Conventional wisdom holds that “golf is 90% mental and 10% physical.” But based on work done by researchers in the world of sports in general and golf in particular, a more apt phrase describing the game we love may very well be “golf is 100% mental,” an enlightened concept opening a path toward higher performance levels on the golf course.
While golfers have known for years how important the mental side is to the game, most think the phrase specifically relates to mental control during the course of a round of golf. But I maintain the mental side of golf starts well before we tee the ball up on the first hole, because better performance starts with a mental state that gives us the enthusiasm to do whatever it takes to get better, and never ends throughout our journey to improve.
Control of the body’s physical functions begins with the mind. Want to move your arm? How far? How fast? Up or down? Arm straight or bent? From those very basics, the more advanced tasks, like the willingness to do physical training and working on specific skill sets on the practice facility, etc., are inspired and performed mentally. The desired end result in physical performance is measurable improvement, but unless we mentally understand that we need to put in the work to get there, and using our brains to effect positive change, improvement never happens. The body, after all, is just a mechanism to follow instructions from the brain.
We don’t change, or improve, anything in our lives without a different mindset than before. Studies have shown we can even change the molecular level of our bodies if we develop a different mindset. That is really getting to the core of any change in performance, but since our individual molecular levels change constantly, we must strive to mentally control the changes to our advantage.
When we try to improve diet, work performance, golf technique, etc., it starts with our minds. However, even though we successfully make changes over a period of time – say a week, or even a month – we too often lose the ability to sustain those mindset improvements for a prolonged period. Too often, if we have early success with change we tend to cling to the path that helped us be successful, but how we got there was change in the first place. We are forever evolving, so making changes to keep up with our own evolution is an ongoing battle, and complacency is the enemy.
Let’s relate this to golf. How long have you had a swing-thought work? When you’re on a roll and playing better golf how long has it lasted? That is why constant search for improvement is a good thing. We can derail trying to find the answers, but complacency will leave us on the wrong end of better performance more times than not. It takes strong mental effort to overcome that tendency.
Our on-course mindset is important as well. The number one reason golfers struggle under pressure is letting the altered state of nerves and anxiety–a cluttered mind–affect them. We are all taught by mental gurus to keep calm, but that can have a reverse effect because being calm in a high stress environment is not natural, and almost impossible. The key is to feel comfortable in an altered state. Indeed, it is bothersome to say the least when your stomach is churning, hands are sweaty and shaky, and the mind is racing toward disaster. In that state of mind, most of us don’t try to make mental adjustments; we just hit the shot, and get through the round as fast as possible so the anxiety will go away.
In situations like that, we need to call up those very rare moments calling for a clear mind, that sense of being “in the zone.” We should always be putting forth an effort put towards being in the zone more often, but we can’t always count on getting there. (Like when I need to make that 5-foot putt for the $5 Nassau whether I’m in the zone or not.) But reducing the pressure in certain situations won’t happen unless we first realize that we can perform with a cluttered mind, and to accept whatever physical feeling our mind is producing. This acceptance will allow us to focus on what we are trying to do. That doesn’t mean it will take anybody from an 18-handicap to pro status in the blink of an eye, but anybody will be able to perform at his or her best more often.
So don’t let your state of mind determine the outcome. Learn to be comfortable in the zone, and also feel comfortable when you are the farthest thing away from a zone state. If you really want to perform better on the golf course, start with improving your mindset on and off the golf course, and every other performance category will fall in line from that point. And if you have success with that different mindset always remember that the mind, body and everything around us is always changing, so don’t simply fall back on the confidence enjoyed when you had the most success. Confidence comes from knowing you prepared, and that you are mentally ready for any state of mind, cluttered or in the zone.
Own the moment, don’t let the moment own you.
Todd Elliott is the Head Golf Professional at Hideaway Beach Club on Marco Island, Florida. Todd is a PGA and CMAA member. Todd is Titleist Performance Institute Level 3 Golf Certified. To contact Todd email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @elliottgolfpro.