The game between your ears: How the mental side of golf impacts the game
Golf is unlike any sport.
It’s a game defined between your ears. As the saying goes, it’s the game that is decided 90 percent by your mental game and only 10 percent by your physical and athletic abilities.
Most sports are dependent on your reaction to an already moving ball, except in unique scenarios like a pitcher throwing a baseball or a basketball player shooting a free throw.
With golf, that's the entire game.
“Golf is very like you are the one pulling the trigger,” Michigan women’s golf coach Jan Dowling said. “You’ve really got to be in control of your heart rate and breathing. If you can do that (you can be successful).”
In today’s game, golfers are making more of a concerted effort to focus on the sport’s mental aspect.
Michigan sophomore Mikaela Schulz started this process in high school after reading the book Every shot must have a purpose. This helped her change the way she practiced. Before reading the book, she understood that every shot on the course had a purpose, reflected in her score, but didn’t realize the significance of every shot she took on the practice range.
“No matter where you are, no matter what shot you’re hitting, you should always do your routine and make it count like it would in a tournament,” Schulz said. “I think that helped me advance my game to the next level and get more serious about my practices.”
Schulz began to truly understand that the only shot that counts is the next one. This realization only came by gaining confidence in her shots and remembering that in every round, no matter how poor, there were at least a few good shots. This prompted her to create a confidence journal to remember those shots and visualize them after the round.
Gaining confidence for each shot is one facet of the mental game, but remaining committed to that shot is the only way to perform well. Dowling helps her golfers commit to their shots through implicit learning and visualizing each shot. For each player this can mean something different, and Dowling believes it is important for each player to get a clear idea of what that is before every shot.
In practice, Schulz tries to simulate pressure situations and build up trust in a variety of different shots. Her practice technique has changed more than her actual playing due largely to the fact that in college she only has a limited amount of time each day to practice. Whereas in high school she could spend all day practicing, she only spends three hours each day practicing due to NCAA regulations. She shifted her practices from technique to trying to create a tournament like atmosphere and develop trust in her game with a variety of different shots.
“In developing my mental side of the game, it helped me realize that you have to have the techniques down, but it’s more about feel and more about playing the game,” Schulz said. “There’s an analogy that it’s like a centipede trying to figure out what it’s like to move first. It's not athletic. It’s not natural. So just the mental development of learning to focus more on feel and be more of a player.”
At Michigan, Schulz works with Kevyn Monier to hone certain areas of her mental game. Monier, is a clinical social worker and sports performance coach through the athletic department who primarily deals with mental health challenges, helping athletes learn how to compartmentalize anxiety and perform under stress.
With Schulz, Monier focuses on reaching optimal levels of performance and stress. This is known as the Yerkes Dodson Law — human performance increases as stress levels increase, but at a certain point reaches a peak and performance decreases as stress increases and passes this peak.
“Ultimately what I’m trying to do is to look and see what types of barriers or what types of obstacles are getting in the way of this student athlete performing at the most optimal level,” Monier said. “For instance, a five-foot putt that increases arousal state. Well, why let’s look at that. Let’s process why is that or a gimmie shot that may be a foot away and how somebody could miss that one. … And so trying to find all of the things that kind of takes individuals off of the median.”
One technique Monier and Schulz are working on is the pattern interrupt. Schulz visualizes herself in a situation, for example a short putt — something she has struggled with — and tries to feel what she would feel during that putt in a tournament setting. Schulz tries to recreate those nerves and anxiety, but then tries to rewrite the situation. Instead of visualizing a miss, she pauses and interrupts the old thought pattern to inspire more confidence.
Unlike other sports, in golf, the individual player is responsible for the whole game. This creates an innumerable amount of external variables that change from day to day. For this reason, Monier can’t encourage a golfer like he would a football player by telling them to go out and destroy everything in their path. Golf requires a different mental state entirely.
Monier encourages golfers to focus on the present, something Dowling also preaches through her focus on breathing techniques. The breathing exercises help the golfers slow their heart rate to help control their adrenaline and help make strong, non emotional decisions on the course.
“Instead of focusing on what could go wrong, or the shot I’m about to hit, I’m going to count my steps or I’m going to breathe in and breathe out slowly,” Dowling said. “We really try and help manage time and learn to manage ourselves emotionally and physically.”
Dowling also recognizes the evolution of the mental side of golf. When she was a player, it was more about the physical aspect and building a high golf IQ. Now, the marriage of one’s physical and mental games is imperative.
Schulz shares this ideology, recognizing that both aspects of the game are equally important. She believes that the mental game is too often overlooked, especially in a sport where it is so important.
“If you only develop your physical and technical part of the game you can get pretty far,” Schulz said. “But to a point all the players are just about as good as you are.
“It’s going to depend on who has the mental edge to be good under pressure to make the putt when it matters most.”