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The Mental Side of Golf

Karl Morris (left) and Chris Baxter

A few months back, Dr. Karl Morris, mental coach to the likes of Lee Westwood, Darren Clarke and others, came through Toronto. I couldn’t free the time to go see him, but soon afterwards Dr. Chris Baxter, from Vancouver, wrote to me about explaining the notion of mental coaching and golfers.

Dr. Baxter is North America’s first Certified Mind Factor Coach he is qualified to teach a set of  mental game tools and techniques employed by many of Europe’s best golfers and is a Master Practitioner of NLP (MNLP), a Master Practitioner of Time-Linked Techniques, and a Certified Hypnosis Practitioner. Chris routinely posts new mental game tips and insights on the Complete Golf Performance blog.

Dr. Baxter has worked with golfers of all skill levels, including national champions, Canadian Tour players, and recreational golfers. He recently had the honour and pleasure of working with B.C.’s elite junior golfers when he served as mental game coach at the 2009 Fall High Performance Camp for the 2009 BCGA Provincial Junior Team. Chris serves as the mental game specialist for the PGA of BC, the Srixon Golf Tour, and the Vancouver Golf Tour.

I asked him a series of question about why a recreational golfer would use a mental coach. That said, having spent an hour this morning hitting balls with a pool noodle set in my backswing, I think I understand why golfers could use a shrink. He also makes some interesting remarks about Tiger Woods. Every announcer these days makes a big deal of how his issues off the course are impacting his play. I wondered what a mental coach would have to say about that.

Here’s what Baxter had to say:

G4G: Lots of players spend time working on their swing and the physical elements of their game. Why should they consider the mental side?

Baxter: In golf, there are only two things that we are trying to control: the ball, and ourselves. As far as I know, nobody has figured out how to completely control the ball, so it stands to reason that we need to be able to control ourselves and our mental state on the golf course. Regardless of skill level, golfers play their best when they remove conscious thought from the equation and when they stay focused on the shot at hand. These skills are not easily mastered, especially without instruction. Most golfers spend their between-shot time travelling between the past (beating themselves up over poor shots) and the future (worry about score, or shots to come). They play golf mechanically, letting swing thoughts and the latest golf magazine tip drive their swing. Golfers put themselves on an emotional roller coaster, experiencing tremendous highs and self-deprecating lows throughout the round. After each round of golf, players tend to congregate to tell their stories of missed shots, three-putts, and double-bogeys that wrecked their respective rounds. With mental game training, golfers can learn how to control their expectations and reactions on the golf course and, by extension, play better and more enjoyable golf. While there are many books on the mental game, many of these focus on the “why” of the mental game and offer little help on the “how”.  It’s great to read about the importance of staying in the present and avoiding negative reactions to bad shots, but how exactly does one do that? This is what mental game training is all about.

G4G: Is it gaining more traction given the interest from pros?
Baxter:  The mental game of golf is indeed gaining traction among players of all levels. Every week, TV commentators remind us of the importance of the mental game in golf as players make swings under pressure. There is, however, a bit of a disconnect for amateur golfers in that there are very few resources available to learn how to improve your mental game. You can take a swing lesson at any golf facility, but where do you go if you want to improve your mental game? I just did a quick browse of best selling golf books on amazon.com and found that 4 of the top 15 books are mental game books; this tells me that the average golfer is searching for clues on how to improve their mental game and that they are largely using publications from mental game gurus to build their mental skills.

G4G: Will mental coaching help even the average player? Does the elite or low-handicap player benefit more?

Baxter: While all golfers can benefit from mental coaching, what I have noticed is that the higher handicap players tend to attribute inconsistency in play to a lack of skill. They therefore perceive that swing lessons are the best approach to lowing their cap (if this is their goal; many golfers never truly improve the way they play). Lower handicap players, as well as those that play in tournaments and events, recognize that their mental state dictates how they perform on any given day. When I work with clients, the skills that I teach are applicable to any player. New golfers and high-handicappers benefit from having a great mindset on the course as well as from being able to recover quickly from bad shots and rounds.

G4G: Is mental coaching a necessity these days for the best players?

Baxter: While some touring pros eschew sports psychology, the vast majority of professional golfers have built a solid mental game toolbox and rely on their mental game training to improve the likelihood of playing well. Tiger Woods has worked with a peak performance coach since he was a junior, and mental game gurus that follow professional circuits all have a stable of professional clients. Mental game training allows golfers to be in the right mindset before a round of golf and also to enter a peak state (“the zone”) before each shot. Players can also learn how to quickly dismiss poor shots and rounds. In combination these skills allow golfers to play the game one shot at a time; past mistakes and future worries simply aren’t allowed to influence the shot at hand. For the best golfers that know how to play the game and have a reproducible swing, there is no factor more influential in scoring than the mental game. I therefore believe that mental training is a necessity for those that want to play at their best consistently

G4G:  There’s been a lot said about the impact that Tiger Woods’ life away from the course has had on his game inside the course. What would you do if he came to you and what can the average person do to limit the distractions when they are on the course?

Baxter: In golf, there are two types of distractions: internal distractions and external distractions. External distractions are those that are created external to ourselves and therefore can’t be controlled. Media frenzy, slow play of others, weather and rain, noise, poor sportsmanship of others, etc. are all distractions that we have no control over and, left unchecked, can impact our play. Internal distractions are those that we create through our own actions and beliefs; doubt, negative self-talk and criticism, and focusing on the past or future, are all distractions that we can control. Regardless of the type of distraction, there are a number of techniques that can reduce the impact of distractions and return our focus on the present, which is the only place to be when playing golf. These include specific breathing exercises, a technique called peripheral vision, body language adjustment, and others.  I’ve never met Tiger and can’t really comment on what he is likely thinking or feeling. He has be trained to be focused from a very young age and, if anyone can put aside distractions from life outside of golf, Tiger can. I can, however, suggest that like all golfers, Tiger needs to make an effective transition from life outside of golf to life on the golf course each time he tees it up. A pre-round routine that involves breath work and emotional management, development of a playing focus for the day, and visualization during the warm-up is the best way to be in the right mindset for a round of golf.

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Jeff Lancaster

Jeff Lancaster is the Publisher of CanadianGolfer.com.

6 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Sports psychologists or mental “coaches” are the one’s who really need mental help. It’s a good way to make money no doubt…prying on the weaknesses of those around us. Quite classy don’t you think?

    If I were to answer questions the way he answered yours on a test or exam….I would undoubtedly fail. I wish you had asked him how generalizations can help in very specific situations. He would either beat around the bush or have no answer whatsoever….THAT is something I can guarantee and wouldn’t need a “sports psychologist” to figure out.

    • Frank suggests that what I do as a golf mental game coach is “prey on the weaknesses of those around us.” Nothing could be further from the truth. My clients seek me out as they have specific needs that aren’t being met elsewhere. They want to know how to get rid of first tee jitters, how to enter the zone, how to let bad shots and rounds go, how to set and achieve goals, and how to build confidence in their games, among other things. I address each player’s needs individually and give them a set of concrete mental game tools that will last them a lifetime (without having to build long term ties to me). This is far more effective than reading and filtering information from a bunch of books.

      Every great player knows the importance of the mental game in golf. As stated by Jack Nicklaus in his book My Story: “Don’t ever try to tell me that golf is not 99.9 percent a mental game.” Why then, would you criticize the work of those that teach this aspect of the game? If golf is a mental game, how do you propose that the average golfer builds mental skills?

      As for your question: “I wish you had asked him how generalizations can help in very specific situations” the answer is, they can’t. Feel free to provide a specific situation in golf that you’d like me to address, and I’ll give you a very specific answer and possibly a drill or two to apply.

      I hope to have the opportunity to give you a new perspective on what mental game coaching is all about. I am looking forward to your reply!

      Chris Baxter

  • Hello Chris,

    Some questions for you as you requested.

    How can you say you are able to “help” pro golfers if you have never and probably will never face the same situation any of them face on a day to day basis? I’m not sure about this, but I am willing to bet that research would show no proven results in terms of wins, career earnings etc. for those who use sports psychologists and those who don’t.

    You use Jack Nicklaus as an example. If we are going to base what is right on examples from the games greatest players…the fact that he says 99.9% of the game is mental speaks volumes to the profession of sports psychologists. I’m fairly confident Jack never used a mental coach throughout his PGA Tour career. I’m also fairly confident that the games greatest players (Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Greg Norman, Nick Faldo etc.) also never used sports “psychologists.” What does that tell us?

    The problem with giving you a “specific” situation stems from the premise itself in that no specific situation is ever repeated more than once. Each situation is unique and different and in being so is inherently singular. This is why I don’t understand how generalizations, which is all you can provide, help in any particular defined situation. I would be more than willing to give you a specific situation and you may very well have some sort of answer, however, how can you say the answer is correct or even better, how can you argue it’s even useful without knowing the circumstances that surround it specifically and without experience in that exact situation? In your interview you say there are “external” and “internal” distractions, but these are distractions that are internalized in a very individualized manner by every person. You say internal distractions are controllable, but I could list a plethora of internal distractions which are not controllable in any way. The assumption that you can “fix” the problem with the way we internalize certain events or experiences is without substantiation because there is no right or particular way people are meant to internalize things. The only person able to determine this is the individual him/herself.

    I don’t doubt people may find you of benefit, but asking a sports psychologist if they are necessary is like asking a tobacco sales man if cigarettes are good.

    I think my problem with the whole situation is the title of sports psychologist. Sports consultants would be a better fit. The term psychologist seems to imply answers and the idea that they can “fix” us when the simple truth is sports psychologists cannot and do not do either…they simply give advice and anyone can give advice.

    • Hi Frank,

      Thanks again for the comments. Let me begin by addressing your last paragraph. I am not a sports psychologist, either by trade or by name. I am a golf mental game coach, and I believe that this title accurately reflects what I do. I don’t agree with your assertion that sports psychologists aren’t any more qualified to dispense advice than the average Joe. True, anyone can give advice, but we should preferentially consider the advice of those that have training in a particular area. When you want to learn how to make effective contact on approach shots, do you take a lesson from your local CPGA professional, or do you ask a playing partner? I don’t know of any good sport psychologist that would claim to “fix” a golfer, as if by waving some sort of magic wand. Instead, my colleagues and I help golfers to understand more about how their specific thoughts and beliefs impact performance. With this knowledge, specific tools, processes, and drills can be shared so that the client golfer has the ability to prevent and overcome mental issues on the course. I am not aware of any studies that compare golfers that use mental game coaches with those that don’t in terms of wins, earnings, etc. I think that this would make a great research study for somebody (not me!). I do know that many of the great champions of today , including US Open champions Tiger Woods and Graeme McDowell have extensive and formal mental game training.

      Your first question is an interesting one: “How can you say you are able to “help” pro golfers if you have never and probably will never face the same situation any of them face on a day to day basis? ” Most of the game’s best swing coaches have never played at a high level professionally themselves. Does this mean that they are unqualified to teach players that play at the highest level? Whether you are facing a putt to win your club championship or the US Open, or simply to shoot a career best, the pressures and emotional reactions are similar. I am intimately familiar with these experiences and can teach from the collective experience that all golfers share.

      In your next paragraph, you suggest “I’m also fairly confident that the games greatest players (Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Greg Norman, Nick Faldo etc.) also never used sports “psychologists.” What does that tell us?” Well, universities only began offering sport psychology courses in the 1970s, so many of the players you list would not have had access to the tools we have today. These great players, do, however serve as fantastic models for many of the techniques we teach today. Ben Hogan and Jack were both supremely talented at visualizing. Nick Faldo was fantastic at dealing with distractions and staying in his own game. While these great players may have developed their mental strength without the aid of others, does this mean that all golfers today should do the same? The teaching academies modeled after / created by these players certainly don’t think so. They all incorporate mental game training into their curriculum (see Player and Norman in particular), as do all the academies of leading instructors (Leadbetter, Harmon, Haney , etc.).

      In your next paragraph, you write: “The problem with giving you a “specific” situation stems from the premise itself in that no specific situation is ever repeated more than once.” I guess it depends how specific you want your specific to be. Are there aspects of your game (mental or otherwise) that you regularly reproduce? Do you routinely hit a slice? Do you get angry after a poor shot? Do you have first tee jitters? Much in the same way that a swing coach can generalize and provide tools and techniques to decrease the probability that you’ll slice the ball, a mental game coach can generalize and provide tools and techniques to improve your mental outlook and focus on the course. When I was asking for a specific example, I was looking for something along the lines of “I get distracted when teeing off over water” or “I get nervous over chip shots.” There are many general techniques that mental coaches would teach you to address these limitations. The specific approach taken with a particular student is, however, unique. If you want to provide an example along these lines, I’ll ask a few more contextual questions and give you a few tools that you can apply in your game. I would certainly never generalize to the point of saying something trite like “all you need to do is relax and breathe sloowwwwly…” Breath control, however, is a powerful tool in many pressure situations.

      As for the discussion on internal distractions, I stated in the interview that internal distractions are those that we create, such as self-talk and doubt. These can be controlled if you wish; while there is no right way to internalize a feeling, if you find a feeling to be distracting while golfing, you can learn to destroy the distraction. Simply put, if you don’t want to hear yourself say “I’m a terrible short putter” every time you step over a 5’ putt, you can make this distraction disappear. If you want to eliminate negative thoughts and doubt, it is possible to do so. I believe this to be tremendously helpful in golf.

      I understand that mental game coaching is probably not something that you are interested in exploring for yourself. If you have developed a solid mental game and have all the resources and tools that you need to keep emotionally balanced and focused every time you tee it up, then kudos to you. Understand though that many golfers do want to learn from the collective experience of the game’s best teachers and players. Mental game coaches can streamline and tailor the learning process for their clients so that they can play their best golf with fewer mental limitations.

      Play well!

      Chris Baxter

  • Chris,

    Thanks for your information and answers to even the most cynical people out there. Having played 2 sports at a very high level, I know exactly how important the mental game is. Golfers of all levels will benefit from your expertise and that of the Mind Factor. Keep up the great work, I am sure you sleep well at night knowing how many people you have made better both on and off the course.

  • Hi Chris,

    I always believe that golf and tennis are predominantly mental sports. Thanks to coaches like you. I am now in my sixties and the mental tips that I read from your group help me keep my game at competitive level.

    Eli

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