The greatest players in the game enjoy a consistent pre-shot routine that galvanises mind and body on every single shot. Gi’s Jeremy Bennett underlines why developing this most vital of disciplines is key to improvement and long-term success
Seeing is believing: the potent power of visualisation
The evidence is irrefutable: before each and every shot, a disciplined routine enables a golfer to focus on the task at hand and enjoy the mental and physical state that optimises performance.
And it is the consistency of that routine that determines a player’s success over the course of a round, a tournament, a season and a career, one shot at a time.
Learning and repeating a series of good habits every time you step into the ‘play zone’ is the single most potent key to taking your game from the range out onto the course – and it’s your closest ally under tournament pressure. Think about those times when you have produced a great shot or holed a memorable putt. You may recall knocking in a 30-footer and turning to your playing partners and saying: ‘I knew I was going to hole that!’, although the chances of actually doing that were remote. Another time you may have holed a tough chip shot and said: ‘You know, it’s funny, I could see myself holing that!’. On another day you hit a perfect drive: ‘I felt really good on that shot – I was totally confident I would nail it!’.
Quite simply: the power of positive thinking.
On the flip-side of the coin, hands up all of you who have missed a crucial putt from inside three feet and revealed afterwards that you knew you were going to miss it. Or fluffed a chip shot from a poor lie – just as you knew you would. ‘I just couldn’t get comfortable – it all felt wrong!’.
The power of the mind is all-pervasive in this game. It’s certainly no coincidence that the greatest players of all time have all displayed a rock-solid fortitude and measured pre-shot routine from tee to green. Legendary figures such as Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, Tiger Woods and Annika Sorenstam have all made the case that they never hit a shot until they have visualised themselves pulling it off successfully. Nicklaus described his preshot rehearsal as ‘going to the movies’ on a shot, and right to the end of his career he maintained that he never made a swing or hit a putt without having a clear image of the perfect outcome taped in his mind’s eye. He was so absorbed with the task at hand, with his eyes locked in and determined, his focus and intent so potent, onlookers could literally feel and sense his strength of mind. But the greater the pressure the more likely he was to successfully execute his desired intent. As he used to say, he was able to keep on playing his game while those around him were unable to play theirs. He knew it – and his opponents knew it.
Nicklaus is perhaps the greatest example of all time when it comes to appreciating the extraordinary power of the mind and the role it plays in optimising performance. Having the ability to ‘lose’ yourself in this process of visualisation – in a ‘cocoon of concentration’ – is also your best defence mechanism pressure, as it allows you to operate on auto pilot. How many times have you heard a player interviewed after a great round of golf say that he ‘wasn’t really thinking about anything – just going through the motions, sticking to the routine’. That sort of thinking enables you to stay relaxed, or ‘in the moment’, and commit to a shot with absolute physical freedom.
So, how do you get into this optimal mental state? Well, as you approach a shot, you first need to take in all the necessary information that will influence the outcome – such as the strength and direction of the wind, any changes in elevation, the general ground conditions (how far is the ball likely to run when it hits the green or fairway), the effect of slopes and so on. Define your target: where in the fairway will leave you the most favourable angle for the second shot? Where are the hazards? Where is the pin cut on the green? Where is the ‘safe’ miss?
Most importantly, having taken on board this information and identified the shot you would ideally like to play, you have to be realistic in your assessment of what you are capable of achieving given your current form and your confidence levels at that precise moment in time. And the trick here is that you play the probability, not the possibility.
In my coaching I refer to this whole process as looking ‘externally wide’. It’s the vital first phase in every pre-shot routine. And as soon as you have made a decision the key is that you then filter out all the surrounding ‘noise’ to focus on a target that is ‘externally narrow’ – i.e. a precise target, such as tuft of grass on your line or a branch on a tree in the distance. Once over the ball your focus then needs to be ‘internally narrow’ as you get settled to make your stroke, your mind now locked in on the target, absorbed on perhaps one favourite swing thought and on feeling the rhythm of the swing.
Unfortunately (as I’m sure many of you reading this will know to your cost), the opposite can happen: instead of focusing on the process and your intent your mind is prone to drift, allowing externally wide factors to cloud the picture. For example, rather than focus on the specific target you worry about hitting your ball out of bounds, or dumping it into the water short of the green, or fluffing a chip shot into the bunker right in front of you. And all this negativity is compounded further still as you worry about what other players and onlookers will think of you as the inevitable happens. If you are prone to such negative and destructive thoughts out on the course, welcome to the club! You are quite normal, as every player experiences these emotions to a certain degree. But the successful golfer trains himself not to have them once he is over the ball and in his ‘zone’ – and you can too.
Like it or not we all have to live with those voices inside our head. I’m sure you’re familiar with the chatter. There is the one that says: ‘Are you sure you have the correct club? You were short on the last hole and you can’t afford to get it wrong this time as there’s water at the front of the green?’ Then there’s the old favourite: ‘Don’t hit it out of bounds down the left/right!’.
Sometimes you will find that the line of a short putt looks different once you get over the ball and the voice chirps up to sow a seed of doubt, encouraging you to change your mind mid stroke. The kiss of death!
On another day the voice encourages you to go for a 100-1 shot over water when all the evidence points to the fact that you’re struggling with your game and unlikely to pull it off. Totally illogical, yet all too often impossible to resist. The following week you could be having the round of your life, be in a fantastic frame of mind, making good decisions, playing positive, attacking golf, when suddenly the first voice says: ‘Hang on a minute, this is all going too well, you can’t keep this up. Let’s play defensive golf from now on and protect the score…’. Against the flow of play you begin to double or triple check every decision you make – self doubt creeps in and that flow is lost.
It’s basically a case of good cop, bad cop. The first voice is generally emotional, irrational and erratic, chiming in with all manner of clever remarks as you struggle around the course. You miss a short putt and the voice just can’t resist saying: ‘That’s a great start – you are going to miss everything today’. You slice a drive into the trees: ‘Oh, here we go again, you can’t keep it on the fairway. Just wait until the 12th, where there’s out of bounds all down to the right…’. [Most of us have experienced this at some time or other, the voice so full of trepidation and uncertainty that natural flowing movement is lost; the effect is almost like you are bound in a straight jacket, the result being tentative, steered and guided shots.] In the worst cases, the little voice even finds negatives in positives. You hole a couple of good putts and the commentary is right there: ‘That’s it, you’ve holed your fair share of putts, you won’t hole any more today.’
You can see the pattern emerging. The depressing slant of that running commentary becomes the negative soundtrack to your game and, slowly but surely, your self confidence is eroded. The question is, how do you eradicate this line of thinking? In my own experiences – both as a past European Tour player and in the dealings I’ve had with a number of world-class players – the secret, I’ve discovered, is that you have to accept this interference will occur (it’s human nature) and simply focus on quietening and suppressing the first voice with a second that is altogether more logical, positive and constructive. In other words, you develop a personal soundtrack that is clear, distinct, confident, dominant and – above all – convincing.
This applies to your pre-shot routine on every shot and on the thoughts you then have standing over the ball. So, for example, on the tee with a driver in hand, you would stand directly behind the ball and take a good look at the shot that faces you, visualising where you want the ball to finish and seeing the ideal trajectory in your mind’s eye; you would take into account the elements that are likely to have an effect on the flight of the ball, and consider any hazards that need to be avoided. Register their existence, factor that information into the equation, and then forget about them. In the final analysis, you identify a specific target on your starting line and then prepare to move in to the ball, all the while affirming your actions with positive internal sound bites. “On the left fork of the tree with a slight fade…”
“Same nice smooth swing as last time, commit to the shot…”
I call this your Standard Operational Procedure (SOP, terminology that originated in the forces); this needs to become a ritual shopping list over every single shot. One way to go about doing this is to imagine you are miked up to provide your own commentary for live TV pictures of you in action, explaining your thought process and the factors that lead to your shot selection. By using the words intent or plan you are positive but not loading unwanted pressure on yourself by saying you will definitely hit it at the tree, or you will fade the ball exactly 7 yards, or you will definitely hole a putt from 15 foot, etc. The first voice in your head will be a lot happier with this type of strategy, and more likely to remain quiet (if you say you definitely will do something – and fail – it is likely to remind you of the failures time and time again!) Once you are clear of your intent the next step is to visualise it.
Some players find this easier than others, but with practice everyone can improve this skill. When it comes to visualising you could say there are three choices: (1) to not do it at all (not beneficial but not negative or destructive); (2) to visualise a poor outcome (1% doubt usually ends in 99% failure!); (3) to visualise positively your intended outcome (whilst you are not 100% guaranteed of success the more realistic and meaningful the visualisation is the better the chance of the shot being successful).
One of the great visualisation drills Nick Faldo used to his advantage was to play a ‘virtual’ round on the range the day before the tournament. He would play to precise targets, going through a full physical and mental pre-shot routine, with all his usual mannerisms. In other words, he would rehearse his routine and hit the desired shot exactly as he would for real. [After executing the shot he would then practise his reaction to the result, a strong confirmation if successful, neutral if not. This is a vital component to this type of practice – i.e. getting emotionally involved in the reaction to the outcome.] Watching the flight of the ball, he would then estimate what yardage he would have left to the green, select the club, and hit his second shot, and so on. [With the advent of TrackMan all guessing is taken out of the equation – you could play 18 holes hitting exact yardages and clubbing accordingly.]
So that’s one highly effective way to improve your powers of visualisation and zone-in on the challenge that lies ahead. Once out on the course, whenever you face a paticularly tough shot or situation, another effective visual tool is to imagine another player was playing the shot for you, and ‘see’ him play the shot successfully. Say you are faced with a bunker shot off a downhill lie with water beyond the flag – not a shot any of us would particularly fancy! Who would you rather was standing in your shoes? Seve? Gary Player? Tiger? Who would you want to be playing that shot for you?
“Acting as if” was another of Faldo’s go-to techniques, and I can remember him telling me how he would often visualise how the great Seve Ballesteros would play a certain shot if he did not fancy it himself. He would visualise body language, the way Seve would study a shot and then get into position to play it. He would see the swing, the trajectory and speed of the ball flight, how it checked up ran forward and fell into the hole.
The detail you can apply to such a technique is open ended. To take things one stage further, Faldo would imagine the feelings and sensations that Seve might have felt in the process of execute the shot: how light was the grip pressure, what sort of waggle would he use, the sensation of impact as the club made contact with the ball or the sand in a bunker shot. The more detail you input, the more ‘real’ the experience.
Cool, calm and collected: Run the tape over, and over, in your mind…
The foundations of every successful pre-shot routine and ritual are cemented before a player sets foot on the golf course. They will find a quiet and comfortable seat or lie down and allow themselves to find a relaxed frame of mind. Then they will play the course and especially the key shots, over and over again in their mind until they literally could see themselves playing the course successfully in their sleep!
This visualisation may be carried out weeks if not months ahead of a player actually arriving at a particular course or tournament. Augusta and The Masters in April is a prime example. I have spoken to many privileged invitees – and particularly first timers – who talk about going to sleep visualising the course and the specific shot-making needed to negotiate the nuances of the layout several weeks before they actually get there. Time pressures here in the real world can make it tough to do this preparation justice, but if you can spare even 10 minutes the night before a round – or in the locker room before teeing off – it will be time well spent. Find a quiet place where you can relax, take several slow deep breaths from the stomach (breathing in for a count of five, hold for two, and then out for a count of seven). Be sure to relax your face, shoulders and hands. Close your eyes and visualise two or three of the key shots with great detail and clarity. The more time you invest seeing yourself be successful the more comfortable, relaxed and confident you will be on the course. The key is that when you get onto the first tee, your routine is a trigger that ignites automatic behaviour and performance.
The more precise the visualisation the better the chance of success. For instance, if you were throwing darts and aimed at the centre of the bull’s-eye you will come closer to hitting that target than just vaguely aiming somewhere at the middle of the dart board and hoping for the best! I particularly like the way Justin Rose holds the club arm’s length out in front of him, using his dominant eye as he points the shaft at his precise target. This leaves him (and onlookers) in no uncertain terms of his business-like intent.
Sometimes you will see a player back off a shot and start his or her routine over again. This is a positive, as you should never go ahead and play a shot if you have even an ounce of doubt in your mind as to what you are trying to achieve. For the majority of tour players hesitation is a rarity, as they have such good information and a well-oiled routine. The moment the club comes out of the bag they are effectively on autopilot. But if anything disturbs them, say the wind changes direction, the club goes back in the bag and they start over from scratch. In fact, the act of pulling the club out of the bag is the trigger announcing the fact the routine is underway – so use that to your advantage. Whenever you are in doubt, put the club back in the bag, check the yardage, confirm your shot selection and then pull the right club.
Once you have made your decision, make the most of the opportunity to make a practice swing. It has to be 100% genuine. Don’t make the mistake of casually swinging the club with no real intent or focus; the key here is that you rehearse the exact swing or stroke you are about to execute for real. Otherwise there is no point in doing it at all. Hap-hazard ‘looseners’ succeed only in sending confusing and contradictory messages to the brain.
Practising the stroke as intended is like seeing the exam paper results before the exam – i.e. it breeds confidence. Some players use their practice swing to exaggerate a particular movement or to counteract a specific tendency, and this is something I encourage. This is where working with a pro and understanding your own golf swing pays dividends in terms of identifying certain preshot triggers and rehearsal swings that will help you to neutralise any unwanted current tendency.
The time it takes to run through your routine – from the moment you pull the club to the moment you strike the ball – should be consistent. Only under exceptional circumstances, such as finding your ball in an unusual position or lie, off the beaten track, would you be forgiven for taking a little more time in order to properly assess the shot and figure out the play. The one thing you must not do is linger over an important shot when you find yourself in a pressure situation. If you treat that shot as something extra special, you will only succeed in adding to the pressure. Dealing with these challenges one shot at a time is precisely what a good pre-shot routine is designed for.
In summary, when you settle over the ball you should have a crystal clear image in your mind of the shot you intend to play. All too often I have observed amateurs who go through the motions of a routine without actually having any clue about what they are supposed to be doing. They then go into a state of panic and just hope and pray they will somehow hit a decent shot! I am not suggesting that you clutter your brain with a list of thoughts, but being able to focus and be absorbed in something constructive such as a silky-smooth tempo, completing the backswing, holding the finish or thinking of the shape of shot will effectively drown out the first voice, leaving you with nothing but positives.
Most successful players go by the adage: See, Feel, Do. Having taken into consideration the elements and made their shot selection, they see the shot (visualisation), feel the swing or stroke required, then do (no hesitation, no second guessing or time for doubt). Others see the intended shot, feel the swing required, see themselves again, and then go.
Your post-shot routine: Stay in the moment and enjoy the sensation all over again…
Imagine you have just hit a career 6-iron in a pressure situation, or played the most brilliant flop-shot from a tight lie over a bunker, both shots turning out exactly as you visualised them. Surely this is a great time to play them all over again! Spare a few seconds while you are still ‘in the moment’ to repeat the swing and experience the exact same sensations, confirming to your brain and body that this was indeed exactly what you were after and enhancing the chances of you replicating it again.
Without going over the top it is important to celebrate a good shot, allow yourself to feel great and reward yourself by releasing some happy pill endorphins into your system. On the flip side, you have to be disciplined with your reaction to shots that didn’t turn out quite so well. Don’t give up energy to your opponents or playing partners.
Emotionally charged actions such as throwing clubs, berating yourself in anger – maybe even replicating the swing you didn’t want again – are all detrimental to your game as you are mentally embedding them, and thus they remain high up your own google search engine, rather than deleted! Remember, when you are dissatisfied with a shot, neutral is a great place to be; by remaining cool, calm and unemotional you will enhance your chances of moving on and enjoying success with the next shot and the remainder of the round.
Post-round review: A realistic appraisal of performance
Once the emotional dust has settled after the round spare a few minutes to go over the best shots you have played that day and, just as importantly, your least successful. Was your pre-shot routine consistent or did it vary? Could that have been the difference between good shots and bad ones? Physically you may have gone through similar motions but mentally, perhaps, were not as clear or certain with your ‘picture’ of the shot or, again, not definite with your thoughts over the ball (allowing the first voice to distract and unsettle you). Make it your committed goal the next time you play to follow the ritual you had on your good shots. An excellent process goal would be to tot up the number of shots you thought your pre-shot routine was exactly as you wanted it, thus setting a personal best for you to try and beat next time out.
- Have 100% trust in your decision
- The club comes out of the bag with not 1% of doubt attached to it
- Be clear as to what you will be thinking or visualising when standing to the ball
- If you are taking practice swings/strokes make them meaningful and realistic
- See the ball going to your intended target and or the swing/feel required
- Execute the shot with total commitment
- After a successful result take a few moments to have another confirmation swing
- Review how well you stuck to your pre-shot routine physically and mentally
After a period of time and quality practice you will be doing most of the aforementioned on autopilot and with very little conscious thought – it will have become second nature, habit. Imagine how much fun and how much success you would have this season if you literally played every shot with a clear plan, could see yourself with a positive outcome to each shot and were confident and totally committed. Whilst this will not guarantee every single shot will turn out exactly as intended it will definitely increase the odds – and golf is a numbers game. With your bullet-proof pre-shot routine you are more likely to realise your true potential every time you set foot on the course.