Play Your Best Golf in 2021 (Part 1) - The Art of Looking Back

The new year is almost here (thank goodness), and avid golfers at every level of the game will be thinking about what they hope to achieve in 2021. The process, for some, will be so invigorating they’ll make a game-changing or life-changing resolution. And for many, it will mean a firm commitment to goals aligned with the golf of their dreams.

It’s great stuff, and it’s a mental effort that’s absolutely required if producing better results on the golf course is important in your life. But, as a mental coach with decades of experience, here’s three words you need to hear before you start moving toward a future featuring better play and lower scores ... not so fast.

Reconsider the Past Before Conquering the Future

A burning desire to achieve your dreams is an essential aspect of success, but it’s not the whole equation. Before you envision becoming a more consistent ball-striker, carding the lowest rounds of your life, or see yourself holding a coveted trophy, it’s vitally important to take your eyes off the future long enough to establish an empowering picture of your past.

Truth be told, I learned this the hard way. In my early days as a coach, I focused exclusively on the future. I was enthused about goal-setting, planning, and visioning. I’d help my clients map out their desires, identify obstacles on the path, and develop strategies for overcoming each. The results for my clients (and in my own life) were good ... but not great.

Fortunately, having the opportunity to coach pro athletes and senior executives inspired me to study the workings of the subconscious mind ... the part of us that maintains our habits, filters our experience, and more to the point of this article, establishes boundaries on what we can be, do, and have in life. And from this study, I learned that the memories we prioritize — whether wittingly or unwittingly — shape our future efforts.

Here it’s helpful to think about memories as creating chapters in the ongoing book of your life. Whether it’s your personal life, your career, or your golf game, it seems important for the subconscious mind to have the next chapter logically follow the one(s) previous.

Now, if you’re like the rest of us, you made great shots, mediocre shots, and terrible shots last year. You had great rounds, mediocre rounds, and brutal rounds. You enjoyed a hot streak or two, and likewise, fell into a slump or two. And like the majority of golfers, you’re probably inclined to emphasize your worst swings and your worst rounds. You’ll mentally highlight miss-hits more frequently, and feel them more intensely, than your best moments.

It’s not your fault. Being quick to identify problems and threats is an evolutionary aspect of human nature that’s enabled us to survive and thrive. But the tendency to emphasize the negative and downplay the positive can make things difficult when it comes to achieving your most meaningful goals — in fact, it’s a genuine stumbling block — because the subconscious mind tends to make this year’s dominant emotions the ongoing themes in the next chapter of your life. And no matter how much you want things to be different, if most of your mental energy was given to disappointment, frustration, or anxiety on the golf course last year, your script will, in all likelihood, fundamentally remain the same in 2021.

I’m sure you’ve experienced it yourself or witnessed it in others. When we set a goal that’s outside the arch of our current story (or self-image, if you prefer), we invariably sabotage the achievement of that goal. We get injured at the wrong time, resurrect a bad habit or create a new pattern of behavior that distracts from our best effort, or choke when the big moment is at hand.

But just as your future isn’t set in stone, neither is your past. You can, and should, shape your perception of what happened.

Manage Your Memories

If you purposefully highlight your best moments from 2020, and you set goals aligned with the arch of that story (even if your new goal is a significant stretch), you’ll move forward with a deep feeling of confidence. You’ll feel as if you’re meant to achieve this level of success ... as if destiny was somehow at work. There will be obstacles and setbacks. You won’t suddenly go from consistently choking in tournaments to being as cool as Brooks Koepka under pressure. Yet somehow, someway, you’ll notice an internal shift in your attitude, and your efforts will bring you closer to, if not directly on, the bullseye of your desires.

Let me repeat: Before you decide on a future goal, it’s essential to manage your memories in a way that sets the stage for the improvement you desire.

I’m not talking about constructing a fantasy and hypnotizing yourself into believing it. No matter how much editing I do with my story, I’m not going to qualify for the Champions Tour next year. And you won’t be sleeping in Butler Cabin on the eve of the Masters. So this isn’t about trying to convince yourself that you’re one of the best golfers in the world when you’re not the best golfer in your county. It’s about becoming deeply convinced — via the truth of your own experience — that you have what it takes to author a story about the future that improves upon, and perhaps dramatically improves upon last year’s results.

Here I want to be very clear. I strongly suggest that you actually do the following exercises. Don’t gloss over this work. As the old Nike slogan said, “Just Do It.”

Simply reading the remainder of this article — even if you happen to agree with what I’m writing — will not yield anything beneficial for your game. Application is the key.

So grab a pen and paper, set aside 30-60 minutes of undisturbed time, and give the following your undivided attention. Hey ... it takes what it takes. And besides, your game is worth it!

Step One

Make a list of your best golf moments of 2020.

~ 3 best rounds

~ 3 best holes

~ 3 best drives

~ 3 best par 3 tee shots

~ 3 best fairway woods/hybrids

~ 3 best irons

~ 3 best recoveries

~ 3 best up and downs

~ 3 best lag putts

~ 3 best made putts

~ 3 funniest moments

~ 3 best times with friends

~ 3 best courses/settings

The secret here is letting yourself relive each moment.

Let your mind travel back in time. Be there once again. See what you saw. Hear what you heard. Make things vivid. Notice the beauty of your surroundings. Call to mind your playing partners. Hear the swish of your club and the sound of your ball on the clubface. See your ball flying toward its target. Hear the ball rolling around the bottom of the cup (or, in Covid times, perhaps softly hitting the flagstick).

Close your eyes, take your time, and inhabit each memory as if it was happening once more.

You aren’t fabricating events or twisting the truth. But you are selectively highlighting your best memories.

Give this exercise an honest effort, and you’ll convince yourself — at a deep level —that you have what it takes to hit great golf shots, make great putts, and play great rounds. It’s the key to developing the confidence required to play your best golf when it matters most.

Step Two

Now, make a second list.

~ 3 most difficult/disappointing moments

Everything in golf isn’t a bed of roses. If you played enough in 2020, there’s a chance you experienced a devastating moment where you blew an opportunity to achieve a meaningful milestone. Or perhaps you experienced a demoralizing slump, and if it lasted long enough, you wondered if you’d ever get your ‘A’ game back. Such “negatives” are an unavoidable part of golf at every level. But the real problem isn’t the fact they happened. It’s failing to learn from them.

Let me make an important distinction: When I talk about learning, I’m not talking about gathering more information or increasing your understanding. I’m talking about using your imagination. It’s mental images, not ideas, that exert the greatest influence on personal performance. It doesn’t matter if you’ve analyzed your mistakes enough to write a Ph.D. thesis. What matters, in terms of your future performance and results, is seeing yourself, in your mind’s eye, performing in a way that corrects your mental or physical mistake and re-writes the memory with a better ending.

The key here is reviewing pivotal memories still carrying a strong negative emotional charge.

Take the moments you just listed one at a time. As you call each to mind, use your imagination to stand back from the memory and make sure you can see yourself in it. It should be like you’re watching a video on the YouTube of your mind — and you’re in it. This will help you detach from the negative feelings connected to the memory and allow you to edit it in the same way a director of a movie decides a scene must be re-done.

In this re-imagined moment, be sure to watch yourself execute golf shots. Notice how getting the learning in your bones changes your pre-shot routine, your in-shot routine, or your post-shot response. Notice how changing what you do also changes the results of each shot. Notice if the change improves your score on the hole and your final score for the round.

Whether the shift is subtle or dramatic, your mind needs to identify the change as something you’ve already accomplished.

Now that you've done this important inner work...well...congratulations are in order. By spending time with step one and step two, you’ve re-written last year’s chapter of your golfing life in a manner that can and will empower what comes next. Well done.

And speaking of next, tune in again next week, and I’ll share a process that will build on the work you’ve done here and further enhance your chances of playing your best golf in 2021.

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