I’m in these forums because I have a passion for golf, but something else personal development and mindfulness. I work in corporate learning & organizational development, so these are practices I try to bring into my organization as part of my job. Mindfulness, however, is something I really feel applies to golf and is essential to how I play. Hopefully some of you could also improve your game through mindful practices on the course, so I put together this quick guide to what mindfulness is and how it can be applied to help you play your best golf.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is, in short, meditation. I think there is still a strong connotation out there tying meditation to Buddhist monks with incense and prayer bells and while that is not necessarily false, it is only one small type of meditation. You don’t have to be in a Tibetan monastery to meditate (that would be cool though) as you can apply mindful practices anywhere at any time. Another, and in my opinion worse, misconception is that meditation is about cutting yourself off from the world. This is pretty much opposite to the intent of mindfulness which is to actively increase your awareness, both within yourself, the outside world, and how you’re interacting with it. The positive mental and physical impacts of practicing mindfulness have been well-documented and easy to find so I won’t dig into them here, but I will say that I strongly believe that it really can help anyone be their best self in any given situation. Golf just so happens to be something it is particularly well suited to.
How can mindfulness help my golf game?
As said above, mindfulness is all about increasing your awareness. Here’s how I see that awareness, internal and external, helping golf.
· More controlled emotions and less likely to get trapped in negativity
· Better situational awareness
· More accurate and meaningful visualizations
· More satisfaction with results
A key part of any mindful practice I do (and I’ll describe a few below) is to ask myself “how am I feeling?”, naming my emotions and acknowledging them without judgement. For example, standing on the first tee for a round I’ve been excited about I probably feel nervous. I will tell myself “I feel nervous”, that’s all. This nervousness is not good or bad, it simply is. I’m probably not feeling just one emotion either, so I can build the inventory “I feel excited/joyful/tired/stressed.” This is something internal, so it can all be done in a few moments. While I said that these emotions are not good or bad, taking this time to actively name and acknowledge them makes it much easier to set aside the ones that won’t help you in the moment and focus on the ones that will. If you are someone who struggles with compounding negativity out on the golf course, this is something that can have an almost immediate impact on your game.
The same practice for how I feel mentally applies to my physical state as well. I’ll take inventory of how I’m feeling physically, not just what is sore or stiff, but what feels relaxed, where I feel balanced, and adding just a bit more focus to the muscles I know will have to get to work soon. In less than a minute, we can have a pretty full picture of who we are at the moment and better prepared to add in the outside world. That’s the next place we can add mindfulness to our golf.
Being mindful to our environment isn’t all that different than applying awareness internally, it’s just a change of focus. Typically, our senses are acting passively, and we don’t really think about what we’re seeing, hearing, or feeling. Most of the time this is no big deal, but in a performance situation this lack of active awareness means we’ll be acting without complete information, making it more difficult to produce results. Taking a minute to send out senses outward with intention, asking “What am I hearing/seeing/feeling right now?” allows us to build a more complete picture. A key point here is control. We don’t control these external things and usually that lack of control causes stress (whether we acknowledge that stress or not). Acknowledging and naming these external factors doesn’t make them disappear, but it does allow us to better use the information or let it go.
To bring this all together, let’s talk about visualization. We’ve all heard many times to visualize our shots and how that will help us play better. That is true (and visualization itself is a mindful practice), but in my opinion most golfers out there are skipping ahead and not really making their visualizations impactful. Internal and external awareness discussed above is all about building a complete picture of who and where we are. With this complete picture, we can then create an accurate visualization, something we are then much more likely to accomplish. That right there is how mindfulness can most positively impact your game.
So how can I apply mindfulness to my golf game?
Being intentional and active with mindfulness means applying practices and techniques. There are a bunch of them out there and I highly recommend using a resource, like Headspace, to guide practices. This is especially useful when you’re just getting into things, but I still use guided meditations daily. That said, here are a few practices you can use right away. These are the types of things I do between holes or even between shots when I can’t really pop in the headphones and follow a full guided meditation. They can be done all together or individually:
Three breaths and mental inventory
Take a deep breath in through the nose and out through the mouth. Focus on where you feel the breath coming in (stomach/chest/diaphragm?) and where you feel the motion of the exhale. There’s no right or wrong way of doing it, just focus on the breath.
With the third exhalation, close your eyes, return the breath to normal, and ask yourself “How do I feel?” Do your best to name the emotions as specifically as possible, form an image in your mind of what that emotion “looks like” if that helps as well. Don’t try to force yourself into how you “should” feel, but just try to acknowledge what you are feeling without judgement. Once you have taken this inventory either start the next practice or open your eyes and move on.
With eyes closed, bring your focus to either the top of the head or your feet. From there, scan that focus down or up your body (personally, I visualize a Star Trek-esque sci-fi scanner in my mind, but that just helps me). Take inventory of how each part feels physically (loose/tight, heavy/light, relaxed/tensed etc). During this practice, try to remember that there’s nothing wrong or “broken” that needs to be “fixed” in this moment, it’s all about awareness on what it is. A side effect of this practice though is that if, for example, your scan tells you your slouching, you’ll naturally start to stand up a bit straighter, so allow that to happen as well.
Start with the eyes closed and acknowledge what you feel around you. If standing, start with the feet, how does the ground beneath you feel? Is it soft or firm? Level or uneven/bumpy? Are your feet balanced on it? This is another moment where we’re not trying to apply this information yet, just noting it. Next, actively listen to your environment, what do you hear? Is there a dominant noise? Try to let it fade more into the background and see if you can hear other things instead. Open your eyes and find an object of focus (a flagstick works great). What information does this focus produce? Is the object moving or is it still? Even the small details like color and shape, actively acknowledge them.
With these practices and others you can take as much or as little time as you can manage. Start small and try not to chide yourself for not doing it correctly. There really is no right or wrong hear. If a thought distracts you, simply acknowledge the thought and return the focus. This itself shows that you are actively engaged in mindfulness and will benefit from it. Also remember that just like no two golf shots are exactly the same, no mindful practice will be the same every time. Some days it will seem easy, some days more difficult. I also don’t really believe anyone can ever be an “expert” at mindfulness, at least not within themselves. It is always a practice and something you have to be intentional about. If it ever became something without intention and effort, then it wouldn’t be mindfulness anymore.
So, is it worth it? I’m not going to promise that these practices will save strokes or help you hit specific performance goals, but I am very confident that it will help you play your best golf. Your best golf in this sense is getting the best results out of the realities of your situation, the swing you have and the environment your in. Your best golf is always changing, but even as it does, mindfulness can help you walk of the course more satisfied and without regret. That’s the type of feeling that really makes you want to come back and keep playing.