Sunday, January 30, 2011

From Confidence comes Mental Toughness

It seems that our last two discussions on confidence would lead directly to mental toughness, but they are two distinct areas with some overlap.  There are many confident golfers without the mental toughness needed to stick with a game plan for 18 holes or to choose the conservative option when in trouble.  Both things are important to success, but are separate skill sets.

Mental toughness is the ability to use your thought process to help you and not hurt you on the course.  It is a skill set that blossoms when used consistently.  Many people have the idea that you either have mental toughness or you don't, but it is a skill set that must be learned and practiced.  It is no different from any other skill in golf.  As with all skills, the more you suit your mental toughness to your needs, the better it will be.  We will start with that concept of the uniqueness of your mental toughness.
Graeme McDowell faced immense pressure in 2010 and rose to the occasion to win a major.

What kind of golfer are you?  Are you a risk taker or conservative?  Do you have a great short game or is that a weakness?  When you get in trouble do you look to get out or do you look for the hole?  These types of questions will lead you to decide how you need to game plan and how you will be mentally tough.

Mental toughness entails so many things and is so unique for the player that it is tough to generalize for a blog.  There are some basic skills that are universal and we will start there.  The first is a game plan.  When you go out for a round of golf, there are three areas that you need to manage.  The first is the golf course, the second is your game and the third is yourself.  Every game plan should touch on all three areas.  Here is an example of a general game plan that doesn't include hole by hole plans:
UNM South

UNM - My plan today is to drive the ball in the fairway by playing my draw, remembering to aim for the slopes in the fairways and using the right club off the tee.  On par 5's I will put myself at 80 yards if possible and give myself an open view of the hole location.  On approach shots and on par 3's, I will make sure to aim to the fat of the green and if possible give myself a putt away from the valley.  Because I am hitting my irons low right now, I will make sure to use enough club to get past front hole locations.  I am putting very well, so I will be more conservative on my approach shots and look to the center of the green more than the hole.  My goals for myself are to stay patient, visualize every shot prior to hitting it and relax in between shots.  My smile will be my cue to relax and take it one shot at a time.

That is a game plan for someone who understands her game, knows what she needs to do to play well and wants to be proactive in helping herself achieve what she wants.  It is simple, achievable and will bring results if followed.  The player understands that her putting is a strength and sets herself up to take advantage of it by hitting more greens.  She also understands that her trajectory is too low and she needs to allow more club when hitting with that trajectory to front pins.
Payne Stewart's play at Pinehurst was phenomenal.  He had a solid game plan of which side of each hole he wanted to be on and he followed it religiously.  He preferred to be off the green on the side of the hole he chose vs. on the green and out of position. 
 A game plan is something that takes place prior to your arrival at the course.  It only takes a minute to take an inventory of your game, your tendencies, what you know about the course and what it will take to play well.  When you get to the course, mental toughness means that you have a "warm-up" session prior to your round, not a "practice" session.  What is the difference?  A warm-up session means that you use your time to get your muscles warm and loose, find your rhythm for the day, go through your routine to get focused and hit some solid golf shots.  It becomes a practice session when you allow yourself to react to shots and begin to think about mechanics.  Pulling balls over without a routine or visualization on the range sets a quicker tempo than you usually want on the golf course.  The goal in a warm up session is to have a plan for action, not reactions.  Mental toughness means that you have a plan and you stick to it throughout the day and it starts prior to your round.

An important tool to mental toughness is your routine.  Prior to each shot, there needs to be a commitment to a shot, a visualization of the shot, if needed a feel for the shot and a clear mind stepping into the ball to execute the shot.  Those are the tasks of a routine.  Routines are comforting under pressure.  They give your mind a script instead of having to ad lib your way around the golf course.  Your routine will make it easier to be mentally tough throughout your round.
Annika's pre shot routine took 24 seconds.  Annika's precision with her routine allowed her to execute with a clear mind.  Her 59 is a testament to her ability to see it, feel it and hit it.

Mentally tough golfers stay focused on the things that will help them throughout the round.  It isn't enough to have great focus, you have to put it toward the right things.  It is easy on the golf course to react to mistakes by trying to fix mechanics, making decisions that protect against more mistakes or playing aggressively to make up for the blunders.  None of these things would be in the game plan, but golfers easily slip into these modes when they aren't disciplined with themselves.  Mentally tough players remain in the scoring mode they started the day with and maintain the goals that will help them be successful.  They don't allow their focus to shift to things that are counter-productive to scoring.

There are many, many other ways to be mentally tough on the course.  Some were mentioned in the confidence blog, such as controlling your environment, dealing with distractions and trust in yourself.  We cannot possibly cover all of them.  The best way for you to figure out what you need to be mentally tough is to write down three things:  1.  what you do when you play well  2.  how you lose shots when you don't play well  3.  what traits hurt you as a golfer.
Looking at yourself and your game in the mirror is a step toward mental toughness.

When you play well, where is your focus?  Are you working quickly or slowly?  What part of your game seems strong?  What is your temperament?  Asking yourself these types of questions will help you understand your best self.  When you have a bad hole, where do the shots go?  Do you three putt often or does your driver give you trouble?  Do your bad shots come from bad decisions or bad swings?  When you make a mistake do you play more aggressively or more conservatively?  Do mistakes multiply?  Asking these types of questions should lead you to understand when you need to play a little defense in your game.  If you understand your tendencies to lose shots in a certain area, you can game plan for that area to keep it under control and work on the practice tee to minimize the problem.  Finally, what are you like as a person?  Are you patient or impatient?  Do you like to move quickly or do you take your time?  Are you a risk taker or conservative?  When you ask yourself what you are like off the course, it should reflect what you are like on the course.  It is important to be yourself.  Now, if you are an impatient person and you admit to it, game plan for patience.  Give yourself cues to recognize impatience and deal with it.  Not thinking about it and not planning for it won't make it go away.  Instead, it is important to understand your flaws and work to be mentally tough and overcome them.

In the end, mental toughness means that when your physical game is on, you stay out of your own way and when your physical game is off, you think well enough to salvage a good round.  Many people picture mental toughness as "grinding", but my picture of mental toughness is "looseness".  Having a great mental game allows your physical self to be free and play.  That freedom to play is the ultimate goal.
Phil Mickelson is often perceived as playing with too much freedom, but it is hard to argue with his #2 world ranking.  

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