How do I stop the noise?

The following is an interview in Fairways Magazine with me about quieting our minds and our pesky inner critic by applying mindfulness to golf. It was conducted by  Editor Peter Mumford, an old friend and fellow golf nerd.

As golfers, all of us have hit poor shots, maybe had an entire round when nothing seemed to go right. Our emotions take over and our minds are filled with anger, frustration and likely a lot of conflicting ideas on what went wrong and what we can do to fix it. At the time we most need to clear our heads and regain our focus, instead we’re faced with so much clutter we can barely think straight. It’s a nasty problem and can ruin what should be a pleasant day on the golf course. To find out if there’s a solution, we turned to Golf Performance Coach Tim O’Connor for the answer.

Peter Mumford: Tim, most of us have encountered what I call inner demons when we play golf. They could be negative thoughts that show up just as we’re trying to execute a shot, or anger after a bad shot; virtually a whole lot of noise that prevents us from being focused and playing our best golf. Everything we read and hear is that we need to clear our head. How do we stop all the noise?

Tim O’Connor: All golfers want to have fun with their friends or family members, and enjoy the day, but there’s no getting around it—we all want to shoot a good score. But when we hit bad shots, we’ll start to think about what’s going wrong, and our inner critic will start to bark at us. ‘You idiot. You jerk. How about this time you hit the fairway, instead of putting it into the woods?’

And we often start going through our mental Rolodex of swing instruction. ‘I’m slicing it, so what should I do? Okay, well, I’ll do that thing with my grip.’ These fixes rarely work, and then we think of more and more fixes, and then we really start to lose it.

Or we might have a good game going on the 15th tee and think, ‘Can I keep this going, or am I going to choke again?’ 

As golfers, we all get some kind of noise going in our heads, and we get rattled, we become anxious, and our thoughts and emotions cause us to self-interfere, and we choke.

As a coach, I’m asked all of the time: ‘How do I stop the noise? How do I press pause on my inner critic?’

Many people decide they’ll just think positively. They might tell themselves: ‘This drive is going in the fairway.’ But what do you do when it doesn’t go in the fairway? Thinking just leads to more thinking.

There is an approach that can help us calm the noise and quell the anxiety: the practice of mindfulness applied to golf.

Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t understand mindfulness. They assume it’s kind of mystical or something like religion.

Mindfulness is a practice. It’s not a fix or a technique. It’s something we do over time. It’s more a way of being than trying to apply a tip.

It sounds strange to the uninitiated, but elite performers of all kinds rely on it. Through the practice of mindfulness, we can learn to press pause on the inner critic, become calmer, slow our thoughts down, be in the moment, and be a kick-ass performer.

Mumford: How do you define mindfulness?

Mindfulness is being aware of what you’re paying attention to in the moment. It’s not about trying to make your mind go blank or, as Dan Harris wrote, go up through some kind of spiritual ooze to have tea with Buddha. It’s being aware of what’s happening as it is happening.

For example, it could be that you become aware that as you’re standing over a shot, that you’ve got a death grip on your club. Or that you’re going through a checklist of instruction like a pilot before takeoff.  Or you’re berating yourself for hitting it in the woods—again.

All of that thinking makes us tense and causes us to self-interfere, and golf becomes very hard.

Contrast that to when you play your best. Think back to a great round or a stretch of golf. How did it feel? Well, it likely felt easy, almost like you were flowing. It’s likely that you weren’t thinking about much at all, and you weren’t comparing yourself to other players, or judging yourself.

No. You were in a nice space, which some call the Zone.

So, how do we change things so we can visit the Zone more often? How do we stop getting in our own way, worrying and ruminating, getting overwhelmed with thoughts, becoming frazzled, depressed and confused?

I believe it starts with awareness. And it’s very easy to practice.

I’ll give you an example of how that might work. Let’s say you’ve hit a drive into the woods for the third time that day. As you stomp down the fairway, you are thinking, ‘You idiot. This day’s gone to hell. What am I doing wrong? I’ll never get better.’ 

But a mindful golfer might find himself descending into a negative stream of thought, and then ask, ‘What am I paying attention to?’ When he realizes he’s once again beating himself up, he may realize, ‘Oh, wait a sec. I’m doing that again. That doesn’t help. Instead, I’m going to focus on what a beautiful day it is.’

That is an example of being mindful, which helps us to be more in the present moment.

However, many people don’t understand what being present means. Being present means you’re right here right now—in this moment. You’re not thinking of the future or the past.

Here’s an example that makes it easier to understand presence: Let’s say that as you walk down the fairway, you focus on your breathing. Note you’re not trying to control your breathing. You’re just paying attention to it.

This is valuable because your body is always in the present moment. It doesn’t time-travel like your mind. Therefore, when you connect to a sensation in your body, you’re in the present moment.

In essence, you can use your body as an ally to quiet your thoughts, chill out, and slow down your thoughts and settle your emotions.

Mumford: Are there drills or practices or things that you can do, to help you do this? Or is it just a decision that you’re going to do it?

Having knowledge is great, but it rarely changes the way we habitually act. Unfortunately, we all have decades of doing things the same way. We usually react the same, fall into the same old patterns and behaviours.

To change these ingrained patterns, we need to do some training on a frequent basis. Otherwise, we won’t change.

The easiest way is through the practice of meditation. But for a lot of people, meditation is this weird woo-woo thing. Meditation has a really bad PR. Many People just don’t understand it.

It’s as easy as this: find a quiet place in your home, and set your timer on your phone for, say, just three minutes. (If you’re a novice, you’d be amazed at how long that could feel, just sitting there.) Close your eyes with both feet flat on the floor, hands in your lap, and focus on your breathing.

Make it your intention to stay focused on your breathing. Don’t try to control your breathing, or breathe a certain way. Just allow yourself to breathe naturally. You could be focused on the sound of your breath coming in and out of your nose, or on the feeling of your chest or belly expanding and contracting. Or both.

Mumford: What do you do with all the other thoughts that come into your head, while you’re focused on your breathing?

That’s the question. Because, as sure as the sun comes up every day, you’re going to think despite your intention to focus on your breath. You’re going to find yourself in thought. ‘I need to send an email, I need to call Chris’ and so on.

And then you become aware, ‘I’m thinking.’ And you bring your attention back to your breath, which was our intention. 

Over the course of three minutes, this cycle will constantly repeat itself. When you become aware that you’re thinking and you bring your attention back to your breath, you are developing the skill of awareness.

It’s as simple as that. You don’t need to go on a 30-day retreat, and wear a robe like a Buddhist monk.

I invite your readers to give meditation a shot, for say, three minutes at a time for three times in a week. And if it feels good, extend the time by 30 seconds, or even a minute. And eventually you might try doing it daily. You can do it anytime, but my preference is in the morning before I get caught up in the day with emails, phone calls, and my to-do list.

Here’s how mindfulness works its way into your golf game: Say you’ve had a couple of three-putts. And as often happens, you’re looking down and staring a hole nto your shoe, while thinking, ‘Damn, another 3-putt. I suck. I put all this practice in. I’ll never be any good. Blah blah blah.’

On my Swing Thoughts podcast, we call it the Spiral Vortex of Death.

But through meditating and developing your skill of awareness, you become aware you’re beating yourself up again. You know it doesn’t help, so you use your body as an ally to stop the thinking and become present. You focus on your senses. You could, for example, focus on your breathing. Or just look up at the trees or clouds. Or listen to the wind, the leaves and the birds.

When we’re in our body and focused on our senses, we’re in the present moment. And our thoughts chill and quiet, and things get easier.

Mumford: It must take a bit of practice, I would think. I mean, obviously if you had 3-putt, everything you’re thinking now, is reactive. Your emotions are taking over. You can’t sit down in the middle of the green for three minutes, and focus on your breathing. You have to keep moving now. You’ve got to do this on the fly.

Totally.

Mumford: This is certainly not going to come to you immediately. I assume it’s something that’s going to takes some practice.

Yes, you’re right. But none of this takes very long at all. If you focused on your breath for, say, a couple of seconds on a green or a tee, that’s enough to press pause on the thought train, or release the tension in your body.

It’s very interesting that you said that we’re reactive. That’s generally what happens to us in the world. We are triggered, and we react. Most of us react in the same ways we’ve reacted for decades. I know we’re just talking about golf, but your brain interprets many of our triggers as a fight for our survival.

Our brains are wired to keep us alive. That’s the brain’s No. 1 job. Thousands of years ago, the mind focused on finding food, or shelter or avoiding predators.  When we are triggered by yet another three-putt, the brain reacts the same way. It goes into the future to find food (or a solution to three-putting), or in the past to remember where we found food before (or a swing tip your uncle gave you).

But when you ask any golfer, or musician, or businessperson about when they’ve performed well, you’ll hear words like calmness, quiet and flow. They are in the moment. They’re not trying to achieve a result, or avoid making a mistake.

How do we do that? By allowing ourselves to be in this present moment. Where we don’t have muscular tension, we don’t feel anxiety, and we’re not hijacked by our thinking and our emotions.

It’s not easy. But, I guess that’s what this is all leading to. It’s just, you have to get into that relaxed state where you’re free to execute. You’re not shot with all this other baggage, hanging around.

I used to get hijacked all the time. The reason I coach people in this stuff is because I realized at a certain point that I was a paralysis-by-analysis basket case. I was forever thinking, planning and taking a different swing thought to the first tee every time I played. But by the third hole, I’d be seven over.

Mumford: I’ve been there.

Through mentors, my experience and research, and working through my own nonsense, I came to understand that the game is far simpler than we usually make it.

Most golfers get caught up in thinking. And most of our thinking puts us in fight-or-flight survival mode. Our brain is trying to protect us from pain. So when you drive the ball into the woods again, the mind gets activated. It asks, ‘How do I stop hitting it in the woods?’

Unfortunately, that leads to more thinking, which usually leads to anger and frustration, and then sadness, resignation, and your focus is lost. Most golfers walk off the course going, ‘Oh my gosh, why does this always happen?’

There is a simpler way that doesn’t have anything to do with your golf swing. Give mindfulness a shot. When you think better and less, it’s amazing how much more fun you have, and how much better you play.

About Tim O'Connor

Tim O'Connor is a golf and mental performance coach, an award-winning writer, and Head Coach of the University of Guelph golf team. He is the recipient of the 2020 Lorne Rubenstein Media Award, given by Golf Ontario. He is author of The Feeling of Greatness: The Moe Norman Story, and co-host of the Swing Thoughts podcast with Howard Glassman. And he plays bass in CID—a punk band!

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