Mental Rules for Golf


By Gregg Steinberg

MentalRule: Go Ahead and Wear the Red Shirt

“I have always thought that the actions of men are the best interpreters of their thoughts”
John Locke

We all have seen Tiger wear his red shirt on Sunday, but why does he do that? Wear the red shirt, that is. Is it simply a ritual or does it serve some greater purpose? Actually, it does serve a greater purpose for Tiger’s game. Tiger feels more aggressive when he wears red. He knows he must play aggressively on Sunday if he is to go “low” and win.

The key question is “How does wearing a red shirt make Tiger feel more aggressive on the golf course?” More importantly, how can Tiger’s red shirt help your golf game?

To answer this, ……

we must first examine the color red. Typically, red stands for aggression and assertiveness. As a prototypical example, the matador uses a red cape to make the bull more aggressive and charge at him. Red also stands for fire and when you are fired up you are going to act more assertively.

That wearing red makes Tiger act more aggressively is an example of self-perception theory. Put simply, this theory states that we infer our emotions from our actions. Our brain gets the message from our body how to feel. Take smiling as an example. When we smile, we just feel happier. Even faking a smile will make you feel happier. We infer that we are happy because we our smiling. In the case of Tiger Woods, the action of putting on a red shirt on Sunday makes him feel more aggressive and fired up to go low on Sunday.

The bottom line: Tiger’s red shirt can have a huge impact on your golf game and attitude, as well. Let’s apply this principle to building confidence about your golf game. There are many ways to become more confident, but on game day, it’s important to act confident, and if you don’t really feel it…it is important to behave “as if” you are confident. How we act on the golf course after a missed shot or putt can greatly impact how confident we may feel for the next couple of holes. You can act as if “one just got away” and you will get it right back on the next hole, or, you might walk off the green with your shoulders slumped and your head down. That choice is likely to play itself out on the next few holes. Your body language (slumping shoulders) telegraphs both to you and everybody you play with that there is something wrong with your game. On the other hand, even after a disastrous hole, purposely holding your head and shoulders high, a loss of confidence is less likely to occur.

If you want to feel more aggressive on the golf course, wear a red shirt like Tiger. If you want to feel more confident, you must strut your stuff no matter what happens on the hole. And, If you want to have more fun, remember to just keep on smiling.

MentalRule: Go with whom you brought to the Dance.

“Once you’ve completed your practice session and you have reviewed all your mechanics, you must be able to walk out there on the course and trust them.”
– Aaron Baddeley

Mac O’ Grady is one of those rare geniuses in golf. He is a teaching guru to many of the touring professionals and an expert on golf swing mechanics. Mac also has incredible talent as a player. He was a repeat winner on the tour and he could play scratch golf from both sides of the ball. Mac O’ Grady’s talent also allowed him to copy many of the great swingers of his day such as Lee Trevino, Johnny Miller, and Jack Nicklaus. Mac would use these copied swings depending upon the shot or his mood. Unfortunately, it appeared that Mac’s mind got in the way of his great talent. He had so many different types of swings and so many different types of swing thoughts that he most likely got confused about simply trusting his instincts and playing with one main swing, the one he had practiced. As a result, Mac never fully realized his talent as a player.

Most golfers are like Mac. If they are playing well, they will typically stick with one or two swing thoughts on the course that they’ve been practicing on the range. However, when things go awry, golfers often begin to search for the answers. They stop trusting their swing and they lose trust in their swing thoughts. They begin to switch to any swing thought they think may work.

It is as if they are switching partners in the middle of the dance.

Do you know what happens when you switch partners at the dance? You get left behind or worse, you might get slapped in the face. So it is with golf. When you lose your focus and start switching swing thoughts around on each shot….confidence will leave you behind. Once you lose confidence in your ability and you get confused about what to do out there….you might just experience the course slapping you right in the face. That’s when the really high numbers come. Can you say ‘Snowman?’

It is all about trust. You need to trust whom you brought to the dance.

MentalRule: Believing is seeing

“Man is what he believes.”
Anton Chekov

Our belief system can change our physiology. We have observed this principle in medicine. Medical research has documented time and again how patients feel better when given an inert substance, if they believe the pill will be beneficial to their health. This “placebo effect”, goes far beyond just pills. Placebo remedies have been found to help a variety of medical maladies from baldness to varicose veins. The mind has incredible powers to heal our body and change our physiology, all in accordance with our beliefs.

Performance psychology is no different. One great example of this features the story of Roger Bannister and the “miracle mile.” He was the first man to ever break the 4-minute mile barrier. Yet within the next 18 months, 45 other runners broke that once impenetrable mark.

How did “all” these runners increase their speed? Before Roger’s great performance, everyone believed that breaking the 4-minute mile was impossible. This belief placed a ceiling upon their running performance and prevented their bodies from breaking that illusive barrier. However, after Roger’s great performance, the ceiling was broken and now several runners believed they could do it too. Henry Ford used to say, “Whether you think you can, or think you can’t, you’re probably right.” Believing they could run as fast as Roger Bannister actually made them faster.

Your belief system can also create great performances on the golf course. Francis Bacon once wrote, “The instruments of the mind are as important as the instruments in the hand.” Golf clubs will work much more effectively if you believe in your ability to make them work. If you want to make an important putt, believing you can will greatly increase your chances of actually holing it. When you believe, you stroke the putter with more authority and confidence. If you are presented with a tough shot over the water, you must first believe that you can accomplish the shot before it will happen. Positive expectations keep your swing relaxed and fluid, giving you that extra power needed to clear the hazard.

This same principle goes for breaking a scoring ceiling of 80, 90, or 100 for the first time. It is pretty common for golfers having the “round of their life” when realize how well they are playing. Unfortunately, upon that realization they often get out of their comfort zone and get very nervous. As a result, they then have a couple of “blow-up” holes and ruin their chances for that great round. They did not believe they were capable of “breaking” that scoring barrier.

Believing in your abilities is as essential in the professional ranks. Larry Mize is most remembered for his miraculous chip in to beat Greg Norman in a playoff for the 1987 Masters. Mize has commented that many people thought that he was not worthy of winning a major and subsequently spent much of that time believing them. While Mize has won some tournaments since his Master’s victory, he has yet to win another major.

The old saying “seeing is believing” should be flipped around. Believing is seeing. You must first believe it if you want to see it happen.

MentalRule: Embrace the challenge

“Of all the virtues we can learn, no trait is more useful, more essential for survival and more likely to improve the quality of life than the ability to transform adversity into an enjoyable challenge.”
– Mihayli Csikszentmihaly

A variation of the Greek mythological story of Sisyphus illustrates how to transform adversity into an enjoyable challenge. Sisyphus was caught eavesdropping on the gods and they became very upset with this type of mortal behavior. As punishment for his inappropriate action, the gods decreed that Sisyphus would have to push a large rock up a steep hill until he reached the top for all eternity. Sisyphus could never reach the top because the weight of the rock would overcome him and roll back down to the bottom of the hill. He would then begin the process all over again.

However, Sisyphus was very intelligent and he knew that if he enjoyed this eternal challenge, the sentence would go by much more quickly. Sisyphus decided he would take a different approach each time he pushed the rock up the hill. The first time he got a feel for what the rock and hill were like. The next time he went as fast as he could. The third time he tried to see how gracefully he could push the rock, the fourth time, he moved at a very slow pace, etc. etc. etc.

At times, the game of golf can make you feel as if you have been given a sentence similar to Sisyphus. For instance, you may have your swing working for a week or so, only to find that you lose it right before an important tournament. Or, your putting is working beautifully one day and the next day you wonder what happened to all the magic. Golfers eternally pursue pushing their games up a steep hill with hopes of developing consistency and expertise, only to find that their skills have once again slid down that slippery slope and they’re back to erratic play.

But rather than seeing the challenge of obtaining expertise in golf as insurmountable, golfers should adopt the Sisyphus mentality. When your chipping goes awry, embrace the opportunity and focus on your putting for that day. If your full swing goes out the window for a round, make it your challenge to concentrate on your short game. Or, if you just hit a bad tee shot and are blocked by a tree, do not see the tree as an obstacle, but as an opportunity to work on your escape shots. Phil Mickelson takes this approach and stated “I love being creative and try to make birdies from behind the trees. That is what makes golf fun.”

Rocco Mediate has also followed the Sisyphus mentality and embraced the challenge of adversity that faced him. Rocco was sitting near the top of the golf world in 1993. He was 16th on the official money list and well on his way to better things until a back injury set him back. From there he needed was surgery and then rehab and then even more rehab. In 1994, he fell to 193rd on the money list. But Rocco saw his injury as a personal challenge. He was determined to get back on the tour and compete with the best. Due to his thousands of hours of rehab and workouts in the weight room, Rocco not only gained a new more muscular body but also developed a new perspective. He gained a sense of patience and a new found joy for the game. Rocco mentioned that the positives resulting from this adversity far out- weighed the short-term negatives. Rocco faced adversity but learned to push the rock back up the hill with greater enthusiasm.

MentalRule: Focus on yourself

“No man (or woman) can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
Eleanor Roosevelt

The human condition is to be concerned about what others think of us. In fact, the number one fear in our culture is public speaking. Most of us get extremely nervous when we have to speak in front of our peers. Our heart rate goes sky high, our head starts to pound, and at times, some of us will forget everything we had prepared. All this nervousness stems from our concern about the impression we give to others. Our greatest fear is to stand in front of others and look like a fool.

Unfortunately this concern about how others think carries over into our golf game and can ruin our play. The story of Ian Baker-Finch’s career illustrates this point exceptionally well. Baker-Finch won the British Open in 1991, but within seven years of his victory had retired from professional golf. Many factors contributed to this decision, one being a humiliating 1st round of 92 at the British Open held at Troon. At one time he missed 32 straight cuts on the PGA tour. However, Baker-Finch mentioned that the main straw that caused him to leave the tour was the pressure he felt, thinking of everyone’s judgment about his poor play. Poignantly, he stated “What I would like to be able to do is to change my name, come back in a different body and go play without the pressure of being Ian Baker-Finch.”

A similar story involves Hale Irwin playing with a young green horn named Mark O’ Meara. On this day, O’Meara was playing terribly and was ashamed about how bad he was playing in front of his older, more seasoned pros. After the round, he went up to Hale Irwin and apologized for his bad play. Irwin flat out stated that he did not give a damn what his playing partners shoot….he only concerns himself with his own play.

Next time you step on the golf course, be like Hale. Focus only on yourself. Do not worry about what other people are thinking because I guarantee your friends are not worried about you, your score, or your herky-jerky swing. They are doing what you should do. They are thinking only about themselves and how fantastic they look in their new golf sweater.

About the author:

Dr. Gregg Steinberg is a distinguished speaker in sport psychology and has given presentations on this topic throughout North America. He has published extensively in academic sport psychology journals such as The Sport Psychologist and The International Journal of Sport Psychology. He is author of the well-respected sport psychology book, MentalRules for Golf. Dr. Steinberg has also written performance enhancement articles for newspapers, and sport magazines. Currently, he is an Associate Professor of sport psychology at Austin Peay State University in Tennessee. He is also the head sport psychologist for the United States Golf Teachers Federation.

Dr. Steinberg has been a sport psychology consultant for more than ten years and has worked with many professional and college athletes. The following are some of the teams and organizations Dr. Steinberg has consulted:
• University of Florida Men’s Golf team (national champions 1993)
• Vanderbilt Men’s Golf team
• Vanderbilt Men’s Tennis team
• Vanderbilt Men’s Baseball team
• Vanderbilt Women’s Lacrosse team
• Belmont Men’s golf team
• Tennessee state University men’s golf team
• Austin Peay State University Women’s volleyball team
• Austin Peay State University Women’s softball team
• Austin Peay State University Women’s track team
• Tennessee Golf Association Junior Academy
• United States Tennis Association High performance camps

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