“Competitive golf is played mainly on a five-and-a-half inch course — the space between your ears.” That was Bobby Jones’ assessment of the importance of the mental aspect of golf. That quip from nearly 80 years ago is still relevant today, as golfers of every skill level battle their inner demons to try to shave a stroke or two off their handicap. Or turn a runner-up finish into a major championship.
Former Ball State University professor Dr. Rob Bell has combined research and his experience as an AASP certified sport psychology consultant in a new book on the mental side of golf called, Mental Toughness: Training For Golf. Dr. Bell says the same mental techniques that help in golf, translate to other sports, as well.
“The universal truth in all of sports is ‘It’s always the next play’,” said Dr. Bell. “If our mind is stuck on the last play or the last game or the last hole or the last shot, then we’re really not giving our full attention to this shot.” Focus, he says, is important. But it’s really the ability to re-focus that makes the difference. To that end, Dr. Bell believes it’s important to have a good mental preshot routine, combined with the physical routine. “It’s easy to do the physical motion,” he says. “But it’s our thought process. Our ability to have a plan and then walking into the shot and staying committed to the line of that putt or the exact shot that we’re doing and not having any thoughts enter your head.” Dr. Bell continued, “You don’t have a good preshot routine if you’re thinking about anything other than where this shot is going”.
Which leads to the concept of swing thoughts. It seems most instructors want you to have one simple, consistent swing thought. But Dr. Bell feels even one swing thought is still one too many. “When we’re confident, what do we think about? Nothing,” he says. “But when we’re not confident, we’re thinking about all the things that need to happen or everything that could go wrong.” According to Dr. Bell, ” We think about nothing when we’re playing well. That’s what we have to get to when we’re not playing well.”
One of the most well known manifestations of a golfer’s mental breakdown is the yips. Defined as the apparent loss of fine motor skills seemingly without explanation, the yips have been observed perhaps most famously in Tom Watson and Bernhard Langer. Dr. Bell has found that the yips are a combination of physical and mental issues. “Usually it starts with an involuntary flinch in the putting stroke. Then we begin to anticipate that happening and it gets in your head,” he says. The key to overcoming the yips is regaining confidence. That can be done by changing putters or even changing the way we hold the putter (see Bernhard Langer). Dr. Bell says when you feel more physically comfortable over the putt, that goes a long way to improving confidence. “When we feel like everything’s good we make confident strokes,” he said.
Dr. Bell has worked with a number of PGA TOUR-level pros and finds that the problems they are trying to overcome are essentially the same as the guys in your regular foursome. He recalled a time some years ago while walking the driving range at a Nationwide Tour event and asking Matt Kuchar what he was working on. Expecting something profound (from a player who would go on to become a top tour player), the response he got from Kuchar was, “My hip turn.” Dr. Bell explained, “The mental aspects and the physical aspects are exactly the same, just at a different level.”
From the 20-handicapper to the multiple major winner, we’re all playing on that same five-and-a-half inch course. Make sure yours is in good condition.
Dr. Bell’s book, Mental Toughness: Training For Golf is available at his website: www.drrobell.com