Photo location courtesy of Troon North Golf Club in Scottsdale, Arizona. Visit troongolf.com for information.
What separates the great players from the really good ones? In most cases, it's what takes place between the ears. There are fabulous players out there who can hit some extraordinary golf shots and have tremendous ballstriking skills and near-perfect swing mechanics. But that doesn't mean they know how to shoot lower scores and beat the competition. In most cases, the players who rise to the top are the ones with the strongest minds to play their best.
What are we talking about? Well, when was the last time you really trained your brain to play better golf? Yes, you read that right. The brain needs training just like your muscles do if you want to play at your best possible level. Scottsdale-based THINQ Golf (pronounced "think") is dedicated to helping you play better by developing a stronger, more apt mind for shooting lower scores. THINQ Golf's "mind games" are available on a computer, smartphone and tablet, and are designed specifically for improving your mental aptitude on the golf course. Each game works to improve a different aspect of your brain. (That's cool and all, but here's a little secret. These games are incredibly fun, as well.)
Let's take a look at a few distinct areas of the brain that THINQ Golf considers key areas to train and develop for shooting lower scores.
When it comes to moving the body a certain way, the mind thinks first and tells the body which way to go (well, at least in terms of voluntary movements). Where you are in your mind right before the swing starts is absolutely critical. If you're questioning or tentative, your swing likely will be a slightly different tempo than it would be if you were lucid, free and confident. One of the keys in staying successful is to stay in the present moment. This means not getting fixated on the shots you've already hit, or the difficult tee shot you have coming up a few holes ahead. You need to pay attention to the now and not the before or later!
Next time you play, consider how well you stay in the moment and block out both the future and the past. You can't hit more than one shot at a time, you can't do anything about the shots you've already hit, and you can't play your round out of order and skip a few holes. The game is played one shot at a time, so it's time to think that way.
GT: If we're talking about staying in the moment and playing with full attention, is there something you can do on the course when you realize your head just isn't in it?
Debbie Crews, Co-Founder of THINQ Golf: Staying focused in the moment can be a scary thing to do when we don't know what lies ahead. The mind sometimes races ahead of where you are and you forget to focus on the shot in front of you. Also, when there's added pressure on a particular shot, there are two directions the mind can go. You either focus better and get the job done or you lose your focus because you're too worried about outcome and likely will hit a bad shot. When your focus escapes you, it's wise to back off the ball and start over, if at all possible. I always tell players, you can go ahead and hit it without the focus, just add a stroke or two. Stop, take a breath, and regroup and play the game one shot at a time. Once you commit to a shot, stay committed to the finish!
Where does it all begin come time to hit a shot? The target! The goal with every shot, whether it be a tee shot or a tap-in putt, is to advance the ball toward a specific target. Whether your target is a section of fairway, the green or the actual cup, how you imagine the shot in your mind is based on your awareness of a specific target. The swing is a response to the target, actually. When you're farther away from your target, you tend to swing faster with longer clubs. If it's closer, shorter clubs come into play.
One of the problems many players have is the inability to take their driving range swing to the golf course. One reason for this is, when you're hitting balls on the practice tee one after another, it's easy to lose awareness of a specific target. This makes it easier to swing freely and your golf swing actually can get into quite a nice groove. But as soon as you hit the course and you start reacting to targets, you lose that freedom and things start getting complicated!
The best way to improve your awareness is to practice with a target in mind–always. THINQ Golf has developed a game that helps you increase your target awareness and trains your brain to not only hone in on its ability to focus on a target, but also steer clear of distractions.
GT: Is there a time and place that works best for mind training? Also, how much is too much or too little?
Tim Suzor, Co-Founder of THINQ Golf: When you're training to improve a golf skill or a mental skill, two key components are vital for improving efficiently. You want to be rested, not overly stressed, and somewhere where you're in control of your environment and the environment isn't controlling you. As far as time of day, this could be different for each individual. My recommendation for the majority of people is training in the morning. In the middle of the day or late day, the brain gets more analytical and typically experiences more stress. Our research shows 10 minutes of brain training a day will show improvements in as little as 3 weeks. The research also shows warming up the brain for 10 minutes with cognitive games before you tee it up results in improvement in performance. Warm up your brain like you would your body. We've all experienced "brain fog" on the golf course. That's why we say around here, "Tune it up before you tee it up."
PLAY IT BACKWARD
The next time you play, take a moment before you tee up on each hole and play it backward in your mind. Imagine everything in reverse. Maybe you two-putt from 20 feet, hit a decent approach and hit a drive that lands on the right side of the fairway. If you're satisfied with the visualization, hit "play" and do it in real time.
Have you ever seen a golf course that was perfectly flat or uniform throughout? Every inch of a football field, soccer pitch or basketball court is the same (or at least they try to make it so), but for golf, this simply isn't the case. No two holes on the golf course are the same, and it's highly unlikely you'll be faced with two of the exact same shots in the course of a given round. Sure, you may have shots of similar distances and such, but nary is one shot exactly like another. This pattern of an ever-changing environment makes developing the skill of "adaptability" that much more important. We all know that golf courses are different, but here's an aspect that you may not have considered. Just as there are many different physical situations to adapt to on the course, there are also several emotions that arise during a round. These aren't always caused by bad shots, either. Is it windy? Or raining? Are your playing partners getting on your nerves? Your ability to adapt and play well in any emotional state is just as important as any other skill in golf, maybe even more so! Adaptability is a hidden skill that's very hard to learn, but THINQ Golf says they have the tools to teach it to you so you can be a rock on the course.
GT: A big part of brain training is the repetitious nature of the games. Why is that?
DC: Neurons that fire together wire together. To lay new pathways in the brain or to solidify the pathways that serve us well, we practice them. Then, especially under pressure, the new pathways will be the dominant response and will carry us through to great performance.
WHAT'S YOUR BOUNCE-BACK PERCENTAGE?
The best players on the PGA Tour bounce back nearly 25 percent of the time–when they make a bogey or worse, they recover one-quarter of the time with a birdie or better. This goes to show you that they know how to adapt to an unfortunate score, hole, shot–whatever. Check your bounce-back rate and see how you fare. If you're not bouncing back well, you know what you need to work on.
BE YOUR OWN CADDIE!
If you ever come to a place on the golf course where you're unsure of what shot to hit, take yourself out of the game for a moment and look at the scenario the way a good caddie would. Don't just pay attention to the yardage book, the wind and what hazards are in play. Look at the types of shots you've been hitting thus far and make a calculated decision on your tendencies. For instance, maybe your go-to fade is a slight draw today. Remember to factor in the tangibles (the yardage, wind, elevation, etc.), then evaluate the intangibles (how you feel and what you've been doing up to this point) before you decide on what's the best shot to hit at a given moment.
With the target in mind, it comes time to define your shot intention, meaning how do you plan on advancing the ball toward the target? Do you have a specific shot type you intend to hit? Making a clear decision on every shot is necessary for successful results. And, to do that, you need to make your decision by analyzing the risks associated with the shot. In golf, sometimes the high-risk shot isn't necessarily the shot that rewards you the most. For instance, let's say you're on a short par-4. It's not reachable off the tee, and there's a small landing area short of the green and a large landing area about 100 yards short of the green. You could take the greater risk and go for the area in front of the green, but are you better off hitting a delicate pitch from 35 yards than you are a full wedge from 100 yards?
Determining the right amount of risk for a given shot also depends on how you feel at that moment. THINQ has developed a series of games designed to train your mind to deal with situations of varying amounts of risk.
GT: Where did the ideas for each game come from?
TS: I often get asked the question on where the idea came from to train golfers cognitively with games. As a PGA Teaching professional for 19 years and working with players at the highest level, I've always appreciated the players with the strongest mental games. As a swing coach who teaches golf with technology and science in mind, I thought there had to be a more efficient way to train the mental game utilizing science. The brain activity of a golfer can be quantified the same way as the golf swing. EEG technology that produces brain maps shows a difference between an elite-level golfer versus a high-handicapper. Neuroscience has proven that the brain isn't a physiologically static organ and it can change. The question became how do we do that. The answer became repetition, just like we train a motor skill for a golfer to improve his or her swing. Dr. Debbie Crews, who heads up THINQ Golf's research and development, determined the five main skills that golfers must train and those became the game names: Awareness, Intention, Attention, Synchronicity and Adaptability.
Synchronicity is a skill that most of us have as juniors, but tend to lose as we get older. Why? Synchronicity refers to our ability to jump from the analytical side of our brain, the left side, to our creative performance-motivated side of the brain, the right. Every shot requires both of these abilities. When gathering information–yardage, wind, slope–all are aspects of a shot that must be dealt with, but so is looking at the target one last time and pulling the trigger. All of these can only be put together when the mind is in sync and can pass back and forth easily between the two. You can see professional golfers trying to make the jump from left to right brain on every shot. First, they have a short conversation about yardage and all things analytical (left-brain stuff). Then, the caddie backs away and the player begins to make the transfer by taking a few practice strokes to understand the shot needed through feel (right-brain stuff). Finally, the player is beautifully balanced or slightly right-sided until the shot is complete, at which point the analytical brain is allowed to take over again to digest the shot. THINQ Golf has a game specifically developed to improve your ability to get in sync on the course.
GT: How important is mind training for daily life?
DC: Thought precedes motion! Where you are in your mind dictates what swing comes out, how the club moves through space and, finally, the flight of the ball to the target. Be aware of your intention, focus of attention, synchronicity of the outside and inside world, and adapt if things don't go your way. The cool thing about what we do at THINQ Golf is, our games help you well beyond the golf course. It's not just training for better golf scores; it's training to make you a better thinker, a more conscious risk-taker and, ultimately, a better person.
Train Your Brain
Want to learn more about THINQ Golf? Log on to thinqgolf.com and have a look at some of the amazing games. In addition to brain training, there's an online community for friendly competition, stats, webinars and much more.