By Kitrina Douglas
There seems to be is a lot of confusion about what ‘mental skills’ are and a great deal of misunderstanding about the role these skills play during performance.
When it comes to studying human behaviour it’s obviously a vast subject, which includes anthropology and sociology, as well as psychology. Arguably, however, of these quite diverse disciplines, it is psychology that has made the biggest contribution to what we have come to term ‘mental skills.’
When we talk about enhancing mental skills it means simply to work on those areas of sport performance that are affected by your behaviour and thoughts. In a broad sense mental skills include the following: attention and concentration, motivation, visualisation, confidence, ability to handle pressure, kinaesthetic awareness, optimum performance states and state of arousal, relaxation, self-talk, pre-shot routines, coping with adversity or pressure, goal setting, course management, meditation and mindfulness. This list isn’t exhaustive but provides an indication of how vast the area is and nowadays any support package made available to athletes usually includes someone who teaches these skills. Most times this is a sport psychologist of some type, but given many of these skills relate also to how the body moves and technique, it may be a physio, coach, or a mental skills practitioner. All of the above are to a certain degree all related in some way, that is, people get anxious because of what something means to them, then their body might tighten up, their swing become less fluid and a poor shots is the outcome. The individual may well blame their technique without recognising the influence that other factors plays.
Motivation, then, while perhaps not strictly a skill one learns, is important to understand because it influences thoughts, feelings and other mental skills. Motivation is the reason and meaning behind the action, the why we do things: why we play golf, what we get out of it, what it means to us, what spurs us on to play well, in other words (and incidentally the title of my PhD thesis). What’s the drive in golf? It’s important to understand motivation is because it influences the amount of effort an individual will invest in something, and helps explain why the individual is either fulfilled or unfulfilled. By understanding more about motivation it helps us make better provision for young children, teenagers, females or golfers in their 70’s and 80’s.
Goal setting is quite simply making a plan as if you were planning a trip and looking at a map. The majority of research shows that humans achieve more if we have clearly identified goals. However, goal setting tends to make the individual less organic, responsive, creative and only include things that are easy to measure.
Both goal setting and motivation are less important once you are on the course – and although you may set goals for your performance - in terms of swing thought or technical thought – these are usually decided on in advance of play.
Once on the course mental skills like visualisation, concentration, optimum performance states and confidence are mental skills which are constantly being utilised and to some degree,tend to be used in tandem with and influence each other.
Visualisation & Concentration
Visualisation is just the ability to get a picture of your swing in your head. In golf this is usually associated with either a) imagining how your swing looks or, b) how a particular shot looks. Along with visualisation are kinaesthetic skills that remind us how the swing feels. But these are used with concentration & attention (the ability to focus on one thing to the exclusion of another). In order to concentrate on what your putting stroke feels like you might attend to how your hands feel, or the rhythm of your swing. Equally, concentration is needed to attend to course condition as you play, the wind, speed of the greens, the score of your playing partner, the pace of play and so on. The following points provide some reminders about the importance of enhancing mental skills.
1. Concentration isn’t something you switch on or off. So, if a teacher at school reprimanded you saying: ‘Concentrate!’ It didn’t mean you were not thinking about anything. Rather, it meant you weren’t thinking about what the teacher wanted you to think about. The same happens in golf so try to become aware of when you fail to attend to important information.
2. There is an order to when a golfer should think about, or concentrate, on the things. Walking up to the ball your attention style can be quite wide and on numerous things (wind direction, club placement, shot & club selection, lie of the ball) but once these choices have been made attention is focussed on more narrow and internal feelings (what the shot should feel like, the rhythm of the swing).
3. Visualisation is a skill that can be improved at home, through watching videos of golfers whose physique and swing are similar to your own and then replaying the video and attending to the rhythm and tempo of the swing. Being able to recall this on the golf course, especially under stressful conditions, is one way to maintain a rhythmical swing under pressure.
4. A pre-shot routine is a really useful practice to ensure you don’t forget to do something (like have a practice swing, line up correctly and so on) and can also be an effective way to manage anxiety on the course (being called through a group, or on the first hole for example) and by replacing negative or intrusive thoughts with productive ones.
5. Excess tension (due to over excitement or anxiety) is problematic because it can alter a golfers’ rhythm and it is difficult to swing smoothly when your muscles are tight. Mindfulness, meditation and progressive muscular relaxation can each help channel thoughts into the consciousness that are helpful to performance and usher-out unhelpful thoughts.