How Do You Stay In The Golf Zone? Try Hypnotism

How To Get And Stay In The Golf Zone

By J.K. Malmgren

Bending to reach your ball from the cup on the 18th green, you’re still in slight disbelief. Not only did you put up a personal best on the scorecard, but in every other way you had the round of your life. All the little nagging swing doubts about your feet, hands and hips seemed to disappear when you pulled your clubs out of the trunk. From your first tee shot, you were relaxed, confident, focused. The only thing that crossed your mind when you approached the ball was where it was going and, amazingly, most of the time it got there. But even when it didn’t do exactly what you’d envisioned, you were unfazed and found a way to recover. You were ‘in the zone’. Unfortunately, if you’re like most golfers, you have no idea how you got there and, worse, not a clue how or if you’ll get there again.

“Ask an average golfer what it felt like to play like that, they’ll just say ‘I had the round of my life’,” says Laurie Burns, Ph.D, a sports psychologist based out of Ontario who has worked with the likes of Gail Graham and David Moreland IV to help them find their head game. “They felt great, but they haven’t developed an understanding of what it was that made them feel that way.”

Figuring out exactly what it felt like is a first step toward getting back there more than once in a thousand rounds, and it’s also a good idea to understand exactly where it is you’re trying to go.

“The ‘zone’ is a mental state which includes a sense of calmness and confidence,’ says Dr. Jay Granat, a New Jersey based sports psychologist. “Actions and decisions become effortless and easy. There’s no self-criticism, and the person is very much in the here and now. It’s analogous to a hypnotized state – you ‘become the ball’.”-

Granat has made a lifelong study of that zone and how to achieve it. He markets his tools for attaining it in golf and other sports on his website called, fittingly enough, stayinthezone.com.  He’s developed a series of hypnotic trances that golfers and other athletes can utilize to get themselves into that timeless state. And, while not everyone buys into hypnotism as the answer, most sports psychologists and golf coaches agree that staying in the moment is an essential part of being in the zone.

“It’s almost like a meditation,” says Jim Nelford, the former PGA player whose miraculous return from tragic injury to the Tour was only possible because of his ability to harness and focus his mental strength, and who now helps players at every level with all sides of their game.  “It goes to feel, balance and rhythm. But you can’t think about it, you have to be it.”

And there’s the rub. In other sports like tennis and hockey, where the action is fast and furious, players talk about reaching a place where things seem to move in slow motion, so they’re always a step ahead of the play. Or they feel as if they’re almost passengers or spectators in a body that knows exactly what to do.

“Brett Hulls says that, when he’s in the zone, he’ll take a pass and look up and it’ll be in the net – like he has no conscious control,” says Nelford, whose teaching platform incorporates both mental and physical strategies.

The so-called zone may remain essentially the same across the boundaries of sport, but the nature of the game of golf is such that it can be much more difficult for players to achieve. Unlike other sports, golf doesn’t allow for that reflective reaction that necessarily removes the mind from the game. For one thing, you’re swing at a stationary and aiming at an unmoving target. And you spend an awful lot more time walking and waiting than you do actually swinging a club.  Given that opportunity, the mind has a tendency to roam, looking back with regret to shots recently missed, or ahead with optimism to how a couple of birdies on the next two holes will look at the end of the day.  But, in terms of finding or maintaining a zonal state, that’s dangerous.

“Most of the time, when you’re thinking about the past or the future, you’re not in the moment,” says Nelford, who points to the conundrum of trying to use your mind to get into what is, in a way, a mindless state. “The more we start thinking about it, the farther away we seem to get from it.”

As the importance of the mental (or non-mental, as the case may be) side becomes ever more greatly understood, the golf community as a whole is shifting toward a methodology that allows players at every level to play better by keeping their heads down – and out of the way. And a huge percentage point to the ritual of a pre-shot routine as being a key part of getting your mind out of your backswing.

“The terms these days are focusing on the process and not the result,” says Doug Roxburgh, one of the most successful Canadian amateur golfers who ever walked down the fairway and now the director of player development for the RCGA. “Over time, you can develop a consistent routine that will allow you to do that.”

Roxburgh talks about separating the ‘think box’, where you make the decision as to which shot you’ll hit and which club you’ll use, from the ‘play box’, where you step up and actually hit the ball, as an important step, one that can only be consistently achieved by developing habitual cues that will allow you to fall into a ready state.

“Everybody has a trigger,” he says. “For some, it may be a small technical thought, about grip or stance, that’s all it is, just a cue to move to that stage.”

And that trigger mechanism is as individual as a golf swing.  Some players have a single swing thought – Roxburgh used ‘good turn’ for a while, others use ‘tempo’, and still others may take something completely unrelated to the game.

“I worked with a guy who played football as well as golf,” says Dr. Jay Granat. “I trained him to say the number 24 when he was on the tee. That was his number in football, he was able to take the confidence from his play there to his golf game.”

And for some, that trigger may be an action, not a thought. Laurie Burns points to a number of pros who use the snapping of the Velcro on their glove as their cue to enter ‘play mode’. She says that developing a pre-shot routine that is very much your own is likely to make it much more successful in both the short and long term. So, much of her initial time with her clients is spent finding what it will take to put them, as individuals, in a state that is ready to go to the zone.

“We spend time examining and explaining the feelings they have, and identifying what is happening, on an emotional level as well as a physical one,” she says. “The more comfortable you can make everything, the easier it will be to block out the technical aspect of the game.”

Roxburgh talks about ‘allowed thoughts’ – those that are in the moment and in your immediate control, versus ‘not allowed thoughts’, that take you to what could have happened if you’d done something differently in the past or might happen next, and about finding a trigger that can keep the latter away.

“If you see Mike Weir walk over and put his hand on his head cover, that’s what he’s doing,” he says. “He’s getting rid of not allowed thoughts.”

For golfers at the highest levels, the ability to get into a zone where they’re completely tuned into each moment of play can make the difference between winning tournaments and struggling each week to make the cut. Even for the very best, the pressure of a major championship or having a Tiger on their tale is enough to wrench them from their zone. Not that long ago, a pro who had a bad tournament would head to the range for an hour or six, but it isn’t surprising that more and more of them are putting time, money and energy into the psychological side of their game.

“Golf swings don’t change from day to day, it takes something like 10,000 repetitions to alter a motor skill. It’s the thoughts that change,” points out Roxburgh. And he thinks less gifted golfers could take a lot from where the pros are going for advice. “Everybody seems to understand that golf is 95% mental, but they still spend 95% of their practice time on their technical game.”

That’s not to say that having the right trigger that will get you to a zen state, at one with your Top Flite, is enough all by itself. The feeling of calm confidence has to have some basis of skill and development to back it up in order to score really well. But if you’re a golfer who has played enough to know where that timeless place is, if you may have even stopped by there for a round or two in the past, developing an understanding of the mental aspect of the game and creating your own personal processes seems to be the first step toward taking up regular residence in ‘the zone’.

 

 

 

 

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