Golf psychology – The ultimate guide

Two players are standing in the middle of the 18th fairway next to their tee shots; 175 yards away from the green. Both are excited and nervous in equal measures. It is the final day of qualifying school. They are both tied 16th with the top 15 players getting their cards for the main tour and making it to the big leagues.

The first player gets ready to hit. They pick their target, visual their shot, and step over the golf ball. They focus intently on their swing cue, as they swing the club back they stay committed, but things just don’t feel right. The ball starts fractionally left and curves further left into the water. Their race is ran for another year.

The second golfer tries to re-focus after what they have just seen. They doubt their target choice – Is the target too close to the water? Should they play more conservatively?

Before they know it they are already over their golf ball and starting their take-away. They try to remember what they should be thinking of, but ‘DON’T GO LEFT!’ just keeps creeping back into their mind.

A last minute adjustment in their downswing leads to a horrible heel strike that, somehow, makes it safely onto the putting surface. They breath a sigh of relief. A nervy putt catches the right edge of the hole and they have made it through. Somehow.

This is a the paradox of golf psychology. We often judge psychological skills and mental toughness on performance outcomes, but this is incorrect.

Golf psychology & performance

Great golf psychology is a critical factor in optimising golfing performance. However there is no perfect correlation between thinking and performance. 

Instead, view golf psychology and performance in this way:

Every day that you step onto a golf course you have a sponge full of potential golfing performance. Some days this sponge is full of golfing potential. For some mystical reasons, on other days, this sponge feels almost empty. No golfer knows what changes between these two days, but we all know we have to deal with both of these situations when they arise.

Great processes and thinking (golf psychology) is about squeezing the most out of your sponge every day you play golf and practice. It doesn’t guarantee success, but great golf psychology does ensure you squeeze every ounce of golfing potential you have on that day, or for every shot you hit.

It doesn’t guarantee success, but it optimises your chances for any given situation.

The different components of golf psychology

In golf psychology, many concepts seem to get lumped together all in one. Whereas, in university we tend to teach many different constructs (things that exist but may not be tangible – such as confidence or happiness) that sit within performance psychology.

I believe to optimise your golfing performance you need to master many of these sub-topics of performance psychology. Below are a few key aspects we will cover:

  • Confidence (self-efficacy) 
  • Concentration & attentional focus
  • Arousal & anxiety 
  • Coping strategies
  • Mental toughness

Think of each like a different part of your golf game (chipping, putting driving). As a golfer, being great at one area might make up for weaknesses in another. However, we would ideally have them all as strengths.

There are also tools and strategies you can use to support great thinking:

  • Pre-shot routine
  • Visualisation
  • Positive self-talk
  • Goal setting
  • Coping strategies
  • Pressure practice
  • Mindfulness

These skills don’t necessarily link directly to each construct we discussed, but as we will see these strategies appear to assist elite athletes in their thinking and performance under pressure.

In this article we’ll cover each area, explain what it is, how it links to golfing performance and how you can go about improving it.

Golf Insider note: Hello and thanks for having a read. This post is a long one. I’m writing it in parts and hope to have the complete article together by the end of 2018 for you. If you would like to be updated with new sections as they come out sign up for the golf insider weekly post.

Golf psychology skill development

Before we jump in I would like to add a crucial caveat. Thinking great doesn’t just happen. These skills take time to learn and develop. Overtime they fade if they are not used. In this sense, psychological skills are similar to physical fitness, there really is a ‘use it or lose it’ loophole tied in to any work you do.

If you invest time into your thinking now. In four weeks you will start to benefit, but the real rewards will come 3 months, 3 years or even 10 years down the line. These skills should be embedded into your weekly and annual golfing systems and processes.

Golf psychology – Confidence (self-efficacy)

Confidence is a global construct. We could describe a golfer a confident, but this sentence has limitations. The golfer may be generally confident, but they may be terrified of hitting Bunker shots when someone is watching. They might feel quite confident striking a wedge, however tentative with a 4-iron in hand.

Self-efficacy is situation specific confidence. It asks how confident you are at a given skill in a given situation. Building self-efficacy in many sub-areas of your game will make you a confident golfer. They are the building blocks of confidence.

To assess a golfer’s self-efficacy takes some digging. In the following section I’ll explain how this links to your golfing performance. Then we will begin assess your current levels of self-efficacy.

How high self-efficacy links to golf performance

Athletes with higher levels of confidence and self-efficacy tend to seek out and enjoy challenges. This is a great mindset when playing golf – viewing each shot as a fun new challenge, but it will also benefit your practice.

Great practice involves continually testing and developing your skills in a challenging manner. However, no one likes continually failing, and we tend to shy away from practicing our weaknesses. Developing your self-efficacy for a parts of your game that are weak will give you a great drive to keep working on them in practice. This improves your skill level, and you will start to enter an upward cycle of growing your self-efficacy and skill level. 

Lastly, high levels of self-efficacy and confidence tend to protect against the effect of many negative aspects of performing under pressure. The higher your levels of confidence, the less you will experience anxiety and negative thoughts during pressure situations.

All in all, high levels of confidence and self-efficacy in golf are highly useful.

Building high levels of confidence in your golf game will come from high levels of self-efficacy in sub-parts of your game (listed below). We will aim to develop your self-efficacy in each sub-part. This will start to grow your overall confidence as a golfer.

To begin with, rate your self-efficacy the following areas:

  1. Driving
  2. Fairway woods
  3. Long irons
  4. Mid-irons
  5. Short-irons & Wedges
  6. Pitching (75 – 30 yards)
  7. Chipping (under 30-yards)
  8. Bunker shots
  9. Long putting (outside 30-feet)
  10. Mid-range putting (10 – 30 feet)
  11. Short putting (inside 10 feet)

Rate yourself on a scale of 1 – 10. 1 = Very unconfident, 10 = Very confident

Next, rate each skill in terms of its importance to your golfing performance: 1 = not at all important, 10 = critically important. You are looking for areas of relatively high importance, with the lowest current levels of self efficacy.

golf psychology confidence questionnaire

Above is my example. It represents how I feel about my game as I write this article. It’s surprisingly balanced! But as you will see below this is work in progress. I do genuinely feel comfortable with most situations I come across on the golf course.

I’ve selected three areas of my game that are high importance to my performance. For all of these I have relatively high self-efficacy, but my aim is to almost feel cocky in my ability. I would love to ooze confidence within these areas.

Select one, two or three areas for yourself.

Start with any areas of high importance and low self-efficacy, then move to medium importance and so on. If you have any areas with a ‘3’ or less for self-efficacy you best address them no matter how insignificant.

Next, let us look at how we can start building your confidence / self-efficacy.

How to develop self-efficacy

There are four source of self-efficacy, they have the following fancy names. I’ve also added percentage weightings, the weightings are purely my thinking on how much each contributes to developing self-efficacy – no supporting research here 😉

  1. Performance accomplishments (75%)
  2. Vicarious experiences (3%)
  3. Verbal persuasion (7%)
  4. Emotional control (15%)

Performance accomplishments

If you’ve already won the British Open, you’d feel quite confident about winning it again. Similarly, if you know you hole 97% of putts inside 5-feet, guess how confidence you feel standing over a 3-foot putt?

It is no surprise that this is rated as the biggest source of developing self-efficacy. Think back to the area(s) of your game that you rated the lowest in terms of self-efficacy. How many positive performance accomplishments can you think back to, and how many negative examples can you think of?

There is your answer.

We need to start building positive memories and experiences you can build upon. It’s going to take some time, but I consider 12-weeks to be a good timeframe to start seeing progress if you dedicate a small amount of time each week.

I will briefly cover the other sources, but performance accomplishments is the source we will focus on with a simple task outlined later on in this post.

Vicarious experiences

If we see our friend win a monthly medal, we may think:

“Well Jeff isn’t that great at golf, he can barely get the ball airborne! If Jeff can do it, I’m sure I can” 

This is known as gaining self-efficacy through observing others that we feel are similar to us. It’s no where near as powerful as our own performance accomplishments but it is a factor.

Verbal persuasion

The third source of self-efficacy is positive comments we receive from others. The source of the verbal persuasion is crucial.

If I played 18 holes with Butch Harmon and he told me I have a good chance of making the British Open next year I would take value from it.

If Jeff, who won the monthly medal above told me the same thing. I would appreciate his comment,  but it wouldn’t boost my efficacy much.

Emotional control 

The last source of self-efficacy is how we appraise our emotional state. The feelings of anxiety and excitement are actually highly similar in terms of their physiological response. 

What affects our self-efficacy is if we view this physical feeling as a positive or negative response. 

It took me around 2 years when I first turned pro to turn that 1st tee feeling of anxiety into one that I enjoyed. After two years I had good evidence to suggest I actually played well when I felt this anxious~excited-ness. 

How to start building your confidence and self-efficacy

Let us now look at how you can start building your confidence. To begin with we will aim to build your self-efficacy in the area(s) you picked above. It is a small start, but over a few weeks these small gains will start to feed through into your overall confidence as a golfer.

Practice performance accomplishments

Pick a game that you can play in practice. The skills game should be:

  1. Focused on the area you wish to improve.
  2. Measurable (have a score)
  3. Repeatable (bar weather conditions, it should stay the same each week).
  4. Scaleable (you should be able to make it more difficult when you complete a challenge).

I’ve given you many skills games on this site, if you’re short of ideas scroll half way down how to get better at golf or visit the start here page

Once you’ve chosen your game, each week make an effort to play it and record your score. It helps to reflect and think how you could score higher next time. For example; are your shots all missing one side, or long/short of your target.

This is a simple, possibly boring process, but the reason I’m giving it to you is that it actually works. Choose one skills game for each area and document your progress. That is your one task to begin this epic journey.

Below is my own personal example.

Building confidence & self-efficacy – Applied example

10 weeks ago I realised my wedge game was poor. It was an area I had been struggling with for a while and I considered myself low in self-efficacy. I didn’t dread wedge shots, but my focus was equally distributed between worrying about hitting a push or hook, as it was on trying to hit my target.

I decided to play a mini version (40 balls) of Flag-stick challenge once a week (when I  wasn’t writing 2,000 word golf psych articles). Read below and check out the video to learn more about this simple game.

Golf Insider skills game: Flag-stick challenge is a great game for short irons and wedges. Pick 3 targets between 60 – 130 yards. You have 20 shots at each target. You receive 1 point for each shot that finishes within a flagstick length of the hole, no points if they finish outside this distance (yep – it’s tough!).

I tracked my score and reflected each week using my snazzy performance diary (plug). I then transferred the scores each month to the practice stats sheet you see below (grab your free golf practice download here).

Golf psychology example
 I’ve put together this practice stats sheet so you can track your progress. grab your free download on the start here page.

You can see the first few weeks I sucked. I didn’t enjoy playing it much, but each week I took note of where I was missing the target and did my best to improve.

When I got onto the golf course I did my best to remember the few great shots I had hit in practice. Albeit few and far between these were my performance accomplishments. 

Six weeks in and things started to click. I had a good practice session then proceeded to hole out from 128 yards in a match. You can see that since then my practice performance has continued to pick up.

Now I have far more pieces of data to draw on to support the fact I am actually getting better. I’m not epic just yet, but I plan to play this game 3 times a month for the entire winter. 

If I manage to do so I can’t wait to see how much self-efficacy and performance grows into 2019.

Golf psychology conclusion (for now)

In this first instalment we’ve outlined a few key areas of golf psychology and you have some tools to start growing your confidence. 

I’m a geeky nerd. My aim was to show you how you can take something important but ‘fluffy’ like confidence and make it tangible and data-driven.

I alway appreciate your comments and feedback. Share this article with a golfing friend and sign up to the Golf Insider weekly post if you don’t want to miss the next instalment in the coming weeks.

Happy golfing – Will @ Golf Insider

4 Replies to “Golf psychology – The ultimate guide”

    1. Hi Ross,

      Thanks foe the kind words, lots more to add onto this piece, so hopefully you’ll have a serious, actionable guide by the end of the winter.

      Let me know if you have any specific questions you would like me to cover.

      Will

  1. Hi Will,
    Another great article and advice.
    Since finding your site and getting your Performance book, my game has improved so much.
    My practice games really have purpose now and in just a few months I have dropped to 7.5 from 11.4. Having followed various online pages I have finally found one that is so useful and full of great information. I’ve been passing on your site to all my mates!
    Keep up the fine work Coach.
    Cheers,
    Matt

    1. Hey Matt,

      Thank you so much for the kind words. I’m delighted you’re making such good progress. This was my aim – I felt there was so much not being covered in golf lessons that could help players improve.

      Thanks also for spreading the word. Would you mind if I use your comment above somewhere else on my blog? I’m thinking I may put it on the performance diary page, or above the golf insider sign up.

      Let me know if you’re okay with this. Also fire me an email with what else you would like covered this winter. I’m planning some big developments, but I’m hoping in the coming years Golf Insider becomes an epic place for people really wanting to accelerate their golfing performance.

      Thanks again, Will (Coach 😉 )

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