It sounds like a trick question, or the lead-in for a Golf Channel infomercial at 2 a.m., but it’s not a new club, ball, accessory, or shoe that will produce better putting without the need to increase your putting skill. The answer to putting better with your current skill level is “the ability to better access the skill you already possess”. The ability to access your skillsets is the role of your mind.
I first heard this specific description of the “mental game” during a David Orr Flatstick Putting Conference from an excellent presenter, Paul Dewland, a professional mental coach, learn more about him by clicking here. David had invited Paul to present because David has been a longtime proponent that putting is “always an inside job”. Paul presented some great information about the mental aspects of putting and some practical applications of a couple exercises designed to increase a player’s mental skill.
So, I kind of lied with the opening line about putting better without increasing your putting skill. A player’s mental ability is a skill. And it is a skill that can be improved with practice.
If this sounds like too much for a non-professional golfer, hold on. Stay with me. The truth is that there is low hanging fruit in the area of mental skill for most golfers. Ironically, I believe it is easier to have the average golfer make larger gains in mental skill than a professional golfer, simply because the average golfer is starting from such an unskilled level. I have seen very rapid increases in putting performance from players when we have invested lesson time and practice in several mental aspects of their putting in addition to their physical skills. In fact, this area is one of my favorites to coach because it is so specific to the player, fun to discover, and yields great returns on the investment of time and effort.
Below are some areas of low-hanging fruit in mental skills applied to putting:
There is an exercise I use to reveal a player’s expectations of the percentage of putts they believe they should make if they were putting skillfully. I developed this exercise with my full swing coach, Byron Williams. This exercise often shows that many players hold unrealistic expectations of putting performance, levels more skillful than the best players in the world. Unrealistic expectations result in frustration and anxiety as player performance inevitably falls short. Frustration and anxiety lead to even lower performance levels, and the downward spiral unfolds. I work with players to help them formulate realistic expectations, both short and long term, which directs near term practice plans and helps the player develop and maintain a mental state that is calm and clear.
In all areas of practice, preparation, and competition there are a myriad of activities, thoughts, events, environments, and outcomes that are candidates for occupying a player’s focus. I work with players to identify and focus only on the things that the player has direct control over, which is a much smaller list. The ability to choose an object of focus is a skill that increases through intention, process, and practice.
Direction of Thought:
This mental skill is part of focus and involves the skill of the player to choose what to think about at each point in their process of putting. It is used in the execution of a player’s specific process/routine. I love the way David Orr summarize this skill when he quotes the head coach of the New England Patriots, Bill Belichick, who says, “Do your job.” At each step of the player’s process, they can direct their thoughts productively by telling themselves to “Do your job, read the green.”, then “Do your job, predict the break.”, then “Do your job, choose a stroke plan.”, etc. etc. This technique works best when the player has a specific routine they consistently practice and employ.
Clarity of Process/Routine:
Many golfers have very inconsistent, or even non-existent, processes/routines for putting (and other shots). I find that when we work together to explore the options at each phase of the entire process, the player becomes more and more clear about what they should do, which leads to confidence in their ability to execute it skillfully. This increase in confidence brings a calm mental state to the player.
The basic components of a putting routine will include: Green reading, break prediction/visualization, stroke selection, stroke execution, and post-shot evaluation. There are different ways to do each of these which is part of the individual discovery. The importance is on developing and using a consistent routine to help the player access the skill they already possess.
If you’re thinking that this seems like a lot of steps, details, etc. and “Isn’t all of that confusing?” My response is that this protects the player from the confusion that comes from not having a routine. There’s no such thing as not thinking. If a player does not intentionally focus their thoughts, their thoughts become arbitrary at best and driven emotionally by outcomes at worst. A clear process can easily become a second nature “routine” that helps a player perform to their ability.
This mental skill is a bookend match to Expectations. For a player to maintain an optimal mental state of calm and clarity, it is critical that they accept the outcome of each putt executed. Whether a putt is holed or missed is not something they have total control over. There are multiple factors outside the player’s control that can impact whether a putt goes in or not. The player can only do their best, control what they can, learn from the putt what they can, accept the result, and move on. Dwelling on disappointment, anger, frustration, etc. only increases anxiety and inhibits future performance.