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A New Psychological Perspective in Golf

Updated: Jan 25, 2022

I recently heard a story told by a swing coach known for his thoughtful approach to teaching and relating to his players. He was watching one of his Tour players in a practice round. The player hit her tee shot to the right into the water. He heard her sport psychologist ask what she had been thinking about. Not surprisingly she said, "the water." The sport psychologist advised her to think about the ball going into the hole instead. She then proceeded to hit another ball into the water.

From ancient philosophy to modern psychology, the assumption has been that our thoughts cause behavior. Indeed, this idea is still the dominant paradigm in cognitive therapy and conventional sport psychology. The swing coach, on the other hand, was doubtful. He argued that if it was her thought that caused her to hit the ball into the water, then wouldn't changing the thought change the result? In keeping with his reputation, he asked a good and thoughtful question (In fact, thoughts do not cause behavior; see my previous blog post - The 3 Goal Fundamentals).

The swing coach then offered a different explanation for the water ball. He said that the player has a history of having her clubface open to the path. On the tee box that day she faced a left-to-right wind, accentuating the possibility of losing the ball to the right. In this environmental condition she failed to finish her backswing, leading to the misdirected shot. Rather than change her thinking, he said he would advise her to imagine a backswing that lasted much longer. If the story ended there, the coach and I would have no disagreement. However, he continued.

"It's not about thinking. It's not about psychology to me as much as it is about physiology." I get where he is coming from. It isn't primarily about thinking. However, it is likely that the swing coach lacks an awareness of the psychology of the mind-behavior relationship, including my own motivational approach (and the fact that our physiology cannot be separated from our psychology). I can use similar logic like the coach used against the sport psychologist's theory to argue against a swing-only/conditions only/"non-psychological" theory of the mishit. If the cause of the misdirected shot is due only to her swing motion (and not to her psychology), why doesn't she make that same swing motion/flaw all the time, or hit every shot to the right? Or, if her swing flaw is caused by the left-to-right wind condition, then why does she commit the swing flaw in that same wind condition only some of the time? If the external conditions are the same, logically they cannot be used to explain a difference.

The answer to these questions can be found in the new, motivational psychology. Thoughts don't cause actions; goals do. Changing a thought does not directly change a movement pattern whereas changing a goal does. This motivational principle does not minimize the importance of the swing and it does not pit psychological explanations against the swing, external conditions, or physiology; in fact, it recognizes the power of context and internal physiology to influence goals, and it connects psychology to the swing so that players learn to control their goals and better correct their swing flaws that "flare up" in specific situations.

When the swing coach asks the player to imagine a longer-lasting backswing, whether he is aware of it or not, he is essentially attempting to change the player's goal. If the player achieves this goal, she would less likely hit the ball into the water. So, it would be an effective strategy. However, golfers tend to forget solutions in difficult situations and end up repeating the same mistakes throughout their careers. Also, there are often hidden motivational factors that lead to the irrelevant goals that coaches do not typically recognize. Without identifying the irrelevant goals (and their underlying motives) that cause unnecessary swing variations, their swing flaws will reappear in the future.

If you're frustrated or bored with the emphasis on thoughts in conventional sport psychology, I understand. However, don't give up on psychology. There is a new paradigm. If you want to explore it, my book The Motivation Game: A Course on the Psychology of Golf Improvement is a good place to start.

* Note: To be fair, the sport psychologist may have meant for the player to change her shot goal rather than merely change a thought, and she didn't do it (or he didn't know and/or address the underlying motives that fueled the irrelevant goal). Also, I am not criticizing sport psychologists; sport psychology as practiced today has been helpful to so many athletes. There are mental coaches and sport psychologists who do utilize motivational theories. I believe sport psychology is limited, though, in its overall positive value, because it is missing out on the most powerful tools (the many motivational processes and their interactions with cognitive processes and their central role in action). Finally, I would guess that if I were to have a conversation with the swing coach, I would learn that his beliefs are more nuanced about psychology than apparent in the conversation I observed.

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