As a psychologist to amateur and professional players, part of my day job involves walking the course analysing their habits and response patterns to situations during tournaments.

Caddies would agree that you can see a lot as a quiet observer, the things that player’s themselves under-estimate as the real causes of a great day on the course or a poor result.

My on-course analysis work has confirmed what I believe to be the one mental skill that can make all the difference in the outcome of your game and ultimately your fate in keeping your tour card at the end of the season.

Some will argue that the most important mental skill has to be confidence. My question would be, confidence in what? In a previous article for Pro Tour Golf College, I discussed the danger in relying on ball striking and scoring as your primary sources for confidence.

Ball striking and scoring are results-focused and inconstant, and therefore can leave you feeling a high level of uncertainty going into most rounds. A results-only focus will set you up to believe that ‘you are only as good as your last result’, and after a poor round this leads to the process of hitting the range to perfect your swing mechanisms and questioning your talent, rather than objectively looking at the finer process of your game.

The one mental skill that connects you to the finer process of your game is emotional control. Most tour players know they should have self-control on the course, but it is rare to actually see, and I witness a lot of talented players missing cuts when they are hitting it well enough to finish in the top 10.

This scenario might sound familiar: A minor unforced error is made such as, a 3-putt on the first par-5 after a solid shot to the green in two. There is a moment in which the player has a choice to respond effectively, OR carry that frustration to the next tee, complaining to your caddy down the next fairway and suddenly your attitude toward the round is altered. Mediocre shots follow, more unforced errors, and finally the resounding statement that “nothing is going my way today.”  

You rarely see negative players get lucky breaks, you have to open yourself to the positive possibilities and that only comes with self-control and understanding the art of letting go of an error before your next shot.

Consider Dustin Johnson’s superb display of emotional control on the final day of the US Open at Oakmont. How might the closing holes have turned out if he had allowed the distasteful announcement of his penalty on the 12th Tee to affect his subsequent holes? He remained composed and hitting the 6-iron of his life on the final hole — from 192 yards out to 3 feet, says it all.

Regardless of whether you have a right to be frustrated over uncontrollable events, you always have a choice to respond differently in the moment. You can take the path of least resistance and let your instinctual brain take over with negative emotions, OR you can choose the higher-order, mindful approach to remain focused on the task at hand. It isn’t the easy approach, it does take deliberate effort, but it can create the massive contrast between winning and losing, failing or succeeding with your goal.  

Excellent emotional control takes planning and practice. A lot of player’s expect self-control just to happen when they need it, but it doesn’t work like that. When I work with an athlete, we spend time creating a strategy that fits them, and it involves ONE key action and ONE thought reminder to help them process the mistake, let it go, and focus quickly on the next shot. This specific strategy is then deliberately practiced and reviewed.

A simple but powerful technique to get started with your emotional control strategy can involve this process:

RECOGNISE – RELEASE – REFOCUS

RECOGNISE means you get to know your signs that you are losing control such as a feeling, or an action like getting vocal, complaining to your caddy, or stampeding down the fairway. These cues then lead to your RELEASE plan, which involves an action symbolic of letting the error go such as, removing your cap and wiping the sweat from your forehead like symbolically wiping your mind clear of the last shot. The final stage REFOCUS; is to set your mind on the next shot with a verbal commitment to yourself. These are just some examples, however, this process can become as creative or as simple as you like to give you the best opportunity to make your next shot quite possibly the best shot you ever play.

Commit to working on your emotional control this season and I guarantee you will see some good changes take shape in your overall performance.

Dr Jay-Lee Nair PhD | Psychologist MAPS
Book an appointment with Dr Jay-Lee at the Singapore Sports Medicine Centre and UFIT Clinic to work on your emotional control on the course.

NB This article first appeared on Pro Tour Golf College.