One of the most frequent questions I am asked by golfers of all abilities, coaches and parents is how to enter the zone or flow state in golf. The profession of sports psychology has different opinions about the ability to enter this highest level of performance. Some believe it is random and more serendipity-like while others believe it can be experienced by effective decision making of selective attentional shifting. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian Psychologist, noted in his study on Happiness:
“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times…The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” (1990, p. 3).
I believe that an athlete can proactively set the stage for entering “Flow” states by utilizing the model Csikszentmihalyi designed.
Every moment in practice and competition a golfer has the opportunity to choose where to place their attention. I will provide a more in-depth discussion in the future about how this system is employed so, for now, we will make it simple.
The golfer should identify a challenge they want to stretch themselves towards. It is not simply the number of fairway hits, coming through the ball, etc. It is the mental process that demands attention. Some great examples are remaining focused, relaxed and present prior to making contact with the ball. If the player has some basic skills in each of these areas than the challenge is to do it more effectively.
Using a scale of 1-10 for Focused Effort (FE) the player identifies the specific mental skill and assigns a challenge level to it for their FE target. Attaining the target score of FE as frequently as possible for the entire round would be the challenge. The targeted skill is to employ it with the target FE each time they hit a shot. For example, being focused, relaxed and present with an FE of 8. Initially, this may appear easy, but I can assure you, it will take lots of practice to do so.
Here is the model Csikszentmihalyi developed:
low skills and low challenge produce APATHY;
high skills and low challenge produce BOREDOM;
low skills and high challenge produce ANXIETY; and
high skills and high challenge produce FLOW.
Setting up a Challenge-Skills Balance for each competition helps in reaching flow states. Refer to Process Goals from my previous article to familiarize yourself with them.
I highly recommend this exercise: identify a process goal for the skills and FE on a scale of 1-10 for the Challenge. Be sure to construct the Challenge-Skills Balance before each of your competitions as well as for your practice sessions.
Flow State in Golf
Channing Hensley’s Pre-tournament and Practice Notes
I asked one of my very talented high school juniors, Channing Hensley, who has committed to UNC Wilmington, how she prepares for her competitions and practice sessions and she kindly provided the following notes.
1Tournament Play Preparation
- When possible, always play a practice round to familiarize myself with the course layout and greens.
- If not possible, do course research and map out via web and diagram into yardage book.
- Go through each hole and visualize strategy based on hole layout, yardage and map strategy into the yardage book. Develop my game plan.
- Do a hole-by-hole visualization and see myself playing the hole.
- When playing the practice round, drop balls from various locations around each green to practice chipping/pitching. Do the same on the greens for putting.
- Work on pre-shot routine (cadence and visualization) techniques.
2Preparation for Practice
- Never practice without a plan or goal.
- Write down objective for the day before arriving at the course.
- All drills will have outcome based results that I can track to help create a similar to tournament fee.
- Dedicate a certain amount of time for practice sessions and take breaks every 30 minutes to stay mentally sharp.
- Place heavy emphasis on process and pre-shot routine and implement before each shot during practice.
- Finally, and certainly not last, make it fun! Realize how much I enjoy the game and be thankful for the opportunity I have to play it.
More recommendations for pre-competition preparation to come in future articles.
I would love to hear from you about your ideas, comments or questions below.
Our contributing writer in Sport Psychology, Dr. Nick Molinaro is a licensed psychologist with specialties in Counseling, Human Development, and Sport Psychology.
Although his clients have ranged from the NASCAR, NBA, NFL, USA Ski and Gymnastic Team members, he is mostly known for his work with golfers. Dr. Nick has worked with players on PGA, LPGA, Symetra, LET tours as well as collegiate players at some of America’s most prestigious colleges including Oregon, Notre Dame, U Arizona, and U Texas,
Dr. Nick is the Mental Coach for the Michael Breed Golf Academy at Trump Golf Links, Fiddler’s Elbow Golf Academy, NJ and is an Advisory Board Member on WorldJuniorGolf.com and the Fellowship for Christian Athletes. He is frequently a guest on The Golf Fix on The Golf Channel and the 19th Hole Weekend Edition on CBS Sport Radio.
Channing Hensley from Wake Forest, NC is currently studying at the North Raleigh Christian Academy and will graduate in 2018. Channing works with Dr. Nick Molinaro and WomensGolf.com contributor, Brandi Jackson.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly, & Csikzsentmihalyi, Isabella Selega (Eds.). (1988). Optimal Experience: Psychological studies of flow in consciousness. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York, NY: Harper and Row.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1996). Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York, NY: Harper Perennial.