The Mind Game Part IV: Better golf by keeping your head up

Paul Dewland is coaching me on the mental game, and I’m blogging about it. How 2010! My hope is that golfers will find it a good read, fun and educational. Today’s blog is intended to be more of the latter so that you can learn to keep your head up more often. Ain’t golf weird?

A behaviour that I’ve been looking to change on the course, and elsewhere, is my tendency to over-think. I’m a ruminator. Not a bad thing for a writer, but not great for a golfer.

If I miss, say two short putts in consecutive holes. I’m apt to start beating myself up with relish: “You idiot! You suck! That’s the second one in a row. There goes the front. You’re decelerating. You don’t even know how to putt. You need a lesson. Why bother? You’ll never improve at putting.” Etc., etc.

It’s pretty typical for golfers, the happy bunch that we can be.

Karl Morris, the European mind coach, calls onslaught a “thought chain.” I actually thought for a while that he said ‘thought train.’ But that also works because one negative thought leads to another and another, and pretty soon my mind is running away dangerously, I can get angry, depressed, tension builds, and I’m in a spiral to Hacksville.

When thought chains starts, Morris suggests visualizing a big stop sign and saying “Stop!” Since I first tried this, I’ve used it many times on the course and elsewhere. It has prevented me from getting into emotional fits, helped me gain some perspective and move on.

I’ve learned a new technique from coach Paul when I find myself getting down—figuratively and literally. That is, as soon as I find myself starting to defame myself, I need to look up. It’s that simple.

And it works incredibly well. Here’s why:

When I look down, particularly when my eyes are in the lower half of their natural position, it activates the parts of my brain where my “auditory digital processing system” resides, as well as my feelings. So when I look down, the internal dialogue starts to churn and my feelings get riled.

“By keeping your head up, and more importantly your eyes up, you don’t get into the negative dialogue and you dis-associate from your feelings. It’s a trick that allows you to re-set,” Paul says.

Most importantly, if I have few words running through my head, it’s unlikely that I’ll engage in those nasty self-directed fisticuffs. According to Paul, it’s the cranky tone of my “self-talk”—not the sculled wedge—that causes my feelings to run away.

Paul acknowledges it’s quite natural to be ticked off after a three-putt and to let off some steam. The key is to be aware that when I start to look down and mentally flagellate myself that I look up right away.

Instead of getting royally pissed off or bummed, the technique allows me to do three things:
• Stay calm—or quickly settle down
• Figure out what I need to do differently (it might be to relax, check my alignment, swing mechanics, etc.)
• Take new action as soon as possible (apply the fix)

And since I’ve started doing this, I find it works tremendously well. I’ve found that I’m able to bounce back after bad holes and I’ve prevented myself from suffering disaster holes.

Just as importantly, I find that I’m keeping my head up more throughout a round. I’m really appreciating the beauty of the course, the symmetry of golfers walking ahead of me, and most certainly the tall leafy trees.

I’ve even become a better dog walker. Instead of trudging through the woods with my head down, ruminating about something like the kids or work, I’m enjoying the wonderful pine trees and hardwoods, the sounds of the birds, the dense ferns and flowers, the lovely blue sky. I may still be working on whatever is concerning me, but I’m in a more positive state that gives me a better chance to resolve them.

Paul says that making this shift can be a very strange experience for many people; they may feel weirded out because their internal dialogue has diminished, and they might even talk to themselves a little more nicely. Some people might find that their eyes are tired because they’re rarely in the upper-half position. Paul reminds me that new behaviour almost always feels uncomfortable–or at least weird.

So there you go: next time you play, keep your head up.

About Tim O'Connor

Tim O'Connor is a golf coach, an award-winning writer, and speaker. Tim takes a holistic approach, coaching golfers in the physical and mental aspects of golf. He co-hosts the Swing Thoughts podcast with Howard Glassman, and is the author of The Feeling of Greatness: The Moe Norman Story. He plays bass in CID—a Guelph punk band!