Neuroscientists have made a game-changing discovery. Your brain isn't a black box, frozen and unchanging. In fact, it's pliable and flexible, and new pathways can be forged.
The implication is that, if we have thoughts and emotional upheavals that are not conducive to good golf, we can actually change them. Anger, fear, an over blown sense of self-importance, negative tape loops, etc. are just electrical communication between neurons and can be changed. There is a great body of work being done by sport psychologists along these lines and I think it's very important in the big picture of mental skills.
But I also believe some of the techniques and discoveries of the contemplative traditions, such as meditation, mindfulness and awareness practices, can augment the western psychological model.
I once attended a PGA conference on teaching, led by Butch Harmon, Jim McLean and others. A well-known sport psychologist was presenting and he made the statement, "to be successful you have to be in touch with the contents of your thoughts." It struck me that while this is true, he didn't show us how to do that.
A great mental game is the ability to focus, then let go.
The focus part is the ability to pay attention to the task at hand without distraction. The letting go is about the freedom of swinging without thinking too much. We have all experienced those fantastic shots or even full rounds of golf where this seemed to happen effortlessly.
The task is to establish a practice that can enable us to call upon this focus, let-go mental state, when we need it.
When we think of practicing golf, it brings up visions of beating balls until our hands bleed, putting until dark and other physical activities. But did you know you could also practice your mental game?
When you go out to play, sometimes your mind is 'right' and other times it is all over the place. Being in the zone seems to be a lottery rather than something we can dial in. Is there a way to work on the mental game? Or are we resigned to luck in the matter?
What if the scientists are right? The great strides in neuroscience have found that one's brain can be re-wired. It's plastic and it can change. The stunning point is: we can actually direct that change.
This information is a game-changer, in that we aren't necessarily stuck with what we have. If it is true, and you can change the wiring of your grey (and white) matter, then does that not mean you can change your mental skills for the better when you play?
If you could map your brain and mold it to your intentions, how would you have it look? What qualities would not only improve the quality of your life, but also enable you to play the best golf of your life? This would be my list:
• Clear focus, at will.
• Very precise and realistic visualization.
• Decision making with decisiveness.
• Trust of one's intuition.
• Ability to slow down the sense of time.
• Ability to allow thoughts to pass through one's mind, not being controlled by any thought and thus letting go of stress.
• Longer spaces between thoughts, more quiet space.
• Natural confidence, not artificially pumped up.
You might make your own list, but is this just a dream, or is it possible?
The Practice of Meditation for Golfers
The fact is, with the modern MRI technology, it has been proven that the brains of meditators get bigger in the good places, i.e. the focus areas, quiet areas, happiness areas, visualization skills, ability to control stress and stay in the moment, and so on.
Meditation has been practiced for more than 2,500 years; the road is well marked. Like a GPS, an experienced teacher (or even a book by an experienced teacher) will tell you when you have made a wrong turn.
Taming The Mind
There are two tasks: one is to tame the mind, like taming a wild horse, and the other is to train the mind, once tame, so it can now be ridden. We have to be able to focus enough in the beginning to stick to the task at hand.
Taming the mind means having the ability to stay in the moment, and equally important, to notice when you are not and immediately come back to it.
"Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body." This quote from James Joyce tells it all. Imagine you're having a party. You greet each guest at the front door, tell them where to put their coat and point out the beverages and food table. But if one guest captures your attention, and you go off in the corner to talk to her/him, in the meantime five guests might arrive and you miss them all, leaving the coats to end up on the couch.
Taming the mind is similar to this. Each thought, emotion, future plan, foray into what I should have done in the past, can grab your attention and carry you off into another place, another time. When this happens, you have lost focus, and your horse has broken loose.
Learn to be mindful of each guest, say how-do-you-do, then greet the next. That is taming the mind.
How To Do It
The first step is as the psychologist says: look at the contents of your mind. Thoughts are arising constantly, can you let them come and go without latching onto them?
Find a comfortable chair and sit up. Slouching blocks your breathing and makes it harder to feel on top of things. Notice your surroundings and the room you are in. Pay attention to when your mind leaves the room to roam somewhere or somewhen else. When you notice your departure, just come back.
At first, you might be gone for long periods of time. A thought or emotion might really grab you and off you go. That's OK, the act of noticing and coming back is the muscle you want to build up. After a while, you will be more attentive to what is going on in your coconut.
While it's a practice that can be done alone, it's recommended that you also practice with a group with an experienced instructor.
For more information, review Dr. Walkers work by checking out: http://thehealingcircle.ca/
Ed Hanczaryk, PGA has taught golf for 33 years and has been named one of the Top 50 Teachers in Canada, as well as having been selected by his peers as the Teacher of the Year in Eastern Canada four years in a row. He teaches at Ed's Golf Studio, an indoor training facility in Dartmouth, as well as The Links at Penn Hills, in Shubenacadie. For more information: www.awarenessgolf.com.