Have you ever been seeing a decent rise in your skill level, but then got to a point where you felt like you couldn't go any further? Maybe you were steadily working your way down towards breaking 90, but you’ve leveled out without breaking through into the 80s. Or you made it to the Korn Ferry Tour but several years later you just haven’t quite finished in the Top 25 to get your Tour Card.
I recently talked to a couple of sport psych grad students about the psychology of golf and this is what they had to say about this exact situation:
Here's what I would say to any golfers out there that may be in a mental rut or on a performance plateau: just be self-aware and practice like you're going to play.
For instance, to the beginners out there, never go out in a tournament and hit a hybrid from the sand if you don't know the outcome of that shot by practicing it. Or maybe you need to hit a punch shot from the woods, but you haven't done it in practice. Don't do it on the course. Or to high level tour players, if you know your average dispersion pattern from 195 yards is 32 feet, don't force the issue and aim right at the flag, no matter how tempting it can be or how many external or internal pressures there are to do so.
Practice like you're going to play. This applies to everyone, from the less experienced players, like junior golfers or those that are just starting, to the best players in the world.
Go out on the driving range and get in the same mindset as you would on the 1st tee. When you're out there playing 9 or 18 holes for practice, play like you're in a tournament. Those mental skills that you've learned in a practice setting, use them on the course.
If you're playing a tournament you might get stressed or you might lose focus, but you know how to calm or refocus yourself because you've practiced those skills through the progression of different levels of pressure: on the range, then on the course in practice, then in a mildly competitive round on your home course.
Another example would be the mental skill of "accepting what you cannot change." If you bogey a hole, you're able to move on from it. You put in the practice on your home course and you actually put in the time of self-awareness and having bad holes and moving on from them with zero judgement of yourself. And because you practiced it, you're able to do it in a tournament setting. The feelings aren't suddenly new to you now that you're in an important competitive event. You've been there before because you intentionally put yourself there before.
You've been there before because you intentionally put yourself there before.
We tend to go out in practice and just go through the motions and assume because we're logging hours that we'll magically be able to show up to a tournament and do everything right and play amazing. But if you're not practicing like you're going to play the odds of doing that are not very good.
Or maybe you're not even at the course. Maybe you're weightlifting. Maybe you’re in the car, or you're at home. You can still spend deliberate time on self-awareness, thinking of the things that will set you apart from your peers, or practicing being still and being aware of your breathing. There are skills that you can work on anywhere, not just on the course.
The mental side is so important. And the higher level of skill you get the more of a fine line there is between you and your competitors, making the mental side that much more important. And even when you're just trying to break 100 for the first time, the ability to have your emotions under control and in a good frame of mind throughout the day is vital (and I would argue foundational). So being able to elevate your mental game can really propel your game and take you even further than where you are.
Don't just hope you'll show up and be able to think correctly and do everything right. Put in actual time on the skills that make a real difference.
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