He was one of the first doctors in Scotland to study and then practise hypnosis upon his patients, and he used that to help people with eczema, sleeping disorders and a number of other conditions which he believed were ‘all in the head’.
As far as I can conclude, the majority of golfers out there cannot take the swing they are able to make and repeat on the practice ground out onto the golf course. And the reason for this is that, for all its wonderful simplicity, golf is a game that is played from the head. Only when a golfer understands that basic truth can he focus on doing something about it. The more we are in control of our mental state the more likely it is that we will remain in control of our swing, especially under pressure. I often wonder if our natural resistance to conscientiously trying to improve our mental strength stems largely from the fact that to do so would force us to admit that we are mentally weak to begin with. Now, no one would wish to describe themselves as a good golfer who is mentally weak – who in their right mind would want to make that declaration? We like to think the best of ourselves and that we can stand up to any pressure thrown at us. I have often heard golfers say that pressure brings the best out of them. The American former Ryder Cup captain Ray Floyd once said ‘Anyone who says they play better under pressure has never really been under pressure’, and I think that is closer to the truth. No human being is immune from pressure.
There are players in the history of the game who are noted for their ice-cool approach in any situation. In tennis we have only to think of Bjorn Borg, his features remaining impassive irrespective of the state of the match or the pressure facing him. Legendary golfer Ben Hogan was known as the ‘Wee Ice Mon’ because he, too, seemed impervious to pressure, so wrapped up was he in his own cocoon of concentration that he barely acknowledged his playing partner, his caddie or the fans who supported him. Yet history shows that both Borg and Hogan, in the prime of their careers, faltered under pressure.
If golf is simply about the swing, then the 50 best golfers in the world would be acknowledged as having the 50 best swings and we know that’s not true. There are golfers on tour who are self taught, who do not travel with a coach, and there are others to come through detailed instruction from a very early age. In other words, there is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to the practical task of creating a solid swing.
There are fundamentals which we acknowledge have to be present in all swings for them to work (the basics of grip, posture, alignment and so on).
The same is true of the mental game: there are certain fundamentals or basics we have to understand and apply to enable us to achieve our true potential and play our best golf. And the more effort you put in to rehearsing and practising these mental skills, the more you will be rewarded in terms of your performance.
There is nothing spooky or mystical about the exercises – they are simply based on repetition and developing the inner calm and focus we need to play the best golf we possibly can.
Over the course of the eight issues of Gi to be published this year, I am going to share lessons, exercises and insights into how you can make real improvements with the mental game of golf – and indeed apply those lessons to your personal and professional lives at large.
Lets play catch
Have you ever caught something that was falling off a table, such as a knife, a fork or even a glass? You reacted instinctively, and in the process averted what could have been an embarrassing or dangerous outcome. In these situations something happens so suddenly that we have to react before we think. Our subconscious mind takes over and coordinates all the movements and actions – in a very precise sequence – that need to occur if we're to catch the falling object. Quite simply, we do not have the time to think, and so we just don't.
In golf we have all the time in the world to think before a shot, and ironically, rather than a benefit, I believe for the majority of golfers this is a handicap.When faced with a difficult shot, how often do we start to think negatively? How often do we imagine missing the putt, or hooking the tee shot out of bounds or slicing it into the lake? How often have we walked up to a delicate chip over a bunker and had a full 90 seconds to worry about it before we arrive at the ball? We then take far more practice swings than we normally would – all the time, the mind is worrying about the consequences of a bad shot, and this somehow manages to overwhelm any positive thoughts we are trying to embed in our minds.
While standing in the practice area by the chipping green we throw soft lob after soft lob from a variety of lies unerringly onto the practice green. Yet, when out on the course in the competition or during a match, and faced with a shot we may have practised 20 times only an hour earlier, we stop trusting our swing and try to control it very deliberately.We are thinking too much. The left side of the brain is trying to control the swing; the right side of the brain is trying to control our emotions. Something has to give, and usually that will be the swing.
Let's go back to the moment you caught the falling glass. You simply reacted to a situation that was unfolding in front of you. You were not thinking, you were purely doing. I would like to give you an exercise to demonstrate this principle. This exercise is not about catching a ball, even though it may appear to be the case. This exercise is about trusting your motor skills and subconscious mind.
Get a tennis ball or a small beanbag that you can throw and catch easily with one hand. Then get a partner to stand eight to twelve feet away from you. I want you to throw the ball to each other very gently and catch it with one hand. Do this for about one minute or 10 throws each. After you have finished the first part of this exercise I want you to throw the ball again to each other. The difference this time is that you must maintain full eye contact with your partner. I do not want you to watch the ball at all. I want you to focus entirely on the eyes of the person who is throwing the ball. Do not under any circumstances follow the ball in the air. The ball will be in your peripheral vision throughout the exercise and you will trust your brain to make the calculations that are required to catch it.
Once you have done this for a minute or so I want you to alternate the hand with which you catch and throw the ball all the time maintaining eye contact with your partner. Continue this exercise for another two to three minutes until you become very comfortable with the idea of not following the ball. Rather, keep eye contact with the other person without any worry whatsoever about dropping the ball. It is probable that while doing this you will drop the ball a number of times; but remember this exercise is not about catching, this exercise is about trusting your instinctive actions.
LEARN FROM THE CHILD
Have you ever seen a child on a putting green for the first time? Normally a parent gives him, or her, a cut down club and a few balls. After a few attempts to hit the ball he quickly gets the hang of what is expected; knocking the ball in the hole – what could be simpler?
The child hasn’t had lessons – he doesn’t understand the importance of grip, balance and tempo. He looks at the ball, then looks at the hole, and then, more often than not, starts to swing away and soon sinks a few putts. He has no notion of complexity nor worry or anxiety about the outcome. I have no doubt the child wants to sink the putt, but equally he doesn’t seem to be unduly upset if he misses, as he is just happy with the experience of being out there hitting the ball. It is this ability to be relaxed, with no preconceived notions of how he should be swinging the club, that enables the child – often trying for the first time – to start sinking putts. Without realising it, his focus is on the target (the hole), and he has no memory of past ‘bad’ shots or worries about a missed putt. So again, without realising it, he is in the present moment – doing unwittingly the one thing we have forgotten: to be entirely in the moment. We have forgotten to not worry about the outcome and just swing the club.
The first aspect of Silent Mind which we need to understand and engage is focus (and I will explore this more fully in the next issue). Focus is when we look at a physical situation – eg. the hole we are playing – and then determine in our mind’s eye our target – i.e. where we want the ball to finish. That’s it. We simply focus on where we want the ball to end up. We do not think about or imagine all the places we do not want the ball to go. So when we step up to the shot we look at the position – the exact point – on the fairway we want to play the next shot from. Obviously, we will be aware of all the surroundings: the water hazards, the bunkers, and any other areas we do not want to visit. However, we will not pay any attention to them – we will not think about the ball going there.
Even though this sounds very obvious and indeed simple, I am amazed how often people ‘see’ the negative. They invest their attention in the stronger emotional outcome, which is pain not pleasure. This means that people tell themselves, ‘Don’t go in the rough. Don’t hit it out of bounds’ – then do exactly that! This is very frustrating and results in us feeling inadequate as golfers and seeing ourselves as less capable than we truly are.
What you have to understand is that the brain processes information. It doesn’t assign value to it, it just assigns an outcome. If we put in the wrong information, such as the possibility of hooking into a bunker, the brain will process that, with no interpretation of whether the imagined outcome is good or bad.
When we focus our attention on not hooking into the bunker, our brain simply locks onto that as the intended target. Which is why people who have been lifelong slicers of the ball can suddenly, to their amazement, produce a hook out of nowhere. So we need to avoid putting the possibility of a mistake into our brain in the first place.
This ability to focus is evident among many of the game’s greats. Ben Hogan, one of the greatest players who ever lived, was famed for his powers of concentration on the course. He had an icy stare, made very little conversation with his playing partner or indeed his caddie and often just puffed away on a cigarette deep in concentration. It was noted that before hitting the ball he would stare into the distance, then turn and select his club, before hitting what was usually a perfect shot. He never discussed the mental side of his game, and as a player he was something of an enigma – no one really knew his secret. He once told a journalist that the secret was found in the dirt. By this he meant time spent on the practice ground. Up until the time he died, he continued to practice in search of the perfect swing.
One thing is sure: he practised harder than any of his fellow professionals. He practised until his hands ached, and then he practised some more. However, a few years after his death a booklet was found in Hogan’s study. It had been printed in the 1930s and was concerned with mental strength and mental conditioning. Many sections had been underlined in pencil, indicating that he had understood the need to develop a strong mind and strong muscle memory as the foundation for his greatness.