Training the Golf Brain

By Dr Karl Morris

The opportunity for all of you as hypnotherapists working with golfers is tremendous BUT you do need to know who and what you are dealing with!

Hopefully some of the following thoughts and ideas will paint a clearer picture and give you a sense of how to proceed.

In our coaching experience with golfers, we have seen these players achieve incredible progress using the methods outlined. The following information is the result of many years research and testing in the fields of both professional and amateur golf. It is based on practical application of techniques that work, not on some academic theory.

It is interesting to note some recent information from Research Scientist, John Annett of the University of Warwick about how your brain actually codes and stores your golf swing. For many golfers the notion that the brain makes a complete mental blueprint of your entire swing motion, down to the finest of details, is an enticing and appealing one. The thought being that if you hit enough balls in practice you will create ‘muscle memory’ that once established will never go away.

This is what most people seem to be striving for who grind out balls one after another, hour after hour on the range. The thought being that if enough balls are hit in practice, then the swing will become so grooved that it will never ever let you down. Many golfers keep going with this quest all of their lives, yet their own experience should tell them that they are searching for something that just isn’t possible. How many times have you hit the ball well for a couple of days and you then begin to think that you ‘have it’, only to ‘lose it’ very quickly within a couple of days. On the other hand you can be playing very poorly, and then you focus on a certain aspect of our swing and suddenly the ball finds the middle of the club again.

The research from Warwick explains to us that our elusive quest for totally repeating and creating lasting muscle memory is an illusion. The brain just doesn’t work that way.

Researcher John Annett describes this process; “Although absolute values of felt force, distance and direction can be retained with moderate accuracy for short periods it is unlikely that we rely on simple sensory motor memory of discrete movements to remember how to perform skilled motor tasks like the golf swing. The world in which we live and the actions we have to take are far too variable for it to be worthwhile to memorize precise movement. It is rather through a set of outline plans… abstractly defined, that we are able to remember how to solve familiar motor problems.”

In plain simple English this means that our survival depends on having flexibility within our motor movements and not on absolute replication. This aspect of our development goes back way before a few shepherds in Scotland started knocking a golf ball like object around their fields with a stick; in fact this can be traced back millennia to when survival was all about being eaten or finding something to eat. This system is actually hard wired into our genes and will overcome any modern day desire to install a perfectly repeating golf swing.

All that our genes are interested in is our survival. When we wandered outside of our cave and were attacked by some wild animal, we would respond in a certain manner. If the brain ‘coded’ that response exactly then we would not have the flexibility to respond differently the next time we were attacked. The brain would code the experience, but allow for variation in the response. A basic mental template would be established but not a rigid structured response. So the next time you would recognise the danger, you would respond but NOT in exactly the same way as before.

In golfing terms your brain will code your golf swing in such a way that you will never stand on the first tee and swing the club like you would a baseball bat, but it will never code all of the swing exactly. This is science confirming what we already know, that we must always keep working on our swing. A coach can provide assistance and feed back to us on what we are doing, however, we will NEVER have a totally repeating unbreakable motion.

When this concept is accepted, the whole of the mental game takes on a new dimension. We accept that we will make certain mistakes, that we will have bad holes, that we will have a bad day, but it does not mean our swing has gone. This mindset allows us to deal with whatever the course and the day can throw at us. Golf never has been, and never will be, an art of perfection. It is a game of misses, and the person with the best misses will be the champion. Knowing how the brain actually stores our golf swing allows us that leeway to accept our bad shots and then be able to instantly recover.

How many times do we hear golfers say such things as, “It’s all in the mind … Golf is 90% mental… I lost my head when it really mattered… I can never play well under pressure.” Yet when you ask these very same golfers what they have done about mental training, they usually look at you with a blank expression.

We will now begin as we do with many of the players that we coach, with the end in mind. People, who create extraordinary success in their lives, whether it is in sport, business, personal relationships, or whatever, tend to live their lives backwards. Backwards in the sense that they create a future and then live into it. They have such a compelling vision of what they truly want to achieve with their lives. This vision draws them forward on a daily basis to certain actions, events, people and places that are necessary for them to actualise their dreams. The vision is the fuel that gets them out of bed in a morning with a sense of purpose and direction.

With a compelling vision you have no need to falsely motivate yourself to get things done, all of your actions flow from a concrete sense of purpose. Byron Nelson had a vivid dream of owning a ranch, no mean feat in the forties after the terrible years of the depression. This vision drove him onwards; it was his reason for playing golf. During his career he had some incredible results, strings of victories that will never be repeated, all of which was driven by his purpose. The desire was so strong to own a ranch. This of course he achieved, and when he did he felt contented enough to retire from competitive golf.

Tiger Woods, from a very early age had a vision of challenging Jack Nicklaus record of major championships; the records that Jack had set were his benchmark for success. Tiger used to spend long hours poring over the incredible statistics of the Golden Bear’s career, and to date he appears to be doing reasonably well for himself!

Many business leaders have a very clear picture in their mind of what they want their company or corporation to look like and how it will operate as the vision comes to life.

Your vision of how you want to play golf does not have to be as grandiose as the examples that we have just mentioned. However, you do need to have real clarity in what you truly desire.

Most people do just the opposite – they have a truly vivid idea of what they don’t want. Such as, I don’t want to slice any more, I don’t want to be nervous under pressure, I don’t want to hit any more bad shots. These are all very clear pictures (and thoughts!) of the very thing that they don’t want.

The problem is that if you focus on the problem, then that is often what you end up with.

This is almost endemic in people who have lives that are full of disappointments. They become experts on the problem that they have, in the mistaken belief that to understand a problem it will, by definition, lead to resolving it.

In our experience this is just not the case. At an extreme example people who are somewhat depressed or down, they tend to be totally focused on what is wrong. They have absolutely no concept of how they would actually like to be. Yet they are experts on what is wrong, they can give you great detail on how the condition started, where it started, the effects, the chemical reactions in their bodies, you name it and they know it. This type of thinking does not assist them in getting better.

Basically it all comes down to the direction in which you send your brain, and if you direct your brain to the problem, then it will stay with the problem. If, however, your focus is on the solution, you tend to find them. When you start to focus towards solution, at the very least, you set in motion the mechanics to provide you with the opportunity to change. Unfortunately many of our existing models tend to keep us stuck in the problem.

When a golfer goes for a standard golf lesson the first thing that he wants from the Pro is to be told what he is doing wrong. The pro then generally gets him to really understand all of his faults. They may spend time talking about his swing, perhaps even videotaping it, which REALLY highlights the flaws. The pro then sends him away to practice. The golfer now has more information about his game, he has a conceptual understanding of what he is doing, but does he improve? In our experience the answer to this is a resounding NO!

The poor golfer becomes an expert on what is wrong. In fact he will generally have an extremely clear vivid picture of the moves in his swing that he doesn’t like. What direction is the brain being sent? Again and again the attention of the player is towards the very thing that he does not want, the problem.

It is so fundamentally ingrained in our collective minds that to understand what is wrong will eventually be what solves the problem. And to question this seems almost ridiculous. Yet our argument is based on the fact that even with the incredible improvements in equipment, courses, technology and forms of communication, the standard of golf for the majority of people have not improved. In fact there are now an alarming number of people who used to play golf but have since given up due to frustration at their lack of progress.

In the many workshops I have conducted, both for tournament professionals and club professionals, two questions are asked. “How many of you sitting here in this room, know more about the golf swing now, than when you were 18?” Almost always there is a full show of hands.

The second question, “How many of you here are now MORE confident of standing on a tee in a pressure situation and drilling the ball down the middle of the fairway?” The show of hands on the second question is always a poor one compared to the first question. All of these pro’s “know” more about the golf swing than they ever did when they were younger, but it hasn’t (in the majority of cases) done much to improve their game. So if conceptual knowledge and technical understanding were what this was all about, then we would have a lot more really good players. But we don’t!

Let’s contrast this with how children learn a particular movement. Do they know what NOT to do? Think about that for a moment…

Children tend to just watch someone doing what they want to do and then they copy the image of what they see. There is no intellectual description going on in their heads of rights, wrongs, should and shouldn’t – they just go ahead and do it without fear or anxiety. As adults our intellect gets in the way. We are so keen to gain understanding, yet understanding is the lowest rung on the ladder of learning to play golf. We don’t learn golf from our understanding, we must learn directly from our experience.

Being able to suspend the shackles of your conscious intellect sets yourself free to actually do what you really are capable of doing. This allows you to really experience what is necessary to play great golf. Your own innate and learned capabilities begin to shine through. You can then play a game that is truly worth your time and effort and allow yourself to experience the joy of realising your true potential.

Exercise – A Past Memory

Now lets go back in time and create a vision of what you want your golf to be. This will be a time when all of the pieces seem to fall into place for you, and you are able to realise your ambitions and goals.

Allow yourself to go back to a particular time in your life when you had a wonderful experience… It can be anything you like, any context. And as you go back there now just notice what you see… what you hear… what you can feel. Are there any tastes or smells? And as you really get back into that experience… just notice what affect that has on your frame of mind. Do you feel good? Of course…

Don’t you think that that was pretty incredible? If you consider what you have just done, you sent your brain in a certain direction and you got back a certain state. You were able to access a good state, which is pretty incredible really. Did you need any pills to make you feel good? Did you drink anything?

When you direct your thoughts in a specific way you will get back a specific result. Yet most of the time our brains just go off in all sorts of random ways that don’t serve us well. Let me repeat, if you dwell on what you don’t want, then your golf will be pretty disappointing.

Exercise – Your Future Golf Swing

Just allow yourself to settle down in a quiet place. Take a couple of deep breaths and notice how you start to feel different, more relaxed, as you release that breath. Now what I want you to do, in your mind, is to create an imaginary movie theatre. Imagine that you are there watching a huge screen. And on that screen appears an image, an image of you playing golf two years from now.

As the image gets brighter and clearer, the colours really stand out and you start to notice details of where you are playing, who you are playing with, and the situation. And as you become more aware of the details, you see yourself playing a particular shot and you just begin to notice… how you look… your body language… the way you are moving… and your presence.

And you notice how you take a practice swing. How you are able to see the shot that you wish to play, how clearly focused you are, how sure you look as you are about to play the shot. The shot is a really important shot, and as you see yourself step up to the ball and settle into your address position, one take one last look at the target. And you make your swing and you can just see how smooth it is.

You follow the flight of the ball and you can see it so clearly as it sails towards the target. You see the ball complete its journey, all the way, just exactly as you planned. And now you hear the reaction to the shot around you. Notice how good you feel inside and become aware, as you walk down the fairway, how far you have actually come along with your golf. How much you have achieved… the satisfaction… the recognition.

You really enjoy that feeling and as that feeling grows stronger and stronger, you just really enjoy the moment. You totally absorb yourself in that sensation.

Now you can allow yourself to come back to the present moment, knowing that you will be able to bring back with you to the present, some really important learning aspect of this. Learning that will help you… Now… learning that will let you know that you are on the right track. This time you are really on the right track and you know that your approach to your golf has already started to change.

Each time you go into the future, you are drawing the future towards you… Now… and as you draw the future towards you, you really feel so good and so motivated to really learn.

What did that experience feel like?

Was this different than how you have been experiencing golf lately?

What you have just done is what we call a pseudo-orientation in time, which is the closest thing to magic that we know. You just sent your unconscious mind in a specific direction (the future) and you have just mail ordered your golfing future. Your unconscious mind, the part of you that is 99% responsible for how you behave, move, act and experience the world, now has a clear instruction of just what you want to become. You have orientated yourself towards the solution rather than being stuck in the problem. Once your unconscious mind has a clear direction it will pursue it with such conviction that it becomes almost inevitable that you will achieve it. So be careful what you wish for!

As you think of this wonderful future just consider a couple of key questions:

• What impact will it have on the rest of your life?

• Who else will be involved?

• Does it fit in with the overall picture of a happy life?

If you can honestly answer yes to these questions, then your wishes can be accommodated without upsetting other areas.

This exercise is the fundamental of mental training. It is just like learning to grip the club correctly – if you miss out on this vital aspect, then everything that comes after it will be weak. This is the glue that binds the whole thing together. As children weren’t we told to stop daydreaming and to concentrate on what we are doing, for something supposedly more important? Yet what could possibly be more important than deciding what future you want for yourself! Because if you don’t decide for yourself, somebody else will. Which option would you prefer to take?

Much of the misery that we see is a direct result of people reaching a certain age and giving up on their dreams and ambitions. Once you do that you are literally wasting away. Much of the sparkle that we had in our childhood and in our teenage years was a result of the anticipation of what was to come in the future. We looked at life in terms of the possibilities of what we could do and be. Yet it seems that for many people the by-product of becoming a “responsible” adult is an air of resignation that life’s path is pretty much set out in front of them.

It has often been said that how you do one thing is how you do all things.

• Does your golf reflect in some way the larger picture in your life?

• Do you play golf in the same old way, going through the same old motions and getting pretty much the same old results?

Going into the future on a very regular basis keeps you wonderfully fresh and motivated. We have found many times with clients that when they go into their futures they invariably bring some learning back with them to the present. This is learning that they would never have if they continued to be bogged down in the problems of the past and present.

We are not talking here of unrealistic fantasising. If I am 55 years of age and play of 19 handicap, it would be absolutely ridiculous to envisage a future, where in two years time; I won the U.S. Open Championship. This is not a realistic goal. This is not to day that playing good golf involves no physical aspect. Of course it does, you still have to go out and work on the technical aspects of your game. You have to work at improving the mechanics of your swing, your short game and your putting stroke. And you still need to keep a certain level of fitness. There is a difference between dreams and pure fantasy. The goal is to have a compelling future where there is a sense of possibilities.

When the tendency is to live our lives backwards, there is a sense that we assume that the future will be a replay of the past with only slight, monotonous, variations. This does not have to be the case at all. Just consider the number of times that you may have hit the ball well in practice (the past), then gone out to play (the present), and then played dreadfully. Yet on another occasion you hit the ball dreadfully in practice and then suddenly something clicks out on the course and you start to play really well. The past does not have to set the frame for the future, yet so many people live that kind of limited life.

Consider now a future full of possibilities that is open for you to decide. This does not mean there will never be any challenges, of course there will. This is a future where you can break free of any past labels or conditioning. You don’t have to be a 12 handicap, or a slicer, or a journeyman pro – all of which are labels, mental constructs that we have imposed on ourselves or have been imposed on us by other people.

These are all examples of the past conditioning the future, a form of hypnosis where we are unconsciously acting out our self imposed identities. This does not have to be the case; it is possible that the future could be a bright one, is it not?

The more time that you visit the future and construct how it is that you want it to be, then the more chance you have of that future being open to real possibilities. Does the thought of that kind of future excite and inspire you? Well it should.

As I stated before this is as close to magic as we know, it is nothing new. In the bible it was stated, “As a man thinketh, so shall he become.” Now we are not talking about any religious aspect to this article, that is your own personal property. What we are making a point of is the fact that these principles have been around for centuries. It is just that we remembered to forget them along the way, as we have been conditioned to impose limitations upon ourselves.

Could it be that golf could provide a metaphor for change in many different areas? Are we not constantly seeking change in all the wrong places, while we continue to focus on our behaviour in the present? Will we not find that we become more and more stuck doing the same things over and over again, simply hoping for a different result?

If getting what we really want out of our golf was really about the mechanics of the swing, doesn’t is seem that with all of the advancements that we should now be very happy and contented scratch golfers? But we aren’t. Certainly having a good swing is important. However, the way that the swing is taught and the way that golfers try to apply their learning is really all wrong. We are literally drowning in a sea of information, but that information is not giving us any knowledge of how to actually play golf or to change.

Learning is a natural function, similar to the way that children learn so wonderfully well. What we need to learn is how to get out of our own way and allow learning to take place, and to not force it with lots of misplaced effort. Your brain is actually a learning machine, it just continues to learn and learn with each experience. There are certainly times when you are learning, whether you realize it or now. If you three putt regularly, you have learned perfectly well how to three putt. And if you slice regularly, this is perfect learning. It just may not be the outcome you wished for but nevertheless it is perfect learning. You are actually going through certain procedures in your head, which enables you to three putt or slice the ball.

Most golfers want to be more consistent. They look really surprised when I tell them that they are already consistent. They are consistently bad, but nevertheless consistent. When players really look at their game with the light of awareness and honesty, they often find that mistakes they make have an incredibly consistent nature to them.

The more you learn about the real way that your brain actually functions, then you can start to make progress – not only with our golf but with our life in general. As you begin to practice the principles you are learning, you will start to trust the incredible power of your mind, in particular your unconscious mind. In many ways you will find yourself letting go of some old entrenched beliefs about golf and life. These are entrenched beliefs that will not want to give up without a fight. But with every belief you must ask yourself is it serving you well. If it isn’t then question it. Where and who it came from? And is it of any use? Most of our beliefs have been imposed from outside of us and are not actually based on any form of reality, yet we continue to hang on to them.


It’s important to your success that you take time right now for this exercise. Read through the following exercise before you actually do it. You may choose to record the following exercise on a tape, allowing this to guide you through the imagery.

What I would like you to do now is close your eyes and allow yourself to think about the very best round of golf that you have ever played. This could be in a competition or just playing with friends, or you may even be playing alone. As you allow yourself to recall that experience, just notice some details about the images in your mind.

As you remember back, are you seeing the experience through your own eyes?

Or is it as though you are watching yourself in a movie?

Notice if the pictures are in colour or are they black and white?

Are the pictures moving or are they still?

What about the sounds?

If there is sound, what location is it coming from?

What’s the tone and tempo?

How do you feel?

Where are the sensations in your body?

Really allow yourself to immerse in the memory. Now what I want you to do is make the pictures bigger and brighter, bring them closer. If they are black and white make them colour. And if they are still, give the film some motion. Turn up the sounds and now notice how this affects how you feel. Does this not increase the intensity of the memory?

Now just allow yourself now to reorientate yourself to the present.

What you have just experienced is the beginning of your own personal understanding of a profound system of coding, storage and re-living of your experiences. You now have the opportunity to actually run your own brain in ways that will delight you and give you the ability to achieve personal mastery.

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