by Aimee Hughes
“I remember the moment I had what I call my ‘golf game epiphany,’” says Steve Hughes, a passionate golfer from Richmond, Missouri. “I realized that my main obstacles were in my head, and from that day on, my golf game changed.”
In any athletic or fitness endeavor, the pursuit of excellence unfolds an array of challenges. While golf presents some of the toughest hurdles to improvement, any links enthusiast can better their game by acquiring a champion’s mindset. Applying a few Zen techniques and disciplines adapted from the Buddhist tradition of mindful awareness—which teaches that the mind is everything—can work wonders.
Zen Golf master and performance psychologist Joe Parent, Ph.D., of Ojai, California, says: “The key is finding a way to let the ‘thinking’ mind do all the preliminaries to physical performance—selecting a target, judging the lie, gauging weather influences, etc.—and then letting our ‘intuitive’ mind take over, enabling our body to make a swing that’s free from second-guessing ourselves.” He calls the optimal playing mentality, “Not too tight, not too loose.” It’s the sweet spot that allows us to perform via our best self. Some key techniques prepare us to find and reside in this just-right Goldilocks place of being not too hot and not too cold.
Developing mental fortitude takes us even further than we can imagine. Mastery is born from discipline, focused attention and a deep core desire to adopt habits and behaviors that will upgrade our mindset.
Author of Zen Golf: Mastering the Mental Game, Parent teaches his students to enter a state that he calls “trusting versus trying.” He teaches a “one stroke at a time” approach, which emphasizes awareness of being in the present moment, as many contemplative spiritual traditions do. When the golfer is deeply engaged in the present moment with just the right level of emotional intensity, free of distractions and worries about future swings, they become integrated with what’s taking place on the course in the here and now to the point of total absorption.
In yoga, pranayama, or breathing techniques, are employed to promote relaxation in the mind and body. The Zen approach to golf uses breath work to allow body and mind to make the most fluid and powerful golf swing possible for the player. “The single factor that sets apart the top performers in any athletic discipline from the rest of us is their state of mind,” says Craig Perkins, a yoga master and founder of the Yandara Yoga Institute, in Baja California, Mexico. “From all my years of yogic study, there’s one teaching that always sticks with me: If we want to master our game, whether it’s golf, yoga or chess, we must first and foremost master our mind.” Practitioners maintain that, meditation can take our mental game to its optimal level. Perkins says, “Meditation is the number one practice for cultivating self-trust.”
Positive visualization, which can be supported by meditation, is another method champion golfers leverage to improve their performance levels. Parent teaches his students, “Establish a clear image in your mind’s eye, and the body will follow.” Repeating this technique with every shot helps the golfer cultivate the habit of positive visualization by seeing the results.
Physical prowess is of little consequence if our mental game is off. Under the intense pressure of a golf match, execution suffers when performance anxiety isn’t kept under control. While many golfers have what it takes to succeed—the requisite native ability, experience, technique and talent—mental hang-ups can cause them to call it a day. Detrimental habits can undermine our self-confidence, as well as our score. The solution lies in pinpointing what’s behind them and applying pertinent Zen techniques to either gradually alleviate or winningly work with them.
Hughes, who makes his home overlooking the greens of Shirkey Golf Course, says, “It’s about getting out of your own way. When you’re at one with the game as it presents itself, you know your game will be much better than when your mind is racing off to work issues, family dramas and all the other usual life stuff. When I learned how to establish myself in this present moment awareness, not only did my golf game change for the better, so did the rest of my life.”
Aimee Hughes, a freelance writer in Kansas City, Missouri, is a doctor of naturopathy on the faculty of the Yandara Yoga Institute. Connect at ChezAimee@gmail.com.