Mental Toughness

Wondering if any of you have any tips on building mental toughness. This past Sunday I started out on the first with a birdie. Great start. Had a bad bogey on 3 but after that settled down and rattled off 4 straight pars despite not really having my “A” game off the tee. Walking off 7 green after making a 12 footer to save par, one of the guys I was paired with says, “Wow, you’re really good, are you 1 under right now? Did you play in school?” I was a little sheepish in my response because while I have been improving, this wasn’t exactly normal to be even going to the 8th tee. I proceeded to bogey the next 3 holes and I can’t help but think I got in my head a little bit and started thinking about shooting even par (despite still having 11 holes to go).

So I guess my question is, for those of you who have gotten over the hump, what do you do to block out the thoughts of “holy shit, this is my best round so far, don’t screw it up” until playing well becomes normal?

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People sometimes get mixed results from Rotella, but I am a believer. He specifically focuses on getting into your target, so into your target that the rest of the world seems to melt away, and then executing on sending the ball to the target. He’s written several books, and “The Unstoppable Golfer” is my favorite of those he’s written (I got it on audible and listen to it on my commute occasionally as a refresher). But the below article, while a little lengthy, pretty much summarizes all of the points he preaches in each of his books. Read through it and see if you can identify where your weaknesses are.

Most importantly, just get comfortable with the fact that even the best players on earth have mental lapses, make bad swings, or hit poor putts from time to time. Improving your mental fitness doesn’t happen overnight, and you never quite perfect it. Good luck.

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A big part of it for me, is self belief. It often appears on the golf course as arrogance or trash talk. Obviously i dont behave this way in certain company, but if im playing the normal game with my friends, im talking more shit, and usually playing better for it. Also, pre shot routine.

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Two things for me that helped. The article @jwfickett links touches on both a bit.

  1. Forget about keeping score. I still write down a number for each hole but don’t get in the habit of adding up scores then doing the “If I par out, then I shoot XX” mental math.
  2. Adapt the Dustin Johnson attitude aka stop caring. The reaction to making a birdie is the same as sailing a drive OB. Just move on. This is certainly a hard one to master but I find that keeping my emotions level throughout the round helps a lot in terms of decision-making and execution.
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100% on both points, and maybe the first is the most important. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve blown a chance to break 80 (which is my benchmark - if I break 80 on almost any given course I can say I played at or above my potential), been on the 16th/17th/18th tee thinking "I just need 3 pars or I just need 2 bogeys, etc). Invariably, I blow up when I do that. The key is not keeping track of where you are…you’ll know in your gut if you’re playing well or not because you can feel the ebbs and flows of momentum in the round. Every time I’ve ever broken 80, with maybe one or two exceptions, has been when someone else in my group is keeping the card. If I’m standing on the 17th tee thinking not about “needing a par” but “I’m just going to keep doing what I’ve been doing and hit this fairway” the game tends to come to me, rather than me chasing it.

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Probably not the quick fix you are looking for, but I have only been able to shoot par or better rounds when I backdoor it. Coming up 16 thinking I only need X for a great score has never worked. My best advice is keep working on your game and giving yourself a chance to shoot a good score. You will inevitably find yourself 2 over with a few to play and a putt will drop on 18 for you. Playing my game and trying to make a few putts at the end is the only way I’ve gotten over the hump.

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The easy answer is “reps in pressure situations” but that’s kind of a cop out. I went from never playing in tournaments to playing in them…with an audience. Very difficult the first couple times but I’ve done it enough times now that it really doesn’t cross my mind.

One thing that does help me is mindset. I try to focus on “playing smart” rather than “conservative” when I am trying to protect a score or hold onto a lead. You can still score when you’re playing smart but you’re typically screwed when playing conservatively (like when teams go into the Prevent Defense in American Football). The difference is minute, but one is offensive and one is defensive.

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Thanks for the responses so far. I’m gonna check out those readings @jwfickett suggested. I think for the most part I do a good job of just writing down a number and moving on to the next hole, it’s just when it’s vocalized that I’m playing well that it started messing with me. I actually don’t add up my score until I walk off 18, but the less variability (i.e. mostly pars, few bogeys or birdies) the easier it is for me to know exactly what I’m at rather than just “I’m getting around pretty well today.”

I was able to get it back together and finished with a 78 which is my low round this summer so I’m not exactly upset, just wondering what could have been if I had kept my mindset of the first 7 holes. I’ve worked hard on keeping my pre-shot routine the same no matter what and that has helped but sometimes I stray from that. Just gotta keep focused when a shot doesn’t go how I planned and stick to my routine I guess.

This is something I’ve been trying to focus on.

I’ve had 4 under par front nines this summer and followed 3 of them up with 40-42 on the back. Not constantly thinking about score and just tallying up at the end has helped. I need to make the turn without thinking like I’ve accomplished something with a good 9-hole score.

I had a coworker lend me a book awhile ago and it kind of changed my perspective on the game. Super short read and it’s a little hokey/scientific/psychological, but it does a good job of convincing you to keep a level head as well as keep everything in perspective. I keep a copy of the sketch at the end of the book up on my bulletin board in my office as a reminder for everyday stuff.

“The Mental Keys to Improve Your Golf” by Michael Anthony

Also, huge fan of not keeping a mental overall score and just playing each shot as it lies. I almost imagine that each time I write down a score on my card, it’s turning a page into a new chapter. The last hole is gone and the next hole is brand new. That’s ALL you focus on is the next shot.

That’s the basic logic of the book that I recommended as well.

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I don’t think of the round as 18 holes. It’s a bunch of little rounds based on how automatic I am feeling on the trigger and what my situations are. I pick my battles based on how the conditions are. I won’t always get to my scores the same way…Obviously the smaller the “round”, the more I’m grinding.

Here’s an example: this weekend I was playing a highly difficult course, rated >75. After a few rusty bogeys to start, I made 2 birdies to get back to even, but turned in +3. After going bogey-birdie, I realized I had a round going sitting on 12 tee. Standing +3 on a course where 78 plays to my handicap, I was really starting to feel the pressure.

So to get my mind in the right spot, I started focusing one ‘event’ at a time. The fairways were wet and my driver great, so keeping the ball in play was not an issue. The greens were very firm, so I knew I couldn’t get worked up if my ball didn’t hold. At my home course, that would be a problem if I couldn’t spin the ball like I needed, but here I had to adjust my thinking. I realized outside of any huge errors, my round was going to depend on how I am around the green and how I can put within 10 feet. That served me well as I just thought that on the par 4s I need to get around the green in 2, and then play par 2s from there: I saved par on 12/13, made a routine par 5 on 14, had to recover on 15 but stuck a chip close, bogeyed the par 3 16, but knowing I had a par 5 in front of me wasn’t concerned. finished par-par for a 76 and was thrilled I held it together after a shaky middle of my round, I wasn’t thinking what I was going to post, but more so each little battle I had to go through.

This is why I f*****g love golf.

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My biggest issue is eliminating the “blow up” hole. I play off a 9 index right now and I shot an 82 this past week with really one bad hole. I tripled bogeyed a par three where I skulled a chip shot from off the green and then flubbed two chips in a row because I couldn’t get the initial miss out of my head. I am usually able to shake it off after that hole, but I really need to work on focusing in the moment because I should have easily got out of there with bogey at worse but ended up with triple.

At a 9, if you took the safest option every single time, and didnt change anything else, i’d venture to say youd turn into a 6 pretty quick.

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That wouldn’t be as much fun though! This is the no laying up forum after all…

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Haha true! But I will say, I think the biggest gains I’ve seen in going from a 10.5 down to 7.8 over the last two years is improved course management. I still go for it when I probably shouldn’t but if the chances of me pulling it off are very slim, I tend to stick to the more conservative approach. It really depends on how bad I would end up if I hit my usual miss and what is in that area. If there’s water short right that my slice would end up in, I’ll think twice. But if the water is left I’ll go for it since my long iron misses rarely go left.

I’m the same way. Really it’s not a matter of execution on the tough shots as it is having a bad miss on a standard shot that gets exacerbated but further bad misses.

I also first broke 80 by backdooring it. (I was a teenager and this was more years ago than I’d like to admit.) I’d been knocking on that door a lot and not getting it done. Played a round where I just started terrible. Think I was 7 over on the front, on a par-72 course. Now, in those days I tended to start slow and play better on the back, but playing even par on the back after +7 going out wasn’t likely. So I wasn’t even really thinking about breaking 80. I did start playing better on the back, strung together a few pars, but also I believe made bogey at 14 and 15 plus I knew the 16th and 17th were long and tough holes.
Out of nowhere I hit crazy good long iron shots on both those holes and rolled in the putts. I was not a player who made birdies in those days, especially on long par 3s and par 4s, so it really was like lightning from the blue sky. Suddenly I’m on the 18th tee just needing a par for 79. I had to work way harder than I should have on a relatively easy hole but I got the par. C’est la vie.
Actually breaking 70 was similar in a way. I hadn’t really been knocking on the door of that at all, though I had been playing good golf. Just so happened I was playing well one day on a par 70 course and I happened to make a late birdie (#16 I think) and then eagle the par-5 18th hole. I literally had to double check the score card after I added it up because I was like, “What? Did I really just shoot 69?”
There’s really something to be said for not being aware of where you stand.

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With all that said, some of it does come down to just repetition. I sucked under pressure and then I played in high school and even though I was not a good player just being in tournament situations helped me get better at playing under pressure to where I played better when there was something on the line. To this day, I play better if I’m playing a good course or if I have a little match going with a friend or if there’s just anything that can really keep me interested or add some pressure as opposed to just being out there and hitting the ball around.
My other piece of advice is to take one shot at a time. One shot in golf can never really kill you. Even your worst shots can be opportunities to hit great recoveries and you have to look at them that way. More than that, one bogey doesn’t hurt that bad. Everyone makes bogies. I’ve been playing for 30 years and I have been (at my best, though definitely not now) as good as plus-handicap player and I have ONE round where I’ve played bogey-free. Accept it and move on. In your original post you talked about getting rattled and then making three straight boges. (Well, hey, at least they weren’t doubles, the current bane of my game.) Get rattled and make one bogey. Then shake it off and make par at the next. Making a bogey (or hitting a bad shot) is nothing to panic over. You’re no more likely to hit your next one bad than you were when you were striping it. That doesn’t mean you need to go Tin Cup is trying to hit the hero recovery shot, the advice about course management is correct (though I am a strong believer in going for it at all times). But also don’t have a bad hole and get to the next tee and just try to pummel the ball or play differently than you would if you’d just made par. Whatever happened on the last hole, as soon as you walk off, it never happened.

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Think so?

6 handicap and below, you’re making good decisions already AND hitting good shots the vast majority of the time. Skulling or flubbing a chip can certainly be mental, but it doesn’t sound like there was much decision-making there. Just a missed shot.

If a golfer is a mid-handicap (12~15) with blow-up holes, I would certainly agree that decision-making and course management need to be considered. A change there could bring you down to a 10 or so…but at some point, you have to execute an approach shot to make pars and birdies and become a low single digit. Or have a rock solid short game.