How to control negative thoughts with your game

Thursday August 4 was one of my top 3 days I’ve had in golf. Was lucky enough to play Royal Troon in the morning and Turnberry in the afternoon. Even the Scottish weather behaved – it looked terrible in the morning and cleared a few minutes before teeing off.

I was joined by my mate Mike (a chiropractor from Melbourne) and two local members David and Bob (absolute legends who treated Mike and I like rock stars). I don’t want to bore you with all the details but let me say that both courses are fantastic.

During dinner the conversation drifted to mental strategies and my coaching philosophy. In particular, Mike wanted to know how to control negative thoughts and feelings. He had had a frustrating day, losing balls, hitting inconsistent shots and generally struggling to play the links style of golf.

He was talking about the annoyance of hitting a good drive, then standing 140 metres from the pin and doubting his ability to hit the ball. Then, letting that doubt get in the way and duffing the shot along the ground, into a bunker or sideways into the thick rough. He wanted to know how to stop letting this doubt get in the way.

It was an honest question and I think my answer surprised him. Because I told him that I experience this kind of doubt and worry all the time. Here’s just some of the negative thoughts that I dealt with, (there were way more but these are the ones I remember with clarity – we did enjoy some beer and whisky during dinner 🙂 )

Opening tee shot of the day: “Don’t stuff it up. You’ll look like a bloody idiot if you hit a poor tee shot here”.

A two-foot birdie putt on the 18th: “Don’t miss it! Everyone in the clubhouse is watching you. If you yip this one you’ll get yippy for the rest of the day. That won’t be much fun so make sure you don’t yip”.

My second shot into the first green at Turnberry: “You’re going to shank this. The wind will get it and send it over the fence. You’re gunna look like a complete fool when you do. Even a beginner couldn’t hit the ball over the fence from here.”

My drive on the 9th hole: “You’ve come all this way to play this famous hole and now you’re going to stuff it up. Won’t the be annoying? Don’t hit a bad shot here, you’re playing well so don’t hit it left”.

Closing drive on the 18th: “The pressure is on here. You haven’t lost a ball all day and what will happen if you pull it into the bracken on the right? Wouldn’t that be a bad finish? Don’t stuff it up now ….”

To be honest this kind of chatter goes on all the time. I’m not sure if it’s possible to stop it – it’s part of being human and playing the game. Michael was definitely surprised when I told him this because he had just commented on the way I’d played.

You shot 74 at Troon and 70 on Turnberry. You only went in two bunkers and didn’t lose a ball. Not a bad effort!

So it was funny to tell him about all the negative thoughts I dealt with – and some of my best shots (like the drive off the 9th tee) were some of my best shots.

Cameron and Mike on the 9th tee Turnberry

There are two tricks to dealing with negative thoughts:

1. Don’t fight them. They are going to happen and there’s nothing you can do. Accepting this fact makes them so much easier to deal with.

2. Don’t let them change your approach to the game. In Mike’s case he said he’d try and “swing correctly” and play safe when he experienced fear/self-doubt. This is the wrong thing to do. You’ve got to let the swing flow and almost have an attitude of “I don’t care”.

This takes some courage. Pesky is doing his best to keep you safe. He hates it when you go against him and swing without fear – he wants you to be tight and controlling (so you don’t stuff up and hurt yourself).

But it’s a con. The paradox is that you can only experience remarkable golf when you acknowledge the negativity and then ignore it. You can’t let it affect your game.

The other thing is you’ll learn to see that it is possible to hit great shots with negative thoughts. Pesky can tell you over and over you’ll duff the shot, but by ignoring him and presenting your most natural and free flowing swing you may surprise yourself.

Why does this work?

Because your subconscious needs to be in control for a motor skill to be executed correctly. Conscious control (what happens when we start believing the negative stuff) disrupts the process. By playing naturally (subconsciously/automatically/instinctively) you maximise the chances of a successful shot.

Does this mean every shot will be perfect?

No way. You’ll still hit bad shots (I hit plenty each time I play) but you give yourself every chance of success,

– the ball ending up in play (I’m not talking fairway here – but in play. It could be in the rough but you’ve still got a chance) I hit plenty of drives offline this day, but all of them were good enough to be found and get the next shot on or around the green.

– hitting the ball first and not the ground (hitting the ground first kills any chance of the ball getting to the target)

– making decent contact (you may not strike the ball right in the sweet spot, but you will severely minimise those shanks and topped shots.

– holing more of those short putts (this helps you get the most out of each round you play).

– getting every chip and bunker shot onto the green. When this happens a percentage will finish closer to the pin and you’ll save strokes.

None of this is magic. It’s reality of learning a better game. There’s no special pill you can take, you’ve got to man up and tackle the negativity head on.

Footnote: This has been the hardest lesson I’ve learned. It’s also been the reason the last seven years of my golf career have been the best I’ve had. And I’m still learning. Troon and Turnberry were proof that I’ve come a long way but I still have a way to go.

Let me know your thoughts.

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  • Lukey

    Reply Reply August 14, 2011

    Hi Cam
    It is refreshing to hear that even your good self still can struggle from time to time with negative thoughts and gives me hope because I know it is not just me that has this problem but more in the way we deal with it.
    Cheers Lukey

  • Verna brunswick

    Reply Reply August 21, 2011

    I am a 75 year old lady and still hit my driver 200 yards but don’t seem to have the same swing with my irons. In any case, I do believe if one starts concentrating on how to bring the club back, tuck in the elbow, etc., they will play lousy. I have often said”if you think, you stink” and believe that is more fact than fiction.

    Thank you form your most interesting articles, I thoroughly enjoy them.

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