Do you ever feel like mental chatter gets louder and louder the more pressure you’re under? Maybe as the bogeys start to add up the voices in your head get noisier and noisier.
Understandably so, because there seems to be more to think about. "I started so good, what if I blow it? I’m really ruining this good start. Yet another good round gone to waste. What can I do to get off the bogey train? I just need to make a few pars to get back on track. If I can just finish the round before anything worse happens." And on and on we go with the mental chatter. You might think just one of these things or maybe at some points all of these things!
The mind starts spiraling and spiraling and it seems like there’s no way to stop it.
So what do we try to do? We try to stop it. We try to control what we’re thinking and suppress our thoughts and feelings and tell ourselves positive self-talk and just trust your process and just go through your routine and just visualize the ball going where you want.
See if this example sounds familiar to you:
You just had your third bogey in a row and you know that you need to re-focus on the present to hit the next shot to the best of your ability. But you become impatient and anxious that your round is going south and you begin to believe you can’t do it. You then contemplate what you would do if you really screwed this round up and continued to blow your good start, which results in sadness and even more anxiety. fuse with your self- and future-focused thought process, believing that thoughts of inability actually equal inability, and you choose to suppress your negative thoughts and emotions and try to be fakely positive. This choice serves the immediate purpose of reducing the troubling internal processes and anxiety, and the avoidant behavior is negatively reinforced. It feels good in the moment to ignore bad feelings. However, this behavioral choice does nothing to actually improve your game during the round, which requires consistent committed action regardless of uncomfortable internal experiences.
Does this work? Maybe sometimes. Controlling your thoughts or making yourself relax feels nice in the moment and it probably temporarily relieves the bad feelings you're experiencing right now. But as our experience tells us, it doesn't last. We just wind up in the same place again, and maybe even worse off than before.
So why do we always try it? There are many reasons why we try to control our thinking, but here's just a few:
1. It seems like it should work.
If your baby stroller is rolling away, you stop it from rolling. You get it under control. If you’re eating too much chocolate, you stop eating it. You get your eating under control. Or at least that would be the wise decision, I wouldn’t know anything about that. Or even closer to home, when your swing is too much of one way, you get control of your swing and make it be another way.
When we determine that things are out of control we enact control over them. It’s very natural. So why wouldn’t it work with our internal processes like our thoughts, nerves, feelings of pressure, panicking, etc?
So let's say you have those negative thoughts, and you try to suppress them or control them, or distract yourself from them. As a response to the unwanted thoughts you've now started to give yourself more thoughts to think about, not less. You had just the first layer of panicky thoughts and emotions, but now you have self-judging thoughts, and instructions to yourself on why those thoughts are bad, and also how to get rid of those thoughts. So what was just one layer of mental chatter has now become two and maybe three or four. Before you know it you’re in a full blown mental spiral with no end in sight.
2. We’ve almost always been told that it works.
For decades of coaching books and articles the stock advice for when you’re thinking too much is to try to think less. To quiet your mind. Or when you’re distracted to force yourself to focus by going through your routine and visualizing. Or if you get angry after a shot to make yourself be calm because good players are calm and composed. I've been playing competitive golf for 20 years and have a stack of old golf magazines in my parent's storage the height of a toddler, so I've heard my fair share of golf mental game advice.
But this is mostly just advice from the position of “because we’ve always done it this way”. In reading a text recently titled The Psychology of Enhancing Human Performance they gave a good analogy of what this is like. It’s just like how a century ago the state-of-the-art medical advice for when someone had a medical ailment was to do a process called bloodletting, where they would just remove a large amount of your blood from your body. This of course is not the way they do things now, because the science has come a long way. So saying “because we’ve always done it this way” is not a good enough reason.
With psychology, the science has also come a very long way. The authors of The Psychology of Enhancing Human Performance reviewed all of the research articles where controlling your thoughts was the main objective, and they discovered that there is almost no scientific evidence that controlling your thinking works to improve sport performance. (1)
And because I want to help equip you with all the tools to be a more mentally strong golfer, some other types of traditional psychology advice that also falls into this bucket are:
goal-setting as a form of motivation
imagery or visualizing a shot before you hit it
arousal control which is a fancy way of saying trying to make yourself relax
self-talk modification (aka what you tell yourself equals what will happen)
pre-competitive routines, which is psychology terminology for a pre-shot routine, where you feel like you have to have a perfectly consistent and identical routine in order to hit good shots.
Each one of these as myths to debunk can and should and probably will get their own future post.
3. Thinking less is actually what improves performance.
Studies have shown that athletes who are focused less on their own thinking and more on the target perform better. (2, 3, 4) But if trying to control your thinking and trying to think less just adds more and more layers of thinking on top of your thinking, which cranks up the volume of mental chatter rather than down and therefore makes you perform worse, what should we do instead?
The scientific evidence shows that acceptance of thoughts reduces thinking and focuses us on the present effectively, which is how athletes perform their best.
So ok, accept your thoughts. What does that even mean?
This means that when you have a thought, you notice it, but you don't make a judgement about it. The thoughts, feelings, and emotions you have aren't good, bad, right, wrong, helpful or unhelpful. They're just thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
You bring a non-judging, non-evaluative attention to your present realities. So when you have the thought "I’m really ruining this good start." you recognize that thought as just a sentence in your mind. Your brain is capable of coming up with all kinds of things, and this is just another one. So instead of saying "You know what brain? You're probably right. I probably have ruined this good start." you say "Ok that's just a thought and has no bearing on my present reality. Nothing I'm doing right now has anything to do with how I started, and vice versa. So now, what do I need to do right now to get this ball to my target?"
So you notice the thought you have, let it go without judgement, and return to the present.
Try this the next time you play. Not as a magic pill to make you shoot lower scores immediately. But as a better way--a scientifically proven way--to relate to your own thinking. Instead of trying the same old advice you've heard in the same old mental game books, take it from researchers in psychology that acceptance of thoughts is better than trying to control your thoughts.
(1) Gardner, F., & Moore, Z. (2007) The Psychology of Enhancing Human Performance (Kindle Edition). Springer.
(2) Barlow, D. H. (2002). Anxiety and its disorders: The nature and treatment of anxiety and panic (2nd ed.). New York: Guilford Press.
(3) Gardner, F. L., & Moore, Z. E. (2004). A Mindfulness-Acceptance-Commitment based approach to performance enhancement: Theoretical considerations. Behavior Therapy, 35, 707–723.
(4) Harvey, A., Watkins, E., Mansell, W., & Shafran, R. (2004). Cognitive behavioural processes across psychological disorders: A transdiagnostic approach to research and treatment. New York: Oxford University Press.