An excerpt from Golf Tough by Dan Abrahams.
My world is the psychology of golf. It’s thinking, it’s feeling, it’s focus. It’s laying down the right performance processes to help you manage your golfing attitude on and off the course. It’s forming the mini behaviours that elicit success under pressure. And it’s tracking strengths and weaknesses and building the optimum practice environment to help you become as good as you can be.
It’s a world that is more often than not intangible. Whilst mindset manifests itself behaviourally, it can hide itself quietly beneath the surface of swing, tempo and stroke. And while it can be seen through routine, through body language and through commitment of swing, mindset is often ignored or dismissed as unimportant or less impactful than its technical and physical counterparts. We still live in a golfing world of turn, transfer, hinge and release.
This is perhaps as it should be. Golf, after all, is a game of movement. Poor technique, no matter what your mindset, will lead to errant shots and inconsistent scores. Having been a professional golfer myself I know how important technique is. If you can’t return the club back to the ball in a consistent manner you will struggle to improve, even if you enjoy a tough mindset and a confident persona.
But I warn against complacency. Don’t take mindset for granted. Shots are spilt (as well as some tears) because of a drop in confidence, because of a distracted focus, and because of the burden of emotion. Rounds are destroyed by bad thinking, by the crush of negative self-talk, and by pervasive inner pictures of poor shots that linger. These are just for starters!
The golf mindset can be teasingly simple yet enduringly complex to get right. Do you know how to turn down the volume of distraction? Do you know what to think to enhance your self-belief? Do you know how to practice to improve your performance confidence? Do you know how to re-wire your brain to develop your swing technique quickly and effectively?
If you do have all the answers, then do you practice this area of the game? Do you take time, deliberate time, to work on your golfing mindset? I ask this question because there is a gulf between ‘knowing’ and ‘doing’. It’s one thing to know what to do; it’s another thing to do it – in the heat of battle, under pressure, when it counts. You may know the science, but can you apply the art? In golf, it is the brush strokes that mediate success and not the palette itself.
The 4 P’s of Golf Tough
I’m going to borrow from my playing days. As a struggling professional golfer roaming the mini tours in Great Britain and Europe I didn’t practice with precision. I didn’t prepare effectively. I didn’t take control of my performances. My progression stilted with every year of experience I clocked. I reckon I graced the tee a worse golfer at 24 than I was at 17 years of age, and largely because of the mindset I approached the game with.
And so I present you with the four sections of Golf Tough: Practice, Prepare, Perform and Progress. These sections hold mindset philosophies and techniques to help you ‘know’ and to help you to ‘do’. This may seem like a personal bias – troubles from my own golf playbook – but I can assure you in a decade of consulting at every level of the game, as well as at the elite level of other sports, I have found that competitors tend to lack the right mental approach in one or more of these four areas. And they offer a neat and concise way of defining the mental game of golf. Let’s take each P in turn with a brief description.
Before answering this seemingly obvious question, stop and think. Take a little time over the answer, it’s important. It’s important because the why of practice drives your practice behaviours. It drives your attitude on the range and pitching area, and it drives your focus as you execute swing and stroke on the chipping and putting green.
To my mind most golfers answer this question incorrectly. Most golfers will claim that they practice to improve – to get better. This formula is only partly complete. Golfers should indeed practice to develop their game. They should practice to develop the skill required to shoot the scores they dream of. But while skill is your entry point to excellence, it won’t walk you through the door. I want you to play Golf Tough, which means you need to dedicate yourself to practicing for skill and confidence. It is skill encased in a bubble of confidence that holds the keys to high performance under pressure.
Golfers should train to build confidence. They should hit balls to feel more confident with that 180 yard hybrid shot into a small green. They should practice putting to feel confident over a three footer. They should practice pitching to feel confident with 50 yards to the flag. The golfer must strive to develop skill and confidence in equal measure – they will unite to produce a pressure-proofed game. They will gel to produce Golf Tough time and again.
Practicing to improve skill and confidence is difficult. It requires focus and patience and perseverance. It also requires intelligence. The ‘beat balls’ mentality doesn’t work. The ‘find it in the dirt’ grind doesn’t work. The mindless motion of ball after ball without thought or imagination doesn’t work. In this first section I will help you develop skill and confidence.
I will also teach you the what and the how of practice. There can be no excellence without practice, but unfortunately there may be no excellence with practice. The golfer who works hard at her game doesn’t always enjoy a smooth trajectory of improvement. You need to be smart about your training.
If you want to develop your game you must firstly know what you need to improve. Few players do. Many hit the driving range without a sound knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of their game. They practice with blinkers on, sometimes blindfolded, often with tunnel vision. They have less impact on their scores come the weekend. To be Golf Tough you need to be a student of the game and a student of your game. You need knowledge of the underlying numbers that make up your final numbers. Chapter one will unfurl your practice blinkers.
Chapters two and three will teach you how to practice. We will explore ways to incorporate confidence training into your sessions – simple processes that are fun, interesting, and which help you to leave the range knowing the margins of your golf game and regularly knowing that you are a better golfer than before you arrived. I will also introduce you to the important neurological processes that underpin your ability to nurture technique more effectively and subsequently develop skill quicker.
All three chapters in section one are written with skill development, confidence building, and the what and how of effective practice in mind. They are written to help you find solutions to the most frustrating element of golf – improvement! Making the secrets of game improvement habitual will help you to prepare to play Golf Tough.
The first tee is the beginning for most golfers. For me it’s the middle.
When you stride onto the first hole, much of the hard work should have been done during your preparation and planning. You should know your course strategy before you park your bag next to the tee – plan A, plan B, complete! You should have much of your performance thinking ingrained – goals set, thinking strategy set!
Effective preparation quietens the mind. It allows excellence to flow. It helps peak your attention at the right time in the right places. It helps you alleviate anxiety and manage pressure, and allows your confidence to soar. There is no room for panic, for worry or doubt, when you have spent a few days covering all bases and encouraged a mindset of certainty. Great thinking in the build-up to a tournament reduces the brain’s capacity for destructive negatives – those that sap your energy, reduce your confidence, and bring distractions to the fore.
At the heart of sport psychology lays the concept of momentum – a hidden force that sways back and forth as the game develops. We see it in tennis when a player elicits confidence from winning a few points in a row. We see it in soccer, as a team starts to string passes together culminating in wave-after-wave of pressure on their opponents. In golf, momentum scatters birdies or bogies depending on the direction of impetus. Being Golf Tough means being able to build or break momentum accordingly. And that safe time, before you play, is the time to build a momentum of confidence. It’s also a time to work out how you will manage a momentum of focus – if it goes wrong, how will you deal with the immediacy of failure?
Section two introduces you to the process of preparing to play Golf Tough. The words you use, the attitude you have, and the behaviours you display leading up to the first tee shot heavily influence the score you sign for at the end of the round. To open this section I am going to help you get to know you, the golfer. Golfers who have an acute knowledge of their preferred game face find self-management on the course easier and are more flexible with their thinking when adversity strikes.
Next we will explore the optimal way in which to strategise and plot your way around the course. Having a game plan set out before you compete helps you to think less when your mind should be directed towards the simple process of play. Of course the strategies you sketch need to be executed with certainty and with an emphasis on self-management. I will teach you to encase your game plan in a shot routine that also helps you feel confident, focused, committed, decisive and full of belief before you hit the ball and after it leaves the clubface.
Finally in this section we will discuss the art and science of a winning mentality. The targets you set yourself for competition golf and the mindset you experience as you actually compete collide and interact. The goals you have leading into a tournament shape your temperament and your ability to focus. They affect your emotional control and capability to maintain high confidence. We close section two by establishing a competition mindset – one that affords you the very best opportunity to shoot low no matter what the arena you confront.
And the arena is where it counts.
In golf your arena is vast – usually well over 100 acres in size. And the golf stadium is dynamic and changing. It’s full of natural hazards and man-made obstacles. It is subject to the elements of sun and wind and rain. It’s unpredictable in its bounce and erratic in its kicks. And you have to perform in it.
To do this you have to take control. You have to take control of you. You have to learn how to handle yourself, your mindset, and your physiology for over three hours, across 18 holes, no matter what the conditions, no matter what the opposition, no matter what the type of competition.
Self-management could be the hidden mediator of performance – the silent determinant of success. A mind on the ball and a mind on self meets the two primary challenges of golf – get the ball in the hole in as few strokes as possible by being the best you that you can be every second, every minute and every hour you compete. Section three teaches you how to be the ‘best you’ as you stride the course. It teaches you to take control.
Endlessly frustrating, never perfectible, your brain and nervous system do battle to capture your attention. They send signals to distract and to judge. They launch a verbal volley of abuse through your thinking. They accelerate your heart rate when holes look tough. They shoot emotion through your body that breaks out into feelings hindering your swing and your touch. To be Golf Tough means taking control of these factors; factors that impede your scoring potential. It means taking charge of the mental elements that settle your brain and nervous system, encouraging great shots and sprinkles of birdies.
You, feeling good on the course – feeling great even – will be our driving creed.
To do this you need a self-management blueprint that helps you steer mind and body effectively. Having a catalogue of techniques to draw upon, under pressure, is a must-have in any champion’s armoury.
We will explore your personal controllers – your body language and your self-talk. Having a structure to your thinking and to your actions during the downtime, as you walk from your first shot to your second, and as you stroll from fairway to green, is essential. It is during the quiet moments that the brain so often makes its noise – so much time to think, to dwell and to ruminate. Perhaps the true essence of competitive golf is the ability to perform in the time in-between the action. The golfer needs to manage his inner demons as he paces the fairway.
And with a mental structure, that method of thinking and doing and being (neatly tucked under your arm), all that is left to do is to keep doing the right things time and time again. Repetition and reinforcement are the guardians of excellence. Champion golfers obsess over learning, development and improvement. They are relentless purveyors of progression.
To me the art of mental toughness is playing through the uncomfortable. Perhaps this is also the art of progression in golf – to drive forward when the tank is empty, to energise yourself when all seems lost, to maintain enthusiasm no matter what.
Golf is a game of inconsistency. One day you feel you’ve got it nailed, the next, it’s on the wane. It’s also a game of plateau. That upward curve of improvement never lasts for long, it soon flattens and you find yourself having to unearth new ways to evolve. To develop, to improve, to learn, to establish effective habits and patterns – these are the attitudinal cornerstones of champion golfers. And these qualities must remain in place irrespective of the state of your golf, irrespective of the score you’ve just shot, and irrespective of the speed of your trajectory.
Progression is, to some extent, a state of mind. We can all improve. There may be some people who are born with a pre-disposition to play great golf. There may be others who will always find the feeling of standing over the golf ball uncomfortable and alien. But we can all get better. We can’t all be scratch golfers but we can all strive to touch par as often as possible. And despite some God given restrictions, and despite some time limitations, I believe that if you make the decision to find out how good you can really be, you’ll surprise yourself. Everyone has a golfing brain that has the capacity to develop and grow.
This fourth section of Golf Tough provides you with a template for progression. It starts with a microscopic look at the game within the game – putting. It’s a devilishly difficult compartment of golf, one that tests nerves, and one where the slightest tension punishes severely. Arguably it is on the putting green where you need to be at your strongest mentally. It’s when the immediacy of success and failure is most potent – you hole it or you miss it, there is no other outcome, there are no ifs, buts, or maybes. Despite its complexity putting is a fundamental of Golf Tough and I strongly believe every golfer needs a keen sense of how to improve their putting and how to execute their stroke under pressure. It requires a delicate interaction between mentality and technique – one that we will address here.
In chapter 12 I will introduce you to a number of practical techniques to develop your psychological skills on and off the course. Perhaps my toughest job as a golf psychologist is helping players, particularly highly driven ones, find their motivational sweetspot. The optimal mindset is one that balances focus and freedom, intensity and relaxation, and effort and patience. Somewhere in the middle sits the window to progression.
Chapter 13 reflects this mixed complex landscape – no one ever said performance psychology was straightforward. Your ability to progress your golf isn’t just mediated by ‘being positive’. Sure, being positive and optimistic is an overarching trait of a champion, but, on occasion, being ready to compete and being able to progress require the complete opposite. It’s useful to embrace a time of negative thinking. Asking yourself, “If it goes wrong, what will I do?” is a question that will help you strategise and ready you for the adversity that golf inevitably delivers. A balance of optimism and pessimism primes your golfing mind and body to play Golf Tough.