It is one of the most liberating experiences, to be able to play free from expectation. To be able to play in the moment one shot at a time. With no thoughts or fears for the consequence of each shot. Free from the highs and lows of past events. Allowing ourselves to simply focus completely on the shot at hand safe in the knowledge. That if I give every shot my full and undivided attention, I can do no more. If I succeed at this one task I will have come as close as I can to realising my potential.
“Its nothing new or original to say that golf is played one stroke at a time. But it took me many years to realise it” Bobby Jones
As golfers let’s be honest and face an uncomfortable truth. We rarely if ever play truly free from expectations! We golfers are hardly ever able to break away from our hopes and fears for the future and the baggage of our past. To play in the “moment” for a whole tournament. So distracted by our expectations are we that we never truly commit to the most important task of all. Playing golf one shot at a time. Due to this habit of thought most players will never truly fulfil their potential. Nowhere is this more prevalent than on the countries highest stage the Sunshine Tour.
The Sunshine Tour is littered with players who have the potential to play at the highest level. But who are failing to fulfil their ability to do so. Why? The prevailing attitude to improving and developing over values the physical and under values the mental. Too much time and effort is focused on developing swings and physiques. Far too little time and attention is focused on learning how to put their already considerable abilities to use when it matters. At the highest level of the game the differences are not physical but mental. What separates Branden Grace from any player on the Sunshine Tour is not his bodies range of motion or the technique of his swing!
“Competitive golf is played mainly on a five-and-a-half-inch course, the space between your ears” Bobby Jones
As a player when we have expectations, we have preconceived ideas of how we should play. So many professional golfing careers are thwarted by these. All too often players are so aware of what they want to achieve, that they create an idealised image or version of their game. They use this idealised version as the standard to which they measure themselves, this distracts from how they are actually playing.”Some people think they are concentrating when they are merely worrying” Bobby Jones
These expectations create a tension or anxiety due to the difference between expectation and what will actually happen. It’s a fact that increasing tension and anxiety levels decreases our bodies ability to perform motor skills. The golf swing is a complex motor skill. The effect is that what appears to be an innocent way of thinking creates a potentially career threatening barrier.We term this type or habit of thinking as getting in our own way. It is by far the greatest inhibitor of potential amongst all levels of golfer but particularly elite players. The more elite the player the more refined their mental skills need to be.
If players have trained and developed their physical skills they will be able to perform superbly well and consistently on the range and in practice rounds. If they are to transfer these abilities into scores in tournaments they need to have trained certain mental skills. Those with trained minds will actually improve and thrive under tournament conditions. Those that have focused too much on physical skill approaches wont. As the skills required to hit the ball well on the range are quite different to those that are required to compete and win on the course. The physical skills are the same but are fundamentally different due to the context and managing this is a mental skill.
Players with poor techniques who are in poor physical condition can be ruthless competitors. However, the reverse can also be the case. As physical skills are disproportionately important and so must be central to any training or developmental approach for elite players, mental skills are often neglected. When this is the case players will often fail to fulfil their potential. The Sunshine Tour is filled with case studies that demonstrate these observations.
“Things that matter most must never be at the mercy of things that matter least” Goethe
The solution is simple enough but, requires discipline and awareness. Playing free from the burden of expectations, allows players to just play. To concentrate all of their resources on the most important task at hand, the next shot. To react to each situation and circumstance by choosing what they are going to do and do it without the burden of what or how they should do it. They are able to go with the flow of the round and not be overly affected by the good and bad fortunes that players encounter in every round. Freed from living up to the unrealistic and unnecessary expectations they have created they can just play. They are stronger and more resilient as they are just reacting to what happens and are not trying to make things happen to fit an idea of how they should be playing.
As race horses require blinkers to not be distracted from the finish line, so players need to discipline their patterns of thought to do the same.To see how trained your brain is. The next time you play why not be aware of whether your attention is narrowly focused on the shot at hand. See how little or how much your mind wanders to past or future events? Or whether it stays rigidly locked in the present moment? Feel how free from consequence and past events you are? Feel how enjoyable just playing is and can be? The results may surprise you!