Category Archives: mental game

The Link Between Relaxation and Tempo

I have written frequently in this space about tempo. Tempo is the foundation of the golf swing. Once you understand tempo, and have established for yourself the tempo that works for you, everything else can proceed.

The problem is how to apply that tempo consistently swing after swing after swing. We tend to get excited when we play golf. We like to hit the ball along way. Straight would be good, but too often that takes a back seat to the distance we want the ball to go, and because of that our ball striking gets compromised.

There is a way to swing with the same tempo from shot to shot, from the first swing to last. It’s a very neat trick and it’s a simple trick. The trick is to relax.

Relaxation is a mental activity. True you can relax the body, but you’ll only get so far by doing that. Relaxation begins in the mind. If you relax your mind first, then the body will relax to its fullest.

I know you’re relaxed when you stand at address. And I know you take the club back in a very relaxed manner. The key moment occurs when you start the club forward to lead the club into the ball.

That is the moment when you can think “hit” or something forceful like that and any relaxation you once had goes right out the window.

Let me give you suggestion. The next time you go to the range, tell yourself you’re going to make easy swings at the ball, say with a 7-iron. Take the club back and just before the backswing is completed, just a split second before, say to yourself out loud “relax.” Then swing the club forward.

There’s no physical hesitation here. You don’t have to interrupt your swing when you say the word relax. Say it while you’re in motion. Feel any tension releasing itself from your body, and feel the flow of swinging rather than the urge to hit. That is how you maintain your tempo.

One thing that is quite fortunate about the golf swing is that doesn’t take very much time. Your mind, once you give it a suggestion, doesn’t have a lot of time to go wandering off somewhere else.

It does have some time though, so you can still, how shall I say this politely, screw it up by thinking afterward about hitting or swinging hard or the like.

Thinking “relax” is not a guarantee. You have to acquire the mental discipline to follow it through. When you do, I think you will see your ball striking change dramatically for the better.

When you practice, go ahead and say the word “relax” right out loud. Maybe not loud enough that everybody in the range can hear you, but loud enough so you hear yourself give yourself the command.

Saying it out loud also helps plant in your unconscious mind the association between relaxing and starting the club forward. After all we play golf with our unconscious mind. Whatever is in there is what our swing will express, so let’s replace the wrong things with the right things.

After you start getting it you can say “relax” silently to yourself, but eventually you want to make this your habit and you don’t need to say it all. That takes lots of practice and reinforcement because this is a new habit you are trying to lodge deep inside your little hit-it-as-hard-as-I can brain.

I know you’re aware that the transition from the backswing to the forward swing is a great place to ruin your swing. What I have explained to you is a way to solve that problem. Your move.

The Ground-Fearing Golfer

This is the third of a three-part series on matters that make golf more difficult than it should be. Two weeks ago I talked about being ball-bound: thinking that you have to hit the ball instead of swing the club.

Last week I talked about how the pursuit of distance prevents us from doing our best. This week I’ll talk about the ground.

Golf would be a lot easier if the ground wasn’t in the way of the strike. We can survive errors of hitting the ball more toward the toe or heel than we can hitting thin or fat.

A thin shot still gets you something, but a fat shot gets you nothing much but a bad memory. And the anxiety about the ground is really about hitting fat, isn’t it?

Now there are technical fixes that prevent fat shots, and if you have this habit, by all means look them up, or get a lesson.

Technical fixes alone won’t solve the problem, though. Even flawless technique depends on your frame of mind in two key moments.

At takeaway, the wrong things to be thinking are making good contact, hitting the ball straight, hitting the ball to our target, and the like. We want those results, but we get them by sticking to the process.

The process is setting up to make a good stroke, paying attention to the club moving properly and your body following it. “Follow the process” is what to have in mind, if anything, when you take the club away. This process is the same for any shot.

Our mind can flinch at the last moment before impact. Actually, since the downswing is so fast, the club will still be a significant distance from the ball when we think it is just about to make contact with it.

That’s enough time to make a little adjustment that has nothing to do with hitting a better shot, but reflects only the lack of confidence in what we have been doing up to this point. So we do something, but it can never be the right thing.

You can’t turn off your mind when you swing. All you can do is, again, give it the right thing to think about, and that right thing is to follow the movement of the golf club forward through the ball.

Develop the strength of mind that allows you to do this, so it doesn’t work just occasionally, but all the time. The mental exercises explained in The Golfing Self develop that mind.

By being able to keep your mind on the right things, the worries and anxieties about not being able to hit the ball cleanly never find a way in. And when they don’t, there is nothing left for you but to sweep the ball away cleanly.

The Distance-Bound Golfer

Last week I wrote about the ball-bound golfer.

This week I want to write about another tendency that haunts us all–hitting the ball a long way.

We all want to hit the ball a long way. It impresses our friends and makes us feel supreme. But if distance is on your mind when you’re swinging, your “swing the club” thought will get overridden.

You have to realize that any golf club can only hit the ball so far. You’re definitely not going to hit your eight iron as far as your driver. They’re different clubs designed to hit the ball a different distance.

Similarly, your eight iron is not designed to hit the ball as far as your seven iron. If you really do need to hit the ball farther, put away the eight and take out the seven.

When you know you have enough club in your hand, you can put an unforced swing on the ball without having to worry about how far the ball is going to go because you know it will go as far as it needs to.

Then there’s the driver. Too many golfers think the point of that club is to hit the ball as far as they can. Not really true.

Like all your other clubs, the driver is designed to hit the ball a certain distance. Once you find out what that distance is, which you do by swinging it like your 6-iron, say, and seeing how far that is, plan to hit it that distance and no more.

Whichever club you have in your hand, hit the ball with your swinging stroke, not your hitting stroke, and take the distance you get. If you can be at peace with how much distance you get out of any club, you’ll get more distance out of it than if you TRY to get more, which usually gets you less.

All that said, it might be true that there is something missing from your swing that is not letting you get all the distance you could be getting. You might not be hitting up to your potential. Get lessons to find that out if that is so, and what to do about it.

My overall point is, the people you play with are undoubtedly going to be impressed by anyone who can hit the ball a very long way, but they’ll be more impressed by someone who puts the ball in the fairway and hits greens, regardless of how far they it the ball.

The Ball-Bound Golfer

Raise your hand if you feel relaxed and focused when you take your practice swing.

Keep your hand in the air if you feel the same way when when you’re swinging at the ball.

Hmm. I don’t see anyone’s hand still up.

A few weeks ago I was hitting balls off grass and I noticed that my practice swing divot and my “hit the ball” divot right beside it were not in the same place. All the time.

So I went online, putting “ball bound golf” in the search window. I got two videos by Bobby Clampett about being ball-bound. He said he is, and demonstrated it in the same way. One practice swing, one swing at the ball, two divots.

His practice divot lay about two inches ahead of the ball divot. That’s almost exactly what I was getting when I was checking my own swing.

Both of us, and we’re not the only ones, allow the presence of the ball to change the way we swing the club. In mild cases, you can still hit playable shots. In severe cases, you have no idea what’s going to happen.

I don’t think along the lines of, Well, if a pro does it too, I guess its OK so I won’t worry about it.

It’s not OK for anyone. Instead of accepting* it, there has to be a way to change it–to make the two divots be the same.

My assumption, based on a sample size of two, me and Bobby Clampett, is this is a universal tendency, but not a universal absolute. There IS a way to avoid doing it. We just have to find it.

A few years ago, I brought up the matter tangentially in another post and suggested that instead of looking at the ball when you swing, look at the ground about an inch in front of the ball because that is what you’re trying to hit with the club.

But really, we need to find a better solution. We have to go back to the real origin of the problem.

When you take a practice swing, all you’re thinking about is swinging the club. You get ball-bound because you step up to the ball and the thought becomes, “Hit the ball.” That is the fatal error.

The solution is to address the ball and tell yourself, “Swing the club.” Tell yourself like it’s an order to DO it. Be firm with yourself that that’s what you’re going to do.

Then as soon as you have finished saying the word “club”, the INSTANT you have finished saying it, start your swing. Don’t give yourself a moment of time to insert another thought into your head, because you know what that thought will be.

“Swing the club” is not set in stone, though. It is merely one way of putting a thought into your head that is different than “Hit the ball,” or “Make good contact,” or something else like that.

One method I use with great success is to think of the butt end of the handle moving to the left from the start of the forward swing through contact with the ball. This takes my mind off the ball completely and I hit many good shots that way.

That is another example of something that takes your mind away from the ball.

This is a mental problem, and if you have it, you solve it by training your mind to do something other than what it is doing now. Your conscious mind is always talking to you. You have to give it the right thing to say.

* or, giving in.

What Relaxation In Golf Really Means

You know how to swing the club. Your mind tells your body what to do, but the body will carry out those directions only if it is in a state to accept them. This is possible only if the body is relaxed. And the body can be relaxed only if the mind is relaxed.

If there is any tension in the body, muscles have to fight through that tension to get to the next place where they are supposed to be, but never get there, being locked in place and passing through those positions in the wrong way.

Tension makes the body work against itself and is the ruination of what ever it tries to do in golf or anything else.

Golf is a game of positions, only not as it is normally presented to you in swing sequence photographs. There are not eight or nine positions you have to hit to make a correct golf swing. There are an infinite number of positions, because the golf swing is a flow.

This is why you must play golf with a moving mind. That allows your body to move through the positions that you cannot possibly comprehend yet are needed for your best swing to emerge.

When you are relaxed, your body moves naturally, your joints move freely, and your swing flows.

This is why swing thoughts are so paralyzing. By focusing on one aspect of your swing, you emphasize it to the exclusion of every other position that is just as important, adding tension to your body to ensure that none of it goes right.

Let me give you an example of how relaxation can be made part of your swing. It has to do with rhythm.

I write over and over that the rhythm of the golf swing is 3 up, 1 forward to the ball. 3:1, like clockwork. Only, if you make it like clockwork, it won’t work. The golf swing can become stiff and mechanical.

A golf swing has to be alive. It has to breathe. Your expression of the 3:1 rhythm has to be like that, too, and it will be if the mind, and thus the body are relaxed.

So that’s all good, but just how do you relax? It’s very simple.

As you stand over the ball, take your mind away from whatever it is thinking about, and think, “Relax.” Feel the tension drain from your body, head to toe. Let the air out. Feel your body softening, the tension releasing.

Now you are ready to take the club away.

A Few Thoughts on Pressure

About a month or so ago, I posted on why you should learn to play without pressure rather than building pressure into your game on the practice ground.

Yesterday, a GOLFWRX newsletter presented an article titled, “Here’s why your practice sessions right now are probably worthless.”

Yep, you guessed it.  The writer said they are worthless because there is no pressure involved.

So I wrote a reply which I wish I had saved, because I submitted it but it didn’t get accepted for publication.  It’s not hard at all to get published on a golf forum, and we see comments from trolls getting by the censor, but I guess my comment was too incendiary.

I dared to suggest that controlling the mind is a skill that has nothing to do with golf, but with life, and the reason instructors and touring professionals attempt to find ways to accept pressure rather than eliminate it is they do not know the first thing about how the mind works.

I remember Greg Norman saying during his playing days he would never listen to a golf psychologist because none of them knew what it as like to be hitting into the 15th green at Augusta while in contention Sunday, so who were they to tell him what pressure was.  He also said upon reflection when his career was over that attitude was a big mistake on his part.

So if you have a pro who can teach you how to flush a 5-iron, I would listen.  But I would listen at arm’s length when they start telling you about pressure and how the mind works.  They’re most likely telling you what is in the air without having ever dipped further into it than that.

But I have.  So listen up.

What is pressure?  How does it get created?  It takes three conditions for pressure to arise.  In no particular order,

1. You are in a situation where you need to perform at your highest level.
2. You have only one chance to get it right.
3. You have judged the price of failure to be high.

This list could apply to a five-foot putt.  It could apply just as well to a business presentation of importance to your firm.  It could apply to rock climbing, where one wrong move could cost you severe injury or your life.

To prevent #1 from getting to you, practice to the point that you know what you are doing and have all confidence that you will get it right.  Then just do what you’ve practiced.

We all know that when we hit that five-footer a second time, after we missed it the first time, it goes in.  Why?  Because we did not feel pressure!!!  So learn to have that second feeling when you hit your first putt.  It’s entirely possible.

#3 should be easy to deal with.  In the grand scheme of life, there are things that can happen to you that are truly costly if you fail, but missing a five-foot putt is not one of them.  If the price or chance of failure is to high, then don’t put yourself in that situation.

That’s the theory.  To put it into practice, read my book, The Golfing Self.  It teaches you how to develop a mind that is impervious to pressure.

Remember, pressure is all created within you.  The other three members of your foursome aren’t nervous at all watching you stand over that five-foot putt.  They’re probably thinking.  “Good grief!  It’s a straight putt.  Just hit it!”

You can listen to professional golfers speak from ignorance and build pressure into your game, or you can develop your mind to play a care-free game of golf and do just as well, probably better.

Your choice.

One More Hole and You Break 90 (or 100, or 80)

When there is one more hole to go and you can break a milestone score, 90, or 100, or 80, think this way, and ONLY this way. No more, no less.

Think, “All I need to do is get the ball in the fairway and it’s over. I’ve done it.”

From the fairway now, think. “All I need to do is get the ball up to the green and it’s over. I’ve done it.”

From greenside or on the green, think, “All I need to do is lay the ball up close and it’s over. I’ve done it.”

From next to the hole, think, “All I need to do is sink this little putt and it’s all over. I’ve done it.”

That’s four shots, but it’s just an example. Maybe five shots will do. So play five shots, one at a time. However many, let go of the last shot, focus on the next one, never get ahead of yourself.

For each shot, but only one of them at a time, think, “All I need to do . . .” When that shot is over, begin thinking that thought again, and only that thought, for the next one. Be thinking that thought all the way up to the ball for that one shot. Just one.

Keep the task manageable. You don’t need to hit four good shots in a row (or five, or six). Just one. You only need to hit one good shot in a row.

When you have done that, start again. One good shot in a row. Not getting ahead of yourself. Just this shot. This one.

This is not logical thinking, but now is not the time to be logical. Now is the time to make it easy on yourself.

External Focus in Golf

A few weeks ago, while cruising around the web, I found out about external vs. internal focus in learning motor skills, especially related to golf. This the basis of research being conducted at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas by Dr. Gabrielle Wulf.

It goes right to the core of what you need to think you’re doing when you are taught something, learning it by yourself, or even practicing something you already know how to do.

The difference between internal and external focus is simple. Internal focus involves instructions for moving body parts–what you need to do. External focus, in golf, revolves around what the club needs to do. That will guide your body to do the right thing. (The ghost of Ernest Jones is nodding his head.)

Listen to this podcast. It’s only 13 minutes long.

In Wulf’s study involving golf, subjects who had never hit a golf ball before were taught grip, stance, and posture for a pitch shot. Then the subjects were split into two groups.

The internal focus group (IFG) was taught how their arms move, bend, and straighten at various points in the swing. The external focus group (EFG) was taught how the club swings like a pendulum. When swinging the club they were to “focus on the weight of the clubhead, the straight-line direction of the clubhead path, and the acceleration of the clubhead moving toward the bottom of the arc.”

After practicing what they were taught, all subjects hit blocks of ten golf balls each to a target 50 feet away. Outcomes were measured by how close the ball landed to the center of the target.

The results were that the EFG performed significantly better than IFG. As the trials proceeded, both groups improved, but the IFG never caught up to the EFG. The EFG recorded good scores more frequently, and lower scores less frequently, than the IFG.

Remember a few months ago when I suggested that you you think of the chipping stroke as brushing the ground with the sole of the club? Little did I know that was external focus.

What does this mean for you? Everything. It means you’ll learn faster when you practice like this–working on what the club is supposed to do, not what you’re supposed to do. It means when you play, if there is a swing thought in your head (which I don’t recommend all that much), it needs to be about what the club is doing and not about you.

Fear of the Ground

I don’t think many recreational golfers ever get over the hardest thing they had to do when they first took up the game — being able to hit the ball and only the ball.

The ball is so small, as is the tool you use to hit it. If the club meets the ball just a bit too high, you risk blading it. A bit too low and you hit the ground first.

It is this second miss that haunts us and stays with us for years. The ground is in the way and we’re afraid of hitting down there instead of the ball.

Unrecognized and unaddressed, this fear is what does the most to prevent recreational golfers from playing the good golf they are otherwise capable of.

Take this self test. At the range, take out your 6-iron and hit a ball that is sitting on a tee, maybe just a quarter inch above the mat. You’re likely thinking about how easy the ball will be to hit and how good the shot is going to be.

Now put a ball on the mat. If, when you address the ball, your thinking changes, if you think you have to hit the ball precisely right to get a good shot, you have the fear.

You’ve changed your thinking from, “Oh, boy, this is going to be a good shot,” to, “Oh, brother, I hope this works.”

To get over fear of the ground, practice without it. Tee up every ball when you practice full swings and pitches.

Don’t worry, this is not cheating. It’s teaching your unconscious mind that the ground isn’t there. Over time, you come to believe that, freeing yourself to take unfettered swings at the ball.

Swing Thoughts

When you’re standing over the ball, ready to take the club away, there’s something going through your head. What that is will either make your shot easier, or harder.

Imagine a playing partner standing beside you as you’re addressing the ball, giving you all sorts of little reminders. Swing smoothly. Let your weight shift. Swing through the ball. Nice finish.

How long would you put up with that? One time, tops. So there’s no reason to do that to yourself. The reminders you give yourself as you’re about to swing, or during your swing, are destructive. They divide your swing into parts, when it should be thought of as one whole movement.

Sometimes a technical swing thought can pay off, but unless you spend hours on the practice tee and play frequently they can be risky. Besides, that’s just not how the game is played. Cary Middlecoff quotes Ben Hogan:

Hogan was recently asked what specific thought went through his mind just before he started his swing. “All I think about is trying to knock the damn ball in the hole,” said Hogan.

“Oh,” said his questioner. “I thought maybe you used some sort of mental gimmick like starting the club back with your hands, or staying in the backswing plane, or something like that.”

“No,” said Hogan. “You have to work all that stuff out on the practice tee.”

So what do you think about? What should be going through your mind? It is the feeling of what you are about to do. Not what the technical points are, but what the swing feels like as a unified whole when all the technical points are performed correctly. That’s what to teach yourself on the practice tee.

When it’s time to play, take a practice swing that is rhythmic, graceful, flowing, and ends with a firm, stable finish, concentrating on what your swing as one movment feels like in its entirety. Then step up to the ball and duplicate that swing before your mind has a chance to go wandering off in another direction.

Your conscious mind is always looking for something to do. Make sure you give it the right task when it’s time to hit your golf ball.