Golf and Mental Athletics – A Perfect Pair

Penny Pulz

When I took the position of Director of Golf Instruction at Luke AFB in Arizona, the General looked me in the eye and said, “You will create the best junior golf program in the country.” I said, “Yes sir.” That exchange started my love affair with teaching junior golf.

My brain is fast twitch. It can get so racy-spacey that I don’t know if my feet or mouth runs faster. I have won and lost at the highest level in professional golf. My success was always dependent on my ability to find a happy, comfy focus place in my head. That ability has been a valuable lesson for my students.

I have taught golf to a rainbow of different kids, mentally and physically. While some kids’ brains just go slower or faster than others, all of my students leave me with a better grasp of how to manage their focus.

Following is my “7-Step Golf and Focus Plan for Fun, Friendship and Being a Golfer.” The Lessons from each step are tips that parents can use to help your children learn to manage their focus in all aspects of their lives. 

1.  Opening and Closing of golf lesson — building camaraderie. 

Shake hands, look each other in the eye and say, ‘have a lovely day of golf.’ This can take a while to get the hang of, but they learn to say and mean what they say. Soon they own this and use it with gusto.

Lesson:  Teach children to be in present in the moment. Let them get in touch positively with their emotions and physical senses. It helps them establish meaningful friendships

2.  Loads of physical space for visual and imaginative thinking.

A golf course is all space: wide fairways, big greens and long fairways. I had one of my “active” kids roll down a hill – twice — while I was teaching a pitching session. When he returned, his focus was ready to play golf. He succeeded pitching golf balls to the green.

Lesson:  Accept all thinking styles. Allow for differences in approach that meet the needs of the individual child.

3.  Awareness of space.

Training awareness of space during the day acts as a chill pill for the brain, allowing brainwaves to slow down naturally and effortlessly. The “putting game” teaches kids how to sense the space between them and the hole. Within 15 minutes, kids are holing putts for varying distances. They are highly mentally engaged in an effortless way. Sweet.

Lesson: Engage children to focus their awareness of space between objects. Remember sensing space slows the brain down instantly, so it is a fast way to quit escalation of emotions.

4.  Simple language, high visual.

I use SNAG® (start new at golf) language for all my beginner golfers.  We repeat short cue words out loud, like: Ready position. Make an A. Swing to an L. Swing to a K. You can imagine the fun we have with this.

The added win here is that the kids with different communication styles help each other at each learning curve. We have high intensity coaching during this learning time. Peer to peer training. Wow!

Lesson: Use spoken and visual cues to help the learning stick. 

5.  Making mistakes is normal. 

I played in over 600 professional golf tournaments. I won two, and one year I ranked Top 10 in the World. I lost more than I won. Mistakes are normal.

Golf is the perfect sport for training this mindset. We laugh or get frustrated when we hit crazy shots. It’s all-good. We are on a mission to learn how to win, over and over again; not to be a perfect one-shot-wonder golfer.

Lesson:  Put mistakes into perspective. Learning is messy. There are no straight magic answers. Understanding this keeps meltdowns minimal

6.  Atta Girls and Boys. 

I train groupie golfers. When I see one of my kids figure out a shot, or have a great focus effort, I immediately stop all golfers and we have an applause moment together. It is a super mental time-out, allowing kids to keep the frustration of perfectionism at bay. Plus, they stay mentally focused on their game because they want to be the next one praised! This results in faster positive results. 

Lesson:  Build team camaraderie at home, in sports and in life. Celebrate each success along the way, not just the end results. 

7.  H.O.D. (hit on demand) 

In the final five minutes of class, I gather parents close to my teaching area as enthusiastic spectators (with applause, please)!! 

I huddle the kids, leaning in. Each child is going to show off what s/he learned. It could be perfect posture, strong arms, make that “K”, or “I am a smooth, groove swing.” I introduce each one, s/he announces boldly what s/he will demonstrate, then executes the new golf swing of the day. The spectators cheer!  They learn and execute to the best they can do. It’s a sweet blessing for the parents and coaches to see.

It is not WHAT you focus on, but HOW you focus, that determines winning over and over again.

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