Golf Psychology: The Self Talk of Champions

Even if you're Happy Gilmore, it rarely helps to yell your ball into the hole.
Even if you’re Happy Gilmore, it rarely helps to yell your ball into the hole.

I played in a tournament the other day with some other members from my home club. One playing partner, who was the best golfer in the group according to his handicap, did not start the round well. He made a double on the first hole. After hitting a bad shot, he would verbally lambaste himself and say; “You stink, how could you hit such a bad shot!” I told him that we needed to work on his negative self talk.

How many times have you hit a poor shot and then laid into yourself because of less-than-perfect execution? “I just don’t have it today.” “I can’t buy a putt today!” “I should give this game up!” Negative self talk, the verbal messages you say to yourself (out loud or silently) as a missed shot or bad hole, only serves to reinforce a negative attitude and keep you stuck in a rut of pessimism.

Self talk comes in many forms; it can be positive and confidence- enhancing or it can be negative and confidence-deflating. Most golfers do not even realize that they are engaging in negative self talk until you bring it to their attention. Once you realize you are beating yourself up and not helping your mindset with negative self talk, you are then in a position to change.

However, you have to buy into it and really believe in the power of positive self talk. You can’t just say you are going to hit a good shot the next time without really believing it.

For most people it is easy to forget someone else’s criticism, but it is not easy to forget your own criticism of yourself. I ask the golfers I work with to monitor what they say to themselves. Whenever you get negative with your own self talk and cut yourself down, you have to recognize this behavior and make an effort to change. When you say to yourself “I can’t play this game”, “You are the worst player”, or “Don’t lose another match”, you are undermining your own confidence. Negative thoughts will lead to lower self confidence and negative outcomes.

Greg Kraft has played in two events on the Champions Tour this year and has one T25.
Greg Kraft has played in two events on the Champions Tour this year and has one T25.

You do not have a coach in golf, like other athletes do in basketball, to help pick you up after a mistake or bad play. Therefore, you have to learn to be your own coach and pick yourself up when you make errors and this includes using positive self talk. The thought “I stink at golf today,” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Therefore, instead of focusing on your strengths and getting the job done, you worry about a part of your game that is not up to par.

Most professional golfers apply positive self talk regularly to help them stay focused and confident during a round of golf. A few years ago, I worked with a Tour Pro named Greg Kraft. Greg is making a comeback on the tour currently. He is considered a very good putter on the Tour.

Greg told me that he uses self talk to help him stay on task during his putting routine. He would actually talk himself through (silently) his putting routine to stay focused on execution and be positive about his approach. A good lesson for any level golfer.

Get in the habit of turning your negative self-talk into positive statements.
Get in the habit of turning your negative self talk into positive statements.

How do you make sure your self talk is positive and confidence enhancing? The first step is to record your self talk after a round of golf to determine how positive or negative you are with yourself. During the round, pay attention to what you say to yourself and notice when you begin to get negative – quickly identifying your negative self talk. After you finish your game, go back and think about when you were negative with yourself or your game. Write down the negative statements and in what situations they occurred. If you have more negative than positive self talk during a round, this indicates that you need to work on changing your self talk.

The next step is to modify what your say to yourself. Write down the negative self statements from the previous exercise. Next to each self statement, change the negative statement to a positive statement. For example, the negative self statement: “I can’t believe you missed such a short putt, you’re the worst putter in the world,” change to “everyone misses a short putt now and then, you have made plenty of putts from that distance”. Practice changing your negative thoughts to positive thoughts on paper. The next step is to apply your positive self talk and change your negative self talk on the course. You must make the simple choice to keep your self talk positive and confidence enhancing.

This will reinforce the idea that you are working on being more positive and controlling your mindset.

About the Author
Dr. CohnDr. Patrick Cohn is the President and founder of Peak Performance Sports in Orlando, Florida. Based largely on his research and work with high-level athletes, experts in the field of psychology consider him to be the leading authority on pre-performance routines and mental skills for entering the zone. Dr. Cohn has consulted with high profile teams such as the Miami Dolphins, PGA Tour players such as Brian Watts and J.L. Lewis, NASCAR winners, and NHL players. Dr. Cohn can be found online at

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