Having worked with hundreds of junior golfers on the mental game of golf over the years, I’d like to share some of the skills that I believe will help a junior golfer succeed, when playing in AJGA and other junior golf tournaments.
“Results come and go, but the process is always there…”
Obviously we all want to shoot low scores and win. But trying to win doesn’t work in golf. The harder you try to control the result, the harder it becomes. Allowing yourself to play well is very different. When you become too concerned with the (future) outcome of each shot and your score, it creates too much pressure on each shot and makes it harder to deal with mistakes and setbacks. Sure, you will probably know your score during your rounds, but it doesn’t mean you have to continually judge your chances of success, or your game, by it.
A more productive place for your focus and a better judgement of each shot is “The Process”, which is the #1 fundamental of the mental game of golf. The Process is a place where there is no uncertainty or doubt – it’s in the present moment, where things are within your control. These are things that you have determined will help you achieve success – e.g. the steps of your routine, your attitude, self-talk, body language, breathing etc.
When you focus on the “what ifs” or what might happen next, you waste mental energy and it’s a constant distraction. Instead, Process Focus gives you the mental freedom to perform your best.
However, most of us need reminders to focus on Process, which is why I’ve created my “Mental Game Scorecard”. By using the mental game scorecard, you can hold yourself accountable throughout your rounds and increase your chances of success.
“Golf is your servant, not your master.”
One trap I see many junior golfers falling into is judging themselves as a person, or thinking that others will see them differently (as a person) if they shoot a good or bad score. That somehow they are a better person and will be more respected by shooting low scores, and the opposite if they don’t. That puts an awful lot of pressure on each round!
It’s important to remind yourself that golf will never define who you are, and people won’t judge you as a person by the score you shoot. You need to make sure you separate you the golfer from you the person to be successful.
Rory McIlroy said this week that working on this has freed him up to play some of his best golf this year – by doing a better job of not letting his results affect the way he thinks about himself. He said:
“You can’t live and die by results or try to play perfect golf. Golf is not who I am as person, they are two separate parts of my life”.
“Golf is an ongoing journey and every experience is there to be learned from, regardless of the result.”
No matter what score your shoot or where you finish in a tournament, there is always something to be learned from every shot and every round. Long-term growth and success requires more focus on what is being learned along the way rather than the results. With more of a “Growth Mindset” (instead of a fixed/results mindset), we can better handle challenges and adversity as they are not seen as situations of either success or failure, but as opportunities for growth. By looking at what you are experiencing more in this way, you’ll see your bounce-back on the golf course improve as you won’t be as judging about the results. The ego always wants to judge the results, but in golf, the ego is the enemy.
Again, coaches and parents can help their junior with this. Instead of “what did you shoot?”, a better question is “what did you learn?” Whenever I review a round with a player, the last question I ask is what their score was. Getting better at golf is a continuum that doesn’t stop after each round. By highlighting what is being learned, we continue the improvement process. Focusing too much on the result of a round slows that process down.
Champions are optimistic. They think that the future will be better than today and they can see what that future will look like. The good news is that optimism is a skill that can be developed, you’re not born it. If we train ourselves to see the positives, we will begin to automatically see everything more positively, which will help take you further towards your goals.
Being positive is key when playing in junior golf tournaments as there will always be adversity and challenges, that if you don’t overcome, could have you doubting yourself and thinking negatively. You’re going to have the occasional double or triple bogey or hit the ball in the water. But if we can keep being optimistic about the future and what’s around the corner, it will help you play through tough times and be more successful.
After each round, find as many positives about it as possible. This is the first question I ask my students after every round. You can also do this as a daily exercise – list as many things that were great about the day, and overtime, you’ll automatically seek the positive and become a more optimistic person.
A lot of your confidence and self-esteem comes from how you talk to yourself. It’s ok to feel however a shot or score makes you feel (excited, frustrated, disappointed etc.), but it’s the self-talk that follows that’s important. By practicing a mindfulness approach, you can be more aware of your emotions, without reacting negatively to them. If you make a mistake, it’s normal to feel disappointment, but if that causes negative self-talk, criticism and doubt, then it will affect how you play after. Self-talk is a choice, it doesn’t have to be a reaction. Have a list of mantras or phrases you can say to yourself to reframe any tough situations you experience on the course. You can also write them down in a notebook to take with you on the course.
By being more aware of how you are talking to yourself during your rounds, you will be able to do a better job of making sure the things you say to yourself are helpful and not harmful.
Following on from #1 and focusing more on what you can control (and less on what you can’t), you can’t control what the other players do. Focusing on them and comparing your performance to them is unproductive and stressful. The most successful golfers of all time have described beating the golf course, not the field. If you can set this as your goal and eliminate focus on the other players, you’ll have more mental freedom, you’ll conserve mental energy and be more emotionally neutral throughout your rounds.
The ongoing feedback and dialogue from coaches and parents can have a big influence on a junior’s long-term performance. What they say before a round and how they respond to the outcomes during and after a round with their feedback and body language can either help the player have more “mental freedom” or add more pressure. To help a junior/player access their best skills more often while playing in tournaments, it’s important that the coach or player is onboard with the mental coaching process. By focusing less on the results and more on the process, the coach will be more productive in helping the player grow and continue to move towards their potential.