Golf coaching excellence – the eight secrets that touring pros use to win majors

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By Ronald L Mann, Ph.D., Peak Performance Coach, Best Selling Author, Honorary Member of the World Golf Coaches Alliance

What is more important: technical skill or a solid mental game? Both! If you don’t have the technical ability to play a particular sport, it does not matter how strong your mental game is. Golf is an especially difficult game, because there are so many aspects to it: Driving, long irons, short irons, chipping, putting, bunker play, and trouble shots. It takes a lot of practice to learn how to hit all these different shots. However, even the best of players will fall apart when their mental game does not hold up.

The mental game is equally complex. It takes a lot of training to master one’s inner life and develop the skills to stay mentally strong during intense competition. This is true for any sport. Mental training, when taken to an advanced level, is much more involved than just learning to visualize and maintaining a positive attitude. Just suggesting to someone that they need to quiet their mind is not really helpful unless you can teach a method that will help him/her accomplish that.

Many golf teaching professionals have good skills at the technical level, but may not fully address the importance of the mental game. Of course, the average amateur player is not that interested or committed to the highest level of play, and not that committed to perfecting his or her mental game. He or she just wants a little improvement without too much investment of time or money. The importance of a strong mental game becomes more important to those who begin competing at the game, whether at the high school or collegiate level, and, of course, certainly to the tour professional.

Just as with good swing instruction, the competitive golfer needs to find a qualified golf coach for the mental game. There is a lot involved at this level, and specialized training makes a difference. The mental game has different components. After more than 30 years of playing and coaching the game, here are what I believe are the Eight Essential Secrets to a strong and successful mental approach to golf and life in general.

1. An Unshakable Capacity To Maintain Focus.
2. An Inner Life Free Of Emotional Turmoil.
3. The Ability To Maintain A Positive Outlook.
4. Perseverance: A Never-Give-Up Attitude.
5. Acceptance Of What Life Brings You.
6. Balance: Mental And Emotional.
7. The Ability To Visualize A Desired Outcome.
8. The Ability To Get Yourself Out Of The Way.

Of course, you are probably wondering if these are really the important issues and does this approach work. I helped the UCLA women’s golf team for a season, and this is what their head coach said:  “Dr. Mann was a huge part of our success, and has been a great educator for the team and for me as a coach. I am thrilled to report that with Dr. Mann’s help, our team, which had not qualified for the national championship since 1977, not only qualified, but also finished in 5th place. I would recommend him to any golfer that wants to explore some of the deeper mental aspects of golf in hopes to lower their score.” –– Carrie Leary, Head Coach, UCLA Women’s Golf.

My experience has shown me that when you have a handle on these eight aspects of the mental game, you will have a greater ability to avoid breakdown, be able to access your greatest potential, bounce back from breakdown when it does occur, be less emotionally affected by outcome, be a strong competitor, and find more joy in life.

Once again, it is not sufficient to simple tell someone they need to do something. A good coach needs to also explain how to accomplish the goal. Knowing what to do is half the battle, but you also must know how to get there, as well. Let’s take a look at the Eight Keys.

1. An Unshakable Capacity To Maintain Focus.

Success in sports and life demands an ability to stay focused on the tasks in the short term and the goal in the long run. When your mind is all over the place, you can’t be in the moment, maintain presence, stay on course, or attend to the matter at hand. Our energy is like a laser. When we have greater focus in the moment, we bring greater attention and more energy to the task at hand. The result is a more powerful capacity to be with the present activity, whether it be performing an athletic movement like hitting a golf ball or sustaining a conversation with a business client or loved one. Our focus is one factor that determines how much of ourselves we bring to the moment and how present we can be. If you pay attention, you will also discover that people are more responsive to you when you are more present with them.

Golf is a very subtle game, and even the slightest loss of focus can cause a breakdown and lead to trouble. The mind and body work in harmony, and the mind orchestrates what the body will do. When the mind jumps to the past or future, the body reacts and loses its capacity to perform at the highest level, because literally, there is no one home guiding the ship. Even one split-second of lost focus will destroy a golf swing. Once the awareness goes someplace else into past, future, or distracting thoughts, then grounding and the integration of mind/body is lost, and rhythm, timing, and tempo break down.

Debbie Crews, Ph.D., did some important research in golf performance, and found that one’s ability to maintain focus and maintain a balance between the hemispheres of the brain is more indicative of success than levels of arousal. In plain English, this means your heart rate can be racing at 135 BPM, and if you are focused, you will perform. If your focus dissolves, your performance will deteriorate. This is very important to professional golfers, because their level of arousal goes sky-high in competitive play. You can’t avoid that; you have to learn how to manage it. When you can maintain focus, even in the most difficult circumstances, you will succeed.

So, how do you learn great, enhanced, and prolonged focus? A round of golf can go anywhere from four to six hours. That is a long time. Concentration and focus are like a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets. One of the best methods for developing a “rock-solid” capacity to sustain focus is meditation. There are a lot of different meditation techniques. The ones using the breath have more power than just mental attention alone, because the breath controls the flow of life-force energy. The more the life-force energy is internalized, the greater the result in quieting the mind and reducing all the random thoughts that create internal distractions. Meditation results in a “figure ground” reversal, and you develop an ability to observe your inner experience, like thoughts and emotions, rather than being caught and absorbed by them. Your thoughts and emotions will be there, but not control you.

As you learn to quiet the mind, you will find the results in everyday life. Constant time in meditation results in greater and greater enhanced focused in everyday life, in all types of activities and environments. There is a lot of good research that documents the positive results from meditation. Like I said, mental focus is like a muscle: The more you practice it, the better you become.

2. An Inner Life Free Of Emotional Turmoil.

Your mind, emotions, and body are directly connected. A thought can create an emotional reaction, and if the emotion is not processed, it will go into the body. Unresolved emotions create mental confusion, agitation, distraction, and physical breakdown. It is well-known that stress is the greatest cause of disease, and emotional upset leads to physical breakdown and poor performance. It is impossible to play your best if you are emotionally troubled.

Great performance at the highest level is very demanding. Even the slighted degree of unresolved emotional issues will lead to breakdown under extreme competitive pressure. Many of these issues often stem from early childhood conditioning, but not always. We have seen players lose their capacity to win when their personal life spins out of control from sex, drugs, and/or interpersonal problems. Emotional problems can undermine your self-confidence, sense of personal worth, and value. The result is that you don’t feel you deserve to win. You will not have all your attention, energy and commitment available to compete in the moment. You will feel a nagging sense of doubt about your ability to succeed.

Two things have to happen to be clear on this issue. First, you need to do some honest introspection and determine if you need to resolve any early issues about your lovability, self-worth or capacity for success. These issues can be resolved with some professional help and will make an enormous difference in your life. Secondly, you need to be very thoughtful about how you are living your life. Make a commitment to treat others with respect and dignity, maintain your integrity, and resolve misunderstandings when they do occur. You may find that the more you think about others and the less you focus upon yourself, the more joy you will feel. Typically, individuals with unresolved anger issues, a need to control others, a selfish attitude, a sense of entitlement, poor self-esteem, and/or unresolved issues around personal loss experience more emotional turmoil. All of these types of issues can be resolved if you decide to do so.

The thing is, you can do all the visualization and positive affirmation you want, but if your emotional life is not in balance, your performance and health will suffer! The deeper aspects of peak performance and sport psychology address the whole person: mind, body, emotions, and spirit.

3. The Ability To Maintain A Positive Outlook.

You cannot underestimate the power of a positive outlook. Deborah Graham, Ph.D., sports psychologist, told me the following story. She was working with Dave Stockton, and he told her he had a big tournament coming up but his swing was off. He did not think he could improve it in the short time he had. He asked from some advice. They created a mental game plan where he would stay positive after every shot, no matter the outcome. If the shot was bad, he was to think about his life. He had a great family and a happy marriage. There were lots of positive things to think about. After the week, he called her and was pleased that he had won. However, his swing was not great, but his mental approach stayed positive, as they had planned. His strong mental game made the difference.

Our attitude has a lot to do with how we create our future, and it certainly affects our body chemistry. Positive thoughts create an inner harmony that enhances mind/body coordination and integration. Do a Google search on Dr. Emoto and his research with thought and water crystals. You will see some great slides on how our thoughts impact our physiology. The more elevated thoughts like love and gratitude resulted in beautiful and symmetric shapes, as opposed to the more negative thought forms that created grotesque forms. A strong positive mental attitude keeps us motivated, hopeful, and determined. It is easy to get depressed when our attitude goes south.

In my book, Bouncing Back: How to Recover When Life Knocks You Down, I state a fundamental esoteric principle, “Energy follows thought.” What begins in the mind becomes energy and eventually is expressed through action and behavior. The body cannot achieve what the mind conceives to be impossible!

A positive outlook is especially important in times of crisis. Coming down the stretch with a one-shot lead, and you pull-hook your shot into the lake and lose the lead, can be considered a crisis. You can fall apart or dig deep and find strength, knowing you still have it in you to recover and regain the lead.

Exactly how does one develop the ability to maintain a positive state of mind when life has so many challenges? Many people find a source of strength from a faith in something greater than themselves. When you believe there is some purpose and direction to life, then challenges, obstacles, and setbacks are seen as opportunities to learn and grow. In my recent book with coach Joe Taylor, The Making of a Champion: Success is an Inconvenience, we say, “Success isn’t a matter of being the best. Success is a matter of handling the worst.” A depth of faith creates an unwavering belief that everything will turn out all right in the end and that each moment is just as it should be. When a strong faith is based upon the experience and that spirit is within you, around you, and everywhere, then it is possible to keep moving ahead with a positive and hopeful attitude.

There are more stories and a greater discussion about the power of a positive attitude in Bouncing Back: How to Recover When Life Knocks You Down. This book is also available through in every format: paperback, Kindle, and audiobook. Jim Brown, world-famous running back for the Cleveland Browns, offers some sage advice on this topic in Bouncing Back: faith and belief are not enough. You have to do the hard work! Hard work gives you confidence because you know you have prepared. You have a reason to be confident and positive.

If you know you’re in total shape and you’ve prepared in every way and something goes wrong, you can bounce back from it much easier. You don’t necessarily lose confidence; you can just stick in there because you know you have prepared yourself, and you can make it. That’s very important. It’s hard to get around. A great talent that cheats on hard work and preparation is never going to be a strong psychological force.

4. Perseverance: A Never Give Up Attitude.

Success is not an easy road. It takes a lot of courage and determination to stay the course. It also takes maturity and wisdom to understand the success does not usually occur on the first attempt. If you give up after one defeat, then you are really lost. Coach Joe Taylor from The Making of a Champion, has a great saying: “You need to remember that FAIL stands for First Attempt In Learning.” He also reminds us that the cleaning product 409 got its name because the first 408 formulas did not work.

Most people do not realize how much work it really takes to be the best. Each miss at success provides us with an opportunity to learn more and improve our craft. Once again we must remember, “Success isn’t a matter of being the best. Success is a matter of handling the worst.” We can’t handle anything when we give up.

With regards to golf, being in contention on the final day and the final round can create arousal levels that are off the chart. If this is your first time in this position, your body will have new reactions. Every time you are able to achieve this position, you are giving yourself a chance to learn how to handle success. A failure to win on your first attempt does not define you as a loser, nor should it discourage you from knowing that you will be there again and with greater knowledge and experience on how to cope. Success is a process and we don’t usually get there on the first attempt!

There is a great interview with Diego “Chico” Corrales in my book, Bouncing Back: How to Recover When Life Knocks You Down. I asked Diego, “Any advice that you can share with young people, who are up against that wall and are struggling, that can help them find the inner strength and courage to overcome all that?” He said, “Yeah. The one advice I can give to anybody going through that would be: just never know how to quit. If you quit, you’ll never know what you could be. If you don’t quit, you never know the possibilities that may come. So that’s the thing. If you quit, you’ll never know how far you can go. I would say, never leave the question, ‘What if I would have—? What if I would have—?’”

One of the biggest issues for junior golfers is not to give up after a bad shot. All too often we see a young player make one bad shot and his/her round is over –– they are toast after one bad shot. They get so frustrated and angry that they give up. They think each shot should be perfect and lose all hope with one bad shot. Golf provides great lessons for life. If we give up after one problem in life, we will never accomplish anything!

Early in 2013 at Torrey Pines, Rickey Fowler shot an opening 77, and he was in last place. Most people would think he was on his way home and would never make the cut. He played his way back into the tournament and made the cut. Did he give up? I have seen Jesper Parnevik make a lot of double bogeys, but he comes back with birdies. I like coach Taylor’s subtitle, Success is an Inconvenience. It takes a lot of hard work to be successful. If you think you can rise to the top without work, without learning, without tests and setbacks, then you are mistaken. If you talk to any successful athlete or businessperson, you will hear the same response: I never gave up.

5. Acceptance of What Life Brings You.

A key element for a strong mental game is acceptance. Acceptance becomes a spiritual practice, because it demands that you stay in the moment and deal with what is, not what you wish was happening. Frustration leads to mental breakdown and total lack of focus. Frustration results when we have preconceived ideas about how we want things to be and our expectations are not met. These ideas take us out of the moment and deplete our ability to live in the present and deal with the reality at hand.

Acceptance brings peace of mind if coupled with a positive outlook. Acceptance is not giving up in hopelessness and despair. Acceptance keeps us from wasting time on what is not happening so we can get to work. When we accept what life has given us, remain positive, never give up, and have faith, then we will have all our resources available to master the task at hand.

A strong faith can help us accept life as it comes to us. When we believe in a universe with purpose and realize our part and role in that greater purpose, then we are more inspired to keep working hard and doing our part. Some of the most inspiring stories come from individuals who have had great tragedies and setback, but did not give up, accepted the circumstance, and continued to accomplish great things.

Lee Brandon, women’s long drive champion of the 2001 RE/MAX Long Drive and 2003 Safeway Classic, had her arm severed as an adolescent in an accident. Her full story can be found in Bouncing Back. She died during the operation to reattach her arm because of massive blood loss. She had a near-death experience and came back to life. Her arm was re-attached, but she could not move it. It took her seven years of rehab to regain full use. She went on to be the first woman fitness trainer for the New York Jets, as well as the Safeway Classic long drive champion with a drive of 332 yards.

In her interview, she shares a compelling story of her relationship with Bob Wieland, a Vietnam veteran who had both legs blown away from a mortar explosion. He went on a walk across the United States on his hands. He saw her crying one day in the gym, and she was stretching her arm to break up the adhesions. His words to her changed her life and gave her the strength to persevere and accept her challenge. This is a story worth reading. Both of these great individuals accepted very difficult life circumstances and brought all their resources to the challenge. Both have accomplished great things and continue to be an inspiration to millions of people.

6. Balance: Mental and Emotional.

A well-balanced life is highly recommended for good mental health and sustainability. If you are driven by success, and neglect friends, family, and nurturing activities, then burnout is likely. A good mental balance requires a proper perspective on the game – it is a game, and your performance should not be the defining factor for your sense of value and worth. It is important to have other interests and a deeper sense of identity beyond your performance on the course. One bad shot should not result in an inner dialogue of, “I am worthless, stupid, an idiot, etc.” It is very helpful to have other activities that you enjoy so you can find a sense of fulfillment in several aspects of life.

Emotional balance is also important. If you get too high with success you will go too low with defeat – somewhere in the middle is good. If you are too attached to the results of your efforts, you will be more prone to mood swings, frustration, anger, and obsessive qualities. It is important to do your best, put out your best effort, and then find a way to accept what comes – let go of your attachment to the results. You can always strive to improve, but you don’t have to be miserable all along the way until you reach your goals. You can achieve balance when your goals are realistic and achievable. When you design goals within a realistic time frame, you can avoid driving yourself crazy or setting yourself up for disappointment and despair.

I recently had a 17-year-old come to me who had been playing golf for six months. His goal was to be the best player in the world in three months! Was this a recipe for disaster or what? I attempted to help him create realistic goals. A solid core identity that goes deeper than your performance will provide a foundation for life. When you realize that you have a purpose in life, and by caring about others, you will find more joy than only focusing upon your own needs and desires, and you will feel more balanced and less at the mercy of strong emotional reactions.

The mind, emotions, and body are connected. An inner sense of balance can also result in more balance in your golf swing. Watch the pros – the successful ones have a well-balanced swing and play within themselves. The swing evolves from the ground up. If you are falling off your feet and cannot finish a shot standing solid, then it is very difficult to consistently hit the ball straight and make solid contact.

Inner balance is discovered as you are able to quiet your mind and emotions. Use introspection to discover what is important for you and resolve any issues that create undue mental distress. Any meditative methods that help you realize a deeper sense of self, beyond your mind and emotions, will help you maintain balance during difficult times. A meditative practice can help you discern the difference between trying to make something happen and allowing something to happen. One is based upon the ego and the other lives in the higher self. Balance is the result of self-realization, letting go, faith, wisdom, and awareness.

7. The Ability to Visualize a Desired Outcome.

One of the key elements to a sound mental game is the use of visualization. All too often, the amateur golfer will just step up to the ball and hit it without any pre-shot routine that includes a specific target focus and an image of the desired outcome. The body responds to what the mind creates. Studies have shown that there are actually fine muscle movements that occur as the result of mental imagery – simply imagining a shot will rehearse your body for the actual action.

High handicappers actually prepare for the worst and program their body to accomplish what they DO NOT WANT TO ACHIEVE. Yes, that is correct. You hear it all the time. “Don’t hit it in the water.” “Watch out for the bunker on the right.” “Don’t pull it left.” “Don’t be short.” These thoughts and mental images actually tell the mind to do exactly that!

The accomplished golfer knows the value of a consistent pre-shot routine in which a specific target is chosen and an image of the total outcome – target, ball flight, landing spot and ending point – are all visualized prior to hitting the ball. Visualization becomes even more powerful when a kinesthetic component is added, i.e., feel the shot. It is important to feel your body making the action you want to accomplish, not just seeing the ball in action. These two methods combined create the best results.

In order to visualize most effectively, you need to have a strong focus. If your mind is jumping all over the place, it is not helpful. As mentioned earlier, even if your arousal level is high, a strong focus with a good visualize image with yield success. Once again, a meditation practice adds a mental skill that will pay off in competition. There is a more subtle aspect to visualization, as well. Energy follows thought. This reality is discussed in greater detail in my book, The Yoga of Golf. This book discusses the entire system of yoga, not just stretching (asana). The yoga system includes philosophy, breathing techniques, and meditation, along with the physical postures.

Consciousness is a subtle force that is directed by the will. The will becomes stronger with a clear and focused mind. These subtle energetic forces actually affect physical reality. The most advanced athletes know these deeper realities. So, the process of visualization is more important than most people understand. Because these subtle energetic forces created by our own thoughts do exist, we have the capacity to interact and effect our environment.

In a private conversation with golf researcher Debbie Crews, Ph.D., she talked about her next research interest: To study a player’s ability to control the ball flight with his or her will.  Jim Brown, legendary football running back for the Cleveland Browns, knew about this reality. We discussed it in Bouncing Back. Many people would be surprised to learn that a powerful man such as Brown would also be aware of a softer, more subtle aspect of reality that has great impact on one’s environment and others. He worked extensively with gang members from south central Los Angeles. Mr. Brown stated that he was never touched or hurt, and he believes that his awareness and use of these subtle forces were the reason. You can read the full story in Bouncing Back.

8. The Ability to Get Yourself Out of the Way.

A great paradox of success is that, sometimes, “less is more.” Sometimes, we can try so hard that we impair our greatest performance. When we are obsessed with outcome, when we keep trying to make something happen, when we are trying to control what happens, we actually prevent peak performance from happening. It is the same as when we are trying to remember something and can’t. However, when we just relax and let go of trying so hard, it just pops into our mind.

We typically hear from great golfers that when they were in the “zone,” they felt that things were happening without effort. They were not aware of their score or even time. It felt like a magical place. We are all capable of great things. The movie, The Legend of Bagger Vance, is a great story of a young man who had a great game. He went to war and lost himself and his swing. His redemption and rediscovery of his swing occurs as the result of letting go of past ghosts and shadows and discovering his “true swing,” a metaphor for his true self. It is a great movies and I encourage you to watch it again or for the first time.

An interesting thing happens when we discover our deeper self that is free of the mind and emotions. It is a self that is capable of miraculous things – greater love, compassion, wisdom, and golf shots. This essential self is always there; it just gets lost and covered over by our fears, doubts, anger, desires, and attachments.

The path to the true self is more about letting go than about “doing” something. I love this story, as it helps us understand this concept:

A particular king has a wonderful man who made the most beautiful music stands. When asked by the locals how he accomplished such a feat, he explained, “I begin by fasting in the palace for five days. I then go out into the woods and walk around until I am totally lost and disoriented. I continue fasting for another five days. By this time, I am hallucinating. I keep wandering around until I look up into the trees and see the most beautiful music stand I have ever seen. I then just cut away all the wood that surrounds it.”

We hear different versions of this story. Michelangelo just cut away the stone and revealed the statue of David. Our soul or essential self is that piece of art within us. Our mind, our ideas about who we think we are, and our emotions cloud our awareness and separate us from our true selves. The real work is about letting go. This is a shift in attention, and a shift in consciousness. It is not about giving up, passively waiting for something to happen, or abdicating our responsibility for our own evolution and development. It takes a lot of work to learn how to get out of the way. It is just a different kind of work, but very demanding nevertheless. The deepest and most profound type of coaching addresses this level. Not everyone is up to the challenge. Are You?

Getting yourself out of the way refers to your ego, the part of you that tries so hard, wants so much and believes you are totally separate from spirit and isolated from the rest of the universe. When you are totally driven by outcome and try too hard, you become your own worst enemy. The magic of peak performance happens when you discover an aspect of yourself that is beyond the obvious. As you learn to quiet down and look inside beyond what is on the surface, you will discover a hidden reserve that will change your life.

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