I have a problem letting go of bad golf shots and often carry thoughts about them to the next hole and beyond. I know this isn’t useful. How can I stop thinking about the bad shots and move on with my game?
My guess is that every golfer, at one time or another, has been told to “just forget about the bad shots and move on.” I also believe most golfers have never been taught exactly how we are supposed to do that.
The good news is, there is a method for releasing unwanted thoughts. The method was formulated from a study on “thought suppression” conducted at Harvard in the 1970’s by sociologist Daniel Wegner. Professor Wegner designed the study based on a quote by famed 19th Century novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky.
In 1863, Dostoevsky wrote, “Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.”
The “white bear” study concluded that the more we try to resist our thoughts, the more our thoughts persist. Not only do they persist, they even strengthen in response to our resistance to them. It doesn’t matter the subject matter; polar bears, golf shots or anything else, the more we resist thinking about something, the more we will think about it.
Based on Wegner’s findings, instead of trying to resist thoughts about the bad shot, you should intentionally create new thoughts. Focus on those new thoughts and allow them to take the place of the unwanted thoughts. Wegner calls the new thoughts, “absorbing distractors.” I call them replacement thoughts.
For example, instead of berating yourself with, “I can’t believe I put that ball in the water,” try mentally moving to, “Even the pros put crucial shots in the water,” or think of the situation as a teachable moment, “I need to remember to take my time and not force my shots,” or simply and calmly think, “That’s curious,” and immediately start preparing for the next shot or next hole. Replacement thoughts, which serve you, can override the unwanted thoughts, which hamper you.
I’ve given you some examples you can use, but the best replacement thoughts will be the ones you create for yourself and are believable to you.
Another related brain trait is that our brain tends to remember negative happenings more than positive ones. The brain also remembers happenings more when they are “celebrated,” both physically and emotionally. I suggest you react calmly and quietly to bad shots, and more exuberantly to the good ones. Do a little dance or “high five,” yourself when you make that birdie, or any shot that especially pleases you. This will help you play from the energy that comes from confidence rather than from negativity.
After your brief celebration, remember to re-focus your thoughts on your next shot before you hit. A pre-shot routine helps to bring the mind back to business.
In the same way it takes practice to fluently swing a golf club or stroke a putter, it takes practice to effectively manage your thoughts. When you become proficient at creating replacement thoughts, you will find they are useful in many situations, both on and off the course. Instead of staying in a negative thought loop, you can move on with replacement thoughts that better serve you.