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Big tournaments, and the ‘mind traps’ we fall into
Dr Karl Morris

How do you react when you find yourself putting together a good score – do you press to shoot the lights out or does a voice inside your head tell you to ‘hang on’ to what you’ve got? Dr Karl Morris explains how to avoid the ‘mind traps’ that can ambush performance

Other features by Dr Karl Morris

Adam Scott: Did he blow The Open or not?
Winning the Mind Game
Big tournaments, and the ‘mind traps’ we fall into
The Power of Perspective
Major Minds - Focus and Concentration techniques
A Lesson in Learning - Methods of Learning
Feeling the Heat - Choking and how to beat it
Comfort Trap - What's holding you back
Memories - and how they affect your golf
Is 'perfection' ruining your game?
Is someone else playing your golf ball?

Do you have a big event or tournament coming up that you really want to do well in? How do you think you will get on? Just imagine that you hit the ball superbly on the range before your tee-time. Your coach tells you that things are ‘looking great’.You boom your opening drive down the middle of the fairway and walk off with a solid par. On the 2nd tee, you boom another. Things are looking good – but do you have any idea what will happen next? Will you continue to perform in a way that you are clearly capable of or will that solid start tail off as your mind races ahead of the game?

More often than not, failing to get the job done is the outcome for the club player – and the 19th hole is awash with tales of ‘could’ve’ and ‘should’ve’. What exactly is it that causes us to hit the self-destruct button? Is it a swing failure or is there ‘something else’ going on?

Over the years it has become clear to me that we have all been conditioned to ‘think’ in a certain way on the golf course and very often this unconscious programming that we have received can be detrimental to our results and, more importantly, to our enjoyment of the game.

From our earliest days we have all been under the influence of certain cultural beliefs that we never even question. We are led to accept certain things.

‘Play it again…Sam’

Did you finish that sentence off before you got to ‘Sam’? Interesting, because in the film Casablanca, where that phrase originates, Humphrey Bogart never actually said: “Play it again, Sam.” But we say it because we have been led to believe that is what he said. Over and over again.

“You played it for her, so you can play it for me. Play it.”

This was what was actually said in that famous scene in the film. We fall into ‘mind traps’ of believing what we are led to believe in all areas of our life – and especially out on the golf course.

One of the major mind traps that I see in profession – and it destroys scores in big tournament – is that of ‘thinking’ that you are either over or under par while you are still on the golf course.

I vividly remember having this conversation with the 2010 US Open champion, Graeme McDowell, in the time we worked together. We were looking specifically at his putting. GMac had noticed for a number of weeks that from the six- to ten-foot range, if he had a putt for par, he would more often than not hole it. But in his analysis of putts of this length for birdie he just didn’t seem to be able to convert. He felt that he approached putts in exactly the same way, same routine, every time. Yet the results were poles apart.

My guess is that a lot of you reading this article will have experienced something similar over the years. It never ceases to amaze me how golf can throw up the most illogical and quirky statistics, the likes of which have no place in logical analysis. As we all know, from the minute you hit your first tee shot to the moment you hole your final putt, each and every shot counts exactly the same. One stroke. A golf shot is a golf shot! And yet all the evidence is there to confirm we do better, mentally, on certain shots than we do others.

Taking up on GMac’s example, imagine two scenarios you are likely to face during a round of golf. You have a six-foot putt to avoid a bogey and a six-foot putt to gain a birdie.

Which do you think you would execute more successfully?

Economists David Pope and Maurice Schweitzer, at the University of Pennsylvania, analysed more than 2.5 million putts in detail to see if there would be any difference. Their results were fascinating in that at almost every distance, the conversion to save par was statistically better than the conversion to gain a birdie.

Why do you suppose that is? What exactly is going on in our mind when the actual putt for par or birdie has no more or less value when it is added up to provide the final tally at the end of the round?

One possible explanation for this is something called ‘loss aversion’, a concept that a noted psychologist, Daniel Kahneman, has written extensively about. His analysis again confirms that most humans will do more to avoid loss than they will to move towards gain.

Loss-aversion theory tells us that, in effect, to our human mind it is more painful to lose £100 than the equivalent balance of pleasure gained by winning £100. Avoiding pain seems to outweigh enjoying pleasure.

Could it be we subconsciously focus differently when we are faced with the possibility of ‘losing’ a par as opposed to ‘gaining’ a birdie. We somehow do more to avoid the loss than to secure the gain.

This is totally counterintuitive, obviously, but it is something I have seen time and time again in golf with players at every level of the game. These unconscious drivers of our behaviour shouldn’t have such a powerful pull – but the fact is they do.

Loss aversion could perhaps also explain how we feel so uncomfortable when we get to a point in the round where we are doing well and starting to think about it – under par or playing below our handicap.

Again, do we subconsciously want to ‘hold on to what we have’ more than we want to go lower and shoot a seriously good score. We all have a score that if it looks as though we might shoot lower than it, we want to hang on to what we feel comfortable with; we don’t tend to keep pushing forwards and riding the wave of our excellent play.

The question, then, is what can you do about this and how can you avoid the mysterious drive that is loss aversion?

At the very heart of the problem of loss aversion in golf is the essential trap of thinking we are either under or over par while we are still out on the golf course. In other words, placing our current score in the context of a finished score.

This is something that we have been subconsciously conditioned into thinking from an early age – and for me the biggest culprit is something that you see on every golf broadcast that you will ever see. Something that is in fact telling you a lie.

Picture it now: up on your TV screen flashes the latest information that says something along the lines of:

Mickelson -9 18 Holes
Westwood -9 12 Holes
Donald -9 15 Holes

Now, when you look at this phenomena closely, you may realise how you have been conned into thinking something is real when in fact it isn’t. What is that leaderboard really telling you? Who is the only player who is actually under par?

Phil Mickelson, of course, is the only one who is actually under par because he has finished his round, signed his card and is back in the clubhouse. The other two – Donald and Westwood – are not actually under par because they can’t decide to stick at -9 and walk in to the clubhouse after 12 holes. Golf, remember, consists of 18 holes.

We are looking at the illusion of being under par or having any form of score while we are actually still playing. Yet this perceived ownership of being under par can be taken away in an instant.

This doesn’t happen with other sports. In a game of football, if you score a goal and are winning the match 1-0 with ten minutes to go, then you may or may not end up winning the game itself but that goal that you have scored will never be taken away from you. You have that in the bank.

Once you have scored a run at cricket it will never be taken away from you, but with golf we have been sold the illusion of being under par and then when the dynamic of loss aversion kicks in even the best players in the world don’t want to lose what they perceive they own.

Yet if you rid yourself of this illusion (or delusion as the case may be) then you are free to play without the spectre of loss aversion kicking in. Make a firm commitment that you will never ever again say: “I was three under after 14 or I was five under with three to play or I was five under my handicap.”

No you were not!

You didn’t own your score because you were still out on the course. You only own a score at golf when you have signed that card and handed it in.

Commit to this and you will remove and eliminate one of the major golfing mental errors that the game can throw at you. Golf is a series of separate and unrelated tasks. I have said this so many times but it is the repetition of these key messages that count. You need to keep doing your routine on each and every shot.

You start with your first task on the 1st tee and you only run out of tasks when you hole that final putt on the 18th green.

The old cliché of one shot at a time is perhaps the greatest of mental skills to learn but it does mean that you have to question how you have been programmed and brainwashed into believing certain things like ‘being under par’. The ability to eliminate this faulty thinking from your game potentially separates you from the rest of the field and gives you a huge advantage out on the course.

One game that you can play that helps you avoid loss aversion, and is a kind of bridge to get to the point where you play each and every shot on its merit, is the mind game that I believe Rory McIlroy played in the process of blowing away the field in the 2011 US Open at Congressional – and that is ‘Super 6’.

Super 6 is the concept of playing golf not as two sets of nine holes that make up 18 but to play six sets of three holes.

The goal, very simply, is to do as well as you can and score as low as possible on each and every set of three.

The beauty of this game is that it also allows you to tap into another phenomena the human brain likes, which is the idea of ‘starting again’.

We love to set out goals and resolutions on January 1 because we feel that it is a new and fresh start. When you play Super 6 you are constantly giving yourself a fresh start and it moves you in the direction of being able to play one hole at a time. Above all else, though, commit yourself to never again falling into that trap of believing that you are either under or over par while you are on the golf course. You are not!

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine

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