Caddy Your Mind

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

In a scene from The Legend of Bagger Vance, Will Smith’s character intones in a prophetic hush, “It’s just you, that ball and all that you are.” I don’t know about you, but for me that’s a lot to tee up. Even so, such grand perspectives on golf reference those qualities of the game that evoke reverence, as well as the sense that golf is a rich individual test. The thing is, “All that you are” might be much of what stands between you and your score as well as between you and your complete enjoyment of the game, the course, your friends and yourself.

This article is about developing a mental caddy that can keep you focused and calm, unruffled in the rough, cool under pressure. Let’s out “pressure” and see it for what it really is – it’s stress and the gang, featuring turbulent thinking, physical reactions, unpleasant emotions and unbidden impulses. Pressure is in fact created by the mind, a reaction to the momentary conditions that the golfer encounters, and managing all of this is critical to good golf and unqualified enjoyment.

A look at the current standing of the psychological literature on sports and peak performance reveals that the door is quite wide open for direction, clarification and innovation. The ideas in this article are grounded in the considerable research on and principles of both neuroplasticity and mindfulness. ‘Neuroplasticity’ references the physical and functional changes that the living brain makes in response to experience and practice. ‘Mindfulness’ refers to our latent ability to pay attention on purpose in the present moment nonjudgmentally. It should be easy to just clear your mind, focus and sustain your attention, right? You know it ain’t so!

Unregulated emotion and thought contaminate and intrude upon the psychological and physical processes involved in golf swing/stroke calibration, preparation and execution. Further, the physiological changes that accompany stress can upset any well-practiced skill. The state of your mind at any time may be located at any point on a continuum from optimal to downright hostile to your game. If you don’t caddy your mind, that is, regulate your emotion and thought, then pure shots as well as pure contentment will be much more elusive. Regardless of your handicap, talents or equipment, your ever-changing mind is a powerful yet trainable part of your game.

This article will show you how you can regulate pressure most smoothly through the persistent application of mindfulness and wise choice. There is a lot more that you can do for your game than you may realize.

I want to point out, now and again later, that your game, and for that matter, your life, are very workable, but that the gains sought are rarely quickly realized. Change can start here with asking if you’re willing to commit to reading this article and later continues with asking yourself if you’re willing to try this work and practice. Watch out for your clever, insidious craving for the quick and easy fix. A quick fix implies a simple issue but your mind, “all that you are”, is just not a simple thing.

Your mind is remarkably busy.
To caddy your mind requires that you know what’s happening in your mind. Just as an actual caddy must know a lot about the golf course and about the golfer for whom he or she caddies, as well as all of the details at play for each particular shot, so it goes with your mind. What’s on your mind will be shaped by past learning and conditioning – the lay of your inner landscape – which gains expression as wants, fears, and thoughts, as well as physiological changes, that arise in the moment. Whats more, this all changes from moment to moment. I’m not eager to sound like a clinician, but it is irrevocably the truth that we all have emotional issues and a propensity for emotional and physical reactivity that is shaped in innumerable ways by our history and temperament. Golf courses do not magically confer a separation from all that our brains and bodies hold.

Not only do we bring a lot to the party, but it’s a very busy party, too. Credible efforts have estimated that we have about 65,000 to 80,000 distinct states of mind each day – without even trying! Just because we don’t notice this busyness doesn’t mean it isn’t happening or that its effects are negligible. Our minds are constantly changing, diverting, sensing and reacting. Most of the time we don’t notice this virtually boundless reactivity, unless we stop and pay attention.

Even as you read this you might notice how your mind wanders off to other things: You may think you’re reading an article but in many moments you may be musing about other matters while your eyes continue to scan these sentences, making plans, wondering about lunch, feeling bored, generating criticisms and so on. Minds are busy, minds are deeply reactive and minds wander; that’s precisely how minds are. Seeing the mind in the mirror, so to speak, is essential in order to regulate the reactivity that can produce some very remarkable, if undesirable, swings and shots.

Your mind is extremely subtle.
Let’s be aware of one of the subtle fallibilities of minds. The sleight of hand card trick works because when our mind is drawn to one thing, we may be unaware of other things. We can miss big things when we are drawn to some other thing, and we might stop looking altogether when we believe we know what’s going on and that there’s nothing else to see. As a result, we may be and often are entirely unaware of critical internal states and reactions, not to mention aspects of external conditions.

If your mind caddy doesn’t see some critical agitation or distraction or the development of a really bad idea, then there may be consequences. Here’s a familiar example of missing what’s already here: Milliseconds after hitting a shot badly you realize that you ‘knew’ – past tense! – that you were setting the shot up that way (not committing, backing off, whatever). It was there as an intention or perhaps as a doubt that prevented commitment to your shot, but it went unnoticed. It is extremely easy for your conscious mind to be unaware of what is going on elsewhere in your mind. That statement may sound pretty nuts but it redeems itself by virtue of being true.

Your mind tends to have particular hangouts and habits.
Here is a further subtlety that is powerful in its implications but which is commonly overlooked. We’ll begin with the fact that everything is always happening in real time. You can check this against your experience any time you want to: Your entire life happens and unfolds in the present moment. Life happens in a three-dimensional space and we are locked in to this one point, the present moment, on the fourth dimension of time. You can’t do something two minutes ago or five minutes from now. What you experienced or did earlier today or at any time in your life for that matter has already happened and is not subject to actual revision, modification or amendment (even though we will often sorely wish we could undo things) – what has happened has happened. Further, we do not know in any actual way what will truly happen seconds or days from now – the future is unknowable until it arrives in the present moment.

The fact of life unfolding in the present moment doesn’t limit our minds to only that slice of time. Long ago we evolved the neurobiological capacity to imagine other points of view. You have a rich and profoundly advantageous capacity to mentally simulate events from the past or in the future. You can replay and review something that has happened and in that way learn from it. You can imagine future procedures and outcomes and meet those future moments later with the benefit of foresight.

The thing is that these acts of imagination can be immersive and can have the compelling subjective feeling of realism and actuality, but they are imaginary nonetheless. These imaginings can be prompted by and can evoke your full emotionality as well, as is the case with anxiety – the emotional effect (fear) of imagining painful future scenarios. Further, you might do it a lot and usually without intending to. Our minds tend to hang out in the past and hang out in the future. As a result, the emotion that matches the imaginings will be evoked (or, equivalently, emotion may evoke the imaginings), and so produce unpleasant feelings of despair, hopelessness or dread. What golfer doesn’t know these states of mind during a round of golf?

To caddy your mind well requires practicing accepting that what is done is done, and to see when you’re struggling to accept this. Standing over your ball and lamenting the effects of looking up on your last swing takes you away from the shot at hand. Even this simple lamenting is a complex cluster of mental states and tones. Slipping in to the future by fearing what might happen on this next shot brings noise to the mind as well as to the body. Notice that we can’t help but embody our mental states, perhaps most palpably felt when we get a case of the yips on the green.

All of this happens on a kind of automatic pilot, without intending these states of mind to arise and without being aware that they have arisen. It’s just how minds are. By unintentionally distressing about your last shot, dreading your next shot, or fussing with your score, your mind is taking you away from executing your present shot with optimal composure and focus. These subtle qualities and states of mind can go unnoticed if we don’t stop and pay attention to the content of our mind on purpose, and thereby see them.

To caddy your mind well requires practice and is maintained by practice.
To caddy your mind well requires much more than good intentions or ‘getting’ some bunch of concepts. To underscore something that you already know, understanding an idea does not equate to having acquired some skill or some strength. Precise repetition, as with practicing guitar or piano, cultivates the neuroplastic retention of that which is practiced. With further precise repetition, further refinement and strengthening of the ‘wetware’ occurs.

The research is clear that precise attention can be practiced and strengthened, as can a collection of mental abilities that together underpin emotion regulation. Your mental caddy won’t consistently bring a quiet focus and discerning awareness to your game simply by you willing it and wishing that it were so.

To develop your ability to work with your mind requires practice and repetition. To give you a sense of the timelines, neuroscience research shows that daily practice of mindfulness for eight weeks results in clear neurobiological and emotion regulation changes. Also, just as we’re vulnerable to slipping back to poor physical conditioning once we stop exercising, in innumerable ways we are vulnerable to slipping back to old habits of mind and reactivity after practice lapses.

You’re not trying to change anything.
We’re moving now in to the uncomfortable realm of the counterintuitive. It is a general truism that what we have learned to believe and expect may mislead us and keep us from considering other points of view and ways of seeing things. So counterintuitive isn’t wrong or a bad thing, it’s just weird. Of course, you’re reading this out of a desire to change, to improve your golf game. On the face of it, to approach learning to caddy your mind on the golf course by trying not to do or change anything just doesn’t seem to add up in the usual way.

Learning always involves making what we call ‘mistakes’. ‘Mistakes’ is a term loaded with judgement and criticism. To acquire any skill requires accepting that ‘mistakes’ are a part of the learning process. Seeing that mistakes are incredibly valuable as a fertile part of the learning and development of a skill takes considerable practice and presence of mind. Mistakes often happen at the boundary between skill and learning, at the frontier of new abilities, and are rich in information. If we pounce on a mistake with judgement and aversion, we won’t plug in to the learning that is there, and what we’re practicing instead is judgement and aversion. Attitudes of acceptance and trust in yourself, of kindness and interest in what’s on your mind, have to be practiced so that we can support the most optimal orientation to learning and the development of attention and self-regulation. As Carl Jung said, “We cannot change anything unless we accept it. Condemnation does not liberate, it oppresses.”

It is through looking and seeing that we become familiar with our mental habits and reactions. The practice is to shake hands with your reactions of frustration with yourself, of anger, of fear, or of reckless risk, making their acquaintance and getting to know these reactive states of mind. Only with the patient accumulation of intimate knowledge of our habits of mind does there emerge the personally informed ability to spontaneously regulate, to step in and shift a state of mind.

So a part of learning to caddy your mind well requires seeing and accepting what is going on in your mind, accepting things as they are, and not trying to change anything. Albert Einstein knew this when he said, “A man should look for what is, and not for what he thinks should be.”

Now let’s put all of the above points together and look at how they work.

Working with these principles.
Before moving forward, you might notice that you’re having thoughts that the application of mindfulness to golf will be onerous and impractical. You might have the thought that ‘doing’ all of this when preparing to hit a shot will wear out the patience of your group. Whatever the form of any concerns that you might be having, I think it’s actually pretty useful to be skeptical, and you don’t have to believe anything that I’ve written here. Your own experience is really the teacher. But it might help to suspend your doubts for a while until you have had a chance to experience some of this on your own.

The principle practice here is to pay attention to what’s on your mind, and you can do this at the driving range, on the practice green, during a round and certainly when preparing to hit your shots. Let’s take as a working example worrying about your present shot, say a 180 yards to an island green. One way to spin the probability dial toward hitting a bad shot is to worry about hitting a bad shot and hitting your shot with worry as the prevailing or even as a partial state of your mind. Noticing that you’re worrying is what mindful awareness achieves and it consumes but a moment of time. You’re not trying to change anything, just to see what’s on your mind. If you’re worried, then that’s how you are. To know that you’re worried requires not changing anything. If the state of being worried is judged as “bad”, then you’ll start ducking out, trying to not be worried when you’re worried. These reactions typically all unfold on a kind of automatic pilot. Pretending you’re not worried just creates more noise in the system and also ends the learning about what’s happening in your mind that gives rise to the worry.

Next step, when you’re ready, is to check out the worry. You might notice that you’re really big-time worried, that there are some physical effects such as muscles tightening, and that you’re imagining a splash down. You might notice worried thoughts. The popular catch phrase for this state of mind and body is ‘pressure’. Now, with practice at seeing what’s on your mind you’ll become more adept at and comfortable with seeing and accepting what’s already here. With practice you’ll become more and more familiar with your particular expressions of worrying, which will further aid in detecting the presence of worry down the road. That tightening of muscles becomes more familiar and easier to spot. The involuntary imagining of a bad outcome is picked up before it has a chance to become more compelling and produce more physical changes.

By just realizing you’re ‘under pressure’ and seeing it as fully as you can, you can more quickly and easily respond to the worry, perhaps by letting it go. This letting go might be supported by truthful reassurances such as, “This isn’t life and death” (the heresy!), or the wisdom of knowing that the present moment is the better and healthier place to orient your attention, this pure and interesting moment of setting up and executing this shot.

This is easier said than done and one thing that makes this practice difficult to sustain is, again, emotional reactivity. You might catch yourself tenaciously judging yourself, and then react to the judging with more judging. We can get frustrated, get caught up in a negative self-narrative, and reject possibilities before really trying them. This is all reacting. By bringing mindful awareness to any and all of these moments, taking a seat in the audience as it were and just watching the show, room is made for responding instead of reacting. Have I mentioned that this is a skill that requires practice, patience, kindness, curiosity?

Parenthetically, our culture and the socialization of men in particular have engrained in us ideas about how we should be, even though the subjective and objective evidence of how we actually are flies in the face of these social prescriptions. The injunctions and declarations to deny and to bulldoze your emotions and reactivity are everywhere. And they are commonly present in golf instructions that offer unhelpful directives such as “don’t let it bother you.” A mindful caddy works with reality which, with practice, contentedly admits to feelings and reactions.

Let’s get back with another example: One sure way to not recover from a bad shot is to ruminate on that bad shot. Replaying the past and grinding with reactive resentment even in just a fraction of your mind compromises both your attention and optimal physical readiness. Instead, bringing awareness to the moment reveals the anger. That opens the possibilities of accepting that the bad shot has already happened and can’t be changed, of acknowledging that you’re disappointed and that it’s okay to be disappointed, and of reminding yourself of where you are now and, on purpose, bringing your attention back to the present moment and to this next interesting shot; and an interesting shot it surely is! Trying instead to cancel all thought risks a slide in to inattentiveness, and you know what might happen then.

Swing after swing, hole after hole, round after round, mistake after mistake, as you practice seeing and accepting your many instances of worry and rumination, you’ll learn a huge amount about your patterns of emotional and physical reactivity. As Yogi Berra said, “You can observe a lot, just by watching.” You’ll see your sneaky little ways of fooling yourself, your ways of freaking yourself out, your patterns of self-criticism and ego. With this practice you’ll become more adept at seeing these interlopers as they arise, at responding instead of reacting, and at practicing bringing your attention back to just this shot. Only then can you make the best use of your equipment, your lessons with the pro and your mechanical talents.

Mindfulness is a neurobiological ability that can be strengthened with practice. We’ll talk about mindful play in a short while, but let’s stay with practice applications in golf a little longer.

Mindfulness and practicing golf shots.
To finish, I want to bring many of the points we were working with earlier to the practicing of golf shots at the driving range and on the practice green.

The brain physically changes in response to vivid (for want of a better term) experience, and these functional changes are the physical expression of learning. A hodgepodge of unremarkable experience will lack vividness and little learning will then take place. Accordingly, the first rule of practice is that it’s the quality of the practice that should be your priority, not the quantity. The quality of your practice is almost completely structured both by your mindful caddy’s intentions for what to practice, and by preserving those intentions with ongoing watchful discernment.

Let’s return to one of the earlier points above and recall that, first, it is often the case that what we think we are practicing may be very different from what is actually being practiced and, second, we may not be aware of what it is that we’re actually doing and practicing, but instead accept that our more-or-less conscious internal thinking and narrative are valid depictions of what is actually going on. Sorry if this seems elusive the first time you read it; you might need to go back and reread some of these lines a few times.

The reality is that every moment is different. The idea that we might practice the same shot over and over is a good structured idea, but each execution of a shot will be different and our mind will be different before, during and after each shot.

As a result, your mind can easily get off course, so to speak, and begin to invest in practice that your inner caddy wouldn’t sanction. For example, at the driving range a bit of internal, judgemental chatter in reaction to your last shot, when the launch was “poor”, may inject some impetus to swing differently (harder or with a different release, grip, backswing, you name it). Now your practice is being shaped by a reaction to your last strike, instead of by your abiding intention. Because we crave that good feeling from a perfect strike, practice can devolve in just a couple of balls to a striving for the slot-machine reward of a perfect strike. But we don’t practice to be perfect, we practice with acceptance of ‘mistakes’, seeing them as interesting and informative, not as something to avoid and change, so that we can fine tune and develop consistency. As we fine tune and make the repetitions more vivid by dint of their similarity, the learning is enhanced and the practice session can be more beneficial.

Here’s a separate point of clarification that I want to make: Bringing attention to the details and experience of executing a skillful act can and does impair the execution of most skills, such as putting. Try carefully noting the movements of the tongue while you read this sentence out loud and see what happens. Attention can be paid to anything we can notice, and who knows what interesting things might be discovered by doing so. But to caddy your mind, the idea is to be watchful for departures from an optimal orientation to your shot making, to pay attention to that which has taken you away, and to bring your attention back to where it’s needed most.

A final point of clarification here is that we all have individual affect-related performance zones. We are all different. Some degree and type of emotion may complement your sport performance, and of course other emotion may be catastrophic for performance. The approach that we’ve been looking at here is not to eliminate anything, and certainly not to eliminate all emotion. Instead, we just want to pay attention and to accept that that which is happening in our mind is okay, that it can be known and that we can work with it wisely and patiently.

Mindfulness during play.
Only when you’re experiencing the varied emotional conditions of actual play can you most vividly learn about the character and nature of your own mental traps.

A focus on peak performance, a focus on achieving a particular goal, is imminently understandable if not the most obvious reason to be asking what psychology might have to offer as a means to achieve a specific, measureable end. It just might be, though, that having an explicit, highly desirable goal sets in motion many cognitive and emotional reactions that have the paradoxical effect of undermining the achievement of that goal. In other words, the “trying to get somewhere”, the striving to be different in terms of some single or composite of abilities, may impede the essential work needed to realize the progress. For this reason, a mindful approach, while perhaps counterintuitive, richly admits and highlights the juicier and essential experiential information and fully applies your capacity to learn and thereby change.

With practice the awareness of your mental caddy will, over time, bring you back to the rich moment of preparing, executing and learning from, if not enjoying, this shot. Where else should your mind be during the actual moments of play?

Imagining your shot.
Many golfers use the strategy of imagining their ideal shot when setting up. Let’s look at this strategy for a moment through the lens of all that we’ve considered above.

When you imagine hitting a shot, you’re practicing imagining hitting a shot. I have no quibble with the idea that there may be some incidental benefits of imagining the shot that you want to make. The incidental benefits of imagining a shot may arise through (1) alleviating some anxiety by calming and distraction; (2) establishing a quality of perceived control (which decreases anxiety); and (3) it is very likely more helpful than imagining that your shot will be a disaster. All of these are clearly desirable outcomes.

However, there might be some incidental complications associated with relying on imaging in your pre-shot routine. Also, the management of anxiety can be achieved in far more direct and even more useful ways. My principle quibble with imagining a shot is that you have left the reality of the moment and have ducked out to an alternate illusion, and there may be costs associated with ducking out. Technically, imaging uses our neurobiological ability to run a simulation, and by definition a simulation is not what is true.

To build your mental hardiness and to learn about and to work with your mechanics, with your physical state, and with your actual psychological reactivity during golf play, it is essential to see what your mind and body are really up to, and to not replace that with a simulation that is just a wish. Your golf game and mental control have to be grounded in and grown from what is true.

The consideration here is that your practice and your playing time may be much better spent paying attention to what it is that your mind-body is actually up to, and working with that, rather than introducing and practicing something that takes you away from your actual experience.

Two strong recommendations.
The first recommendation is to mindfully practice the physical skills and components of the game with a discerning eye to quality of practice. Forget about the quantity of practice. It will always be the case that what you are practicing is what you are practicing. If, during massed practice, you slip in to an intention to kill the ball, then you’ll be practicing exactly that. If during your practice you begin to think, “Oh, I’ve never been great with my 5 iron”, then you’ll be practicing that particular incantation. Practicing hitting a lot of shots without attention to the fine details of what exactly you’re doing may lead to the development of mindless patterns of unfocused intention, developing little skill and getting a poor bang for your buck. By recognizing that exactly what you are practicing is what your physiology and mind will be assimilating, you can work much more efficiently, patiently and with a good prospect of enjoying each shot more regardless of immediate outcomes. It remains to remember to ask yourself quite frequently, “What am I doing right now?” so as to continuously refine and refocus your practice work. It is also extremely wise to get guidance through lessons and coaching. Notice that the quality of your practice depends on monitoring and adjusting what it is that you’re actually doing during a period of practice, which leads to the second strong recommendation.

The second strong recommendation is to take mindfulness training, also called meditation training. I’m sure you have some examples from your own life that show you that it takes more than good intentions to establish new habits and skills. Simply embracing the idea that it would be helpful to pay attention to what is really going on in your mind and body during practice and play is not enough without active practice; without practice, any good idea will quickly evaporate, lost in the busyness of mind and life.

The basic practice of mindfulness is to aim and sustain all of your attention at one specific target, such as the sensation of your breath at your nose. If you try this just for a few moments you’ll see the automatic tendency of your mind to wander, to narrate, to get distracted. Each time you notice that your mind has wandered – hey, you’ve become mindful again! – you just bring your attention back to your breath, like repetitions with weights at the gym. It sounds easy but may be both one of the most difficult and one of the most rewarding practices one can do with one’s mind. A lot of personal discipline is required to make this a daily practice (think learning to play piano) on your own, and many people find the learning to be both richer and more comprehensive when undertaken in the form of a mindfulness course.

Mindfulness training is widely available in the form of a course called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction or MBSR for short. The course is usually offered in an 8 week group format and encourages daily practice. An internet search should provide information about what’s available in your area. At this website: you can find MBSR teachers through the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, where MBSR was first developed.

The research shows that practicing paying attention in the present moment nonjudgmentally strengthens a collection of attentional and emotion-regulation capacities that can cultivate the clearest orientation that you can have to working with the content of your mind and emotion. What this practice might mean for your enjoyment of golf is an open question, but the potential for vast improvement is in proportion to the degree to which distractibility and emotional reactivity hack at your game. It is also highly reasonable to anticipate that MBSR could refer to Mindfulness-Based Score Reduction.

As with most things, what you get from this orientation to caddying your mind will be directly related to your own effort and practice. Self-regulation requires self-awareness. This awareness allows for choice and response instead of reaction, which can then guide your practice and play. Further, you can only caddy your psychological complexity through a round of golf by seeing the patterns of thought and emotion that are the pressures that mess with your game. Otherwise, as a Buddhist monk quipped, “If you keep going in the direction you’re headed, that’s where you’ll end up.”