Golf - it's all in the swing and the mind
Ben Seal explains how to prepare your annual golf training program and the benefits of including psychology training into the program.
The study of Psychology in the world of sport is a rapidly growing field of interest and involvement. Described by Williams and Straub, (1986, cited in Murphy, S. 1995) as "the youngest of the sports sciences", sports psychology has, until recent years, been overlooked by both players and coaches alike. This Coaching Portfolio relates the theme of psychological coaching to the sport of golf. The mental concentration and cognitive ability required in golf make this an excellent sport to involve psychological training methods.
Golf is classified as an individual, target sport requiring predominantly fine motor skills (i.e. smaller, precise muscular contractions). Although the golf swing is a self-paced executive programme, the game itself is an open one, vulnerable to environmental impacts. The average club level golfer is usually described in the 8 to 12 handicap brackets. This may include less experienced but improving performers who are looking to reduce their handicap and develop further as players, or more experienced participants who have peaked at this standard of play. Club level golfers will be well into the associative stage of learning, where there is good knowledge of the activity and models of the swing. Performers can detect and correct errors in performance. However, the technique may be variable and potentially inconsistent. Some club level golfers will be heading towards the autonomous phase of learning, whereby movement has become automatic, and attention can be given to environmental aspects and strategic play.
A club level golf season would begin in April and continue until October. This period of play would gradually increase in intensity, peaking around July and August, before reducing into September and October. Over the season, players will regularly practice physical elements of the game (e.g. swing fundamentals). During the closed season, very little physical practice will occur, and during both periods, very little or no psychological practice/coaching will take place.
For a coach to design and implement a coaching programme, he/she must consider when each type of training would be best suited to the athlete's calendar of events. The majority of club-level golfers will do very little training during the off-season and begin work shortly before the season starts. Psychological training is most effectively used during the pre-season months (January - March). This period is an excellent opportunity to educate the performers in mental development and be introduced gradually to put the athletes under unnecessary stress due to their lack of experience in this area of training. Methods learnt pre-season will be fully understood and feel more natural by the start of the season and will strengthen the participants' performance during the season. The coach will study the schedule and reinforce techniques before key times in the season to aspire towards peak performance for important competitions. Psychological training can also be of particular use during rest periods between events or more so during spells of injury and recovery, when physical training may not be possible.
A crucial area for a coach to begin a programme with is setting goals. Setting goals in the industrial and organisational world have proved to be a tool to motivate and enhance performance. To a certain extent, sporting success and setting performance-related targets have been apparent. However, Burton, D. (1992, cited in Horn, T. 1992) explains of the 'Jekyll and Hyde' problems that can occur when goals are not set appropriately. It is paramount to a teams' success that the coach and players create and record realistic, specific and challenging, long and short-term goals. The coach should take the performer through the stages of setting goals, usually beginning with an evaluation of the athlete. 'Performer Profiling' is one way a coach can break down areas of a sport and let the athlete rank themselves on their ability in each. Viewing the results (usually displayed on a web chart) can help players set more specific goals and hopefully increase motivation. Once goals have been set, they should be discussed between coach and performer and decide what steps or measures need to be taken to reach the targets. For the golf season, it will be necessary to set a long-term goal, which should contain aims to meet by the end of the season. Short-term goals are equally important, stating specific targets for a shorter period of perhaps a week or a month and hence will be evaluated regularly and changed according to the intensity or schedule of forthcoming events.
By setting goals, you will focus on areas you wish to improve while continuing to perform in strong areas of your game. Goal setting helps to motivate during practice.
Goal setting is a simple, yet often misused motivational technique which can provide some structure for your training and competition program. Goals give a focus, and there are two well-known acronyms to guide goal setting.
SMART or SMARTER
Make specific targets for:
Goals should be both long and short-term and written down to refer back to. Discuss them with your coach so you can both work towards these shared goals. Recording your emotions before and after competition can also help future results.
Relaxation and imagery are techniques that have proved effective in improving golfers' performance. Relaxation coaching aims to teach players how to completely remove tension, both muscularly and mentally, before a shot is performed. To begin with, it will take a while for a club level performer to relax each muscle group, but with practice, this time can be reduced and eventually can be used in a competitive situation in the form of a pre-shot routine, which the coach will help the pupil to create. To increase the chance of a successful shot being performed, the coach will stress how important the behaviour before the shot is and that it should be the same every time a shot is played. Within this routine, a coach will include the use of imagery and will work on a one-to-one basis with the performer in several short, intense sessions. Imagery training taught following relaxation periods, will involve the golfer using all necessary senses (vision, hearing, touch) to create a mental picture of both the flight of the ball and the swing mechanics, using muscle memory. The athlete must remain focused without speaking, listening to the coaches calm descriptive tone. The players may visualise in the form of watching themselves complete the successful shot from outside their body (external), or by experiencing the shot through their eyes (internal).
If such psychological training methods are incorporated around physical swing practices as part of a full training programme, club level athletes should benefit enormously. A varied and structured coaching programme should raise self-motivation for training and consequently increase confidence and competitive success.
Incorporating psychological training methods into your game
By using relaxation and imagery techniques in your Pre-Shot Routine, you increase your success rate and repeatability of the golf swing. Your routine must be practiced, and when used in competition, it must remain the same, shot after shot. Try to block external distractions out - 100% concentration is required whether it be a tee shot with the driver or a two-foot putt.
Steps to success
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About the Author
Ben Seal studied Sports Development with Coaching BSc(Hons) at Sheffield Hallam University (UK). This article has been produced here with his kind permission.
The following Sports Coach pages provide additional information on this topic: