This is a draft version of the golf psychology book I’m writing. The introduction gives you a swift story to begin thinking about golf psychology. This is followed by the theory behind golf psychology (part 1) and secondly (part 2) how to develop yourself in to an elite thinker.
I hope you find the following of use. I’m writing it in instalments (chapters), so click any of the links below to skip to a desired chapters. Also, I would love your feedback to help me improve the end product. Please leave you comments, thoughts and feedback at the bottom in the comments section.
Many thanks, Will
- Part one – The theory
- Chapter 1 – Stress and coping
- Chapter 2 – Anxiety and arousal
- Chapter 3 – Self-talk
- Chapter 4 – Confidence is king
- Chapter 5 – Mental toughness
- Chapter 6 – Where psychology meets motor control
- Part two – Theory into practice – New oct 2019
- Chapter 7 – Mental training – New Oct 2019
- Your pre-shot routine – TBC
- Developing self-talk and imagery – TBC
- Building your coping strategies tool kit – TBC
- Mindset for greatness – TBC
- Being a great caddy (course management) – TBC
Table of Contents
- 1 Golf Psychology
- 2 Introduction
- 3 Chapter 1: Stress and coping
- 4 Accepting stress
- 5 Chapter 2: Anxiety and arousal
- 5.1 How anxiety and arousal link to golf performance
- 5.2 Dealing with increased arousal
- 5.3 Dealing with Anxiety
- 5.4 Putting the pieces of golf psychology together
- 5.5 Chapter 3: Self talk
- 5.6 The two golfers inside your Head (self-talk)
- 5.7 Your two golfers
- 5.8 Which voice is louder
- 5.9 Purple Monkeys
- 5.10 Don’t use don’t
- 5.11 Be goal focused
- 5.12 The commentators dirty little secret
- 5.13 Negative thoughts aren’t catastrophic
- 5.14 Improving your self-talk with paper
- 5.15 Self-talk summary
- 6 Chapter 4 – Confidence is king
- 7 Confidence (self-efficacy)
- 8 Building confidence & self-efficacy – Applied example
- 9 Part 2 – The practice
- 10 Chapter 7 – Mental training
- 11 How to create Pressure and adversity
- 12 Golf psychology conclusion (for now)
Golf psychology is the study of thoughts, behaviour and emotions relating to ones’ golf performance. There is considerable evidence to suggest improving a golfers’ psychology can lead to improved golfing performance.
The story of Q-school
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. Great golf psychology helps you optimise your performance on any given day.
Your golfing sponge
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.
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.
Let us begin.
Chapter 1: Stress and coping
Who would have thought hitting a little white ball could be so stressful? Well it turns out it is. Stress and coping seems a strange place to begin in our quest into understanding golf psychology, however, I feel it sets the scene nicely.
Golf is stressful, at times we worry, this leads to all sorts of doubts, anxious thoughts and an array of nervous behavioural traits. Even the top golfers in the world are not impenetrable golfing robots. Instead, they spend their time battling stress and doing their best to cope under less than ideal situations.
In this chapter we’re going to delve into the stress ~ coping cycle. We’ll look at what causes stress, how elite players attempt to deal with stress and what works.
Golf Insider shout out: There has been some great research into stress and coping in golf. A big shout out to Dr Adam Nicholls, through my MSc I learned a lot from the work he has published.
Stressors in golf
Golf shouldn’t be stressful, especially if your financial income isn’t dependant on it. Yet, there are many situations or events that cause us stress when we play. This may be a large group watching us drive off the first tee, missing a short downhill putt that races 6-feet passed, or playing the first few holes in 5 over our handicap on a day where our golf swing has just left us.
All of these situations cause stress, hence we call each one a ‘stressor’. Each stressor leads to more and more stress building up inside and it is up to you, as a golfer, to decide how to deal with this stress.
What causes stress?
There are an infinite amount of stressors a golfer can face. However, it helps to chunk them together into broad categories. This allows us to better understand what types stressors an individual player is dealing with at any given time. These categories are:
- Physical errors
- Mental errors
- Course and conditions
- Competition, opposition & evaluative others
These four categories are not perfect, but hopefully provide boxes that can categorise 95% of the stressors that you will experience when playing golf. Let us have a quick run through them.
Physical and mental errors. These two categories make up the majority of stressors that an elite player faces. Bad swings, lapses in concentration, poor decision making are the bane of most golfers and elite pros are no different.
Following on from these two categories we have the course itself and playing conditions. A tight Par-4 without of bounds down one side, a sandy lie for a pitch shot over a bunker or a howling gale all can cause a player stress.
Last up we have a less tangible stressors – big competitions, opponents who are playing out of their skin, and even a little group of strangers watching us tee off. All of these can cause us stress, but why?
What causes stress
A simple answer of what causes stress is this – when a golfer feels they can’t meet the demands of a specific situation they begin to panic or feel stress. This might be a nano-second blimp, as a negative thought creeps in to their head, or it could be a full-blown meltdown on the golf course. There is a whole continuum of stress responses in between these two . However, the essence of any stress response is the same – the golfer feels the demands of the situation outweigh their ability.
A critical point to note – they might be wrong. The golfer may have more than enough ability to meet the demands, but at the time they don’t think that they do.
Golf Insider story: For me this was the situation when Rory was contending for his first major win at Augusta in 2011. On the last day he had a comfortable lead, before everything began to unravel. He obviously struggled on the last day, but around the 10th or 11th hole a few bad shots in a row led to a demise in his performance. A cycle of more stress ~ less believe, ~ worse golf shots ~ more stress….followed on the back 9. He had more than enough ability to win, as he showed a few months later at the US Open. However, on that Sunday at Augusta he didn’t manage to cope well enough with the stress. Maybe he perceived his ability on the day wasn’t enough. He had the ability, but couldn’t pull it to the forefront when he needed it.
There is a much deeper answer to why we experience stress. At some point in our history stress was obviously a very useful trait in our evolution. It protected us from harm, it kept us alert to danger, it stopped us damaging the relationships within our tribe. Now these same responses manifest themselves as we try to hit a little white ball around a field. I don’t know why, but I do know we can’t easily undo a few thousand years of genetic mutation. Instead, we are better to accept stress and find ways to manage and deal with its effects.
There are two schools of thought when it comes to stress in sport. Historically, we had the idea that we should condition athletes to never feel stress. Let us train their skill and their mind in such a way that stress is not a problem. However, there are some issues with this approach.
Firstly, stress is a natural product of competing. Research has confirmed elite, successful performers all experience stress. Secondly telling a golfer she / he should never feel stressed begins to teach them that this feeling is somehow wrong, maybe they are broken as a performer.
In recent years sport psychology has steered towards a different approach. One where we accept stress, acknowledge stress will be a factor and come up with a plan to still perform well in the presence of stress. This approach is closely aligned with a concept called mindfulness. I’m not going to delve into the details of mindfulness here, there are lots of excellent books and resources available. However, let us look at how we can apply a mindful and accepting approach to your golf.
So, all golfers feel stress, even elite players. The first step in performing well in stressful situations is to acknowledge what is causing stress and to realise it really isn’t the end of the world. It is very possible, and after some practice, highly probable that you can perform exceptionally well in stressful circumstances.
All we have to do is accept it then decide how we wish to deal with it. Here is where our coping strategies come into play.
Coping strategies and stress
If stress is a burning fire, coping strategies are the golfers firefighting tool kit. Coping strategies are essentially different ways to deal with stressful situations. Just like stressors, there are potentially endless coping strategies a golfer can use. However, from previous research we can divide coping strategies into three broad categories:
- Problem focused
- Emotional focused
Problem focused coping strategies do what they say on the tin – How can we deal with this stressful problem face on. Specific strategies within this category include goal setting, coming up with a plan, focusing on specific steps to solve the problem or just increasing ones efforts within the situation. These types of coping strategies are the most frequently used by elite athletes and tend to be high effective.
Emotional focused coping strategies aim to alter or adapt the body’s response to the stress it is facing. Specific emotional focused strategies include: relaxation techniques, such as focusing on breathing, acceptance of the situation, and (as reported in some research) wishful thinking. Elite athletes also like to employ emotional focused coping strategies. With exception to wishful thinking, these too appear to provide an athlete with a useful set of tool to help them perform when under stress.
The last set of coping strategies that have been well-documented in sport are avoidance strategies. These resemble the ‘let’s burry our head in the sand’ option. Push that negative thought or worry away and pretend it is not happening. Research suggests avoidance strategies are commonly used, but tend not to be effective.
It turns out we’re best dealing with stress head on.
When to use coping strategies
What we have covered so far is this – Golf is a challenging game. When we find ourselves in a situation we deem too challenging we will experience a tiny, or a large, amount of stress.
It is at this point that we should start to employ some problem and emotional focused coping strategies. Some deep breaths, planning your best escape from trouble or focusing on your pre-shot routine are all excellent coping strategies.
Interestingly, less-elite players appear to let stress build up. They tend to face one stressful situation and avoid dealing with it. Then another comes along, the stress builds up. It frequently takes up to 3 – 5 stressors to occur before the player decides to employ a coping strategy.
I don’t know if this in itself is harmful. However, I would suggest every golfer needs to manage stress as they move through a round. They need to acknowledge stress when it appears and evaluate how to deal with it.
Building a personalised tool kit of coping strategies
The research on coping strategies provides one more golden gem in helping you develop as a great golfer. All elite athletes appear to have developed very personalised coping strategies. There is no magic bullet.
Instead each golfer, through many failed and successful attempts of dealing with stress have build a tool kit of personalised options. More interestingly, the same golfer, facing the same type of stressful situation at a different time in their season reported that the previously used coping strategy wasn’t always successful.
There isn’t even a magic bullet for specific situations. Instead we as performers need to develop multiple, useful coping strategies. During competition we may need to deploy option 1, followed by option 2 and even a third option just to try to cope.
Stress and coping – Summary
This gives us a wonderful insight into stress and coping. What causes stress and how we successfully cope with stress is a personalised skill learned over many attempts. However, outlined below we have some general footnotes to help you on this journey.
- Figure out what your personal stressors are. Understand your sources of stress when you play golf.
- Be mindful of stressful situation, realise it isn’t the end of the world. It’s merely a new set of conditions you need to adapt to.
- Develop multiple, useful coping strategies. Learn to employ one or more coping strategies when you come across stressful situations.
Chapter 2: Anxiety and arousal
In chapter two we start to break down this concept of stress, fear and worry. What effects occur as a result of stress? How can we explain worry and fear in a more tangible sense?
To achieve this, we need to first explain two key concepts – anxiety and arousal. These words are often used interchangeably when we discuss sport performance. However, anxiety and arousal both have precise meanings and understanding them is critical if you wish to control how you feel and perform on the golf course.
Arousal – Is the physiological response to stress. We experience this as an increased heart rate, increased blood flow, quicker breathing as nervous energy passes around our body. (physical response)
Anxiety – Is a negative emotional state associated with stress. Anxiety is generally a mix of negative thoughts, self-talk and images. These lead to a feeling of worry or panic. (psychological response)
As we can see from the descriptions above anxiety and arousal are closely related, but quite different. Arousal is our physical response to stress, anxiety is a negative psychological or cognitive response to stress.
Here is where things get interesting. When arousal increases with no anxiety, there is very little effect on performance. Some researchers even suggest performance will increase to a certain point.
When anxiety increases we tend to see a dip in performance. When both anxiety and arousal increase we begin to see golfers fall apart – commonly referred to as choking under pressure.
In a new or uncomfortable situation (1st tee nerves, a big competition, a new low score through 9 holes) your body will begin to feel stressed. This leads to many golfers feeling anxious and experiencing an increased arousal and or anxiety.
The key point to note is that arousal and anxiety are different. One does not have to lead to the other, and if you can manage them you won’t have a reduced performance under pressure.
Dealing with increased arousal
Let’s first look at dealing with increased arousal (increased hearth rate, adrenaline rush…). Due to our societal norms and previous experiences we view this physical response as a negative factor. However, a key chunk of leaning to perform great under pressure is to realise this effect can be really beneficial. This physiological response is almost identical to excitement.
This response tends to increase your attention and sharpness, you become more aware of your surrounds. You muscles are more readily tuned to produce more force. In this state your body can perform wonders if you let it.
Why is this difficult? Because you are not used to this feel or state. It plays havoc with our sensory feedback mechanisms – our arms feel light, our legs feel spring-like and we are more aware of our movements. Our golf swing probably looks exactly the same, but it feels very different in this state.
The first step is to realise playing golf in this state will feel different, but that doesn’t mean our performance will deteriorate. The second stage, over repeated experiences, is to realise you can actually play really well when you feel like this.
Golf Insider story: When I first turned pro I was a great putter, with a sound short game, but pretty dreadful off the tee. I used to head off to regional pro events to compete. My mind would quickly drift to thinking about the first tee shot and ‘not looking like a fool’. The nerves would set in and I would be stood on the first tee with my heart thumping – attempting to focus on my pre-shot routine. To begin with, I struggled with opening tee shots, I would be happy just to make contact. However, after 20 or so events I started to realise I could hit some good Drives in this state. Another 20 events and I realised I commonly hit good tee shots, if I managed my thought process. I even began to consider my pretty good with high arousal, compared to most other pros. A big part of my learning was to disassociate the physical aspect from the potential negative thinking.
Dealing with Anxiety
As we covered previously, increased arousal is fine, the real dagger into our performance is the negative thinking and images – anxiety.
The root of anxiety is a 10,000+ year old protective mechanism. At some point jumping into the future and thinking about the bad situations that might occur must have saved us. This same mechanism is rarely helpful when playing golf.
The first part of dealing with anxiety is understanding and acceptance it. This mechanism is there, and it will jump into action at the most unhelpful of times. When it does it is down to you to manage and deal with it. Here we go:
Step 1: We can’t predict the future
I don’t know about you, but I’m not yet able to accurately predict the future. However, anxiety does exactly that. It will tell you the result of your upcoming failure, paint a vivid picture of it and even tell you how you will feel once it has happened.
These are concerned fantasies, not reality, that distract us from the job at hand. The irony is that if you pay attention to them, they generally will stop you performing and turn out to be true.
Step 1 – Realise negative thoughts and images aren’t true.
Step 2: Focus on process
After acceptance, the next step is to get back to the here and now. Not even the best players in the world can control where their little white golf ball goes, all they can do is focus on the process:
- Make logical decisions about the upcoming shot
- Pick a clear target
- Visualise the shot
- Focus on your key swing thought
Anxiety will try to but its ugly head in to this process more than once. However, every time it does, remember it is not real and get back into process mode.
Step 2 – Anxiety drags you into the future. Get back to executing processes in the present.
Putting the pieces of golf psychology together
Now we have covered the concepts of arousal and anxiety, think back to the coping strategies we covered in chapter one. Namely, problem focused, emotional focused. You can now consider how these coping strategies closely link to managing anxiety and arousal.
- In stressful situations you will experience a physical response (arousal) and a psychological response (anxiety).
- Increased arousal feels odd, but does not necessarily lead to reduced performance. Learn to work with this new feeling.
- Anxiety can be destructive, it tends to take your mind off the here and now and into the future. Realise it isn’t real and get back to being process driven.
Chapter 3: Self talk
The two golfers inside your Head (self-talk)
Central to how you think and how you performance is the internal dialog that swirls around your head. This chatter goes on all day, every day, however we rarely become aware of it.
Your two golfers
On the golf course your self-talk becomes critical to squeezing the most out of your golfing sponge and maximising your performance. Next time you are on the golf course you’ll find you have two golfers inside your head.
Golfer 1’s voice is self-assured and logical. Golfer 1 has a plan, they know what they are here to do. You also have Golfer 2 in your head. Golfer 2’s voice is emotional, they are fearful, sometimes angry and worried. Golf 2 means well but is often short of useful ideas.
The battle all of us face is how these two golfers get on and work as a team. We can’t gouge Golfer 2 out of our Brain. Instead, you have to be aware of both of their voices and work to make them both better at performing as a team when it counts.
Which voice is louder
The first step is to be aware of Golfer 1 and Golfer 2. How do your two golfers talk to each other? How well does Golfer 1 use logic to plan each shot you hit? What tools and strategies does Golfer 1 use to focus you on the task at hand?
What is your Golfer 2 like? Do they interject with worry as you stand over a golf shot? Do they remind you about the last time you thinned a chip shot from a similar lie?
Maybe they react as soon as things go wrong. Their anger flares up after a bad shot and they shout :
“I TOLD YOU WE WERE GOING TO SCREW THAT UP! WHAT ARE YOU DOING YOU #!#$”.
Just as every person on this wonderful planet has slightly different in personality traits. Your two golfers (1 and 2) will have unique characteristics. Some characteristics might be useful, others less so. But these characteristics can be trained and refined over time. Just be aware that on any given day your golfing performance will largely be a product of how these two golfers get on in your head.
Let us look at some common traits of this duo and how to train them.
Imagine a purple Money riding a shiny, red bike. Imagine the purple Monkey riding along a street ringing the bell on his bike – what a sight to see.
Now, don’t imagine a purple Monkey. Whatever you do, don’t think about that purple Monkey riding along on that red bike… You’re still picturing that Monkey aren’t you?
Don’t use don’t
Unfortunately the brain doesn’t process negatives. Don’t get scared, don’t worry, don’t think of a purple Monkey. All three statements focus your attention to the exact concept you’re trying to avoid thinking of.
This is the common dialog of Golfer 2. He is trying to help – “Don’t hit it left into the water”, “Don’t leave this putt short like you did on the last hole”, “Don’t worry about all the people watching you on the 1st tee”.
Golfer 2 mean’s well, but he is shifting your focus on to exactly what you are trying to avoid.
Be goal focused
When this occurs it is time for your logical, Golfer 1, to step in. Golfer 1 needs to calmly step in and remind the team of their goal.
“Our only focus is to make a great swing towards our target. Let’s focus on a small spot on the back of the hole”
This is a critical strategy for performing well under pressure. Both Golfer 1 and 2 will be with you every time you play. Your Golfer 2 will pop up many times during a round with less than ideal advice. There is no need to let your two golfers get into an argument, this distracts both from the task at hand. Instead, train Golfer 1 to step in and get the team focused back on their goal and the target.
The commentators dirty little secret
The commentary above is the real truth about performing well under pressure. It’s a draining experience of fighting fires and settling arguments and managing your thoughts. Unfortunately, this isn’t sexy, it is not how we like to think about elite performers. Instead, we like to put elite golfers on a pedestal and idolise their cool calm personas under pressure.
Recently, a pro I was working with had his first win on his tour. I was delighted for him. I spoke to him before and after the final round about how it went, what he was thinking about and how he dealt with the pressure coming down the final 9-holes.
I then had the pleasure of watching the highlights on Sky Sports. The commentators on TV were talking about how cool and calm he was under all this pressure. Six under par for the 2nd day running, he was a golfing machine to the outside world.
However, under the surface the player was in a 5-hour battle with himself. A great start on the first hole settled the nerves, then a few lapses in concentration followed. He, somehow, scrambled pars for the following three holes, then with an error and some misfortune a double bogey followed. A great long putt dropped from 60-feet around the turn to give him an eagle and the lead again.
Fast-forward and he was stood on the last hole with a one-shot lead. Swinging when your arms and legs are shaking with adrenaline is a challenge, and a slightly pulled tee shot resulted. It dragged the ball into the left-hand rough. he hit a great mid-iron from the rough and found the centre of the green. From there, the player parred the hole, and finished off the tournament.
We don’t hear the reality of playing under pressure because no one wants to admit the truth. Performing well under pressure is anything but calm and smooth. It’s a serious mental battle. You’ll come out the other end battered and bruised, but with some great learnings about how to perform more elegantly in the future.
“Great golfers aren’t superheroes, they are great at managing themselves, their thoughts and their decisions”
Even great players have the same two golfers in their head. They have just trained Golfer 1 and 2 to be a seriously good team.
Negative thoughts aren’t catastrophic
This leads nicely onto the next point. Negative thoughts aren’t catastrophic to your performance – unless you believe them to be.
All great players have negative thoughts. What separates great performers from the also-rans is how they deal with negative thoughts.
Unless you have a time machine you can’t do too much about a negative thought once it has occurred. Great performers acknowledge the thought and then ask Golfer 1 to step in and get them back on track. What is the goal, where is our target.
Lesser performers allow the negative thought to consume them. They invest more attention into that thought. Consider the following example when standing over an important short putt.
Example of poor thinking
Golfer 2 – You don’t like these. You’ve missed a few short putts recently
You’re right – I have missed a few short putt recently
Golfer 2 – Exactly, let me bring back pictures and images of these events… See I told you I’m right…
Before you know it you’ve already hit the putt in a half-focused state. With this thought process going on I doubt you had a successful outcome.
Great golfers still suffer from Golfer 2 butting in, but they deal with it in a different way. They have plans for such a situation. See the following example:
Example of better thinking
Golfer 2 – You don’t like these. You’ve missed a few short putts recently.
Right…re-focus, re-start my routine.
Re-read the putt
Golf 1 – My last few putts have been a little tentative
Golfer 1 – Let’s pick a higher line, visualise the ball hitting the back of the hole and make two positive practice swings before we go
Golfer 1 – standing over the ball – Keep focused, let’s hit the back of the hole with this putt
This second thought process doesn’t guarantee success. But, on average, when negative thoughts do creep in it will far out-perform the first thought sequence.
Just ask yourself – Who would you prefer as a foursomes partner?
Improving your self-talk with paper
Here is my favourite way to begin improving your self-talk and performance.
Next time you play golf take a piece of paper out onto the golf course with you. Start with this piece of paper folded in your left pocket. Every time you have a negative thought, tear off a little square of paper and place it into your right pocket.
At the end of your round count how many squares of paper you have in your right pocket (I hope you have big pockets). This exercise is a real eye-opener. Don’t be surprised if your reach 40 – 60 squares of paper – this is if you are being truly honest with yourself.
Once you have completed this process, write down your total number of negative thoughts for the round. Also record when your negative thoughts mostly occurred :
- Three-quarter wedge shots. I worry about missing right enters during backswing.
- Drives then the wind is off the left.
Total negative thoughts _37_
Next time you play, repeat the process and see if you can beat your score.
Our internal dialog is complex. It feeds into our mood, our performance and how we think about our self. The first stage is becoming aware of your traits. The next step is to refine how you talk to yourself. It’s is an unseen factor that really will improve your ability to perform on the golf course.
Chapter 4 – Confidence is king
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:
- Fairway woods
- Long irons
- Short-irons & Wedges
- Pitching (75 – 30 yards)
- Chipping (under 30-yards)
- Bunker shots
- Long putting (outside 30-feet)
- Mid-range putting (10 – 30 feet)
- 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.
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 😉
- Performance accomplishments (75%)
- Vicarious experiences (3%)
- Verbal persuasion (7%)
- Emotional control (15%)
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Focused on the area you wish to improve.
- Measurable (have a score)
- Repeatable (bar weather conditions, it should stay the same each week).
- 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 halfway down how to get better at golf.
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).
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.
Chapter 5 – Mental toughness
Mental toughness is commonly stated as the number one attribute coaches desire elite athletes to have. Despite this desire for mental toughness, when asked, few coaches could describe what being ‘mentally tough’ actually meant.
Being mentally tough is almost a Hollywood expression we like to use for those golfers who just seem to thrive whatever the stakes or conditions. In this chapter we’ll explain where mental toughness sits within golf psychology and how we can go about developing our own mental toughness.
Mental toughness as an umbrella theme
Within sport psychology mental toughness is viewed as a large, over-arching theme. It sits above many smaller sport psychology attributes. To be mentally tough you have to have many, or all, of the skills listed below:
- Coping strategies / hardiness
- Confidence, self-efficacy and belief
- Control of emotions and focus
- Perseverance and resilience
You’ll notice we’ve already covered a fair few of these attributes in earlier chapters – hence why I’ve left discussing mental toughness until this point. Despite mental toughness requiring the attributes above, we can’t say that having the attributes above ensures an athlete is mentally tough.
Mental toughness is bigger than a list of attributes, it can be described as an approach towards sport performance and even an approach towards your development as a golfer. Let us look at some key themes that mentally tough athletes tend to exhibit.
Seeking out challenge
Most golfers often shy away from challenging situations – a challenging situation is one that is likely to result in failure. This is far removed from how mentally tough golfers see challenge.
Challenging situations are to be actively sought – they provide a chance to test your skills. Failing in a situation means your are one step closer to succeeding the next time the situation arises. Think of failure as falling forwards.
The continual process of seeking out challenge, possibly failing, but heading back for more is a key theme in the development of mentally tough golfers. However, it is one that is not commonly seen or discussed. The issue is that by the time we all see an elite, mentally tough golfer on TV they have been taking this approach for years, seeking out challenge and failing has led to they being pretty dam good in pressure situations.
The result – we observed mentally tough golfers to always be successful when the pressure is on. The reality is this – mentally tough athletes have sought out challenges for years and failed hundreds or even thousands of times. This has led to them building up the resources and attributes required to succeed frequently. I can assure you, it took many years of failing to get this good at succeeding.
Independent problem solving
Hand in hand with seeking out challenge is the ability for mentally tough golfers to solve problems. This includes problem solving in a psychological sense. However, it also extends to your swing technique and development.
Mentally tough golfers can perform on those days where their golfing ability leaves them. They are able to come up with a way of swinging that will get the job done. Failing to solve this problem leads to a score of 86 and the end of the tournament. Whereas, an effective problem solver creates a solution after the first few holes that limits the damage to a score of 74 and keeps them in the tournament. This isn’t an instant fix, but logical problem solving over the rest of the round to limit the damage.
This problem solving ability extends into their golfing development too. Independent problem solving allows a golfer who has always been poor at putting to sit down and develop a plan to resolve this issue. They are able to detach themselves from the frustration of poor putting and think logically about the steps that need to be put in place.
They are also able to re-frame the problem. They are not a ‘poor putter’ and will always be one, but rather they have 5-6 mini problems to solve. Solving each one of these mini problems will build their putting skill level. Once they solve all of the mini problems they may have the ability to be the world’s best putter.
The last theme to discuss leads nicely on from the last section. Mentally tough golfers know that they are responsible for their own performance and development. They might not always admit that poor play is their fault – this is a strategy to protect their self-efficacy. However, when they leave the golf course and sit down they know that working hard and smart is the only road to success.
There are a certain sub-set of golfers who put on ‘the show’ of working hard. They will be early on the golf range, they will make sure everyone sees them hit great shots, and may even spend extra time practicing their strengths in front of a crowd, even though it isn’t the best use of their practice time.
Mentally tough golfers know that it is how hard they work when no one is watching that counts. They surround themselves with experts and take on their advice, but know that it is solely down to what they each and every day that truly counts.
Mental toughness summary
Mental toughness is an umbrella theme. It requires many small psychological attributes to already be in place. However, it extends wider, mental toughness is an approach to performing and developing as a golfer.
In this section we have broken down mental toughness into its component parts. We’ve also have had a sneak peek at how mentally tough performers operate. As we move into part 2 of this book (coming soon) we’ll get to some actionable steps you can take to build your mental toughness on a weekly and monthly basis.
Chapter 6 – Where psychology meets motor control
If you have played any amount of competitive golf I doubt you need convincing that sport psychology is important. How we think certainly affects how we perform. However, we have an issue, how we think can’t be seen. We cannot quantify how an elite level professional thinks differently to you or I.
For this reason sport psychology can seem mystical. We know confidence and mental toughness are ‘things’ that are highly important, but we can’t touch them, feel them, or easily understand them. In sport psychology we call these intangible aspects constructs – higher level factors that we know are important and affect performance, but we can’t fully see or measure.
Hopefully, through reading this book (article) you have a better understanding of sport psychology constructs. In this chapter I’m going to show you how they meet the science of how we control movement (motor control).
The process of performing
To successfully play any golf shot we go through the following stages:
- Decision making and planning
I don’t care how precise or lax each of your processes are, we all attempt these same stages, at a conscious and sub-conscious level, every time we hit a golf shot. Understanding how your psychology impacts each of the phases above is a crucial step in becoming an exceptional golfer in pressure situations.
Let us explore how each stage can be affected by how you think:
You arrive at your golf ball and begin to take in information. You see the target, you assess how the ball is sitting, you feel the lie of the land under your feet, the wind is gusting. Your senses are pulling in thousands of data points.
At the same time your mind is processing each of these data points against all of your previous golfing knowledge. Your brain is making sense of it all and begins to form a strategy in your head of what you should do. We call this stage planning and decision making – it will dictate all that follows (the golf swing you choose to make).
However, under pressure we see some subtle changes to this stage. As we feel stressed we see an increase in anxiety and arousal rates. This leads to a phenomena known as ‘attentional narrowing’ that can considerably degrade our decision making ability.
Many golfers this of attentional narrowing as ‘tunnel vision’, but this isn’t quite right. Instead, think of attentional narrowing as a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces. There might be 40 really important data points (jigsaw pieces) a professional golfer normally uses to play a wedge shot, to a tight pin position, over water.
When the player is subject to attentional narrowing she / he may only gather 28 – 30 data points, they miss some important pieces. This incomplete picture means that they are now going to prepare and execute a very slightly different movement to the one that is actually required and the golf swing they would usually select when not under pressure.
We often hear players say they feel rushed under pressure, that is the behaviour we observed, above describes what is happening at a cognitive level.
The next step is preparing to execute the golf shot we have selected. If all has gone well with our decision making we should enter this phase with a clear idea of our target and the shot we need to play. In the preparation phase we move onto deciding how best to execute the golf shot.
In this stage we may visualise the ball flight, we often make a practice swing or two. We should also get a clear idea of what feeling we’re aiming to make during our golf swing and where our focus should be during the up-coming golf swing.
However, if we are feeling unconfident (low self-efficacy) during the preparation phase then we often end up doubting our ability to play the shot at hand. This tends to distract us from our task and leads to far less clarity when visualising the shot and far less precision when making our practice swing(s). This vagueness means that our brain doesn’t have its usual clarity on what you want it to do. You begin to set up over the golf ball feeling unprepared to play the up-coming shot.
Increased arousal can also cause havoc at this stage. As adrenaline starts to seep into your blood stream everything goes into high-alert. Your heart is beating, your muscles are primed and your sensory information is sharper than normal.
This process makes your whole body feel different. As you make a practice swing it will feel like an alien movement. It will look just like your normal golf swing, but it will feel like your arms are flailing everywhere during your backswing and downswing.
This trick is one that fools many golfers, the golfer tells themselves that they can’t make a normal golf swing under pressure. In fact, they can, it just feels entirely different due to the adrenaline rush and heightened sensory feedback.
Once you have made a decision and prepared, you are ready to execute your golf shot. This is the point where we are building our stance and lining up to our target. Funnily enough, this is also the point where most golfers assume great golf psychology begins, however, you can see from the first two stages, most golfer’s fate of hitting a bad golf shot is already sealed as they reach this stage.
Everything in the execution stage hangs on what has gone before. Poor decision making and poor preparation can rarely be saved by thinking positively once over the golf ball. Great thinking during the execution stage is quite simple – keep your mind focused on the process, and / or the outcome you desire.
It is fine to vividly picture your target and try to hit the golf ball to that point when swinging. It is equally fine to focus on a simple swing thought during your golf swing (not 27 swing thoughts). The key with both options above is to focus your conscious mind on something useful and relevant.
The reason for this ‘either approach is fine’ is quite simple, but one that few golfers are aware of. Your conscious mind is not the one controlling movement. The golf swing is actually controlled and updated at a subconscious level. During the execution phase, great thinkers keep their conscious mind on task, there are no secret swing thoughts that elite players use to perform, they are just very consistent and deliberate.
Our brains love patterns and consistency when they are trying to perform. Your brain likes to do the same things over and over again and refine its process. With this in mind you should aim to match your thought process under pressure to your thought process when you are not under pressure.
Get very good at focusing on a consistent swing thought every time you hit a golf ball in practice and every time you hit a golf ball on the golf course. When you think about this same swing thought with the same intensity under pressure your sub-conscious will know exactly what it needs to do.
From this perspective, you can see that the key during the execution phase is not thinking anything magical under-pressure, but rather being really deliberate and focused during every golf shot you hit in practice and on the course when you are not in pressure situations.
Where psychology meets motor control – Summary
In this chapter we have looked at how psychological aspects such as confidence and arousal link into the process needed to hit great golf shots. A key take away is considering where your poor thinking begins to de-rail your process of performing. Do you rush and plan shots differently under pressure? Are you a golfer who doesn’t fully prepare under pressure? Or is your Achilles heel executing your golf swing with a clear focus once you are over the golf ball?
For most players there is room for improvement during all three stages. The key is to begin improving your thinking at the first point it starts to go off track. Once your thinking is better during your decision-making and preparation phases you can begin to work on what you do over the golf ball.
Part 2 – The practice
One key reason for me putting this book together was that I felt something was missing in how golf psychology is taught. There are some great books on how you should think as a golfer. These books, at times, give some great exercises to help you apply the concepts discussed, but I couldn’t find a book that really dived into the details of how to optimise your thinking in practice.
In part one of the book we have covered the theory, in part two of this book we will look at the doing. How do you take the theory and apply it to optimise your thinking and performance as a golfer. There are exercises, tasks, ideas and frameworks for putting the theory into place.
We start with the broad concept of mental training, we will then go into many useful strategies that can be used on and off the golf course to keep facilitating your development as a thinker and performer.
Chapter 7 – Mental training
Improving your psychology is very similar to improving your fitness. It takes specific targeted work, and as a result, over a period of time you will see incremental improvements. There are no magic pills, golfers aren’t born elite thinkers, the only path is gradual development and improvements. Just like your physical fitness, if you stop training, your thinking and performance will also decline.
Also like your physical fitness, reading and understanding the theory doesn’t make you any better at performing. It is the doing that starts to facilitate changes in how you think and perform. By ‘the doing‘ I mean specific training sessions to target how you think under pressure. I must add, that I strongly believe understanding the theory can really accelerate your development within these session, hence why we’ve covered the theory in part one, but without the mental training sessions you will struggle to make strong progress.
There are a few ways you can implement mental training. In this chapter we’re going to focus on adversity training , in later chapters we will look at mental training that fits in with your current practice and play.
Adversity training is quite a broad term, in this section we are going to discuss specific practice games that ensure you will fail. If they are set up correctly you will fail over and over again and probably get quite frustrated.
A key point to note is that this failure is actually a good thing. Setting really challenging tasks allows us to evoke a bite-size stress reaction, similar to what we feel on the golf course. It will never feel the same as teeing off in front of a large crowd, or holing that winning putt in the 18th hole, but you will begin to hear those negative voices, you may feel different, your focus will change, and it is during this time that you can begin to practice and develop your thinking for the situations that matter.
Examples of adversity training
Driving – On the driving range select a 5-yard gap between two targets. Your aim is to hit 3 drives in a row between these two targets (focus on where the shots land, rather than where they roll to). On each shot, pick a clear target, and run through your full pre-shot routine. If you miss one, start again until you can get 3 in a row.
Iron play – On the practice ground, or driving range, select a green with a flag positioned near the centre of a green. Aim it hit the green with 5 shots in a row. Again, ensure you pick a clear target and run through your full pre-shot routine for each shot. If you miss one…start again.
Wedge play – Choose a 50 to 100 yard shot to a practice green. Your aim is to get 3 balls in a row that finish within a flagstick length from the hole.
Chipping – Choose a 15-yard chip, aim to hit 3 shots in a row that finish within a club length of the hole.
Putting – Choose a 6-foot straight putt, aim to hole 5 putts in a row. If you miss one at any point pick up all golf balls and start again.
If you are thinking the games above sound challenging, or impossible, then good – they are supposed to be. Feel free to dial them up or down to your ability, but set them so that you expect to fail 90% of the time.
Over the past 10 years of using these myself and developing them with athletes I’ve found something really important. The practice structure itself isn’t magical, it is all about how the golfer interacts with the practice game. Your approach and thinking is far more important than if you set yourself the target of getting 3 or 5 balls in a row through a target. Below are some key pointers for approaching this type of training:
You are not here to set personal bests (PBs), you are not even here to practice relatively well. When you play these games you will hit shots that you never normally hit in practice, awful shots, and that is a good thing.
Smile after every awful golf shot and every time you reset your practice because you failed. Failure is a good thing, it is how you learn what you need to tweak and refine. Without failure no learning can occur.
Reflect and ask why
After every poor shot, set your anger to one side and reflect – what just happened? Did I get distracted? When did I get distracted? Did I go through my full routine? Was my target clear? Was it a negative thought or image, or both?
How can I improve my process for the next round of attempts?
Make the consequence real
This is the most important of all. You must make the adversity training real by adding consequence. We cover this in detail below, but if you can walk away or pack up and anytime there really isn’t any pressure or adversity.
How to create Pressure and adversity
Adversity – “A difficult or unpleasant experience”
The definition above gives us great insight into adversity training – a difficult or unpleasant experience. Both of these concepts are very personal, difficult and unpleasant for one individual could be simple and fun for another.
We’ve covered how you can scale the difficulty of the games above, let us look at how we can make them unpleasant for you:
The aim of each game is to complete it, once you can complete it you can go home. However, the nature of these games means that sometimes you will not succeed. For this reason, set yourself a maximum time, or number of balls to complete the challenge, this adds more urgency.
I find 20 – 30 minutes as a maximum time works well for the putting and short game challenges, 40 balls tends to work well for the long game challenges. Tweak these frameworks to suit you, but they need to be long enough that the training becomes frustrating and arduous, but not so long that you get really fatigued or risk injury. Always set time frames before you begin and never tweak them because it is not going to plan.
Add a consequence
Another factor to play with is consequence. With pros who I work with we’ve previously added in punishments for every failed attempt, or set of 5 failed attempts. 10 press-ups by the side of the putting green changes your physical state for the next round of attempts which becomes interesting, but the real kicker is the social embarrassment. Who really wants to do press-ups beside the putting green? It is strange, but this social judgement is something that really changes how you think and how often you fail during practice. This is one example, the list of possible consequences is endless.
Play with a friend
The two options above work great when you are practicing by yourself, but nothing beats real competition. Where possible find someone to practice against, you can both set up the task, and possibly have a little wager. The competition and lack of ability to control what your competitor does adds a great element to practice.
Transferring mental training onto the golf course
I’m not sure how much you will enjoy the adversity training outlined in this section. Some of you may love challenging yourself, others may not enjoy the pressure. When you will see the benefit of this approach is when you re-enter a pressure situation on the golf course.
There are two real golden nuggets that come out of adversity training – the first is refining how you think and execute golf shots when it counts. The second is developing a real source of confidence. In chapter four we covered ‘performance accomplishments’ as the largest source of situational specific confidence (self-efficacy). Well, adversity training is exactly this – a specific source of confidence.
Once you have spent a few hours trying it hit a small green five times in a row and you are then faced with a pressured 6-iron in a small green you can draw on this experience – “I know that I hit the green 4/5 times from this range..I also know how to focus and what you think”.
This is the golden leap from mental training for performance that most golfers lack. You can’t magically create confidence, but if you invest is specific training it can become a great source of confidence fo you to draw on.
Mental training – Summary
In this chapter we’ve covered our first block of how to improve your golf psychology in practice. Take what you have learned about stress, coping, anxiety, arousal and head out for some adversity training. Pay attention to the patterns that lead to a bad shot, dial in on what happened and how you can optimise your thinking for the next shot.
This isn’t a magic pill, it is a framework that you can use week in, week out to keep refining your ability to think well and perform great when it counts.
That is all for now – thanks for reading and happy golfing – Will @ Golf Insider
Thanks for reading the latest section. I always appreciate your thoughts. Feel free to leave any comments are the bottom of this article.
Golf psychology conclusion (for now)
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