Tuesday Tips: Six Tips To Improve Your Mental Game

Sorting out the mental side of tournament play is half the battle

Sarah Hokom concentrates before putting at the 2017 Waco Annual Charity Open. Photo: Rebecca Heiam – DGPT

Many consider disc golf (and ball golf) more of a mental challenge than a physical one. With so much “downtime” and no defense to react to or coach on the sidelines—like in most team sports—the only person responsible for the scores you shoot is you. In other sports, not only is there typically a defense that could potentially cause poor performance, but there is usually very little time to think about the athletic moves you are making. Most of the time, athletes are reacting to their opponents quickly and adjusting their game plans to be more effective and gain an upper hand.

Being an individual sport, with lots of time to think and all actions being initiated by the player themselves, the mental game in disc golf is among the toughest to manage. Mental blocks will come and go. You may find that you have a great mental state one tournament and exactly the opposite the next. I have found that my mental state is subject to a lot of variability depending on the state of my personal life, as well as situations I have recently experienced both in and outside of the sport. This is one of the parts of disc golf that is so much fun: its constant challenge and dynamic nature.

Ideally, we could develop strategies that envelope the full spectrum of mental states we could be in. But this is simply not possible when we consider how variable life can be. We can’t always predict the challenges that life will throw at us and how those challenges will affect our game.

For this reason, I live by the philosophy that we can never truly “master” the mental game, but rather, we are constantly working to find the right mental atmosphere given our current circumstances. Therefore, each person’s equation for success will be slightly different, and only you can make certain decisions and observations regarding your mental state. While this is certainly a very personal journey, thankfully, there are a few basics that do transcend individual differences.

What follows are six related points regarding the mental game. Each one builds on the last; as you read through them, think about how they could work for you out on the course.

1. Be Present

  • Play the shot in front of you—ignore the past and future.
  • Ben Hogan, a famous and very successful golfer said, “The most important shot in golf is the next one.”
  • There is no utility in dwelling on a poor previous shot. There is nothing you can do about it now. Other than making a mental note of why you may have made the mistake, along with a plan to avoid that mistake in the future. Beating yourself up for a mistake will only erode your confidence and increase the likelihood that you will perform poorly in the future.
  • Refrain from getting caught up in the scores for the round. Counting how many strokes apart you and your card mates are or focusing on what score you expect to shoot could have detrimental effects. This puts your focus on the future and overall outcome, creating expectations that can often be out of your control and shifting your focus away from the task at hand: the next shot.
  • There will be plenty of time to think about the tournament and its outcomes when it’s over.

2. Develop Process Goals (Not Outcome Goals)

  • Process goals are those which relate to specific parts of your game that you focus on while executing a shot. These goals shift the mind towards ideas that you can control, and therefore, actions which you are more likely to be able to execute 100-percent of the time.
  • Conversely, an outcome goal is related to winning and losing, and the specific results of a competition. Outcome goals focus on things that you have very little, or no control over. You cannot change what a competitor will do. The only thing you can control is your process, so keep your goals oriented toward the controllable, process-oriented goals.
  • What are some examples of process goals you could set for yourself?

3. Exist in a Mastery Mindset

  • A mastery mindset is oriented toward improving one’s skills and becoming the best one can be at golf: measuring oneself relative to our own potential, not that of other people. Improvement is gradual and public recognition is not sought, as personal satisfaction at achieving improvement within one’s own standard is reward enough. This is contrasted with the ego mindset, which is oriented toward performing for others while seeking peer approval and recognition in comparison to how others perform.
  • Do your best to learn from errors and do not fill your mind with what anyone else thinks of you or your game—keep your ego out of it.
  • Be effective, not affected. Do what you do and don’t let others impact your game plan.
  • Stick to your routine, paying close attention when things don’t go as planned. Rather than get frustrated, occupy your mind with trying to understand why you made a particular mistake. Shifting your mind to a mastery focus will help you evaluate what went wrong and what you need to do differently the next time.
  • When you do not concern yourself with other people’s opinions you are less likely to connect your self-confidence, self-worth, and ego to your performance. Instead, you will recover quickly from poor shots because you view the mistake as a stepping stone to improvement rather than a blow to your ego, which can negatively impact your confidence on subsequent shots.

4. Stay Positive

  • Either exist with no emotions at all on the course or only allow positive ones, keeping your net emotional state above zero.
  • Anger and frustration increase heart rate, blood pressure, adrenaline and muscle tension, and can take several hours to physically recover from. That only makes the remainder of your round more difficult, where continued failure can easily snowball leading to unwanted consequences.
  • Maintain a positive attitude, focused on believing in yourself, above all. Know that you can do this, that you have done this, and you will do this. Playing in despair will lead to poor performance. Negative attitudes yield negative outcomes.
  • Refrain from using mantras in your pre-shot routine that include negative wording, as your brain will hear all but the “don’t,” pushing you towards doing exactly what you were trying not to do

5. Embrace Nervousness

  • Know that you can hit shots and perform well when you are nervous.
  • Use a variety of strategies to decrease the physical effects of nervousness. Use deep and correct breathing to diminish tension and fight/flight response, which can cause surges in adrenaline. Smile to release endorphins (natural pain relievers) and serotonin (associated with feel-good properties).
  • Take notes in your caddy book about how you will attack a course, so there is one less thing to contemplate during the round.
  • What are some ways your nervousness manifests itself? Anxiety manifests differently in everyone: through trial and error figure out what strategies help you clear your mind.

6. Visualize

  • Meditate the morning of your big event. See yourself throwing each drive perfectly, approaching the pins with accuracy, making all of your putts and enjoying yourself throughout. Feel the emotions intensely and see the colors as bright as possible. Visualization has proven to be an effective method for athletes and can enhance an athlete’s skill in a similar way as physical practice, increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of training.
  • Give yourself a preview of potential distractions (cameras, unfriendly card mates, galleries) and envision how you will react to them to ease the surprise of unpredictable situations.
  • When negative thoughts or images enter your mind during a round, visualize locking them away in a file cabinet or locker. Then, visualize a positive version of that thought or image several times to reframe it permanently into a positive outcome.

There are many great books that discuss the mental side of sports. Unsurprisingly, golf psychology is particularly applicable and many of my ideas came from the teaching of both Bob Rotella & Dr. Gio Valiante, in combination with trial and error in my own experiences.1 Find out which strategies work for you and get used to repeating them when it’s tournament time.

  1. Another great read is “Fight Your Fear and Win” by Don Greene. 

  1. Sarah Hokom
    Sarah Hokom

    Sarah Hokom is a professional disc golfer from Caldwell, Idaho. She is the 2012 PDGA Professional World Champion and two-time U.S. Women's Disc Golf Champion. Visit her website for additional tips, to view her 2018 touring schedule, and to contact her about appearances for clinics and individual lessons. Follow her on Instagram to see her updates from the road all season.



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