By Dave Van Meter
This is your brain on golf
Your conscious thoughts can kill your game. Many years ago I was playing in a summer league with some of my life-long golfing buddies. One of the guys (Mike) was just on fire that day, nothing but pars and birdies. He was starting to get on our nerves after about 6 holes so I decided something had to be done. While we were putting I mentioned to one of my other friends (Mark) that Mike’s girlfriend (who had just recently broken up with him) had stopped by to visit my wife the other day. Mike’s whole demeanor changed when he was reminded of her and he three-putted from 10 feet. On the next tee we were still snickering about the three put and he literally couldn’t hit the ball. After two double bogey’s in a row he was done. He couldn’t find green in a box of crayons. At the time I didn’t give it much thought, I’d just psyched him out. Today I have a much better understanding of what happened.
Golf is, has and will always be a frustrating game, that’s why we play it. If the fairways were wide, the greens huge and the cup was the size of a 55 gal drum, we’d get bored. If we added one to the par of each hole and a score of 90 became a good round golf would not be popular. It might not even be a sport. Failure and hardship in sport is what makes triumph so special and exciting. Fighting through trouble and the ability to play well in the face of adversity is why we feel our sports heroes are so special. We feel like heroes when we make a great shot, even if it is only one shot per round. Without failure we would not enjoy the success. Next time you make a bad shot remember that bad shot is what makes you excited about your good shots.
Mind coaches are all the rage these days, helping golfers control their brains. These coaches are a valuable tool for today’s golfer. The ability to understand your thought process and the impact it has on performance is well worth the cost. We didn’t really consider golf a sport when I was a kid, we played for fun and just to hang out. We all played basketball, football, baseball and hockey. Those were “real” sports to us and we understood the concept of mental concentration.
In basketball the concept of being in the “zone” was common. If you just pulled up and drained shot after shot, from anywhere on the court, you were in the “zone”. You could tell in your own game that some nights the ball just went in and other nights it just wouldn’t. Once you train yourself to perform a task, your brain knows what signals to send to your muscles to complete that task. If you try to tell your fingers, hand, arm, shoulder and the rest of your body how to shoot a basketball you’ll be lucky to get the ball out of your hand.
Driving a car is a good example, if you have to look at each control (steering wheel, brake, throttle) and tell your hand or foot what to do every time you want to turn a corner then you will have an accident. You have to be able to look at where you are going and let your brain handle sending out the commands to perform the task you ask of it.
The golf swing is one of those tasks. You create “your” swing by practicing it over and over. That swing becomes imprinted on your mind and your mind is a powerful tool. How you look at the swing and what you are trying to accomplish becomes the goal your mind will try to fulfill when it sends out the signals to swing the club.
A digital camera records thousands of pixels in an instant and converts the data so it can be stored. That data can be analyzed and decoded by a computer to tell you anything you want to know from that image. A microsecond of light through a lens can be broken down into millions of bits of data. One digital photo of a tree and the computer can determine how many leaves are visible. Your brain works the same way. The brain receives visual images and converts the data for storage and analysis. With one look at a putting situation your brain already has the data it needs to form a solution. In the image the brain sees the path, slope, speed, distance and hundreds of other bits of data it needs to calculate a proper putting stroke. If you have practiced enough with your putter then your brain already has the data it needs to move that club properly to make a shot.
You’re thought process before or during a shot can destroy the perfect shot your brain has already calculated. If you can picture a perfect shot in your mind then your mind already has all the information it needs. If we look at a potential shot and allow our subconscious mind to hit that shot, we find that the game becomes one of strategy instead of frustration.
Frustration and anger anytime we are hitting a golf ball is counterproductive. At the driving range we cannot allow the first few shots to determine how well the rest of the day goes. Stretch out, take your time. Spend a few minutes just swinging the club until you feel that your body and mind are working together. Wait to hit a ball until you are comfortable with the swing. Jumping out there and hitting a poor shot does nothing for your confidence or mental image. The visual image of a bad shot imprints on your brain just like a good shot.
My good friend Mark(from the first paragraph) and I were playing in a charity tournament. He was in the group ahead of me and had sliced his drive just off the right side of the fairway and was standing next to his ball about 270 yards from the tee. I walked up to the tee and got ready to hit. I had just watched him hit the ball and was convinced I wouldn’t hit him because I was not going to slice. I was going to hit it straight down the middle and he could watch my ball roll 20 yards (hopefully 30 or 40)past his position. This of course is how you treat one of your best friends on the golf course. I hit my ball and watched it carve the exact same arc as his and roll right up to his feet. The mental image I had of his shot was so powerful my mind was able to duplicate it.
Different brains, one goal
I have three kids age 16, 12 and 9. I have played golf for 33 years but found I knew nothing about the game before I had to find a way to explain it to them. They all play golf and they each have vastly different personalities. The older two both play on the varsity squads at their respective schools. They are great kids who love the game of golf. They have different approaches but they all arrive at the same place, becoming better golfers. I just hope they remember to mention me in the television interviews.
My oldest daughter (16) is very competitive and plays multiple sports. She gets angry at herself instantly if she hits a bad shot. She will walk away and then come back and try again after she’s calmed down.
My son (12) is competitive but seems more disappointed than angry when he hits a bad shot. He will go back home and try 10 different modifications to his swing and then proclaim that he has “found it”. He works very hard at learning the game.
My youngest daughter (9) just has fun and really doesn’t care how she does at the moment. She is just enjoying being out there and learning. The other day after hitting a bad shot she insisted on using cone shaped water cups as tees. She just ripped the pointy end off the cup and flipped it over on the ground. Her response to a bad shot was to have a laugh about it.
I have to approach each of my kids differently but the goal is the same. I try to help them be thankful for just being able to play. I encourage them to look at each shot, good or bad, as a learning experience. Golf is like life, good things are going to happen and bad things are going to happen. We can’t make good things happen and we can’t stop bad things from happening. We can control how we look at them. In life, everything that happens is a learning experience, getting emotional doesn’t change anything.
In golf we must avoid getting upset or nervous about our game. Trust our training and our brains to do the right thing. Relax and enjoy the moment. Forget about the past and don’t worry about the future, just make “this” shot as best you can. At some point we found a piece of trivia that stated “a goldfish only has 3 seconds of memory”. The term “fish memory” is used around our house for anyone who forgets something or is showing temporary symptoms of A.D.D. My oldest daughter had trouble shaking off bad shots in tournaments so we drew a goldfish on the top of her driver. It made her smile and remember to have “fish memory” about the previous hole.
Shut up and play
We need to lighten up and stop trying to learn to swing while you are swinging. Go to a little league baseball game and listen to a coach talking to his pitcher(almost always the coach’s son). You will hear the coach yelling brilliant things like, ”don’t aim, just throw” or “finish the pitch”. My son plays baseball and I have heard these terms hundreds of times. What always bothers me is that I know that kid on the mound is under a lot of stress. Why is his coach(dad) trying to teach him how to pitch during a game? Teach the kid how to pitch in practice then leave him alone during the game. Help him with pitch selection and strategy but don’t try to teach him how to play while he’s playing.
Golf is very much the same except your father isn’t yelling at you in the hopes that someday you will play for the Yankees and buy him a Ferrari so he can find a trophy wife. In golf we talk to ourselves a lot, before our swing, during our swing, after our swing. All while we are trying to play the game. We criticize ourselves for that slice we just made or that three put earlier. We tell ourselves to do this or don’t do that. If you are on the driving range and are having trouble, pick one thing to try at a time and be patient. On the golf course just think about your strategy and make the best of it. Getting angry and frustrated will destroy your game and probably the game of everyone around you, unless there’s money and a trophy involved. Settle down, relax and let your mind and your training take over. Practice your swing at home every day. Build up that subconscious memory. Using your subconscious and your brain’s powerful calculating abilities are the key to improving your score.
I wish I was smart enough to be one of those mind coaches. It would be great to have a professional golfer call me up and say excitedly “I just made the cut at Doral and I need you here to help me through the weekend”. That would be a great life. I’ve got my marketing all worked out. My business card will read “I’m not a psychiatrist or psychologist but I’ll follow you around and whack you over the head with a big stick every time you show frustration or anger on the golf course. Rates: $250.00 an hour plus expenses.”