Golf from the Top of the Mind

Golf imageWe all know that even though we love the game, golf is an exacting sport that can be somewhat frustrating at times. Slices, hooks, penalty strokes, blown putts, repeated bunker shots, etc., can easily turn what was supposed to be a relaxing event with our fellow golfers into an exasperating experience that often has many among us questioning why we keep paying good money to subject ourselves to this sort of frustration. Of course, for those of us who love a challenge, the fact that golf is a challenging game is also one of the reasons we keep coming back. Most would agree, however, that the stress and frustration we experience when things go awry only makes the situation worse, and that having more influence or control over the mental and emotional aspects of our game would serve us well as we search for ways to lower our score and raise our level of enjoyment.


For this reason, many professionals in the field of mental health and sports psychology have developed systems and methods to help golfers relax and think clearly while on the course. Unfortunately, while suggestions such as, “relax, take a deep breath, and think positive thoughts” are good advice, it seems to be the opposite of what we want to do when we hit a bad shot. In fact, even though it rarely works, many of us find ourselves trying to use our anger and frustration to “bear down” and “quit screwing around” in order to fix the problem. I believe that there is a good reason for these reactions and, further, that if golfers only knew what was really going on “under the hood” so to speak, or what is happening within their brains and bodies when they found themselves becoming increasingly frustrated, they would be in a much better position to respond in a more effective manner.

In other words, what most of us don’t know is that the stress and frustration we experience when we hit a bad shot are really the result of very specific chemical changes that are triggered by a very specific part of the brain. Therefore, rather than suggest that people just “relax” and/or “don’t worry, be happy,” my method, which I call “Golf from the Top of the Mind” actually shows golfers how to change the chemical makeup of their body and shift to the most intelligent, capable part of their brain in order to play their best. This puts us back in control of that five-inch space between our ears that Jack Nicklaus says is where the game is really played.

In order to pull this off, we need to know something about how information is processed in our brain. Most people know that our brain is divided into three parts. The brainstem, which is the lowest part of the brain, controls our breathing, blood pressure, muscle tension, etc., and is where our fight-or-flight responses are located. The middle part of the brain is the limbic system, and in addition to housing our emotions, it also scans incoming data for signs of stress or danger. The upper 80% of our brain is the neocortex, and this is where we have access to our best thinking, problem-solving, and intelligence.

So, here is how all this works. Data (in this case, information about the course, our lie, our shot, etc.) comes in from our five senses and it is first scanned by the limbic system. If there is no problem (we hit a spectacular nine iron that lands a foot from the pin) the limbic system sends the data up to our neocortex, we do our happy dance, the brainstem works in the background regulating breathing, blood pressure, etc., and all is well.

However, if the limbic system senses anything it doesn’t like, i.e., we hit a shot “fat,” “thin,” blow a three foot putt, hit a banana slice or duck hook, fail to get the ball out of the bunker YET AGAIN, it sends the information immediately down to the brainstem… bypassing the neocortex. At this point, the brainstem releases chemicals designed to prepare us for fight-or-flight, which results in an increase in blood pressure, muscle tension, and heart rate. While all of this is understandable, it is also exactly the OPPOSITE of what we need to play our best golf. Plus, given that many of us try to use our anger and frustration to “bear down” and fix the problem, we often take this frustration into our next shot, which only results in our continuing to play what I call “brainstem golf”

To play neocortex golf or “Golf from the Top of the Mind,” we must first understand what is going on here and then be able to shift to the most intelligent, purposeful, productive part of our brain as we move to the next hole, or the next shot. In my book “Life from the Top of the Mind,” I outline a comprehensive, step by step method for both making this shift and then staying in this upper 80%, but for the purposes of this article let me give you one tip. Shift from asking “brainstem questions” to neocortex questions.

Brainstem questions, which are almost always about the problem and the past, send data down to the lower 20% of our brain, and almost always guarantee that we will continue to play “brainstem golf.” Examples of these sorts of questions are: “What is wrong with me? Why do I keep (fill in the blank with the problem: i.e. looking up, topping the ball, swinging too hard, leaving the putt short, blowing the bunker shot, etc.) when I know better? Sound familiar?

Neocortex questions, on the other hand, send the data up to the most intelligent, capable part of our brain. They interpret all incoming data as “valuable information,” and are almost always about the future and the solution. One excellent neocortex question that I particularly like is: “If I had the opportunity to do this shot again, what would I do differently?” or even better, “If I were teaching my child how to hit a shot like this, what would I want them to learn?” and “How would I want him or her to be able to react to their mistakes?” This has us picturing the solution versus the problem (a “Top of the Mind” perspective) and, given that we very likely will have an opportunity to hit a shot very similar to this in the very near future, we now know what we want to practice (versus what we want to avoid).

Of course, there is much more to the method than just asking neocortex questions, but I wanted to give you at least a glimpse of how my method of mental and emotional control differs from others. It’s not just about “calming down and relaxing,” but about shifting to the most intelligent part of our brains which also changes the chemical makeup of our bodies, i.e., changes the chemicals being produced from adrenaline and cortisol to endorphins.

Bottom line: If we want to bring our best to the game we love, we must be willing to purposefully access our best thinking and then bring this “valuable information” to the execution of our next shot. Plus, as we become skilled at playing and learning from this “Top of the Mind” perspective, we are able to dramatically increase our enjoyment of the process which by the way, is why we are playing the game in the first place, isn’t it?