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Memories and how they affect your golf
Dr Karl Morris

Ben Hogan often said that when he played his best golf he would address the ball and ‘it was as if the shot had already happened’.

Jack Nicklaus was absolutely convinced that he had never missed a putt from inside three feet on the back nine of a major championship.

Tiger Woods in his own book said: ‘The secret to the mental game is the ability to instantly recall past success and then let go of failure.’

And the common thread running through these comments from three of the game’s all-time greatest champions? The power of the memory to cement thoughts and feelings associated with ultimate performance

My guess is that if you think back to the last round of golf you played you will very quickly relate to the power your mind has over your performance: such as when you stand over a putt and you just know that you are going to make it; or – and rather more frequently – when you look at a certain shot and all you can see is the out of bounds running down the right side of the fairway...and guess where you hit it?

Welcome, then, to the wonderful world of your MEMORY and the way it influences your performance. We underestimate the power and the effect our memories have on our golf at our peril. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the way that you utilise your memory will be one of the critical keys to your future as a golfer. In my own experience with some of the players I have worked with over the last few years it has become very clear tome that the way golfers use their memory is very different. The greats like Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods have worked it out. Recently, the field of neuroscience has begun to question many of our old models on how memory works and one of the most exciting developments has been the suggestion that we can actually take an active role in programming the way our memory functions in terms of our golfing experiences.

We have come to understand that our self-confidence and our sense of self-belief is a highly complicated matrix – a culmination of all our experiences in life and the way we INTERPRET those experiences. Neuroscience is now telling us that memories are actually quite fragile in so much as each time we recall a memory, it becomes ‘alive’ again and open to change.

Just how important a discovery could that be? What the scientists are telling us is that if we re-visit a certain memory of a past event, while we obviously cannot change the past event what we can do is change our interpretation of it. So, if you lost a golf tournament tournament, you will always have lost the tournament, but what you can change is your interpretation as to the meaning of that defeat. And that is significant.

If the meaning of that defeat is stored as the ‘worst thing that has ever happened’ then the chances are that your unconscious mind will go to work and PROTECT you from that experience ever happening again. So, the self-sabotage kicks in and find sways of getting you to AVOID that situation. Poor performance is a great way of avoiding winning! Now, this doesn’t make much sense to our logical mind but to the unconscious mind it is job done, as you have been saved from the experience. There is NO LOGIC to this, it is just the way that the brain works.

The little boy who put his hand up in a school assembly, said something and the whole class laughed, stored that memory as something to AVOID. Years later when as an adult he has to present in public to people and he is overwhelmed by tremendous fear it is the unconscious mind at work as a result of the way that the particular memory of speaking in public is stored.

If, however, we can revisit a memory and RE-CODE it, then the unconscious mind will look and react so much differently.

A fascinating study by Kenneth Paller at Northwestern University gives us an insight into what might be possible in terms of SHAPING our memories. Participants in the research project were shown pictures of certain objects and then asked to imagine other objects. Later investigators asked whether certain objects were seen or imagined. Often, imagined images were recalled as REAL! “We think that parts of the brain used to actually perceive an object and to imagine an object actually overlap,” Paller said. “Thus a vividly imagined event can leave memory trace in the brain that is very similar to that of an experienced event. When memories are stored for perceived or imagined objects, some of the same brain areas are involved.”

Our ability to vividly imagine an event in sensory detail will literally leave a memory trace in the brain, as though the actual event TOOK place. So, begin to consider how you have been currently storing your experiences in your golf – REAL or IMAGINED? And how could you impact your future by taking charge of the PROCESS of your memory? Again to restate the point, you are not changing the actual physical event in the world, you are simply changing your interpretation.

The following is a series of tools and techniques that can enable you to really take charge of the way your memory works for you. Make a commitment to use them to find out just how good you can be at golf.

The alternative to using these tools is that you will get to the end of your golfing career and you have lots of memories of potential which have remained UNFULFILLED. As you imagine that now, what would that be like if you didn’t take action on this information?


Many years ago, when I spent time working with people who were struggling with life (as opposed to sport), it became painful (but at the same time fascinating) to get to know people who were seriously threatening suicide – to discover the kind of life experience they were having which drove them to the point of making this horrendous decision as to what their life amounted to.

What I will never forget is that with a couple of dramatic exceptions, most people seemed to have lives which were not all that different from the norm – i.e. they had good and bad things in their lives like the rest of us. The exceptions had lives that had been so wickedly bad you could fully anticipate and understand their mindset of suicide. The majority, however, who were experiencing lives that were not that tragic, had the ability, it seemed, to completely block out any of the positive life experiences and focus exclusively on whatever negative experience the day had provided for them. They had an unbelievable ability to FILTER the world and seize upon events that hadn’t turned out as they wished. It was almost as though they had a radar system inside of their mind which hunted down negative experience.

It was almost as though this ability to look for depressing examples of life had been fine-tuned to such a degree that anything remotely positive just didn’t come in on the radar.

Two interventions seemed to get them back on track: First was the necessity to get them on some form of exercise programme, get them moving, changing the ingrained patterns of poor physiology (as I have talked about in previous articles the quickest way to change how you feel is through the body). Second, they began to write what became known as the ‘Appreciation Diary’.

Some research I had read suggested that some of the most important thoughts we have in any given day are the thoughts last thing at night because we take these thoughts to our bed which affects our sleep...which in turn affects our dream sleep...which in turn affects the ‘mood’ we are in the next day. Have bad thoughts last thing at night...sleep badly...dream bad dreams...wake up feeling bad... Go through this cycle on a regular basis and it’s not hard to understand why someone’s brain will come to the conclusion there is little or no point in carrying on with life.

To stay on the programme, at the end of each day each individual had to write out in detail 3 things from that day they had APPRECIATED. We were not looking for some earth-shattering experience, simply a moment or event from the day that they could look back on with real appreciation. The key aspect of the exercise, though, was they had to write out in detail the particular experience.

After two-weeks nothing much had changed – there was no discernible improvement in mood, no better attitude or outlook. But at the three-week period going into a month and then two months things started to happen. Reports would come back and we would hear people say things like, ‘I never realised how important XXXXX was’, or ‘I can’t believe all this time I have ignored XXXXX’.

After a month significant changes had taken place.

The vast majority of the group had started to live functional lives again. And the key point here is the actual life experience of these people had not changed at all.

There were still good and bad things going on but what had changed was their FOCUS and the way these people FILTERED events in their world. Their brain had literally been RE-WIRED to take in and replay the positive life experiences of any given day. And as each day ran one into the other, the brain is sent in a new direction and, slowly but surely, the overall outlook changes.

I then wondered that if something so simple as an Appreciation Diary could have such a big impact on people suffering in life, what impact could that have on golf?

Well, I can tell you the results over the past few years for anyone who commits to this exercise have been nothing short of miraculous. And I’m going to suggest to you that doing the same, i.e. keeping your own Golf Appreciation Diary will transform the way you think about your game. As you write out in detail each day your three best moments on the course – it could be a putt, a great drive, the way that you controlled yourself when you had a bad break, it doesn’t matter what it is – so you will begin to change the way you memorise aspects of your game which, given time, will change your outlook.


What happens is this. Each day, as you write out in detail each of the experiences you most enjoyed and appreciated, you SOLIDIFY that experience inside your brain – you literally begin to CONTROL your memory as you decide what is stored in there. I have lost count of the number of people who have said that after just a couple of months of keeping the diary they just can’t seem to remember the bad stuff anymore – and the feeling of self confidence and belief just gets stronger and stronger as they recall vividly the positive moments of each day.

There is a massive difference between TRYING to think positively and actually RECORDING positive events that happen each time you play a round of golf. I don’t care who you are and at what level you play, but each day you go out onto the course SOMETHING good will happen that day.

As you keep recording these moments, the brain rewires itself and then becomes TRAINED to search for uplifting experiences. Not for one minute are we saying you ignore your mistakes, but there is a world of difference between LEARNING from your mistakes and DWELLING on them. Most people are experts at the latter. What you will also find with the diary as you record your peak moments in detail is that you will notice PATTERNS beginning to emerge. You will start to notice the things you do when you are at your best, and these will help you to recognise and identify the INGREDIENTS of your success.


• When you arrive home after a game of golf, write out in DETAIL your 3 best moments on the course

• Make the detail SENSORY rich – i.e. what did you see? What did you hear? How did it feel?

• Record any of the emotions that you felt

• Sitting quietly, replay in your mind VIVIDLY the 3 best events from your game

It seems science does back up what we are saying here as in a 2003 study by Robert Emmons of the University of California, 65 students jotted down 5 things every week that they were thankful for. The participants blossomed during the experiment, expressing good moods more often and interacting with their peers in positive ways.

There is also a suggestion that simply writing about NEGATIVE events can be beneficial, in that if you write out what happened you are literally getting the thoughts ‘out of your head’ and down on paper, where you can look at them and – here is the key – write out about how you will do it differently next time.

Writing in Scientific American, Katja Gaschler has detailed the benefits in therapy of writing events down with a view to planning what will be different next time.


On any given day whilst you are playing you will have good events, neutral events and bad events – nothing we do on this course will change that unalterable FACT. In any round of golf, Tiger Woods will hit some good ones, some bad ones and some OK ones. So, in your game you will have things that work out, other things that are just OK and then certain things that are definitely not OK. We could have three possible labels for the shots we encounter GOOD, NEUTRAL and POOR. But even though we have three possible types of shots, three labels, the absolute key to training your golf brain is to have only two reactions: NEUTRAL and POSITIVE.

Remember the golden rule: when you put emotion into an event you SOLIDIFY the memory. You are making that memory easier to recall.

Translating this to the golf course, getting emotional about a poor shot, poor outcome or play is akin to asking your brain to DO IT AGAIN at a later date. Your unconscious mind is always asking the question to each and every experience in life ‘what is this LIKE and HOW should I respond?’ So, if you have emotionalised a particular shot or hole, even though it isn’t what you logically want to happen again, you are PRE-PROGRAMMING your mind to REPEAT the same faults over and over again. Not for one minute am I suggesting that you now become this Buddha-like character that floats through each day completely unperturbed by anything that happens in the outside world. If you hit a bad shot, miss a short putt, dunch a chip or whatever, sound off if you need to, but VERY quickly you need to get that EMOTIONAL reaction under control.

On the other hand, when you do something well, ‘tag’ that moment with a gesture. Tiger Woods spins the golf club in his hands at the conclusion of his follow through, or taps his foot on the ground for a PURPOSE. He is congratulating himself, marking out that moment. Graeme McDowell is another who likes to twirl the club as he watches a good shot – the finishing touch to a good swing. When you do something well in your golf ‘get high on the inside’ – i.e. emotionalise the very play you want to repeat time and time again.

You may not have a demonstrative personality but emotion can be registered on the inside. The great Bjorn Borg said after he had finished playing that people got him completely wrong in so much as what they saw on the outside, the ‘Ice Borg’ was what was happening on the inside. ‘How little they know,’ he said, ‘when I hit those winning forehands against Connors and McEnroe inside I was ecstatic’.

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine

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