Every time I speak with golfers, one question comes up time and again:
How can I leave my disappointing shots behind?
What’s interesting here is everyone knows what they should be doing. Staying in the present, focusing on the process and not the result, we all know what to do.
It’s how to do it which is the problem.
I might just have an answer.
It’s far from conventional – but there’s some very interesting evidence to suggest it could work.
And if it does work, it could revolutionise your game…and your life.
It’s a practice as old as humanity itself – but the benefits have only recently been quantified.
I’m not the first coach to suggest it to golfers, but I might well be the first to suggest there’s hard evidence of its benefit.
You should be.
I’m talking about meditation.
Stay with me, now.
This might all seem a bit “Woo” and New Age-y, but there’s evidence which suggests this could help you leave bad shots behind.There’s all sorts of meditation, but I’m going to focus on what’s known as “Mindfulness”.
This is the form most likely to help your golf.
I’m not the first coach to suggest this; it forms a large part of Dr Joe Parent’s “Zen Golf” series. If you’re interested in learning more about the theory behind this practice, this would be a great place to start. I’m going to leave the underlying philosophy to Dr Joe and his kin; they know more about it than I do.
I want to show you the evidence.
And I might be in the ideal position to do this; after all, I came across this evidence in my practice as a physician. It came up in the middle of a fascinating and informative study day.
I don’t remember exactly how we got on to the topic, but someone mentioned there were studies showing meditation could be used to prevent and treat depression. This piqued my curiosity; I’m always keen to explore alternatives to prescribing, and I had an inkling it might also be useful in a golfing context.
I was right.
But what is mindfulness, anyway?
Although it’s derived from buddhist philosophy, it’s increasingly being used in a psychological context. And it’s this definition I’m going to use, for reasons which will become clear. In their 2004 study Bishop, Lau and colleagues describe it thus:
The first component [of mindfulness] involves the self-regulation of attention so that it is maintained on immediate experience, thereby allowing for increased recognition of mental events in the present moment.
The second component involves adopting a particular orientation toward one’s experiences in the present moment, an orientation that is characterized by curiosity, openness, and acceptance.
Or, in other words:
Staying in the present, accepting what has happened and being positively curious about the future.
Does this sound familiar?
It sounds an awful like what we know we should be doing on the golf course.
But why do I think this will help?
Well, there are a lot of studies suggesting mindfulness-based interventions can be effective in preventing depression. It affects a particular sub-group of people with depression, though – those most likely to relapse.
And, while golf can be extremely frustrating, few golfers would equate this frustration to something as serious as depression. So when I was flicking through these studies, I thought the link was probably too weak to be useful for golf.
And then something caught my eye. It seemed meditation was particularly helpful in controlling rumination, which in the context of psychology and psychiatry is defined as the preoccupation with thoughts about past occurrences which may result in feelings of anxiety, sadness, regret, shame, or guilt.
These are the same symptoms as the golfer who can’t get past a disappointment.
And it’s not just one study. There’s a number of studies confirming this effect in anxiety and stress disorders, too. And, while relaxation techniques can also help decrease anxiety, mindfulness seems to be the only thing which helps with rumination.
There a few things to mention.
While this has been shown to work in anxiety and depression, there aren’t studies with golfers (if anyone would like to attempt such a study, let me know. I’d love to design it). The meditation doesn’t need to take long – some studies looked at using brief interventions – but would have to done away from the course. There’s no guarantee it’d translate onto the golf course, and of course you wouldn’t be able to sit down and meditate on the course.
But could it still work?
I’ve been exploring meditation for just this purpose; I’ve done at least 10 minutes every day for all of 2012 so far, and I can’t wait to take it onto the golf course.
If I start to feel pressure, I’ll pay attention to feeling (and counting) my breaths. Lose count, and it’s back to 1 again and off we go again.
And my practise has helped in other ways too. As I aim to keep my mind in the present moment, I’ve had to come up with strategies to stop me getting lost in my thoughts.
Whenever an unhelpful thought tries to take hold, and to wrench my mind from the present, I visualise a helium balloon rapidly disappearing into the distance, taking the thought with it. This may or may not work for you; this is beside the point. If you start meditating, you’ll find your own strategies for dealing with such thoughts. This is a helpful skill for a golfer.
And finally, there is a precedent.
There is a pro golfer who’s well aware of the benefits of mindfulness.
He’s a Mr Woods. Perhaps you’ve heard of him?
(Let me know if I’ve piqued your curiosity; I’d be delighted to run through a basic mindfulness meditation here. I’d also be delighted to email links to the evidence for any skeptics; sadly, copyright issues mean the full papers are often behind paywalls; my NHS login gives me access but emailing the papers would be a breach of copyright. But the abstracts [a brief run-through of the paper] are available to all)