Go ahead. Pump iron. Do pilates. Just remember: A million crunches can’t make up for a fragile mind. Call it mental fitness, a soundness of the psyche that’s as vital to low scores as a flexible physique and solid fundamentals. According to sports psychologist Joseph Parent, author of Zen Golf, a muscular mind rests on four pillars.
PILLAR NO. 1: STRENGTH
Nicklaus and Tiger are famous for it. Mental toughness: performing when it matters most. “It’s having the strength to stand up to pressure,” Parent says, and being comfortable in that spotlight.
EXERCISE: Don’t give yourself gimmes
To get acclimated to pressure, embrace it. Put yourself under it. For starters, Parent recommends putting every short putt, even if someone is waiting behind you. “Act like the shot matters, and you’ll be more ready to hit it when it really does.”
PILLAR NO. 2: FLEXIBILITY
Your mind needs to be as limber as your body. The most successful players adapt to different courses and conditions. They think creatively and accept things as they come. When Vijay Singh was asked if an Augusta downpour bothered him, he replied, “Only if it’s just raining on me.”
EXERCISE: Reconsider your clubs
Mental flexibility means keeping your mind open. Or as Parent puts it, “Just because you’re in the bunker doesn’t mean it’s a sand wedge.” To cultivate creative thinking, take one club and work around the practice green, hitting many kinds of shots: high, low, soft, hard. The next time around, choose just one shot and practice hitting it with every club in your bag.
PILLAR NO. 3: BALANCE
One shot at a time. Stay in the moment. They’re clichÃ©s for a reason: They work. “Not getting too excited, not getting too depressed,” Parent says. “That’s what mental balance is all about.”
EXERCISE: Take stock of your thoughts
During your round, count how many times you find yourself dwelling on the past or pondering the future. Are you still simmering over that three-putt? Are you already dreading that tee shot on 18? Tally the number of times your mind drifts beyond the present. Your goal: Get that number down to zero.
PILLAR NO 4: STAMINA
Any round of golf that matters is marked by stressful moments and emotional swings. The key, Parent says, is to minimize them as much as possible so that you can conserve your mental energy.
EXERCISE: Beware of your own Amen Corner
“Everybody has that point, usually midround, when you’re far enough along to know how you’re playing but too far from the finish to slip into cruise control,” Parent says. That’s your Amen Corner, a perilous stretch where you might feel inspired to start playing desperate catch-up if you’re off your game, or get nervous about keeping a good round going. The key: Stick to your game plan. Playing poorly? Don’t fire at pins in a mad rush to make birdies, unless that’s your style. If you’re playing well, beware of becoming too cautious and protective of your score. Such ill-advised adjustments lead to trouble, trouble raises stress levels, and stress burns mental energy energy you’ll need to play your best.
THEN AGAIN, A MIND IS A DANGEROUS THING
Just like you can over-train, you can overthink the mental equivalent of pulling your groin. “You see it all the time,” says former Tour player and Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee. “Guys fall so in love with a pre-shot routine that they almost forget to execute the shot.” So where’s the happy medium? “My advice is so simple it’s almost silly,” Chamblee says. “Be yourself. If you’re gregarious, be gregarious on the course. If you’re an up-tempo person, play quickly. If you’re not, don’t. The Bard said it best: ‘To thine own self be true.'”