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How To Manage Mental Breakdowns In Golf

I'm pretty sure you've experienced this before while playing a round of golf -- you start your round with a solid tee shot, strut down the fairway to hit a flush iron shot onto the green, and 2-putt to make par.  You continue hitting it well and it would appear after a few holes that you're on track to shoot below your handicap.  

And then, it happens.

A seemingly isolated moment such as a shanked shot into the jabong (hazard), a top-ball shot that ends up a few feet in front of you, a chokoy (chunk shot) from around the green, or a dreaded 3-putt that "triggers" a domino effect of bad shots (and a lot of cussing) that you can't stop, and somehow, makes you feel like this poor squirrel from the cartoon movie, Ice Age...

This, folks, is considered a mental breakdown in golf (or what I tell the golfers I work with, the "snowball effect") - that moment when a bad shot zaps your brain and opens up the dam to a gushing stream of successive bad thoughts which leave you hacking away, dazed, and wondering why you even picked up the sport in the first place.  

Can it be stopped? No.  The beauty (or absurdity) of golf, or any sport for that matter, lies in its unpredictability.  Think Ernie Els and his 6-putt at the 2016 Masters.  Golf wouldn't be golf if we all could play it perfectly every stroke and in every round.

Can it be managed, though? Yessir.

But before I share some tips on how to do this, let me just contextualize things by saying that the mental game, just like the physical game, needs to be practiced.  In the same way that you hit 100-150 balls in your driving range sessions to develop the so-called muscle memory, repeating and rehearsing mental exercises and drills are crucial to managing your mental game which allows you to "mini-max:" minimize your mistakes and maximize the things you do well.

In short, you will still need to put in the work.  It's not magic, but it's not rocket science either.

The main idea about managing mental breakdowns is to stop the negative or distracting thoughts that come with a bad shot and replace them with positive ones.  It will require you to take a pause and gather yourself, so to speak, before continuing your round.

So, let's go on to some thought-stopping techniques which may come in handy when you find yourself losing control of your thoughts on the course.  And because these are mental tips, a lot of imagination is required (in HD nonetheless).

The Homelander (or Superman if you're Gen X or a Baby Boomer)

    • close your eyes after a bad shot
    • picture the last image you saw before closing your eyes
    • imagine yourself blasting that image into pieces with your laser eyes
    • take a deep breath then open your eyes
    • stripe the fairway with your next shot
The Harden Step-Back (named after NBA player James Harden and his signature step-back move)
    • after a bad shot, take 2-3 steps back then turn around to face the other way
    • close your eyes then take 3 deep breaths
    • turn around and either go into your set-up and address the ball if you didn't hit it the first time around 😅 or walk to your ball for your next shot
The Breather
    • close your eyes after a bad shot
    • take 3 deep breaths in this manner:
      • inhale slowly and deeply
      • pause (or hold)
      • exhale slowly and deeply
      • pause (or hold)
      • repeat 2 more times
    • resume your round
The Traffic Light 🚦
    • close your eyes after a bad shot
    • imagine a traffic light beginning with the RED light going on 
    • count 2 seconds, then imagine the red light going off and the YELLOW light going on
    • count 2 seconds, then imagine the yellow light going off and the GREEN light going on
    • count 2 more seconds, then open your eyes
    • resume your round
The Combo
As the name suggests, this is about combining any of the above techniques.  For example, you can combine #s 2 and 3, or do #s 1, 3 and 4 in order.  The important thing when combining is that it has to be comfortable to you and that it allows you to stop the bad thought and put you in a position to "flow" into your next shot.
To emphasize, when closing your eyes to imagine, you need to make your imagination in high definition.  

So, there you have it - simple, yet effective mental techniques to help you manage your brain breakdowns and allow you to actually enjoy your round despite bad shots.  

And please don't worry about looking silly to your flightmates when doing any or all of these techniques.  After all, cursing and slamming your club on the turf looks worse and probably gets you blacklisted at the club 😂


Play It Right Goes Matchplay With Coach Lee...

Play It Right (PIR): When did you start playing golf? 

Coach Lee: I started playing golf in ’03 while I was still based in the States.  I was a special education teacher then and needed a new sport to help me detox from the stressful week-to-week grind at work so I turned to golf not knowing it would triple the stress.

PIR: What's your handicap and how would you describe your golf game?

Coach Lee: I have a 19.1 index which I think is too low considering how poorly I’ve been playing in the last 3-4 months.  I consider myself a grinder because I don’t excel in any particular facet of the game.  I just try to manage what’s before me and will myself to the green every single hole.

PIR: What's in your golf bag?

Coach Lee:  I have a mish-mash of clubs which I hope to upgrade very soon.  

Driver - TaylorMade M1 which my former student lets me use
3W - Cobra King F6 (lent by the same student)
3-hybrid - Titleist 910H
PW to 5-iron - Nike Covert forged irons
52 degree - Nike Victory forged wedge (medium bounce)
56 degree - Mizuno MP series

60 degree - Titleist Vokey SM7 Brushed Steel

Putter - Odyssey White Hot #2

Coach Lee Tajonera is a sport psychology specialist who has worked with individual athletes and teams for over a decade. He uses sport psychology and mental game coaching principles to enhance athletic performance and help athletes maintain a healthy sport-life balance.

He is the founder of Champion's Edge.