Play with your Athletic Mind

Excerpts from Ch 5, Winning The Battle Within: Keeping your minds in balance.

Players like Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Annika Sorenstam, Scott McCarron, Jeff Brehaut, Charlie Wi and Kirk Triplett all understand the importance of technique as the foundation for improvisational golf. But, they also know there is a higher level of consciousness for players than the conscious mind.

Golf is first a game of seeing and feeling….It demands a stillness of mind and sensitivity to all that is around you….Golf is a game for listening to the messages from within…and once you have paid attention, it becomes a doorway to marvelous realms,” writes Murphy in The Kingdom of Shivas Irons.

All enlightened technical instructors know this. They know the importance of what they teach, but they also know that technique is best carried out through the imaginative mind. Note: (It’s now called the Athletic Mind, which is a more descriptive)

Playing with Your Imagination:

Technique, which includes attention to details such as swing plane, grip, stance, setup, alignment, posture, and ball position, is critical to playing good golf; however, top performance demands something more, and all golfers, regardless of skill level, are capable of playing in this higher-consciousness frame, if they will only allow themselves to do so.

To play consistent, quality golf and enjoy it, you must learn that gaining control of your swing comes through letting go of your conscious thoughts.

Our imaginative (athletic) minds are full of imagery, feeling, intuition, and sensory receptors. We connect with the environment through our senses rather than through our conscious minds. In terms of performance, especially with respect to golf, this means turning off the flow of information about the technical aspects of our swings that wants to flood in from the conscious mind. The problem with this technical information is that it overpowers the imagery and sensory nature of the imaginative (athletic) mind. Sensory information—visualization, feel, sound and touch—are required to reach top performance.

It may almost sound as if these highly accomplished golfers play with nary a thought in their heads. In fact, just the opposite is true—they are intensely engaged in the process, constantly sifting and evaluating information like lie, stance, wind, moisture, distance, trajectory, target, and ball flight. But, when it’s time to swing, great players forget about mechanics and rely on what their imaginative (athletic) minds tell them is the right shot for the conditions.

In order to operate more fully in your athletic mind, it is helpful to understand that there are three distinct minds in which we process information—the conscious, emotional, and athletic minds.

Playing golf in the athletic mind requires more than the absence of technical thoughts. It requires the collaboration of your senses. You must be visually aware of the target, the ball flight, and your own swing. It requires kinesthetic awareness of your body position, balance, swing plane, and tempo. It also requires an anticipatory, auditory awareness of a well-struck shot or of the ball falling into the cup after a center-cut putt. Finally, it requires a tactile awareness of the feel of the club as it strikes through the ball and pulls you into a well-balanced finishing position.

Our Three Minds

In order to operate more fully in your imaginative mind, it is helpful to understand that there are three distinct minds in which we process information—the conscious, emotional, and imaginative minds. Each has a significantly different effect on performance.

Motor skills, such as swinging a golf club, should be learned through a process that includes all three minds, but should be performed only from the imaginative mind. (I have borrowed ideas from Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence and the psychology editor for The New York Times. The adaptations of the concepts of the three minds to golf are my own.)

The conscious mind is occupied with intellectual reasoning and conscious thought. This is the mind that should be utilized for developing strategy for golf performance. It is best used when the body is in a static state—in other words, when we aren’t attempting an athletic movement such as swinging a golf club. The conscious mind loves technique, strategy, and course-management skills, but it gets confused when the body is in physical motion. It is best activated in a quiet time before the round to develop a smart approach to playing a specific course. It should also be clicked on for a moment during pre-shot routines to help absorb all the information needed from the environment. We need to know things like the kind of lie, which way the wind is blowing, which side of the hole to putt from, and how far it is to the center of the green. The conscious mind is great for collecting this type of information.

The emotional mind is a different creature altogether. It doesn’t collect information; rather, it reacts to it and to different stimuli. It produces emotions such as anger, disappointment, anxiety, sad- ness, frustration, and of course, happiness and joy. The emotional mind, as we all know from experience, is the most powerful mind. It works the fastest, and can be something of a bully. When activated at full strength, it shuts down both the conscious and imaginative minds. Think of your worst rounds in recent memory, and you’ll probably find that they occurred when your emotional mind was overpowering the other two. Often, golfers (especially non-professionals) bring an overbearing emotional mind to the golf course with them, laden with worries or anxieties from work, home, or other parts of their lives. In short, the emotional mind packs a powerful punch that has to be kept in balance during performance.

It’s important to realize that, as Goleman says, “The start-up of a negative emotion can’t always be controlled. The direction, intensity, and duration can be.” My colleague, Eric Jones, expresses the same idea in a slightly different way: “You can’t always control the immediate, almost instinctive, reaction of anger, disgust, frustration, or other emotions to a mis-hit shot. But, you are in total control of whether that emotion makes it to the surface in your expressions or actions, whether you let the emotion consume you or you let it go, and whether you let that emotion linger to affect your next shot.”

You can manage your emotional mind most effectively through ‘mindfulness,’ which is a Zen term for total awareness in the present. Translated, it simply means gaining knowledge of yourself and staying in the present so that you can monitor your emotions, learn techniques for identifying harmful ones, and cut them off before they negatively affect your performance.

John White at the HeartMath Institute in Boulder Creek, California, says that well-documented research regarding the harmful aspects of negative emotions, indicates that, “The rush of secretions brought on by volatile emotions limits muscular control.” The Institute believes you can learn to reverse the negative energy created by these volatile emotions and channel them into a force for consistent performance. If you want to manage your emotions under pressure do what McCarron, Wi, Hansen and many others do and utilize the emWave (Personal Stress Reliever) technology to learn more about monitoring your emotions. Once you’re able to reach a coherent emotional state in a quiet setting, the next step is to transfer it to your pre, post and in between shot routines.

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