If you have any interest in seeing first hand the impact that mental toughness has on sport performance, go no further than the PGA or LPGA Qualifying tournaments or "Q-School". Each year for the past several years, I have worked with players on site during this event. A great many of the conversations that the players have are a rehashing of their performance this past year on the PGA, LPGA, Nationwide, or mini-tour circuits. What I have heard frequently are things that could help the junior golfer get a head start in his or her career.
In attempting to describe why they hadn't reached their outcome goals for the season I hear these professional players repeatedly talk to one another about "trying too hard", "not letting it happen out there", "playing tentative" and many other frequently used mental game phrases. The challenge for many of these professionals is not only to sharpen their swings and putting strokes for this critical week, but to sharpen their mental games as well. The players who do well in Q-School are the ones that will follow some basic rules about the mental game. Each of these also has application for the junior golfer:
1. Keep each shot in perspective. This is especially true in a 108-hole tournament. Q-School, of all tournaments, is understood to be a marathon and not a sprint. There is no rational reason to be unnerved by a bad hole or two. Similarly, the junior golfer has years and years of opportunities ahead. There is no particular shot in any tournament that is "life or death".
2. Focus on the task rather than the outcome. This is probably the most difficult of the "basics" for players to follow. It is natural to think about the result and then the consequences of the result. This thinking will not help get the job done. Whenever these thoughts come to mind, replace them with thoughts of the immediate task at hand.
3. Breathe. Even the best in the world get tense in this type of situation. That tension can increase a player's tendency to hold his breath in anticipation of a shot or a putt. This then impacts muscle tension even more, and potentially affects his ability to swing the club smoothly. Deep breaths = slower heart rate and less physiological tension. Creating a habit of doing this as a junior player will be invaluable as your golf career progresses.
4. Remember that you cannot control things. Anyone who plays this game knows that something unexpected happens in nearly every round. A great tee shot lands in a divot, a club you've been hitting well all week suddenly starts getting shaky, or a two-foot putt is missed. The successful players in Q-School and elsewhere will recognize that they have control only over their preparation and reactions, and not over anything else. If they know they've prepared the best they could for each shot, and know that they are capable of controlling their reaction after each shot, they've done all they can possibly do to achieve their goals. Move on to the next one.
5. Play to succeed. Nearly every year there is a player or two held up at the end of Q-School as an example of a late tournament collapse. In nearly all of those instances, the player interviewed will speak of having thoughts of "trying to hold on" or "trying not to make a big number". Many players will have a tendency to play to avoid mistakes and/or prevent something bad from happening. The players who are successful are those who are confident in their abilities to go out and get the job done, and will be playing to succeed rather than to avert failure.
These mental game essentials will help you as a junior player ingrain habits that can help you reach the ultimate golf goals for which you strive!
Jeff Troesch, MA, LMHC is an internationally recognized expert in the mental side of golf. As the former Director of Sport Psychology for the David Leadbetter Golf Academies, Jeff has worked with thousands of golfers nationwide and brings a wealth of experience to seasoned golf professionals as well as the recreational golf lover. You may contact Jeff directly through his website, http://www.fitnessforgolf.com.