Golf: Psychology of the Swing

The physical motion of swinging a golf club at a golf ball is only one facet of hitting the ball straight down the fairway and accurately at the green. The mental facet of the golf swing is just as important as sound swing mechanics.

A well-struck golf ball requires a swing that is confident. If there is hesitation about what type of shot to play, where to aim the ball, or the club that has been selected for the shot, the swing can become tentative and awkward. Often, such a mechanically faulty swing will send the ball far off target or scuttling along the ground in a "worm burner" of a shot that goes far short of the anticipated distance.

Instead, a golfer needs to have committed to the shot that he or she is about to play. This mental committment usually produces a confident and mechanically sound swing that will produce a good result.

An important part of the psychology of the golf swing that instills this committment is to focus on the task at hand and, at the same time, relax both the body and the mind. Focusing involves trying to form a mental image of what the shot will be like. Some golfers describe this moment as an out-of-body experience, where they mentally watch themselves strike the ball and send it precisely where they intend. For others, this moment involves deciding where the shot should be played, taking into account factors such as wind speed and direction, distance to the target, and obstacles that must be negotiated to get to the target.

Both of these mental exercises help focus the golfer's concentration on what they are about to do. Relaxing the body is important, because a sound golf swing is one that is relaxed. If there is tension in the hands, arms, or legs, a swing will not be smooth and coordinated, and a bad shot will likely be the result. Some golfers will stretch and flex their arms and legs during their preparation for a shot, which helps loosen their muscles.

At the same time, a golfer will try to relax mentally. If a previous shot was faulty, the golfer will try to put that out of their mind. Anger is not helpful in golf.

The physical and mental approaches form part of what many golfers call a "pre-shot routine." By approaching each shot in the same way and using a uniform sequence of actions, a golfer can prepare themselves mentally for the shot. Pre-shot routines are as individual as the golfer.

Mental confidence in a golf swing comes from practice. By honing the swing on the practice range, the swing becomes second nature. As well, the golfer is able to determine exactly how far each golf club will send the ball. For example, a professional golfer is able to "drive" the ball over 300 yd (275 m), while a sand wedge will send the ball much higher in the air for less than 100 yd (91 m). Over time, as practice instills confidence, golfers do not need to mentally dwell on the mechanics of the swing. This frees up their minds to focus on the type of shot they wish to play.

That being said, part of swing psychology can involve a particular mechanical facet of the swing. For example, a golfer may remind themselves to keep one elbow close to their body or to make sure they swing their hips during the downswing. However, such reminders are usually a small part of a checklist that a golfer will go through during their pre-shot routine. With these reminders and having assured themselves that their stance is correct and that they are aiming in the desired direction, the mental focus will then shift to visualizing the perfect shot.

Practice is not useful just for the recreational golfer. Even the elite golfer practices daily. For example, Vijay Singh, the second-ranked professional golfer in the world as of 2006, typically practices four

A mechanically faulty swing will send the ball far off target or scuttling along the ground in a "worm burner" of a shot that goes far short of the anticipated distance.
to five hours every day in addition to playing a round of golf.

The psychology of the golf swing becomes an extremely important part of the game when a golfer decides to change their swing. A golfer may choose to alter their swing to achieve more power or more accuracy, or to ease the physical strain of the current swing. When changes are made to a long-established swing, the natural feeling of the action is lost for a time. Then, it becomes important for the golfer to practice until the new swing becomes natural and reliable. Only then can their mind be freed from focusing on how the swing is performed and instead focus on what they wish the swing to achieve.

In 2004, Tiger Woods, then the world's number one-ranked golfer, decided to alter his swing to ease the strain on his lower back and to produce a more consistently accurate shot. For a time, his performance sufffered as he worked to master the revamped swing. As his trust in the new swing grew, he regained his stellar abilities and, as of 2006, had once again become the preeminent golfer in the world.

SEE ALSO Biofeedback.