If you golf, your brain is either your best friend or your biggest enemy. Every golfer at every level suffers from some of the the same complaints.
"I can hit the ball on the range, but not on the course." Even pros, as they make swing changes, struggle to play as well as they practice. Little secret about the pros. They actually don't take a swing change into competition until they trust it more than their old swing.
"I get so nervous." Yep. And you should. Golf is hard and the moment you care about how you play or how you look, the stress response in your brain, your alarm, will fire. Why do the pros play worse on Sunday? Their alarms. Why is it hard for you to hit off the first tee in front of your buddies? Your alarm. But your alarm isn't actually a bad thing and you can learn to use it to your advantage.
"When I miss a shot, I want to break my club." Welcome to your brain on golf. Anger is a normal alarm reaction when our play doesn't match our expectations. Your alarm wants to keep you alert and safe. The brain treats unfulfilled expectations on the course as seriously as someone cutting you off in traffic. But anger doesn't have to own you when recognize how powerful the stuff between your ears actually is.
The first thing every golfer can do to use their brain better is to decide what kind of golf you want to play when you get to the course. Some days, you feel great and you want to go out and compete. But that takes energy. It takes a sound mind. Trying to score well when you haven't slept or have been working too much is like trying to run a marathon the day after running a marathon. That doesn't mean you can't golf, just play to practice or play for fun. Your intention decides whether your alarm turns on or recognizes there is nothing to worry about.
Second, choose your target before every shot. At the range, after you have warmed up, choose what target you're going to aim for. Don't just rifle balls and think you're playing great golf. On the course, behind the ball, choose. The more specific you are about what you're trying to do, the more your alarm turns down. That doesn't mean you'll hit every shot perfectly. It means you won't be as nervous because you're alarm knows you've clearly chosen what you want to do.
Third, swing smooth or go big. Ernie is slow and methodical, and the ball goes a long way. Bubba swings out of his shoes, and the ball goes a long way. If you change the energy you put into each shot, your alarm will fire. It realizes you can't make up your mind how you want to swing and the squirrels will be running for cover in the woods.
Finally, seek advice. Your brain is happiest when you have an instructor, a friend who is a better golfer, or a good golf book to help you stay focused on what you're trying improve. They loan you their more experienced brains so you can turn down the alarm in yours.
Look at the bottom of the leaderboard each week and the high scores will surprise you. Even pros have bad days and the best golfers are the ones who manage the alarm in the brain. Use these four brain tips to have more fun and play your best next time you hit the links.
Jon Wortmann is the author of Your Brain on Golf. He is the mental coach for the UCONN men and Dartmouth women's golf teams. His first two professionals gained status on the Latin America PGA Tour on their first attempts.
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