sports psychologist & clinical psychology

The Crucial Role of Imagery in Golf Psychology

Special Report by Dr. John F. Murray – May 12, 2013 – I’m often asked what the most demanding sport mentally is and my answer is always “golf.”  The types of demands placed upon a golfer define the fact that managing thoughts, feelings, and sensations are essential while the potential distractions are immense. The brain must figure out how to do this consistently all day for anywhere from 65 to 80 shots.

A top priority in golf psychology includes having a well thought out pre-shot strategy. Note the emphasis on “thought out.” It does not just happen by osmosis. It must be envisioned and envisioned clearly and properly to work. The golfer must choose the proper club for the task at hand. He or she must also learn how to bounce back from bad shots while staying extremely calm and centered. It goes against nature when the mind and body just want to explode in anger following an errant shot.  But without proper stress management and steady mood states, you might as well take up another sport.

Analogies between golf and cerebral board games like chess and checkers have long been made. I personally think hitting a ball and walking in a gorgeous part of the world is a lot more fun and better physically than sitting in a stuffy room, but the mental demands can be similar. Proper mental skills are needed not only for match day competition, but also in training and developing physical tools for the game (e.g., building a solid swing, getting to the gym).  Without solid fundamentals gained in lessons it’s very hard to move forward in this challenging sport. It’s not like you can just run faster, jump higher or hit harder to get that little ball to fall into the cup. It’s far more refined than that. Athletic ability of course is important in any hand/eye sport, but the mental demands call for more advanced brain development and training that is acquired through proper imagery.

One of the most important aspects of golf psychology is imagery, or “making movies in the mind”. This is a mental technique that programs us to respond as planned, using all the senses to recreate or create an experience. Whenever we imagine ourselves performing an action in the absence of physical practice, we are said to be using imagery.  Golfers use it to rehearse new skills, practice and refine existing skills, and prepare for particular situations such as the first tee shot. Research in the area of imagery shows that it is very useful in in a number of ways such as reducing the time it takes to warm-up, decreasing tension and fear, and boosting hope and confidence.

Imagery, like many physical skills, needs to be practiced frequently to become effective. It doesn’t just happen overnight. Golfers are notorious for the time that they spend eagerly refining their swings while neglecting the importance of golf psychology.  But the greats were well aware of the benefits of imagery even before the scientists were talking about it.  Jack Nicklaus was a firm believer in imagery.

Be careful not to sabotage your game. If your understanding of strategy and/or technique is deficient, or if you are total beginner, you’ll likely just reinforce bad habits if you try to use imagery. Before getting started, make sure your knowledge and basic skills are solid. If you are a professional or advanced golfer, this should pose few difficulties. Beginners and intermediates should take lessons and watch plenty of video before getting started.

Imagery can be done while sitting in a comfortable position or lying down in a quiet room, fully relaxed, with eyes closed.  A longer version of imagery can last anywhere from 10 to 40 minutes and is often used prior to a match. Here, the player rehearses a perfect performance, often visualizing a complete round shot by shot. A much briefer form of imagery, lasting only a few seconds, can be used during match play. For example, prior to teeing off, the golfer visualizes an ideal shot to the perfect location. Imagery can also help familiarize a golfer to high percentage shot sequences.

Some golfers are better at making images than others. Here are some tips for those with difficulty forming images or seeing vivid details:

(1)  Begin thinking in pictures instead of words.

(2)  Review photos or videos of proper technique before using imagery.

(3)  Remain in a peaceful state to avoid losing focus.

Here are some good ideals to practice imagery in golf:

(1) Make sure that the imagery is perceived as realistically as possible by including all senses, in full color and detail, within a similar emotional context.

(2) Like any skill, practice is needed, so practice imagery frequently as it may take months before seeing great improvement.

(3) Half of the battle is just having the confidence that imagery will help. Your attitudes and expectations enhance the effect more than you might realize.

(4) Stay relaxed, calm, focused and centered while using imagery.

(5) Sometimes see yourself hitting the shot (from your mind’s eye), rather than viewing yourself from the outside looking in as you would see in a movie or picture. At other times, the outside picture view (called the external imagery perspective) is just fine. Mix it up.

(6) There is little point in visualizing mistakes. Imagine great shots. This boosts self- confidence and helps you develop great habits.

There is no doubt that imagery works. It is a very potent mental technique that will raise the level of your game by helping you build positive habits. Habits then rule our behavior and the beauty is that we don’t even have to think about it. You don’t want to be thinking too much. Isn’t it amazing that to become mentally strong in the most demanding sport mentally, you kind of want to turn down the computer!

I hope that you enjoyed this golf article on sports psychology.

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