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When I say the word "meditation," what comes to mind?
Most people that I talk to envision a monk in a robe, sitting cross-legged in a temple.
Although this scenario is real in some geographical locations, meditation has evolved from its original religious doctrines. In western culture, we are seeing more and more people open up to the idea of meditation, often referred to as "mindfulness meditation," or "vipassana meditation."
Companies such as Headspace have grown tremendously in the past few years, as more and more Americans realize the benefits of a daily mindfulness practice.
"But I'm just a golfer..."
And that is what this post will be addressing. I would like to give an account of my own experience with golf and meditation, describe some benefits that I have encountered, and provide you with a brief guide on how to get started.
To understand the relationship between the two, we must first become clear what "meditation" really is. To simplify things, I will be referring to meditation as "mindfulness." It seems to make a bit more sense to those who are not familiar with the idea.
Anyways, mindfulness is simply a practice that allows you to get more acquainted with your mind, and learn how to deal with thoughts and emotions in everyday life.
In essence, it is the art of "becoming aware" in the given moment.
You learn to separate from your thoughts, which allows for increased happiness, peace, and focus. Instead of being a victim of your thoughts and emotions, you become more aware and at peace with them.
It just so happens that golf is largely a mental sport. You spend 30 minutes per 18 holes actually hitting golf shots, and the other 3.5 hours either talking, or spending time in your own head.
For many, this time spent in the head is destructive. The golfer thinks about everything that can possibly go wrong, and ends up sabotaging their score as a result. This is what I call the "Fear of Playing Good (FOPG)."
The cure to destructive thought is playing golf moment by moment. I'm sure you have heard this millions of times, but have you ever applied it?
You say that you can live in the moment, but what if I asked you to sit in silence for 2 minutes? Could you be at peace, noticing the sounds, smells, and sensations in each and every moment? Or would you begin to think about the past and future; all the problems and obligations in your life?
Mindfulness allows you learn how to live "in the moment." Just like you must learn to swing a golf club through hours and hours of practice, you must learn to live in the moment through hours and hours of practice.
The problem is, most golfers do not understand how to practice this. They go searching for advice on "how to think," but never really train their minds to be silent.
Ironically, Tiger Woods grew up with a Buddhist mother who taught him meditation at a young age. Although the video below is from Tiger's dark period of controversy, if you listen at the 2:03 mark, he says:
I had gotten away from my core values. I quit meditating and doing all the things my Mom and Dad taught me.
His meditation practice may have contributed to the intense focus he has displayed on the golf course over the years:
Hopefully, by now, you are seeing the connection between golf and mindfulness.
You might say: "But I'm no Tiger Woods, and I don't plan to be Tiger Woods. How does this all apply to me?"
No matter your skill level, being "mindful" in the present moment can have a dramatic effect on your golf game. Listen to this high handicapper speak of how he takes his meditation practice to the golf course:
You may be convinced that golf and mindfulness are related, but what transformation happens with a consistent mindfulness practice?
I cannot speak from a scientific standpoint, but I can take into account my own personal experiences.
I began my practice about two years ago. My golf game was not bad, but I was fighting my thoughts on and off the golf course. I needed a solution.
So I decided sign up for a free trial at Headspace, which required me to meditate each day for 10 minutes. Initially, it seemed easy to set aside 10 minutes a day, but turned out to a much more difficult task than I had expected. For too long, I was trying to fit those 10 minutes in at random times throughout the day, and thus lacked any consistency.
It took me several months before I realized that the only way I was going to be able to consistently meditate and get results was by waking up earlier and doing it.
This triggered the second obstacle. Even though waking up 10-15 minutes earlier than usual wasn't all that intimidating, I managed to hit the snooze button most days. I then became angry at myself, which goes completely against what mindfulness is all about!
It took another month or two before I consistently began to wake up early and practice mindfulness (15 minutes each day). I was quite proud of my accomplishment, but soon began to wonder if it was all worth it?
It has been a year and a half since that moment (edit: now it has been over 10 years at the time of editing!), and I have woken up nearly every single day to practice mindfulness. Here are some of the things that I have noticed on and off the golf course:
Before starting the practice, golf would get on my nerves to the point where it was conflicting with my everyday life.
All I would do was think about golf, and couldn't separate my own identity from it. If I had a tournament, it was even worse! I remember sitting at a nice dinner one night, having a minor panic attack about a golf tournament the next day.
It was a miserable experience. Now, golf rarely gets on my nerves. I can enjoy my dinners, and enjoy the process of becoming a better golfer.
Before my daily mindfulness practice, my golf rounds were roller-coasters. They would consist of 6 birdies, a double bogey, a triple bogey, and several bogeys. Pars did not happen often. This was a result of me getting nervous every time I made a birdie, and following it up with something worse. Now, I do not get caught up in thought, and play "boring golf." I don't always "have it," but when I do, I don't stand in my own way anymore, and no longer fear good scores.
After practicing mindfulness for quite some time, I began to realize that a "slump" is ultimately a fiction of the mind. The reason we get into slumps is because we continually tell ourselves that we are in them. Mindfulness allows us to escape these stories we tell ourselves over and over.
I used to drive myself insane during practice. If I wasn't hitting it good, I would keep raking balls in front of me, and hitting until my hands were about to fall off. Now, when the swing isn't working, I take a mindful breath, and analyze what is really going on. I may even take a 15 minute break to let everything cool down. Oftentimes, at the end of this break, I have come up with the answer without even trying!
Every time someone who tell me that I was having a good round in the past, I would begin to think about it. It would get to my head, and all of a sudden, I wasn't having a good round any longer. Or even when someone would say: "knock it in," I would start thinking about if they really meant it, and become distracted from the shot I was trying to hit. Now, I can completely ignore what my playing partners say. Sure, I listen to them, but don't get worried by what they say.
These are just some of the many improvements that mindfulness has had on my golf game. Obviously, I have no proof that they are directly linked to my mindfulness practice, but that is beside the point.
Starting a mindfulness practice is not easy. As described above, it took me several months of constant effort before it became habit.
If you would like to improve your golf game (and life for that matter) through mindfulness, I suggest that you check out the Headspace app. This is a wonderful tool that will get you started, and will allow you to remain disciplined with your practice. Even after two full years, I still use this, and it does not take away from the effectiveness of the exercise in any way.