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Tiger’s doing it. Justin Rose is doing it. Using Eastern practices like Zen meditation for enhancing a golfer’s performance is not simply a new fad but a coaching phenomena that has been gaining momentum and credibility as neuroscientists study the effects of meditation on brainwave patterns and the ability of the mind during meditation to remain internally focused and not become affected by outside influences.

What have a Buddhist monk practising meditation and a golfer playing “in the zone” got in common? The answer is Alpha brainwave activity! It is common knowledge in sporting and scientific circles that athletes performing at the very peak of their abilities can experience an increased level of this type of brain activity – a phenomena which is usually only associated with deep relaxation, such as during meditation.

During meditation, brainwaves alter from the normal waking consciousness Beta waves to the slower Alpha waves, promoting in the athlete a state of relaxed yet alert concentration and calm acceptance, where there is little or no internal chatter.

This is similar to the sporting zone or flow-state, which is experienced in golf as a realm of optimal performance, where everything goes right, clicks into place and the golfer seems to function on auto-pilot. What we know about the golfer’s experience of the zone is that the player is totally focused, actions are easy and he doesn’t take in any information from the outside environment or talk to himself at all about the game, his opponent or his personal performance level.

And you know what else this means, perhaps the most important mental game factor of them all – no confusing swing thoughts!

The attainment of this heightened state makes possible superior or peak performances that seem effortless, in which the player allows his body to do what it has been trained to do, without his mind wreaking havoc. A state of absorbed concentration is achieved, so focused that it amounts to absolute immersion in playing the game, without any mental interference, in the way of self-doubt, loss of confidence, nerves or stress.

So, does this apply to the everyday, recreational golfer as well as to elite players?

You bet! Most of us are familiar with The Inner Game of Golf, in which author Timothy Gallwey explains that for any golfer to reach their optimum performance level, they need to play their game minus mental interference and that holds as true for the weekend warrior as it does for members of the Ryder Cup team.

Anchoring the conscious mind in meditation, specifically using the Zen practise of mindfulness of breathing, allows total immersion in the ‘here and now’ – a state of heightened yet relaxed concentration where the mind is calm and neutral and minus the mental interference Gallwey mentions.

From personal experience and from the testimonials of the many golfers I’ve worked with, I can confirm that the zone is a natural state which lies beneath the surface of your everyday mind, and the key to accessing it is to focus your awareness on your breathing, which has the effect of subduing conscious thoughts and allowing total immersion in simply playing the game, rather than thinking about playing it.

Put another way, the zone is a state in which your conscious mind stops talking to you about how you’re playing and lets your body get on with the shot in front of you.

If it’s so simple, there must be a catch, right?

Well, not a catch exactly, but there is a paradox. In Zen – specifically the art of focusing on the breath – the paradox is that you can’t access “enlightenment” (the Buddhist monk’s aim) or the experience of being ‘immersed’ (the golfer’s aim) by using your will-power. You can only practise Zen as a daily routine, in order to condition your mind to become a place that enlightenment and/or the zone may manifest.

In other words, the more you try to get into the zone, the more elusive it becomes – but you can create the right conditions in your mind (calm, relaxed, neutral, accepting) which will not only allow the zone to manifest, but will help you to stay in it once it materialises.

When the mind is distracted by thoughts of success or failure, then mental clarity is lost and performance deteriorates.

However, with regular training, the mind can be re-programmed to acknowledge distractions, whether internal (anxiety, fear of failure, pressure of expectations) or external (crowd noise, competitors, weather conditions) – without holding on to them or giving away precious mental energy by paying them any attention.

HOW TO PRACTISE ZEN:

1. Sit upright on a stool or hard backed chair – not slumped forward or leaning against the back of the chair – feet firmly on the ground, palms resting on your thighs. Hold the crown of your head up, as if it were held by a thread. Tuck your chin under slightly and relax your chest and shoulders. Look down at the floor or gaze gently at a blank wall about a metre or so in front of you. Keep your eyes open.

2. Once you are comfortable, concentrate your mind at the hara or t’an tien – a point inside the lower abdomen, about 2” below the navel. It is important to centre your attention in the hara. The hara is the well-spring of your physical power and your body’s natural centre of gravity. Put your attention there. As you develop your Zen practise, you'll become more aware of the hara as your physical centre.

3. Relax your stomach. Touch your tongue to the roof of your mouth and breathe in and out through your nose. Do not force your breath. Just relax and breathe naturally.

(To aid your practise, you can visualise a small balloon inside the stomach, below the navel. As you breathe in, this balloon gently expands, and when you breathe out, the balloon gently releases the breath).

4. Relax fully. Do not try to take deep breaths, but just keep your mind on the hara for the duration of the exercise and quietly observe your breathing.

5. As thoughts come into your mind, simply watch them, like clouds moving across the sky on a breeze, and gently take your awareness back to your breathing.

6. It may also be helpful to count your breath. Breathe in and exhale, silently counting one. Breath in and exhale, silently counting two. Repeat ten times, and then start again from one. This helps to keep the mind and breath engaged in a feedback loop, which is useful when starting your Zen practise.

WHAT TO EXPECT:

You will gradually find your breathing becomes deeper and slower. You will also feel heat in the lower abdomen. Start your Zen practise by concentrating for just a few minutes each day and build up your training gradually to 20 minutes or more. Over time you will feel yourself getting physically and mentally stronger and feeling more relaxed. Zen can be practised in general life, in training and finally in competition.

HERE’S HOW:

EVERYDAY PRACTISE –

The ability to achieve a relaxed and focused state of mind needs to be trained and experienced on a daily basis, and is not a technique that can be pulled from the bag on the day of competition. You need to start preparing your mind now, by learning to detach from all the trivial problems which beset every-day life.

You should aim to practise Zen for at least 20 minutes a day. Start gradually by meditating for 5 or so minutes and work up another minute a day until you can sit comfortably in silence for at least 20minutes. Of course, if you can sit for longer, all the better.

Practising while preparing to play – here you will be learning how to meditate while in action, and can quietly start training yourself to focus on your breathing while putting on your spikes, your glove and taking your clubs out of the bag.

Practising before and during a game – the night before a game, it’s helpful to meditate for a few minutes before going to bed. Sit quietly for a while, without reading or watching the television and then quieten your mind completely by practising Zen for a few moments. If you feel restless in the night, get up and do some gentle stretching, then sit and meditate for a little while. This will help you relax your nerves again before going back to bed.

During the game itself, use your meditation training as a trigger to increase your focus and relaxation during moments of intense pressure.

Also use short bursts of meditation when walking to the next shot, to calm your nerves if you start to feel anxious.

Gently pushing down the diaphragm and sinking your awareness to the hara while exhaling, is a great way to stay strongly present in your body.

Martial artists use the hara – which is the body’s centre of gravity – to gain greater power and stability.

Focusing your attention and your breathing in the hara will help you relax and will also help timing, balance and rhythm.

Jayne Storey has been teaching Eastern meditation and martial arts for more than 20 years and her unique coaching method for golfers Chi-Power GOLF has been included in the PGA’s Professional Development Programme for the past two years.

Here she talks about the role meditation has to play in enhancing key mental game skills like attention control and relaxed concentration.

 

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine





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