The Psychology of Golf: 3 Tips to Improve Your Game

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Golf Is Not a Game of Perfect" by Bob Rotella. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What do you need to know about the psychology of golf? Why is it important to get in the right mindset when golfing?

According to Golf Is Not a Game of Perfect by Bob Rotella, the first step in taking control of your golf game is choosing the right thoughts. He argues that some thoughts help you play to the best of your ability, while others lead you to perform poorly.

Keep reading to learn how to up your game with just three tips.

1. Avoid Technical Thoughts 

The first tip you’ll learn while studying the psychology of golf is that thinking too technically during a round of golf can cause you to hit poor shots. It’s fine to critique and adjust your swing during practice, but you shouldn’t try to do so during a real round. Golf swings are mechanically complicated, and even the most skilled players are unlikely to be able to accurately troubleshoot swing issues during the course of a single round. Trying to do so may lead you to overcompensate and take unnatural, uncomfortable swings that produce poor shots.

(Shortform note: Other experts agree that major technical adjustments should happen during practice. However, in contrast with Rotella’s advice, they argue that it can be worth trying to make small changes to your swing during a round because certain simple mid-round changes can positively impact your score. According to these experts, by swinging more slowly, you can regain control of your game and play more confidently.)

Instead, Rotella advises that you accept whatever swing you show up to the course with that day. You’ll perform more consistently by accepting flaws in your game and working around them rather than changing things up mid-round.

For example, if your tee shots always veer off slightly to the left, don’t try to correct this in the middle of the round. Instead, simply play around your swing by aiming slightly to the right on tee shots to balance out your natural leftward tendencies, hopefully landing your ball in the fairway. By contrast, if you try to correct your swing and aim to hit a perfectly straight tee shot, you’re likely to overcompensate and miss your shot to the right.

(Shortform note: Some pros disagree that you should change your aim to compensate for flaws in your swing. For example, golfers who tend to hit “slices,” where the ball curves sharply to the right (for right-handed golfers), assume that the fix is to aim to the left. But one pro argues that this will actually make your slice worse.)

2. Envision Your Perfect Shot

In lieu of thinking about your swing, Rotella argues that you should choose to think about the kind of shots you’d like to hit. By envisioning your perfect shot you’ll put yourself in the right frame of mind to hit the ball well.

Envisioning the perfect shot starts when you choose a target. Rotella recommends that you choose a target that is as small and distinct as possible. According to Rotella, your mind functions best when presented with a small, clear focus. Additionally, when you choose a small target, you have a much greater margin for error than when you choose a large one. For instance, if you aim for a boulder that marks the dead center of the fairway, and you miss by five yards in any direction, you’ll still be in the fairway. However, if you decide to aim more generally for the entire fairway, missing the target even slightly to either side means you’ll end up in the rough.

3. Respond Positively to Adversity

In addition to avoiding technical thoughts, choose to respond positively when things don’t go your way on the golf course. Even the best golfers are virtually guaranteed to hit one or two weak shots during a round. Given that mistakes are inevitable, you’ll need to learn how to move on from them successfully.

Rotella notes that many golfers let bad shots derail them. Often, golfers will attribute bad shots to swing flaws and return to the kind of technical thinking that only leads to more bad shots. Or, golfers will become angry or distressed and fixate on the bad shot, distracting their focus from the next shot.

Instead of letting a few bad shots ruin your round, Rotella recommends that you develop strategies for learning to accept bad shots and move on. Specifically, try to lower your expectations, learn to laugh at your mistakes, and focus on enjoying playing the game.

One of the best ways of dealing with poor shots is by preemptively lowering your expectations before each round begins. While you should confidently believe that you’re capable of hitting great shots, if you expect every shot to be great, you’ll always be disappointed. Instead, you should try to accept the fact that poor shots are inevitable and expect to make a few mistakes each round. If you expect to occasionally hit a weak shot, you’ll feel less deflated when it happens and more prepared to respond to it.

When a bad shot happens in the middle of a round, laughing things off can help to diffuse your anger and anxiety about the shot. This can be an especially effective strategy if you’re golfing with friends or a familiar caddy. Turning to others who can help you find the humor in difficult moments can turn bad shots into great memories in addition to helping you get on with your round.

Lastly, when bad shots happen, remember that golf is a game and that the point of the game is to have fun. For most competitive golfers, there’s obviously more at stake than simply enjoying a round, but Rotella argues that competitive focus shouldn’t come at the cost of sheer enjoyment of the game. Rotella recommends that you remember the reasons you chose to pursue golf in the first place and remind yourself that if you’re able to take time to spend a day golfing, you’re in a lucky position. Remembering to have fun on the course can help put bad shots in perspective, enabling you to better move on from them.

The Psychology of Golf: 3 Tips to Improve Your Game

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Bob Rotella's "Golf Is Not a Game of Perfect" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Golf Is Not a Game of Perfect summary:

  • A framework for improving the mental side of your gold game
  • Why thoughts, confidence, and strategy are more important than your swing
  • Techniques for choosing the right thoughts, goals, and shots

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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