In three decades as a leading sports psychologist, Martin Perry has encountered almost every variety of player, from pro to amateur, and ultra-confident to safety-first.
After working with clients including Colin Montgomerie, Martin believes what sets the winners apart from the also-rans is pre- and post-shot routine. As he reveals, having a set process based on consistency can transform anyone’s game… yours included.
RSNG Outside of talent, what is it that really makes a successful golfer?
MARTIN PERRY, SPORT PSYCHOLOGIST “I think the most important element is consistency. That means that you know your game well enough to be able to repeat what you do, day after day, on the professional tour. And I think one of the main things that will improve consistency is the quality of your routines.
“A lot of amateurs don’t really have consistent routines. When something goes wrong or spirals out of control, and they start going ‘bogey, bogey, double bogey,’ that’s when you start getting emotional and the thoughts of “why does this always happen to me,” because you can’t explain what’s going on.
“You seem to be playing well and then suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, the round just completely falls apart and it can’t be put back together again. The harder you try, the worse it gets. There’s no stable fallback position to stop that happening.
“A top professional won’t allow that to happen – they will have a stable fallback position as part of their processes, specifically there to be able to solve problems.
“Think about it, one of the number one tasks as a golfer is to solve problems and that’s what they will do within golf on any given day. If you can’t solve problems, then the red mist takes over, and you’re gone.”
RSNG But the actual solving of the problem takes skill a golfer might not have?
MP “But there is no problem in golf that cannot be solved. Finishing the round means you have solved the problem.
“The speed at which you solve the problem is the issue, because on a golf course, the longer you take, the more shots it’s going to cost you. So invariably, if you have a consistent pre-shot routine, and a consistent post-shot routine, you are going to have stability to gain.
“I find that giving amateur players, especially, a good post-shot routine helps them think much smarter about the game to solve problems faster, to understand what’s going on and get less emotional when things go wrong.
“Let’s be frank, the golf ball doesn’t go where it does by accident – it’s a consequence of your mental, emotional and technical process.
“So, my work with a golfer is to help them understand their own game, to have much better, stable, repeatable, robust processes in place that they can solve problems with. Those are the fundamentals to create consistency.
“Any amateur golfer can have stable, repeatable, consistent routines so that they know what they’re doing, why they’re doing it and they can repeat what they’re doing on a regular basis. Even just putting that post-shot routine in place will make a huge difference.
“Ask yourself now: what are your pre-shot and post-shot routines?”
In your post-shot routine you would also assess how you have committed to the shot, and how well
RSNG What’s an example of a typical post-shot routine?
MP “A typical post-shot routine will be an analysis of how good (or otherwise) the pre-shot routine was. Therefore, if your pre-shot routine is based on keeping your head still and your head down and that secures stability in your swing, is it logical to say that any shot which deviates from the path of your projection is caused by the fact that you have lifted your head?
“So, your development areas are to become very self-aware of head movement, to the point that you know any head movement is going to create a certain kind of shot. That gives at least a certain kind of security about your game, which means you don’t need to have the same degree of fear and anxiety if that’s the route of any deviation from your projected line. If there are other issues, then that’s different.
“But your pre- and post-shot routine is very simple and if it guarantees that you’re going to hit the ball straight and that will solve any problems, then you’ve got a very repeatable routine.”
RSNG What about player fears based on the unpredictable, such as the club slipping from the grip and the club face opening up at impact, causing a slice?
MP “In this instance, ask yourself how many practice swings would you have before you take your shot – is it enough?
“You want security in terms of your relationship with the club and club movement – because that’s the whole point of the practice swing – so when you’re over the ball you don’t need to think about that anymore because you’ve established a feeling of hand-club, swing security.
“If your practice swing is an issue or something to resolve that issue, you will become extremely focused on that and maybe increase the number of practice swings from two or three to, say, five, if it establishes that feeling of security. That means when you’re over the ball, you’re completely still, because everything is in place. You need to become very conscious, very deliberate and very specific about what you’re searching for.
“Then, every shot you play is about really programming that feeling in until it becomes automatic, and you almost can’t play that shot until you’ve got that feeling, because you leave yourself open to anxiety, uncertainty or a non-committed shot.”
RSNG So you build confidence and a picture, and this is all from pre- and post-shot routine?
MP “Correct. So in your post-shot routine you would also assess how you have committed to the shot and how well. You recognise patterns faster, and every shot you hit you trace back to what you’ve done to engineer the ball to that part of the golf course. Then, you start to recognise - if it’s gone to the left, it’s because of this. Solve the problem, don’t just move on to the next hole unclear of why something went catastrophically wrong.
“So, on your next practice swing you incorporate the elements that have gone awry in the previous shot. The point is, all of the time you are fine-tuning your game based on the last shot. That’s the whole purpose of the pre-shot and post-shot routine and you become super-smart about what’s happening on the golf course.
“A lot of amateur players don’t do that and there’s a big hole in their process where they don’t actually, accurately assess why the ball has gone where it’s gone. They would more so treat it like it’s not their day or golf just does their head in. The reality is they’re just not adept at solving problems… yet.”
When you’re very relaxed and your mind is very relaxed, your eyes are kind of soft and you’re seeing things really clearly
RSNG How does pressure manifest itself into obstructing this process?
MP “If you’re desperate for a win or need a win or feel that you should win, or that people are telling you that you should win, then you’ve got to look at how that pressure manifests itself. Usually, that is on the green.
“When the pressure builds you sometimes lose clarity in reading putts – you look at putts, but you’re not really reading them. When you’re very relaxed and your mind is very relaxed, your eyes are kind of soft and you’re seeing things really clearly. The line of the putt lights up like Blackpool Illuminations. That then allows you to just roll the ball down that line you are seeing. It’s magic.
“Compare that to when the pressure builds – your mind becomes a little bit too busy in trying to deal with the pressure and you might be looking at the putt, but not really seeing it. That might lead to a misread or your hand becoming a little bit tense, and you don’t fully commit to the shot. You may leave it short, or you’re frightened of it going past the hole.
“So, you’ve got to have a really repeatable and robust putting routine that you can trust under pressure. In this instance, I think that a lot of it comes down to how you are when you approach the green, when you’re on the green and how well you are seeing things.
“A lot of amateurs fall into that category, as well. They fail to really see putts with soft eyes and a clear head. That can mean that they leave the putt short or they three-putt, even though they are frightened of three-putting, and their process doesn’t become repeatable because it can’t absorb the pressure, or they don't allow it to absorb the pressure.”
RSNG This really reminds me of a certain situation when Jesper Parnevik was pondering a math question that he said was responsible for him missing a short putt at the 1999 Open at Carnoustie? (He said it was: ‘If you put a rope around the 25,000-mile circumference of the Earth and then placed another rope three feet higher, how much longer would the second rope be?’)
MP “I think things like that, where he wasn’t fully concentrating on the putting when in contention a few times, happened to Parnevik more than once and, as a result, he wasn’t able to get over the line.
“When Shane Lowry won the same competition at Royal Portrush 20 years later, I was always caught by how good his caddy Bo Martin was. He was such a smart and wise caddy who knew the game, and you could see what was happening where Shane was getting ahead of himself, maybe because he felt that he was in with a chance of winning his first Claret Jug.
“His caddy was so specific with his directions, advice and guidance for each shot. It helped Shane so much and was almost instrumental to his win. So, he would be saying things like: ‘there’s a person over there in a red coat - that’s where you should be aiming your shot,’ for example.
“Bo Martin gave him so much simple information and easy guidance, to the extent he was able to completely clear his mind of the nonsense – and by nonsense, I mean the non-critical information relating to his next golf shot. Ultimately, that next shot is the only thing that you should be thinking about – winning the Claret Jug is another different thing entirely. That doesn’t help you play the next shot.”
Most players only need a small amount of information, and an information overload can be as bad as too little or no information
RSNG But amateur players don’t have that luxury, right?
MP “Correct – you’ve got to work that out yourself. You’ve got to have a clear head and dissect the emotions of potentially winning a tournament, or a round, or even just a hole.
“In reality, most players only need a small amount of information; and an information overload can be as bad as too little or no information, because it stops someone thinking straight and they begin to become fearful of what not to do. ‘I’ve got to avoid the danger to the left, the danger to the right, the danger further up ahead,’ rather than just hitting ball to target.”
WHAT NEXT? Want more sports psychology advice? Check out these tactics for clearing your mind after a bad shot and moving on to a better performance…
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