Many sport psychology professionals rank golf as one of, if not the most, mentally demanding and draining sports out there. It requires high levels of cognitive functioning including: prolonged and acute concentration, mood control, optimistic self talk, thought control (avoid excess thinking or negative thoughts), mental adaptability, visualization, etc. If you have ever played in a tournament you really understand how demanding the mental side of the game can get. With that in mind, anything that can improve your abilities in these areas will undoubtedly improve your performance on the course; with the only side effect of improving your mental functioning and well being off the course.
Update: since I started to write this post, I personally just experienced the worst round of golf that I can even remember playing, and it was during a tournament! I also have to admit that my meditation practice has been almost zero for the past number of months. Is this connected, maybe, but I suggest you implement some meditation into your routine and find out for yourself.
Surprise, surprise, there are no studies (I could find) on a direct effect of meditation on golf performance, but there are many studies on how meditation can improve concentration, stress/anxiety, mood/positive thoughts, and quieting the mind (less thoughts to distract you).
Meditation and Concentration
Human attention is an interesting and complicated topic. Researchers use the term “salient” to describe something that takes our attention at any given moment. Salient simply means something that is different enough to stand out from everything else. It’s also important to keep in mind that we are only able to provide our attention to one thing at a time; acute, momentary attention is all or none. The idea of attention to salient aspects of our environment is based on an evolutionary survival viewpoint. Basically, if we go back 10,000 plus years, our hunter gather brains would be on alert for anything salient in their environment, typically we can imagine this as something threatening (lion, tiger, bear, oh my!). Therefore, human attention can be thought of as a survival tactic. However, in current times we don’t experience the physical threats of the past, but we do experience emotional threats and hurts (past or future) which draw our attention.
On that note, have you ever been on the golf course and all of a sudden..BOOM…you think about hitting your tee shot in the water. What about standing on the tee box of a hole you have played before and remembering the one time you shot an 8. Both of these situations draw all of your attention and take it away from total focus on your shot. Not to mention the negative emotions associated with such thoughts.
Fortunately, most all types of meditation have been shown to improve task related attentional focus and sustained attention (1, 2), both of which we know are important on the golf course.
Meditation and Stress/Anxiety
I can’t imagine that any of us have ever experienced stress or anxiety on the course before (sense the sarcasm). Of course we have. Specific to tournaments, it really isn’t possible to fully remove the nervousness/stress/anxiety (it would probably be somewhat detrimental to do that anyway) but we can teach our body to better handle these feelings from both a physiological and mental perspective.
I am sure this is no surprise to anyone but meditation reduces reported levels of anxiety, even in a healthy population (1, 3,4). What you may not have heard is that meditation can increase your body’s ability to respond and recover from a stressful event on a physiological level (ie. cortisol response, inflammatory response etc.). This is even the case when performing brief meditations prior to a stressful task (4)…like maybe a round of golf?
Meditation and Mood
What feeling do you associate with a poor shot, or multiple poor shots within a round of golf: anger, negative thinking, self doubt, sadness, or embarrassment? The problem here is that all of these emotions are associated with even worse future performance than the shot you were mad about in the first place. Nobody, I mean nobody, plays their best when they are not in a positive frame of mind. This doesn’t mean we need to be joyously happy after a bad shot, but it does mean we need to modulate our anger/disappointment and be positive about our ability to recover…accept and move on right? Strangely enough, this is not only the case on the course. Our personal lives significantly affect our mood and feelings on the course. Don’t believe me, what was the cause of Tiger’s downfall? Was it injury, was it being too busy to practice because he had kids, was there too much pressure, or was it because his personal life was smashed to oblivion and he just can’t get his head right on the course on a consistent basis any longer?
Luckily, meditation has been shown in multiple studies to improve mood. Specifically, it has been shown to reduce anger, negative thinking, depression, confusion, and fatigue (5, 6); as well as increase general happiness and positive thinking (7). I have no doubt that improving your mood will improve you game.
Meditation and Self Criticism
Whether you believe you can do it or not, you are right. Great saying, but what we can take from this comment is that lack of confidence in our ability to play well will lead to us not playing our best. I can also tell you that the quickest way to lack of confidence is self criticism on the course. The more you tell yourself how bad you are playing, or that you suck because you hit a bad shot, the more you take away from your own belief in yourself.
While it may not be easy to simply shut off that internal critic, a specific type of meditation called loving kindness meditation has been shown to reduce self-criticism and increase self-compassion…“no worries about that not so great shot, we will recover on the next one.”
Meditation and Being Present
How many times have you heard: “just focus on one shot at a time”. Well, it’s true, the only important shot is the current shot, not the one you just hit or the one you will hit next, but the one right in front of your face at this instant. Thoughts about anything but that shot are useless and detrimental to your game, we must stay present.
One of the key components of many types of meditation is a focus on being present and experiencing the current moment which will most likely translate into your ability to stay present on the course. One of the best ways to stay present and focused on the task at hand is to limit mind wondering, which tends to be towards negative things (ie salient). Fortunately, meditation can reduce mind wondering and attention (1) while teaching us to stay present.
Practising Meditation for Golf
As with most things, there is no one perfect way for everyone to apply meditation to improve their game. It is individualized based on the needs of each person. For instance, someone who is very self critical on the course may need to focus on loving kindness meditations while someone that is very anxious just prior to their tee times may need to practice short focused attention meditation prior to their pre-round warm up. Different strokes for different folks as they say. Experiment and work to find what works best for you.
If you are totally new to meditation and not sure where to start check out my previous article on how to meditate called a beginner’s guide by a beginner.
I would love to hear some feedback on how meditation has helped all of you out there improve your game and your health! Please comment.
The Barefoot Golfer