SECRETS OF THE MENTAL GAME
HOW TO GET IN THE "ZONE" AND STAY THERE
A Special Report Prepared by Bob Schaeffer
They call it the "zone". When you're in it every tee shot finds the middle of the fairway. Every iron attacks the flag. Every putt seems to drop! It's an almost mystical place where potential meets reality, scores plummet and great rounds of golf are crafted.
In the "zone", golf becomes almost impossibly easy. Decisions become obvious and clear-cut. You think with crystal clarity. The zone absorbs you and your body. It's like the club is swinging you instead of vice versa.
But the zone is elusive. It's hard to find and even harder to stay in. Once you try to analyze it, you lose it. It's much the same thing as "enlightenment" in Eastern religion. It resists intellectualization.
Once you try to put a finger on it, it slips away.
Most golfers tend to see the "zone" as a fragile, temporary state. When you're not in it, it seems impossible to find. And it's not only the amateur golfer who struggles in his quest for the "zone". It can be just as unpredictable and hard to find for the professional.
Earlier this summer, PGA player John Cook shot rounds of 62, 63 and 64 to set a tour record of 189 for the first three rounds of a tournament. Where those rounds came from, nobody knows. Cook had been struggling. To that point, he'd shot only 2 rounds under 68 all year. Then, suddenly, he was in the "zone" and playing like the second coming of Bobby Jones.
And Cook was fortunate. He was in the "zone" for 3 days. Most people can only stay t here for a day. They'll go out and shoot 61 one afternoon and come back the next with a 74. They shoot the lights out and 24 hours later they're over the scoring average.
It's almost like you think yourself out of the "zone". You go home at night, start analyzing what you did during the day's round and overnight these thoughts chase the "zone" away.
The "zone" can also expose problems in your system of beliefs about yourself and the world. Many people have a great round, say, "I'm not this good" and sentence themselves to mediocrity the next time they play. It's almost like they feel that they don't deserve to be in the "zone".
WORKING YOUR WAY INTO THE ZONE
I disagree with this kind of thinking. Finding the "zone" isn't some off-the-wall, once-in-a-lifetime event like hitting the lottery. On the contrary, it may well be that the golfer is finding his potential for the first time. He's getting a glimpse of how good he can be. Finding the "zone' should be seen as something to build on rather than a freak of nature.
In fact, the primary factor in locating the "zone" and staying in it is simple. It's good, old fashioned hard work. Too many people see finding the "zone" as mere luck. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Branch Rickey, the man who revolutionized major league baseball by creating the "farm" system with the St. Louis Cardinals, had a great line for the relationship between luck and hard work. "Luck is the residue of design," he said and it's as true of finding the "zone" as it is any other endeavor. More often than not, you make your own "luck". You practice and play yourself into the "zone".
Whether you're looking to win the Masters or trying to break 90 for the first time, you've got to put out the necessary effort. You've got to spend time at the range and on the practice green. You've got to practice chipping, pitching and sand play. You've got to make those nuts and bolts of the game second nature, like riding a bike.
If you go on the first tee with a conscious checklist of things you need to go through on every shot, chances are you're not going to find the "zone". You must practice the game to the point that you play by "feel". Good golf mechanics produce the "feel". In turn, "feel" reproduces good mechanics on the course.
It's like I say on the "Hot Touch" putting tape. You've got to be a scientist on the practice tee and an artist on the course. It's easy to over think out there. If you want to find the "zone" you've got to do the necessary work beforehand.
Sure, a good golf swing may feel awkward at first but once you get that swing down, it becomes so simple that you forget about its components. In essence, you focus on the fine points of your swing in practice so you can go out on the course and forget about them.
To get to the "zone" you've got to be on "automatic pilot". You must play with "feel". You must trust your game and swing. You've got to go out on the course and just turn it loose, have fun and not worry.
But you've got to do your homework to find the "zone". If you've got lousy mechanics, I don't care how good your mind is, you're not going to play good golf. It's not an easy game. There are far too many variables to control. Only when you practice to the point that proper mechanics become second nature will the "zone" become a regular destination in your golfing journeys.
LEARN HOW TO BREATHE
As you can see, the "zone" is not entirely a mystical experience. In fact, sports psychologists are learning more and more about it every day. Being in the "zone" is accomplished by a slowing of brain waves. The body is actually in a relaxed state. If you're struggling and fighting to find the "zone" you'll never locate it. Likewise, nervousness and excitement class=GramE>are a sure passport out of the "zone".
Tom Watson lamented years ago that, "I never wanted to learn to breathe properly." He was admitting something most people who regularly enter the "zone" already know. Breath control is very important. Yogis and other practitioners of Eastern philosophy have known for centuries that proper breathing was the key to calming the mind and nervous system and unlocking the secrets of the "zone" but Western man scoffed at it until recently.
The fact is, research shows that proper breathing techniques can calm you down and alter brain waves. Your biorhythms change with the kind of breathing you employ. If you're out on the course breathing through your mouth with short, shallow breaths your mind tends to race. Finding the "zone" becomes impossible in this state.
Breathing deeply from the abdomen and through the nostrils will help focus attention and find the "zone". You should practice this relaxed, controlled breathing throughout the entire round.
It is especially important to control your breathing just before hitting a shot. You should stand behind the ball and take a deep, abdominal breath. Feel your stomach balloon out as you do so, as if you were making a Buddha belly. Then exhale through your nostrils, taking almost twice the time you normally would to complete the breath.
This will help you relax and re-find the "zone" as you step up to address the ball and send it flying toward the hole.
The biggest misconception about the "zone" is that it's a state you're in from the moment you step on the first tee until you step off the 18th green. In fact, few people can actually concentrate fully for the 4-1/2 to 5 hours it takes to complete a golf round. For most people, staying in the "zone' requires a kind of selective focus.
One exception to this rule was the great Ben Hogan. Hogan was notorious for his total concentration from first tee to the round's completion. He felt like he had to get a kind of golfing "cocoon" to play his best and stay in it for an entire round. Ben Hogan was an extraordinary man. I know of no other successful pro who had this kind of power of concentration.
Most successful players take an approach more resembling Lee Trevino. In between shots, you should be enjoying yourself if you want to inhabit the "zone". You should be engaged in conversation with the caddy or your friends and looking around at the gallery or other sights the golf course has to offer. Your mind shouldn't even be on golf. Again, finding the "zone" requires a large degree of relaxation.
But once you approach the shot, your mind should go back to business again. An element in your pre-shot routine should signal an automatic re-entry into a "golf consciousness". Some people may lock back into golf when they pull their club from the bag. I've always found it easiest to re-enter the golf mindset by pulling out my yardage book.
My yardage book serves as a trigger for re-entering the "zone". I'll get my yardage to the hold, check for wind direction by throwing grass and then, more importantly, IMAGINE THE SHOT I'M ABOUT TO HIT. Imagery, imagining the ball on the correct flight to the hole, may be the biggest part of getting and staying in the "zone" for me. If you can see the shot in your mind's eye before you hit it, you've done yourself a great service.
In fact, you can almost trick your mind and body this way. By imagining a perfect shot, you can get the pathway to performance locked into your mind's eye. It's almost like you've already hit the shot. Then you just let your body follow the pathway to the hole. Voila. You're looking at a gimmee.
There are different ways to go about this, of course. PGA pro Fred Couples thinks back to great shots he's hit in the past with the club in hand and tries to let a similar feeling overcome him as he hits the shot. Whatever method you use, I think it's important to actually "see" the shot you're going to hit before you actually hit it and give yourself a mental pathway for proper execution of the shot.
But this should only come during your pre-shot routine. If you're not taking the time to relax and enjoy the game, you're probably not going to play well. Watch Trevino when he plays. He's a very good example for the average golfer. He's totally focused when he's doing his business but incredibly relaxed in between shots. If you're like me, you're not going to be able to go out there and concentrate fully for 5 hours. That's a sure ticket to a big headache and a high golf score.
Relaxation in between shots is the key. When you're in the "zone" you can float through the round. You enjoy the process. It's joyful. Light. Easy and fun. It's so effortless you want to play golf all day long. Pressing yourself, not allowing yourself to enjoy the moment, is a sure ticket out of the "zone" for most people.
BE "PROCESS ORIENTED"
If you're worried about your score all the time you're not in the "zone". If you're saying to yourself, "I'm three under par through 6 holes with a par-5 coming up and I need to... " you're not in the "zone". If you're worried about the last shot you hit, you're not in the "zone".
Worrying about your score, a situation or previous shot is a sure sign of being "outcome oriented". Outcome orientation can play havoc with your golf score. It may sound funny but, bottom line, you don't want to be concerned with the outcome when you're out on the course. If you're going to stay in the "zone" you've got to stay in the process. The present. Not in the past or future. That's why professional golfers are taught to concentrate on their pre-shot routines so much. It sets you up for the moment, the shot you're about to hit. Your ultimate score or a previous shot are forgotten.
Again, you need to be on automatic pilot. All you can control is the present. You must realize that we're all human. No matter how good you are, you will hit bad shots. This is unavoidable. You need to be able to stick to your routine, stay in the process and resist adding the shots up until the end of the round.
Having a mental plan on how you're going to handle yourself on the golf course is essential. You need to admit to yourself that accidents will happen. Instead of being unprepared for the bad shot or saying you'll put off worrying about it until it happens, you need to come up with a game plan for handling stress. Tell yourself that you're going to take 2-3 deep breaths, refocus and go on to the next tee. There you'll imagine your next shot, see it in the air with the proper shape, and go on for there.
My pro used to always tell me, "If you're going to get mad, that's OK. But let's do it this way. Let's get mad in the hotel AFTER the round." He was a smart man. You have to tell yourself you're going to deal with the bad shots later and go on with the present.
Golf is not a game invented to be played by perfect people. The winner is always the guy that misses it best. Even as devoted a perfectionist as Ben Hogan understood this. He was the greatest ball striker of all time. He had very high standards. Yet he admitted that on his very best days he only hit 3-4 sots exactly like he planned.
The rest of us have got to learn to be a little easier on ourselves. Bruce Lee, the great martial artist, once said that "Fear is shadow, not substance." His point was that fear isn't about reality. It exists separate from reality and only in our own minds. Golf is not about conquering an opponent. It's about conquering yourself. We need to realize this and plan for it.
Remember, the fairway is 30 yards wide. Not a yard wide. There's room for error out there. Even when we miss, we've got wedges in our bag to get up and down with.
The "zone" finds those who can play in the moment.
SELF-DIRECTION OR SELF-DECEPTION?
You can learn a lot about success by watching how a successful golfer handles failure. Even the best can lose the mental edge on their game. Look at Greg Norman in the '96 Masters. Here was the #1 player in the world coming into the final round with a huge lead and coming unglued.
Likewise, Davis Love needed a 2-footer on the final hole to clinch a tie for the U.S. Open championship. He missed. In both cases, Love and Norman handles their failure with grace. They accepted the failure as part of the game. They didn't lose confidence in their skills. They were convinced that they'd be stronger in the long run for their experiences.
Basically, they sought to turn negatives into positives. Many people thought they were putting on an act and, to some extent, they were. It hurts to lose a tournament like this. But they were also doing what they'd trained themselves mentally to do. You can't second-guess yourself in a situation like this.
Someone once asked Tom Watson, "When you're playing well, what do you tell yourself?" Watson answered, "I tell myself I'm playing well, I'm on a streak and that' it's going to last forever."
Then he asked Watson, "What do you tell yourself when you're playing poorly?" Watson responded, "I just tell myself that it happened for a day. There's no reason I won't play well tomorrow."
As a golfer, you've got to continually push the positive button. You can spend an evening telling yourself, "I'm the world's greatest putter. I'm the world's greatest putter... " even though you may be the worse putter at your club. THERE'S NOTING WRONG WITH THIS. While some might accuse you of self-deception, it's not. It's self-direction. You're telling yourself where you want to go with your game.
This is a big part of finding and staying in the "zone." You have to believe in yourself. Having a positive attitude isn't deception. It's about providing direction. You'll never be able to reach your potential or rebound from failure without a basic belief in your own abilities.
People are often afraid they'll come off as being cocky to others with this approach but nowhere is it written that you have to brag about your skills. You can keep it to yourself. Golf is very much an inner-directed game. Just continue that internal dialogue with yourself. If you tell yourself, "I'm a great putter" and stay consistent with the belief, one day you'll find your skill catching up with your mind.
WAKE UP TO SUCCESS
My sports psychologist, Dr. Jerry Lynch, believes you should capitalize on the relaxed brain wave patterns that exist when you awaken in the morning. Instead of rising immediately, you should stay in bed and do some mental work on your game.
On days when I play I find it very advantageous to spend the 20 minutes after waking going through personal affirmations. I'll tell myself things like "I'm a good player" and "I think well on the golf course" over and over drilling these beliefs into my mind. Then, just before I get out of bed, I'll visualize the round of golf I'm about to play going perfectly from first tee to 18th green. It creates a map in my head that I can follow to success that day.
I highly recommend this to anybody. Tell yourself things like "I'm a great golfer", "I'm a phenomenal putter", "I trust in my abilities on the golf course" and "When things go bad on the course I still think well". Concentrate on aspects of your game you're concerned with and affirm your skills in these areas.
Basically, it's up to you what to say. Just do it for 20 minutes. Then visualize your upcoming round of golf going perfectly. At first, it might not help much but as you continue doing this you'll be amazed at the difference it can make in your mental approach to the game and success in finding the "zone" out on the course.
DON'T TALK ABOUT IT, DON'T ANALYZE IT, JUST LIVE IT
I used to travel with a good friend, Brian Henninger, on the Nike tour. Brian was a find player but struggled far more than he should have. He'd play a good round, but hit a couple bad shots and end up whipping himself for these bad shots at the end of the day. He'd forget about all the good things he'd done during the round and spend the rest of the day on the range "fixing" the problem he'd had on the two bad shots. As a result, he was always "fixing something" and always perceived his game to be in trouble.
One day he got smart. He stopped shipping himself. He completely forgot about those two bad shots he's hit. He also stopped hitting all those range balls. In fact, he almost stopped playing practice rounds. He'd show up in time to play the pro-am before the tournament but stopped the endless "fixing" of his game. He quit all the talking and analyzing and began to focus on the good things.
All of a sudden his game caught fire. On the PGA tour, he won 3 tournaments in a 10-week stretch. He stopped worrying about the little stuff. He realized he was human and started focusing on the positive side of his game. He got rid of the "analysis paralysis" that plagues most golfers and suddenly found himself in the "zone" and regularity.
Later, he found himself leading the Masters after 3 rounds. I watched him talking to Jim Nance after the third round on TV. His face was aglow. He had a big smile on his face. He was playing well. Then he started describing how he's felt the presence of the Sneads, Hogans and Jones's at Amen Corner at Augusta National. He'd met up with them in the "zone" and now he was telling the world about his experiences.
This was a mistake. He'd forgotten what got him to the dance. As soon as he let the world in on what he was feeling, as soon as he began trying to explain what he was experiencing, he lost it. The next day he went out and tried to find Snead and Hogan in the "zone" again but they'd left the premises.
The "zone" doesn't like to be analyzed. It doesn't even like to be talked about. Once you break these rules, it'll kick you out.
I know this sounds like superstition, but there's something to it. Have you ever noticed how the other players avoid talking to a pitcher throwing a no-hitter in baseball. Some guys say that talking to the pitcher about his success brings "bad luck" but "bad luck" has nothing to do with it.
It's about being in an extremely productive mental state and doing nothing to trigger any departure from that state. If you start trying to describe what you're going through or telling people what you're experiencing, you go into an "analysis" mindset and this can signal a very quick departure from the "zone".
THE FINAL WORD
There are many instructional golf tapes and teaching tools out there today. Cybervision tapes have recently attracted a lot of attention. In these tapes, a golfer is shown putting a perfect swing on the ball over and over again. The theory is that watching a pro make a perfect swing repeatedly will ingrain the proper mechanics in the amateur player.
There's obviously something to this approach and I think it can be helpful in some cases but with many recreational players, I'm afraid they'd just be wasting their time with the tape. If you're a 25-handicapper sitting there on the couch, you can spend the next three years watching the tape and it's not going to help much. You've got to go out to the range and do the work yourself if you're going to get better.
Being willing to do the work is central to accessing the "zone" in which you will play your best golf. Good golf is played by "feel" and there's only one way to get the "feel" -practice on your swing and your game. As I stated above, "Mechanics produce feel. Feel reproduces the mechanics."
To enter the "zone" with any regularity you must trust your game. Mechanics must be second nature. The "zone" cannot be analyzed. Your quickest exit out of it is thinking about it.
When you start asking questions like, "Boy, I'm hitting the ball good. I wonder how I'm doing it?" you're in trouble. While you can certainly analyze your path to the "zone" after leaving it, you must stay relaxed and non-analytical while in it. So take it easy. Enjoy being in the zone. Let it happen. Stay with the process.
The "zone" is a gift the golfer works hard to receive. You deserve it. Always accept the gift in the spirit in which it is offered. The "zone" can allow for an extended stay if you just cooperate and play for the moment.