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Mind games

PGA tutor Jon Finn has spent the best part of a decade furnishing PGA Professionals with techniques to improve their abilities as mental coaches. In the light of Phil Mickelson's sensational final round and Open triumph, he examines the power of the mind in golf – and how PGA pros can use it to help their pupils play better golf.


On July 14 Phil Mickelson clinched his first ever event on British soil – the Scottish Open at Castle Stuart links. A week later he had won his second, the 142nd Open Championship – his fifth major. But how?  Did he dramatically change his technique? Had he seriously increased his fitness levels?  Was he using new and better clubs? No; as Peter Alliss said, what Phil Mickelson changed was his mental approach.

For example, he made a conscious mental decision not to carry his driver so that he would not be tempted to use it. He also worked hard on his mental approach to putting on tricky links greens, allowing him to develop a new confidence in holing out under pressure.

Mickelson changed the way he used his brain on the golf course, and it resulted in him playing what he described as the best round of his life.

In my professional opinion the neuroscience behind Mickelson’s winning performance is as follows; he worked out how to tame his Monkey Brain (limbic system), and switch on his Logical Brain (pre-frontal cortex).  In doing this it was much easier for Mickelson to stop himself focusing on the shots that he didn’t want to hit, and focus on the shots that he needed to hit.


Golf Psychology is a hard sell

Few would dispute that golf is a psychological sport. However, many golfers would dispute that they need psychological support to consistently play their best golf. Research recently presented at the British Psychology Society Annual Conference suggested that the majority of people relate the term psychology to Freud – lying on a couch – or Milgram – encouraging people to electrocute each other!

For many golfers, the idea that they would need that kind of support is extremely threatening to their ego; even though the best golfers in the world regularly talk about the importance of mental game coaching in their own success.

I do not blame the average golfer for not wanting to engage in psychology. The black-box approach – not really being able to explain what is going on in the brain – that dominates golf psychology creates uncertainty and mistrust.

Most golf psychology/mental game coaching can be likened to – metaphorically speaking – someone taking their car to the garage with an engine problem. Imagine the mechanic telling you that they can fix your car’s engine problem, but they cannot explain exactly what they will be doing to the engine. Mistrust created? Yes!


If golf psychology is truly going to fulfil its potential the neuroscience of situations like this, ‘What happens in a golfer’s brain to stop them from hitting the kind of shots they know they are capably of?’ needs to be explained in detail. This will potentially make golf psychology much more persuasive for golfers.

Research from American universities has indicated that information about psychology is more persuasive to the general public when it is presented with pictures of brain scans, and mentions neuroscience.

Although an accurate understanding of brain function was difficult to ascertain ten years ago, an improvement in brain measurement technology means that this is now not the case. Although we by no means have a complete understanding of the brain, we certainly know more about it now than ever before.


Golf neuroscience: a snapshot 

The human brain is first and foremost a survival organ. The golf course is a very threatening place for the brain – especially the limbic system (LS), the dominant part of the brain. After physical violence the biggest threats to the LS are, 1) reduced social status; and, 2) uncertainty of outcome.

The golf course is rife with opportunities to make ourselves look bad – reducing social status. It is also a very uncertainty place for golfers i.e. “Will I hole this two feet putt?”

On detection of a threat the LS takes control of the whole brain. This makes it difficult for a golfer to make the kind of swing that allows him to hit his best shots. Confidence then drops, anxiety increases and concentration becomes fixated on the threat in question i.e. missing an easy putt.

To counteract the negative performance effects of the LS, the golfer must learn how to engage their pre-frontal cortex (PFC) – located behind the eyes. The PFC is the newest region of the human brain and the last area to fully develop.

During the onset of a threat the PFC can be used to suppress the overexcited LS and restore confidence, anxiety control and appropriate concentration. This enables the golfer to make a more effective swing. Sound psychological pre-shot routines – rooted in neuroscience – are excellent at helping golfers to calm their LS. 


Can more PGA Professionals help their golfers to perform under pressure?

Through my work at the PGA’s National Training Academy – along with other significant research – I have spent the past nine years helping coaches to deliver psychological support to their players. This work has produced the Pre-Shot Training Programme. This programme allows golf coaches to deliver a series of 30-minute golf psychology based lessons to their players on the range or course, with a club in-hand, hitting balls.

A growing number of PGA Professionals are delivering Pre-Shot lessons – and/or selling Pre-Shot training aids – with great success. Clients benefiting from Pre-Shot lessons and products range from beginners to scratch golfers and beyond. Below is an overview of the Pre-Shot model of delivery (6 x 30-minute lessons):

Level 1 Lessons

  1. Build confidence as you set-up to the ball
  2. Concentrate correctly as you strike the ball
  3. Build confidence as you finish your routine

Level 2 Lessons

  1. Control your activation at the beginning of your routine
  2. Control your activation at the end of your routine and throughout the round
  3. Learn how to stop your Monkey Brain tricking you into making bad decisions 

For more details go to

Expert Eye
Game Improvement