Have you ever noticed that after making a few bad swings, the rest of your time on the course feels off or even snowballs into poorer performance? Even the pros will admit that golf is a mind game. It’s a challenging sport that takes considerable mental capabilities to master, including composure, confidence, control, and focus. Developing and maintaining any of these skills when putting on the green takes practice and discipline, no matter your skill level.
As a former D1 head performance coach, I've worked with both professional golfers and amateur golfers alike and found that overthinking affects everyone. Understanding the psychology of golf can improve your performance and help you maintain focus even on your off days.
The Main Points:
- Golf Is Proactive, Not Reactive
- How to Stay Focused When Putting
- How to Stay Confident When Putting
Golf Is Proactive, Not Reactive
First and foremost, a round of golf takes place on your own time. Giving yourself freedom on the golf course to contemplate your putting stroke before taking that swing will not only help your body remember good habits in the long run, but will also help you keep a positive mindset all the way up to that final round.
Although it's normal for many golfers to feel a sense of pressure, in golf we are not required to react quickly to a ball being thrown or to follow a set time limit. The ball is stationary, waiting for us to hit, chip, or putt it toward a target. However, a significant amount of time can be spent overthinking before and between each stroke.
Many golfers experience negative thoughts in general, especially when they’re not playing their best. It is hard to forget about the putts we’ve missed or drives we've hit poorly. With the time we have during our pre-putt routine and over a putt, these thoughts can creep into our subconscious and break our focus, which leads to doubt.
Confronting our negative thoughts is a crucial first step in maintaining a neutral and even positive mindset when standing over the ball. On each hole, reflect on your thought pattern. Our ability to recognize how to speak to ourselves internally is key to maintaining composure in any situation, not just on the golf course.
However, remaining confident when putting does not mean silencing all doubt; it means choosing not to indulge negative thoughts as you go through your pre-putt routine and take your putt.
How to Stay Focused When Putting
Developing a simple, repetitive, and meaningful pre-putting routine is worth your time. There are many resources and lessons available about creating a pre-putt routine, but there are a few components that remain consistent.
Read the Green
Reading the green means collecting information that gives clues about how the putt could break. This includes identifying the tiers, slope, and grain of the grass. Select your target inside or outside of the cup, depending on how much break you can see. Ensure your golf ball is clean. Then, when it’s your turn to putt, it should take 10 seconds from the point you approach the ball to when you strike the putt.
Visualize the Putt
Visualize the ball rolling either on the line you see the ball following towards a certain part of the cup or towards a target you’ve identified just outside of the hole. Oftentimes, it’s easiest to imagine where the apex of the putt is located and aim for that spot.
An essential part of practice is working on control and consistency. This is also the time to practice putting from either behind the ball or to the side of it. This is not the time to watch or think about putting stroke mechanics.
Get in the habit of making practice strokes just for fun. It’s important to attempt to make a practice stroke as close to the actual stroke you want to make; this is the only way to gauge your distance control (or lack thereof) mid-round.
Let It Go
Place the putter on the ground behind the ball, aiming at your target. You do not want too much time to pass between looking at the hole to line up your putter and taking the putter head back to begin your stroke.
If your mind is focused on each step of the pre-putt routine, you will not have time to engage in negative thinking. If your mind wanders during this process rather than remaining focused step by step, it will not put you in the best state of mind to sink your putt. And remember, if you get frustrated, take a deep breath and let it go.
How to Stay Confident When Putting
You might be wondering, “How can I stay confident if I’m missing putts?” and it’s a fair question. While it’s tough to commit your good shots to memory or erase your bad ones, there are a few tricks you can keep in mind to control overthinking and shift your focus in a productive direction.
Eliminate Other Distractions
By zeroing in on the cup, zoning out your surroundings, and then taking a deep breath (inhale for four counts, hold for four counts, exhale for four counts), you can redirect your focus back to putting. Actively make the decision to commit to focusing on the moment and flowing through the pre-putt routine you’ve practiced. Imagine your own world where it's just you, your club, the ball, and the hole on the golf course; now all you need to consider is how you want to make your play.
Preparation Makes Perfect
The more putts you've hit off the course, the more ready you'll feel during game time. Realize that true confidence comes from preparation, and then trust that you've trained your body to develop the right instincts. Only through intentional practice will you find success in challenging situations and build confidence that is not solely dependent on results.
Making the choice to focus on the best putts and view misses as outliers is similar to how legendary golfer Gary Player thought. He said, “The more I work and practice, the luckier I seem to get.”
Be Your Own Hype Person
Believing that “I am due for a make” keeps your chin up and your head in a better place mentally. Seeing yourself make it to that final round or the open championship—or whatever goal you have in your mind—will help you make the choices you need to make, even subconsciously.
Staying focused and confident on the greens takes effort and awareness from within, no matter your skill level. Confidence is the result of the decisions we make every day in how we speak to ourselves and the attitude we bring to taking challenges head-on.
In golf psychology, having a great attitude may not guarantee you’re going to break par, but having a poor one all but guarantees you won’t.
Final Thoughts: Real Practice for the Real Course
If you’re taking the time to practice both on golf courses and indoors with a quality putting mat, you may feel like you're ready for the major championships. However, there are many factors, like strong weather, that can affect your golf swing and performance.
Especially when under pressure, there is still one important thing you need to know in order to perfect your golf swing—how to train your mind. Understanding the psychology of golf and working on focus and confidence can help you stay ahead of those factors and overcome them so that you can bring your top performance to each game. Always remember to keep a level head and have fun with it!