Maintaining mental focus is crucial to a golfer, especially when taking on the challenge of a full round of golf. Not only do you need to maintain focus to the 18th hole, you also need to banish nerves when you tee off, get through the 9th hole slump, banish doubts after a bad shot, re-focus for crucial putts, and then finish strong.
Even top PGA players struggle to stay focussed. Hideki Matsuyama admitted to RSNG that he goes to the lengths of sitting in his car playing video games on his phone until 20-30 minutes before tee off. He’s not bored, he’s just attempting to keep his mind clear, and avoid overthinking things. (You can read his exclusive interview with RSNG here.)
Fortunately, there are less eccentric ways to ensure you achieve focus, and maintain it throughout your game. Jamie Clements is a breathwork expert who teaches classes at The Breath Space and is a LevelOut CBD ambassador:
“Whether you're looking to calm your nerves on the tee, stop those swing thoughts or focus your mind for an important putt, there's a breath for that. This all comes down to the fact we can use our breath to tap directly into our nervous system and shift our physical, mental and emotional state in a matter of moments,” he tells me.
Here are those practical breathwork biohacks, which you can use out on the course without feeling self-conscious…
At The Tee
If you’re the nervous sort, or you’re keenly aware of playing slightly above your paygrade, and facing superior opposition (read this RSNG guide on how to deal with that challenge), then you may be showing the physical signs of stress. “If you're feeling stressed, nervous or jittery, this would be characterized (from a breathing perspective) by short, shallow, faster breathing,” says breathwork expert Jamie Clements. Neither fast breathing or a raised heart rate will help you to center yourself to execute your best-ever golf swing.
So, still your nerves and make sure your mind is clear to tee off with the first and simplest form of breathwork. “To counteract that, you'd want to focus on breathing gently, slowly and deeply through the nose, to activate your body's rest, digest and relaxation response.”
Not only will this help you set the right tone for the rest of your round, it’s inconspicuous enough not to tip off the opposition that you were nervous in the first place. In fact, why not incorporate it into your regular pre-drive routine? With a bit of practice you won’t even realize you’re doing it, allowing you to be more present during the execution of your swing.
We over analyze what happened, picking apart our carefully constructed technique and letting in doubt to wreck our headspace
Coming Back From A Botched Swing
It happens to everyone: you felt great, focussed and calm, certain you were going to connect with the ball perfectly, but it turned into a complete howler of a drive. It’s OK, your next shot is 100% going to be better. Except we don’t think like that, do we? We start to over analyze what happened, picking apart our carefully constructed technique and letting in what Douglas Adams called “the salmon of doubt”, to wreck our headspace.
Well, no longer because now you can shut down that negative self-chat by reaching for a simple drill, which Clements calls a “physiological sigh.” Simply perform a double inhale through your nose (so inhale once, pause then inhale again), then sigh out through your mouth. Repeat that for a total of three, to reset and clear your mind.
Beating The Ninth Hole Slump
Physical and mental energy often collapses in the no-man’s land of the halfway mark – you’ve made a lot of shots, but there’s still a mountain to climb. This is often compounded by the fact that getting your on-course nutrition will really start to bite here.
What you need is a faff-free, immediately available biohack to beat back lethargy and bring your energy levels back up to full. Fortunately you can use active breathing techniques and short breath holds to get your head back in the game.
Clements calls this “Power Breathing”, which involves a faster inhale through the nose then a sigh out through the mouth on the exhale. “Take 10-20 breaths until you start to feel some sensations in the body, and energy/ clarity in your mind.” He cautions that you should skip this one if you have any pre-existing medical conditions, because it’s more stimulating for the nervous system.
My go-to for focus would be Box Breathing, made popular by Navy Seals who use it on their way into a combat zone
Re-Focussing For A Crucial Putt
You can be just getting into the flow of a game, feeling relaxed and confident when your focus gets rudely pulled away from things. Anything from a phone call to an express delivery on your shoulder from a passing seagull can disrupt your flow, and this usually happens just before a crunch shot or crucial putt.
A high-stakes golf shot isn’t the only scenario that breath work has been developed for. In fact, the Navy Seals have single-handedly made this particular biohack for increased focus popular by using it on their way into a combat zone, says Clements: “My go-to for focus would be Box Breathing.”
“This consists of an inhale, a hold, an exhale and a hold, with each section the same length (start with 4 seconds and visualize the four sides of a box for each section). This combination of slower, balanced breathing, with the short breath holds, gives us a really nice sense of calm, clear energy.”
If golf is like running (bear with me here), in that you should always aim to finish stronger in the second half of the ‘race’, then maintaining mental energy and focus at the finish is essential. This is true whether you’re ahead and complacency has started to creep in, or you’ve fallen behind and are fighting to get back into contention.
Once again, you can use breathwork to increase your chances of holding onto mental focus when you need it most. If you’re feeling the pressure, then you can repeat the drill from tee off, by breathing slowly and deeply through your nose. And if you need to re-energise your mind try Power Breathing (see above) once more, to oxygenate your blood and bring back clarity. Your handicap will thank you later!