PERCEPTION of THE MENTAL GAME
2004 Carey Mumford

If the meaning of "the mental side of the game" is hard to grasp, it can hardly be called an exception to the rule. If your thinking has been influenced to by what is typically available in print, on TV or in the 19th hole, what you have been given to look at is likely overstated, oversimplified, myth, fancy, ideas that don't mix (like oil and water), or any number of notions that may create a biased perception.

The mental game is more about the way we think than about emotion, though both are involved. If one's thinking is well put together, however, emotions tend to take care of themselves. The harder one tries to contain or restrict any emotion, the worse it generally gets. Did you ever notice how many Tour players remind us that they "tried too hard," keeping them from their goal? A few have been known to complain of headaches from grinding on their concentration. And don't leave out recent disguised self-discouragement confessed (at least indirectly) by more than one player as they face Tiger Woods. Of course, sometimes, even Tiger does not appear "up to it."

Those are but illustrations of what happens when thinking defaults to emotion, which typically causes the mind to falter in the wake of a shaky gut. What we need in this game works the other way around - thinking that self-manages in a way that minimizes and contains negative emotions. Of course, our thinking needs to manage other things as well, like the way we play the course, how we put our games on automatic and how we deal with the game in general. All of those will produce emotion, so the management of that is no small matter. We do not subscribe to the notion of "control" of emotion, which is the phrase most often heard. In fact, that is a misnomer that lends itself to failure, since any attempt to control will generally exact a price, often one that is very high. Better not even to think in terms of control. "Managed" is the proper term for dealing with emotion, not to mention for dealing with our entire game, and we do that with the right kind of thinking - that which matches what we need to do in the right time frames.

Over the years, at KeyGolf, we have had a great deal to say about the "how" of practice. We continue to recommend staying inside one's personal style while doing that. Of course, it's important to know the dimensions of that style, through a reliable means of profiling, so we know when we're actually "in it." It is from this baseline that we can best understand and relate ourselves to the "how" of practice. Having done that, we need to look at "what" we need to practice. That requires measurable attention, too. Both of them are important. Both require accurate thinking, based on sound perception that comes from sound thinking.

Watching the average player practice will tell you something. Most of them (except you, of course) concentrate their practice time on their strengths - usually it is what they do best, so it is more pleasurable. They spend the least time on any identified "weaknesses" in their games. In either case, what they appear to use as a measure to determine what to practice comes from what they excel at on the practice tee. If they are good with their irons, they hit a lot of those. If it's the driver, that's where their action will take them. That's emotionally biased practice - going where it feels good.

In any event, it is rarely possible to tell, from what one does on the practice tee, how play will be shaped on the course. Different game. Different place. Different emotional backdrop. Different thought process.

In other words, we have not thought through carefully enough what is going on with us when it comes to matching practice and playing. Instead, we tend to depend on our feelings (emotion) to give us our clues, and that can lead us astray, unless we are trained specifically in translating the messages our emotions deliver.

Players tend to go to the practice tee before each round "to find out how they're going to play today" because emotions beg us to anticipate great, low scoring rounds. Even so, players reveal considerable worry left over from the last time their game included a couple of "bad" holes. Or perhaps, they just watched this week's best two or three of the top players (maybe it was only Tiger) in the world hit it stiff for two hours, coming down the stretch in the Gold Medal Flour Invitational. TV only shows us the best of the moment, unless there is a rain delay. In that case we might get to see "the rest of the field" do whatever it is that leaves them in the rear of the pack, but it can't be knocking down the sticks or they'd be among the leaders. All of that affects what we perceive and desire.

What we need to practice and what we want to practice can be two entirely different things. Our biggest problem there is seeing the difference. Typically, we aren't sure what to practice because we don't know what caused our most recent "problems" in the first place. What do we have that provides a standard of measures, after all?

We tend to go about the matter backwards. We "look" at, and assess ourselves, primarily based on what happens on the practice tee. We like what we see there much better. It's more fun, anxiety free and often has the appearance of success. We don't really observe ourselves and the way we think on the course. It's much less fun out there, loaded with tension and given to water hazards, bunkers and deep rough. We just get frustrated or mad (emotion) when something doesn't work. That's not comfortable, so we look for something to "blame " the bad shot on. When Curtis Strange was playing regularly, he found such a scapegoat in camera clicks and rustling sounds coming from umbrellas in the gallery all the way across the fairway.

Some may go more for "bugs on the ball," sirens in the distance, a passing golf cart or even an unexpected church bell on Sunday morning.

However it is done, emotion is apt to become ruler of the roost. In the process, with one's heart in the throat, the mind follows. So what to do?

First of all, avoid taking personal measurements for your game from what the TV shows and the commentators say. Patience and performance excellence are a lot more complex than they imply and greatly varied among the four behavior styles.

Second, observe yourself more closely in action on the course to learn what you need to practice on the range. For that, you will need to know what to look for. Look for patterns in your shot making, not exceptions. One or two errant shots is not a pattern.

Third, in order to observe yourself clearly, you will need to be working through the automatic process on the course. (That has no magic in it, and if you aren't clear about how that is done, let us know and we'll help you fill in the gap). You can't be on automatic if you are thinking about the mechanics of your swing while you are in the process of making it. We use the Clear Key tool to initiate automatic action. Our Double Connexion book is devoted to what that process is, how it works and the steps to implement it.

Fourth, let your practice match your needs as you see them show up on the course. Avoid trying to make your game match your desires left over from practice.

Fifth, build your practice in keeping with your style, well planned, orchestrated and long enough, but not longer than what fits your short and long term needs. Your objectives and time on the range also depend on your style. If you have a style like Lanny Wadkins, short sessions on the tee are much better than long. If you play like "Radar" Reid or Bernhard Langer you can tolerate longer periods, but only if you need them. If you play like Fuzzy Zoeller, only practice one thing at a time and do it in short, fun-related doses maybe even when someone is there to watch. If you are more the "Gentle Ben" style, all you may really need to do is smooth things out and get your rhythm going.

Last, but not least, learn to practice your thinking with reason and purpose. How many people practice driving their cars, riding their bikes, tying their shoes? They don't, because they have well established habits there. They don't think much about those things either. They just do them. If you understand and play on automatic and your habits are in good shape, you need less time on the range and more time playing and learning to score.

Unless you just started playing golf, you already have habits in your game, hopefully good ones. If they are not, you will need to build new ones till they are strong enough to displace the old. One cannot "get rid" of any habit once it is built. If it is an undesireable one, the only way to manage that is to build a new one strong enough to displace the old and allow that one to atrophy through using the newer, stronger one. Apply the automatic process on the course and you'll find out, without fail, just how good your habits are. Then go practice what you need to make it better. To get the most value from our practice, we'd all be better off if we played first and practiced afterward, attending to what we struggled with on the course. That includes an occasional need to remove the dust or rust from a "bent" or "soiled" habit

Be sure, however, to take those "weaknesses" and needs to a professional to validate what you are seeing in yourself. They can help you. They can prevent spinning wheels and guessing at problems, as well.