By Dr. Gio Valiante
As any good psychologist — or anyone interested in human behavior and performance for that matter – knows, the foundation of human behavior lies in and understanding of habit. Excellent athletes, including excellent golfers, become great by developing their skills to such a refined level that they don’t have to think about those skills. In other words, for every great golfer I know, excellence becomes habitual. Perhaps that is what the philosopher Aristotle meant when he said that “we are what we do every day; excellence is not an act but a habit.”
Aristotle’s quote brings me to a very good, and very important point when we talk about being mentally tough. That point is that having a great “mental game” is something that you need to work on every day. You cannot be slothful, lazy, or mentally weak during other aspects of your life and expect to simply turn “on” your mental toughness when you need it. Like Aristotle suggested, mental excellence is not a one time thing. It is an all the time thing. Mental excellence is a habit.
For our purposes at TourCouncil.com, let’s define habit as Webster’s Dictionary defines habit, as “the prevailing disposition or character of a person’s thoughts and feelings; an acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly, or completely, involuntary.” The reason those definitions are important is because they highlight two key aspects of habits: habits are behavioral, and habits are also psychological. Not only to we behave in habitual ways. We also think and feel in habitual ways (which is why we tend to like a certain “type” of person). Secondly, habits tend to be involuntary. There is a great saying that goes, “we begin by controlling our habits. Eventually our habits control us.”
Habit permeates the game of golf, and anyone who wants to become a great competitive golfer has got to learn to take this principle of human behavior very seriously. The most obvious and important area where habit exists is in the idea of practice. A question that I am often asked is “how should I practice?” And of course, guided by the principles of human behavior, I answer, “that depends on what your goal is.” Sometimes our goal is to make a certain swing mechanic come easier. Sometimes we practice our backswing. Sometimes we practice our release. Sometimes we practice our posture. Invariably, however, practice – which can be thought of as the time where we ingrain our habits – can be broken down into two types. Practice to develop skills. And practice to compete. Practicing to develop skills requires paying meticulous attention to detail about everything from posture, to ball position, to positions. Practicing to compete requires a different mindset, and typically has to do with practicing your routine, which we will discuss in another section.
Regarding practice, the late, great Ben Hogan (9 Majors, 64 PGA Tour victories) observed
When I am practicing I am also trying to develop my powers of concentration. I never just walk up and hit the ball. I am practicing and adopting habits of concentration, which pay off when I play. Adopt a habit of concentration to the exclusion of everything else around you on the practice tee and you will find that you are automatically following the same routine while playing a round in competition. Play each shot as if it were part of an actual round.
Jack Nicklaus was also meticulous with his practice
All my life I’ve tried to hit practice shots with great care. I try to have a clear cut purpose in mind on every swing. I always practice as I intend to play. And I learned long ago that there is a limit to the number of shots you can hit effectively before losing your concentration on your basic objectives. I have to believe that some of the guys who virtually live on the practice tee are there because they don’t have anything better to do with their time. And I have to believe they often weaken their games by letting their practice become pointless through sheer monotony or fatigue.
The primary way that habits develop is through repetition. The brain and body are designed to insure that the more you do something, the easier it becomes to do that thing again. It is for this reason that, on Tour, we are always saying “practice does not make perfect. Practice makes permanent.” Hence, the importance of practicing with care. It is also for that reason that, as a golfer, you realize it is better to hit 50 balls with care, than 150 carelessly. Think of it, the laws of habit require that repetition will increase the probability of a behavior. If you hit 50 balls with one swing, 50 balls with a different swing, and 50 balls with yet another swing . . . well then you have an equal chance of hitting any one of those three swings in competition. Further, even if day after day you are repeating the same swing, but doing so in different rhythms, tempos, moods, and mental states … then you are ingraining different habits of association.
The ultimate lesson is that golf is a game of consistency and repeatability. Practice well … in the manner of Nickalaus and Hogan … and your habits will be there reliably when you need them in competition.