Golf and Psychology: Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) in your Golf

Our psychologist, Alan Hely, has over 30 years’ experience working with individuals and teams in sport & performance psychology, including with elite athletes. Here he writes about the role of performance psychology in golf, and describes several skills from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy that you can use to enhance your game.


Everyday millions of golfers around the world practice Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, (or “ACT”) without even knowing it. Every time you hit a ball you commit to a course of action and then immediately accept the result. If it’s a good shot with a good result, you will be happy. But what if it’s not a good result?

The research supporting ACT shows us that a continual pursuit of the ‘perfect round’ is bound to produce many moments of distress. That’s because our brain hasn’t really evolved much over 300,00 years. In fact, our brain evolved to be naturally vigilant for signs of danger and difficulty. Your caveman ancestor survived because he noticed the sabre tooth tiger prowling in the jungle and ran away – his non-vigilant mate wasn’t so lucky. Thousands of years later, you are playing golf thanks to skills inherited from your ancestors.

On the golf course, we are always aware of traps, doglegs, water hazards, trees, shrubs, and immovable objects. We spend a lot of time worrying about things that may never happen. Additionally, our socialisation over thousands of years imbues us with the belief that we need to be a good player, or we may be ostracised by others. So, we try hard to produce a good shot – and our moods are dependent on the result. In this framework, its easy to see why we can oscillate between happy and grumpy for 5 hours.

ACT can be utilised to produce the (near) perfect round. If you change your frame of reference from a need for a good score (which would impress other players) to accepting the idea that all rounds of golf will have surmountable obstacles, you will become more focused on the present moment. You will be mindful of the ball and play that is presented, rather than the potential outcome such as the score and/or evaluation by other players.

Mindful acceptance of here and now (this ball, this shot) will produce a more flexible focus of attention. This allows you to zone in on what this shot requires, what club to use, and then to rehearse a correct swing without rushing to complete the shot. A constant background mental framework of scores, placing, and social evaluation by others, creates a rigid mindset which interferes with the flexible mindsets that are required in every unique situation that is presented by every single golf shot.

The following ACT processes can assist you to achieve more in your golf.

Choice point

At every shot preparation you can either move towards the round you want or away from the round you want. At every shot you have the opportunity to mindfully focus on the relevant variables you are presented with such as the lie, trees or obstacles, trajectory required and the most appropriate club. These are called “Towards moves”, taking you toward the outcome you desire such as landing on the fairway.

The opposite occurs when you engage in “Away moves”. These are actions that take you away from the desired result and include thoughts about the last shot, why it went wrong, what your score may now become and what your final placing will be and how others are going. You will no longer have the flexibility to fully prepare for your next shot.

Unhook and be the player you admire

During the round consider how others perceive you and compare yourself with the player, professional or amateur you most admire. What values do your playing partners admire? What values does your favourite player project. When you reflect on your preferred values as you play the round, you will be unhooked from the Away moves. You will become more accepting of yourself as a player equivalent to some of the best, regardless of final scores.

Experiment

Actively notice your inner thoughts as you play. Learn to identify your “Hooks” and “Away moves”. This new mindset will allow you to become aware of what works and what doesn’t. For example many people will think “Miss the water hazard” whereas others will think “Hit the fairway”. Which do you think is the more relevant “Toward” move?

Personal growth

Golf was deliberately designed to put a series of obstacles in your path. Recall that your “Choice point” includes the inferred image of the round you wish to produce. Accept that each obstacle is an opportunity for you to grow as an individual and become more like the player you wish to be.

Do set goals

Many people ignore this technique because it looks so simple. But in golf there are many domains of play. Break your game into short game, long irons, drivers and putts. Get lessons from the club pro to ensure you obtain clear knowledge on the basics and finer points of each club.

Deliberate practice

Identify your goals for each domain of play and then keep records of your performance on both the practice fairway and in competition. Set regular practice times and meet a practice buddy to increase the motivation to actually show up and practice.

Finally, accept you will make a dud shot or two. Everybody does. Even Tiger Woods has been in the rough and had to find a way out. Next, commit to the challenge and be mindful of the joy of exercise and the beautiful walks that mother nature provides. Have a good game.

Ready to improve your sports and performance skills using psychology? Get in touch with Alan and the Sydney City Psychology team today to find out more. We offer individual sessions, group trainings, and more: info@sydneycitypsychology.com.au.