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.