The Hardest Balancing Act
Throughout the last 25 years, I’m confident that I have either made or witnessed every mistake imaginable in golf – especially in the mental game. When it comes to your attitude on the golf course, it is critical to strike a balance and avoid extremes. While this might sound generic and simple, I can guarantee that getting this right (or at least improving) will be part of your keys to getting better at this game. Every golfer on this planet could use help in this department.
Recently, I sent out this tweet, and we can use this as my “thesis statement” for this article:
The best golf is played when you exist in the space between caring too much, or not at all. This is *hard* to do
You can’t “live and die” at the result of every shot. But at the same time, you need to be engaged enough to control your emotions and approach each shot analytically
— Jon Sherman (@practicalgolf) May 6, 2021
Finding the happy medium between caring too much and not enough might look different for all of you. We each bring our own personalities to the game. However, I know that tipping in either direction too heavily does not work out in the long run.
As usual, I’ll try to provide tangible examples of what I mean because I’m sure at this point you’re wondering, “what the hell is he talking about??!!”
Living and Dying On Each Shot
All of you know this by now, but 18 holes (or even 9) is a long time. Each round of golf usually has different acts. They can even be as dramatic as some of your favorite movies. There is heartbreak, hubris, triumph, and even redemption.
If I had to pinpoint one of my biggest flaws as a golfer, I reacted too heavily based on the result of each shot.
An errant drive might send me into a panic – all of a sudden, I’m walking faster and worrying about what my next mistake might be. Conversely, an early birdie might have had me “peacocking” a bit too much and wondering just how well I was going to score that day.
I now know that you cannot become a better golfer if you are constantly in this state. If there were some device to measure your reactions, you would want to go from this:
As always, I want to remind you that there is no such thing as perfection. We are humans, and it’s impossible to control our emotions completely.
There are still rounds where I am a little more erratic, but I know I’m doing it far less than I used to. Additionally, after being around a bunch of top-level players, I can tell you that they are more likely to be even-keeled in this department as well.
Playing “I Don’t Care Golf”
On the other end of the spectrum, there is a desire to mentally check out when things get tough.
I used to play a very unproductive game against myself. Let’s say the first 5 holes were a disaster; I might say to myself, “oh, just forget about this round.” And then, all of a sudden, after 4 good holes, I might say, “wait, I’m going to play this one out and see what happens.”
Unfortunately, golf doesn’t work this way (in the context of becoming a better player, of course). There are ample opportunities to bail out or say to yourself, “I don’t care at all what happens.” Often, I find golfers do this as a defense mechanism. We’re scared to find out just how badly we might score if we keep trying after a rough patch. Sometimes it feels like we are staring into the abyss (yes, this game can make us feel that way).
This extreme doesn’t work either. If you are going back and forth between caring and not caring, there is no opportunity to grow as a player. Of course, we care how we play!
I’m constantly saying words like routine, consistency, and system on this site because they are important. Golf is a game that requires long periods of focus and emotional control, which is perhaps one of its greatest challenges. Now I don’t expect you to operate at the level of a PGA Tour pro, but there are usually opportunities for most players to make adjustments relative to their experience in the game.
Give Each Shot the Attention It Deserves, and Move On
Here comes the part of the article where I give you the simple answer. It will sound too easy to be true, but the big concepts are easy to understand but difficult to put into practice, as with most things in golf consistently.
I keep finding different ways to say the same thing, but that’s what coaches generally need to do to change behaviors.
Existing in the space between not caring and caring too much, generally can be achieved by committing to the following process on the course.
- Go through an analysis before each shot. Consider things like your lie, wind conditions, elevation changes, the trouble surrounding your target, etc. This does not need to take 2 minutes!
- Commit to your target, club selection, and technique.
- Have a pre-shot routine. For example, I pick my target behind the ball, take two swings, then align myself.
- Execute the shot!
- Briefly go through a post-shot routine. If it is a good result, internalize the success. If it’s not what you had hoped for, go through a quick non-emotional analysis.
If you can commit to going through a similar process before each shot, you will become a better golfer no matter what is going on.
This took me a really long time to understand, but each shot you hit truly is an independent event. All shots in aggregate influence your eventual score, but I find it’s best to approach each one as a new, different circumstance. It will help you make better strategic decisions, and more importantly, help compartmentalize your emotions. Again, muccccccchhhhhh easier said than done! I don’t get this right all of the time.
So when you hit an errant drive into the trees, and you’re still fuming over your mistake, that shot is over and done with. Your new task is to make the best decision possible with the current shot and not let the prior event influence that decision, which with many players, is trying to hit a hero shot to make up for the mistake.
If you can commit to this philosophy and consciously work on it, I guarantee plenty of good things will happen in your golf game, and it won’t just be your score dropping. You’ll also have a healthier relationship with golf and likely derive more satisfaction out of the game.
Well done. I think a lot of golfers of our “ilk” need to print this out, fold it up and carry it in their golf bag for reference.
Stephen G says
Great stuff, Jon. Could you come along as my sports psychologist to remind me about these principles when all I can think about is how the wheels are getting loose.
thanks! Haha – the hard part is remembering them in the moment 🙂
Love your podcast and this site – all of what you said makes perfect sense – especially taking each shot as it comes – much easier said than done for sure!!
Hi, Jon. Longtime follower of your Twitter account, you post great stuff. This is a great article. I’ve been on the far end of not caring for several years and am currently trying to find balance again as I try to get back to playing better golf.
Thanks, Matt – you guys do great work as well!