The mental side of the game is an area where real benefits can be made for players of all abilities and is something which all golf pros should be aware of. Andy Brown caught up with Mind Coach Karl Morris to discuss how all pros can add this coaching string to their bow.
Pop quiz: in what year was Nelson Mandela released from prison, Margaret Thatcher resigned as prime minister and the first web server created? The year was 1990 and it’s fair to say that general attitudes were also very different towards the mental importance of sport. There was some awareness, but it certainly wasn’t as mainstream as it is now, where it is generally accepted that the brain plays as big a role on performance as the body. In 1990 Karl Morris qualified as a PGA Professional and quickly realised that while his students were improving on the range many of them struggled to replicate this when they actually got out onto the course, which provided the jumping off point for his interest in the mental side of the game.
Morris studied neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), hypnosis and sports psychology and even went to California to spend time at the Fred Shoemaker golf school. Back in the present day of 2017, Morris believes that there has been a change of attitude regarding the mental side of the game, but there is still work which needs to be done. “I think there is more of an acceptance but there is still a significant reluctance to look at it because it isn’t as tangible as the physical side of things,” he comments.
“You can look at the top of someone’s back swing and see the position and offer advice or you can look at someone’s body and say, ‘you need more muscle’ whereas the mind side of things does require a little bit of a leap of faith to actually engage with it, but I think more people are starting to realise that it is a part of the puzzle in becoming the best that you can be. Yes, you need to work on your nutrition, physical fitness and technique but if you have done all those things and you aren’t getting close to where you want to be then it is probably the mental aspect which will yield the biggest rewards.”
Morris has worked with some of the game’s top players, including Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke and says that the principals he applies are the same, whether he is working with Major winners or average club golfers. There are two main principles that he works on: not over thinking and effective practice.
“Golf is probably the only sport where we practice in an environment which doesn’t resemble the real game, we stand on a flat piece of turf with the same club over and over again in a linier fashion,” he comments. “Then we go out onto the golf course and play the ultimate random game in the sense that every shot that you play on the golf course is very different and we aren’t practising in a way that accommodates this.
“The other thing is that there is such a long interval between shots – you have an inordinate amount of time to think. If someone asked me what it is that I get players that I work with to think about then most of the time it’s about getting them to think less. Probably one of the greatest diseases of our time is over-thinking things and over analysing.”
These principles are put across with the players he works with and also in the workshops that Morris hosts at golf clubs across the country which have been hosted at venues such as The London Club, Burhill Golf Club, Wentworth and The Oxfordshire. These are for all levels of golfers, a point Morris is keen to stress – everyone can improve their game by looking at the mental side of it. “I go to golf clubs and the mistake that people make is that they think this subject is just for top players but hopefully everyone who comes away from one of the evenings will have one or two ideas that they can instantly take onto the golf course,” Morris confirms.
“The biggest challenge most people have is that they are trying to change their golf swing but they don’t really have the time to do that. Having more of an understanding about how to practice more efficiently in the short amount of time people have. Even looking at how you react to bad shots on the course can be an area where people can instantly improve because it is the reaction to the bad shot which often causes the problem. Golfers will always hit bad shots. People talk about wanting to be consistent but no golfer in the world is consistent – the best players in the world aren’t consistent but they have a better relationship with the inconsistency. I get people to understand that there is more than one thing people can look at to improve, because most people are just looking at the golf swing but there are other areas they can look at that will help them get the best out of what they currently have with their swing.”
This is a vital point – Morris isn’t suggesting that all pros look at is the mental side of the game, rather that it is merely one string to their coaching bow. All sports are mental but golf is arguably the most mental game of all, partly as Morris said earlier because of the time that occurs in between shots. There is so much time to think and golf is littered with talented players who never made it because they fall apart after a bad shot or can’t take the pressure. Pressure – or more specifically tension – is another issue that Morris addresses, using the example of Spieth at The Open at Royal Birkdale this year.
“You often see on TV when someone hits a bad shot they analyse the swing and say ‘he dropped it on the inside’ or ‘he came over the top’ or whatever it may be, but we don’t understand that there might be a slight change in tension from one shot to another because the player three putted the last. Tension can affect the club face by a couple of degrees, which at 100mph can make the difference between the fairway or knocking it 70 yards offline,” says Morris. “Jordan Spieth is a great example – it wasn’t his golf swing which suddenly changed from round three to four in The Open, it was because he was feeling the weight of expectation that he was going to win that tournament and, even for great players, tension can hamper performance.”
In a bid to get his message out there even more Morris has released a podcast, The BrainBooster, where he discusses his philosophies and chats with guests such as former England captain Michael Vaughn – who Morris worked with leading up to the successful 2005 Ashes series – and golf coach Fred Shoemaker. He also runs a yearly Mind Factor course which lasts for three-days and gives pros an insight into the mental side of the game. When asked about this Morris reiterates that this aspect is an ‘extra’ that pros should be looking to add to their game.
“With a bit of time and application they could put another string to their bow when it comes to teaching. I run three-day Mind Factor course every year for coaches and we have had a lot of people come over the years and it’s not like they are going to leave us and then only teach the mental side of the game. It is something that they can add on to what they are already doing, so they are giving the people who come for lessons more of a complete package.”