Dr. David Wright teaches in parables. He quotes Tolstoy. He writes books with titles like Mind Under Par. He’s a seasoned golf guru, and over three decades of golf instruction he’s distilled his teaching technique into a method that converts the biomechanically complex, the mentally mystifying, and the psychophysiologically stunning into pithy, digestible expressions. He’s got golf proverbs.

“You cannot play and think at the same time”, Dr. Wright says. And: “Get back into the moment, because that’s where your greatest performance resides.”

It’s simple, and it works. Dr. Wright’s spent the better part of his life studying golf psychology, laboring away in the biomechanics labs, tweaking swings on the range to learn a bit about both the mind and body of golfers. From what he’s learned, he believes in allowing your body to use its natural proclivities (your “swing signature”) while doing a few mental push ups on the side (like backwards visualization). We asked him what general golf advice would help people shoot lower, without computerized swing analysis and practice with those weird weighted sticks. We wanted something that focuses on the part of the game played between the temples. He jumped right in.

Do What Feels Natural

do-what-feels-natural“In one of my graduate courses on sensation perception, we had to sign our name. My professor said, ‘I want everybody to sign their name, and then, under the signature, I want you to copy the same signature. Don’t sign it. Copy it. Look back and forth. Make sure every horizontal and vertical line and every elliptical symbol looks exactly like it does in your name.’ By the time you get to the third letter”, Dr. Wright says, “you realize you got a major degradation in performance.”

In golf, it’s the same concept. “You can’t think and do what should be automatic”, Dr. Wright says. “What I would encourage is that players do what’s natural.” He says people spend too much time trying to copy the idea of the perfect swing. “What happens over time is that they try to make a swing — copy a signature. They don’t have anything that’s automatic. The game gets very frustrating.”

“If you go to a PGA teacher’s meeting, you can actually hear yelling and screaming arguments about, ‘No, that’s not how you swing a golf club.’ Well, there’s so many different ways to swing a club”, Dr. Wright counters. “Players should work to go more to what feels natural.”

Use Your Mind’s Eye

use-minds-eye“When we get in your car to go someplace, the first picture you have in your mind is your destination. It’s not: ‘How do I get out of the driveway? Which way do I go?’ Because you’d never get there. But, that’s the way we play golf. You tee it up on the first tee, hit your tee shot, then say: ‘Okay, where am I? Where do I go now?’”

And there, from a ramshackle, unprepared start, your problems begin. Dr. Wright’s advice: “Players should be standing on the tee box.” Stop. Stand on the tee box. “Then visualize backwards just the way you would to reach a destination. Visualize backwards to the fairway, and then visualize from the fairway
back to the tee box. Play the hole visually. Then you’re able to go.”

Our Expert

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David F. Wright, Ph.D., PGA holds two doctorates. His areas of specialization are in Research, the Psychology of Learning and Psychophysiology. He was a member of the full-time faculty of the University of Southern California School of Medicine for four years and has been a member of the clinical faculty of the School of Medicine for over 25 years. He’s also been a golf teaching professional since 1982, and was a Coach for USC’s Men’s and Women’s Golf Teams from 1999 through 2008. He is the author of four books on golf and numerous articles. He has received many accolades for excellence as a golf instructor, such as being named a Golf Magazine Top 100 Instructor, a Golf Digest Top Teacher, and a PGA Teacher of the Year for Southern California (twice).

The idea is that “the better your visual plan, the better you’re going to play.” Dr. Wright notes that “your average player does not use their visual brain when they play.” But, great players (who are, unsurprisingly, also great visualizers) will create a plan and will visualize exactly how they’re going to play the hole, target by target. As for the targets, they’re “extremely precise — they are not trees. They are views within trees. The targets are shingles on a house, a corner of chimney, a pane of a window.” Hone in on your target, then let your body proceed naturally, doing what it knows.

“When a tennis player tosses the ball, they’re not just trying to hit the ball; they have a picture in their mind’s eye where they want that ball to land in the service court. Hockey players know exactly in that net where they want that puck to go. I have heard so many times people say, well, golf is the only sport where that’s not true. No, it really isn’t. If we shut off our visual brain, we wouldn’t do anything. We’d sit down, and we would rest. The visual brain is so important, and this concept of working backwards is what we do.”

Take It to the Threshold

take-it-to-the-threshold“Johnny Miller said he would — on Sunday of a big tournament — he would take 20 minutes just to shave. John Jacobs said he would take five to 10 minutes just to put his shoes on. Byron Nelson said he would drive five to 10 miles per hour more slowly to a tournament on tournament day.” Miller won won 25 PGA Tour events, Jacobs is in the World Golf Hall of Fame, Nelson won 52 PGA events. They may be on to something.

Slowing down removes anxiety (from the future) and regret (from the past). It focuses you on the task at hand. Dr. Wright says, “People who mentally reside thinking in the future are anxious, nervous, excited, feel overwhelmed, apprehensive, fearful, anxious. People who reside in the past are angry, frustrated, remorseful, guilty, depressed, sad. But people who reside in the present experience life to the fullest and have the greatest joy and the best performance. Your great athletes understand that well. That’s what they work toward no matter what the arena of sport it is — being in the moment, working hard to get present for something.”

If we shut off our visual brain, we wouldn’t do anything. We’d sit down, and we would rest. The visual brain is so important, and this concept of working backwards is what we do.

Turn Down the Negativity

turn-down-negativity“Players get focused on the problem ahead of them — the hazard, the water, the bunker, whatever, and they lose track of the moment, and then you get a picture of what they don’t want to do rather than what they want to do. The brain does not discriminate between do and don’t, by the way. Tolstoy said it well. He said as soon as you tell yourself don’t think of that big, white polar bear, all that comes to mind is that big, white polar bear.”

Don’t see the white polar bear. See success. See your best golf shot. “Fred Couples said he never hit the shot in practice or play without thinking of that same shot he’d hit well before.” Turn performance anxiety into an anticipation of success, and the results will follow nicely.

Talk to Yourself

talk-to-yourself“We’re taught not to say, “Hey, did you see that? Look how good I am!” No, we’re indoctrinated into looking at problems.” The result, Dr. Wright says, is that “unless you play golf with your mother, you don’t get compliments that often. So you have to learn to be your own great internal caddy.”

“Greg Norman said everybody likes to hear words of encouragement. People that are faced with a difficult situation want to hear compliments when they pull it off. So think you are caddying for your best friend. How would you talk to them if you wanted them to play their best? Are you going to tell them they are awful? Say, ‘Hey, why don’t you give this up?’ You need to caddy for yourself as though you were caddying for your best friend.”

Of course, even with following your swing signature, visualizing your path, slowing down, curbing the negativity and offering encouraging words, you get off track. Everyone does. Don’t despair. Approach the next tee box, stop, stand there for a second, and focus on the shot. Develop a mental routine. And then, commit yourself to the next shot. “You have to be committed on each shot”, Dr. Wright says. “You lose commitment, you’re done.”