We know that attention is important. There was a study done on 1,100 employees at a British company and they “found that multitasking with electronic media caused a greater decrease in IQ than [doing drugs] or losing a night's sleep.” (1) When you try to do a thing, but your mind is somewhere other than what you’re doing, you won’t do that thing very well.
It has also been found that people are less happy when their minds wander than when they aren’t (2).
In other words, when you aren’t focused on what you’re doing in the present on the golf course, you will be worse at it and you will be having less fun. So there is a premium on being present when you’re playing golf.
So what if this is something you frequently do? The same study that showed that people are less happy when their minds are wandering also showed that people spend about 46% of their waking lives in a mind-wandering state. So if this sounds like you, you’re not alone.
So if being present and mindfully aware is important to play better, how can you work on this? There is a self-assessment questionnaire that you can take to measure your mindfulness called the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale (MAAS). I want to go through a few of the items on the assessment and maybe we can learn how to be better at being present and mindful.
Let’s get into the first point on the Awareness Scale:
“I could be experiencing some emotion and not be conscious of it until sometime later.”
When could this happen on the golf course? Let’s say you hit a bad shot, and you get pretty annoyed at yourself for it. But something that happens all too commonly is that emotion of annoyance just sits there in the background eating away at you.
It might come in the form of being irritable. Maybe it causes that next shot that you normally would’ve been ok with to bother you just a little more. You probably stop seeing the good stuff happening around you. And eventually you hit one too many average shots and it sends you over the edge into anger.
Without mindful awareness, emotions like annoyance stick around and fester. But when you wake up and see and feel what you’re actually presently experiencing, you can choose to hang onto it or let it go.
You can choose to hang onto it or let it go.
Let’s look at another item from the mindfulness assessment:
“I break or spill things because of carelessness, not paying attention, or thinking of something else.”
This one seems oddly specific, but I like this one. I think a good golf interpretation might be “I make poor strategy decisions, choose the wrong club, or hurry through my routine because of carelessness, not paying attention, or thinking of something else.”
How many times have we all hit a shot, watch the ball head towards that short sided bunker, and realize how silly it was to be aiming at that pin. Or the group behind us has been waiting on us for a few holes and instead of taking that extra 10 seconds on your routine to take a mindful breath, you hurry up and just hit the ball.
Both of these are easy mistakes to make when you’re absent mentally. But you can choose to bring a mindful attention to your actions and decisions.
You could use a very obvious, literal reminder to help you stay focused and present, like a little dot on your ball or glove, or a simple quick list of steps to take when choosing a target. Or it could be a more conscious goal for the day to be mentally present for the 2 minutes surrounding every golf shot.
Either way, think of the strokes you could save (and therefore play faster and have more fun) if you were mindfully focused on every shot for a round.
You can choose to bring a mindful attention to your actions and decisions.
Ok let’s look at one more item on the assessment:
"I get so focused on the goal I want to achieve that I lose touch with what I’m doing right now to get there."
When you go into a round of golf, what’s your goal for that round? Most of us have a results-related goal in mind. We want to break 90, or make a few birdies, or hit at least 12 greens. These goals are just fine. In fact they’re great! You should have standards and ways to measure your success. Unless you’re only playing for the simple enjoyment of being outside, then you most likely care how you play. It’s a sport. That’s normal and good.
You should have standards and ways to measure your success.
But where this can hinder your psychology while you’re playing is when your goal holds the majority of your attention. We’ve all heard the cliche to the effect of “trust the process and the score will take care of itself.” That’s true, but why? As we’re learning today, lacking mindful attention to the present is why that’s true.
If your results goal (again, perfectly normal and good to have) is more than just a desire and really more of a “need to” or “have to”, then you are creating a scenario where it will be very hard to focus on the present. Your mind will always tend to focus on what it’s afraid of, so if on some deeper level you’re afraid to not meet your goal, then that’s where your attention will be. And as long as your attention is there in the future, your attention isn’t on the task at hand. And remember, being distracted from the task at hand is the best way to perform worse.
If on some deeper level you’re afraid to not meet your goal, then that’s where your attention will be.
So how can you be less focused on your future goal and more focused on the present task of hitting this shot?
Change your “need to” to “want to”.
Getting to a place where you can credibly say “it would be awesome if I made a few birdies today, but I’ll be ok if I don’t” will help your attention be on what you’re doing in the present because you’ve taken the fear out of what you desperately need to happen in the future. And if there’s no fear, then that fear won’t be pulling your attention away. And with your attention at your disposal, you can apply it to the task at hand, which is going through your process and letting the result take care of itself. That’s what makes the cliche true.
The value of mindful awareness to staying in the present can’t be overstated. You will perform everything just that much better, and you’ll enjoy what you’re doing more.
Set a goal for 2023 for yourself to go into as many rounds as you can with both a results goal for what you want to see at the end of the round, but also bring an intention to be mindfully aware of your thoughts and actions. This is how you can keep your expectations and standards high, while still being focused on the present.
(1) Sollisch, J. (August, 2010). Multitasking makes us all a little dumber. Chicago Tribune. https://www.chicagotribune.com/opinion/ct-xpm-2010-08-10-ct-oped-0811-multitask-20100810-story.html.
(2) Killingsworth, M. A., & Gilbert, D. T. (2010). A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science, 330(6006), 932-932.