How can mindfulness on the golf course help you with your anxiety and depression?

golfI am a successful golfer.


Yes- this weekend I shot 119.

You call THAT successful?


That’s 47 strokes over par!

But I went into the round hoping to shoot 120. I didn’t say I was good, but that I’m successful. This weekend I enjoyed two rounds of golf with my parents, my brother-in-law and my younger brother while we were all together for the holiday weekend. I played better than I ever have before- I was hitting good shots, making solid contact with the ball and playing with an ease and confidence that’s rare for me. Heck, I shot par on two holes, which is a big deal when you’re normally +2/3 strokes over par on a given hole. And I have mindfulness to thank.

Of course, some of it I can attribute to my father’s advice- playing the ball a little further back in my stance on drives helped keep it straight. Some of it was my mom’s cheerful reinforcement of good shots. Some of it was the drive of friendly competition with my brother-in-law and brother and wanting to win our little side bets (I still owe my brother $2). But a lot of it I really can attribute to my mindfulness practice (see- this has something to do with the topics I normally cover here on the blog!).

Before my shots I would line up and get into my stance, set my grip on the club and then, for about four or five seconds, close my eyes and focus on my breathing. Just the inhale and exhale for a breath or two. Then I’d open my eyes and swing. At the moment of the swing I wasn’t thinking of my last shot, of the last hole, of my next shot or of that alligator on the other side of the lagoon. The club went back and then came back, striking the ball and then coming back up over my head in the follow-through.

Sure, sometimes the ball would be short of the green, sometimes I’d fly over the green or into a bunker. Sometimes the wind coming in off of the marshes around the course would be enough to push the ball out-of-bounds. There’s also a lot of technique and skill that goes into golf that I simply haven’t learned yet. My father can hit a draw shot. My brother-in-law crushes long drives. As a golfer, skill-wise I’m not there yet. My dad suggested I take lessons this summer to work on some of those skills, like developing a consistent swing, grip, etc. I should and I will- there’s no doubt that this is a critical part of the game. But what about the mental part of golf? There are a lot of golfers who understand the process of the swing, who read about the latest golf guru’s tips for grips, but who nevertheless still struggle with playing consistently. It’s pretty well acknowledged that having the expertise and the ability to execute is only half the game; the rest depends on what’s going on between your ears.

How many golfers have been on the course and thought “I NEED this drive to stay inbounds. I can’t slice it. I can’t slice it. I can’t sli- oh crap, I sliced it.

The negative thinking or the cautionary thoughts can make us unconsciously change our swing, tighten our grip or bring our head up too early to watch our shots. The negative thoughts build upon one another- they add pressure to make the next shot better, to make it up on the next hole, etc. But using a mindful approach to the game may be just as valuable. I found this great article from Psychology Today that features golf teacher Fred Shoemaker and his approach to incorporating mindfulness to the game:

To demonstrate this phenomenon, Shoemaker asks a student to putt a ball into a cup from two inches away, and to notice the experience, which is marked by an almost complete absence of thought. He then repeats the exercise, gradually placing the ball further and further away from the hole, asking the student to report the distance at which some thought, uninvited, enters his or her head. Usually, at about one to two feet, the student starts to report thoughts like “I better concentrate here,” or “hope I don’t miss it,” or “take your time, now, and hit it straight.” These thoughts come up unbidden. They don’t help the putt go in. They’re usually negative or cautionary. They introduce the beginnings of muscle tension. Trying to squelch them never works. Replacing them with positive images merely keeps one more entrenched in one’s head. The student is now in his or her mind and his or her connection to the club, the ball, the hole, and the sense of freedom experienced from two inches begins to diminish.

Shoemaker invites students to simply let these thoughts appear, note them, and simply return over and over again to the only reality that matters—their body, ball, club and target. “Be present to everything,” he suggests, “without judgment.” The thoughts seem to come up on their own, and they will likely disappear on their own if we don’t confuse them with reality.

I began using mindfulness meditation and practices to help me manage my anxiety and my depression. I’ve found that it helps me distinguish between a thought and a fact. I used to become consumed by an anxiety spiral where one thought would build on another and another until I was too paralyzed to take action; or I would kill the anxiety by self-medicating with alcohol. Mindfulness helps me stop the anxiety spiral before it begins, or, at least before it spins out of control. It allows you to not be dominated by what-ifs and if-only thinking to concentrate on what’s happening, to be aware of the facts of a situation.

Golf is a microcosm of the minefield of what-ifs and if-only thinking. In this way, it’s a perfect place to practice mindful thinking. Each shot is an opportunity to use mindfulness skills that you can later apply to real-world problems. Really it could be any sport or activity. Take advantage of these low-stakes opportunities to work on breathing, to let go of negative thoughts and to become aware of being present in the moment of the swing, or of the shot or of your footsteps as you run. It will help you to utilize these skills later when you’re facing your anxiety or your depression, to hold negative thinking at bay and keep yourself from falling into a spiral.

And it doesn’t hurt to take a few strokes off of your game either.


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