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Mindset or Skillset - Which is more important?

With Jordan Spieth’s latest win at The Open and his whirlwind escapade on the 13th hole and then the unmatched resiliency to follow up that bogey with a birdie, eagle, birdie, birdie, par finish has fueled the debate on whether it was his mindset or skillset that allowed this to happen.

So, which is it?

Was it his powerful positive thinking and getting out of his own way while believing 120 percent that he could play his best golf and win, or was it his skills honed by countless hours on the range and work with his swing coach that propelled him to hoist the Claret Jug and his third major before his 24th birthday? The answer, yes.

Mindset and skillset go together like a perfect relationship, one that is so wrapped in love that they live in harmony and make each other better than they could be on their own. That magical type of relationship that says “you complete me” and intertwine so well it is hard to see where one begins and the other ends. This is what causes the best to be the best and to do things that seem unimaginable and awe inspiring to others. They have the skills to allow them to perform the task and the mind set and belief to allow themselves to raise above all odds and take their skills to the next level. They have mastered this relationship and allow mind set and skill set to become soul mates and live in a world free of obstacles and world class performance.

However, don’t think that this happens easily as we all know the darker side of relationships as well. When the mind set or skill set may mislead or lie to the other causing friction, bitterness and frustration, causing what seemed like a perfect cohesiveness to drift further and further apart and surprise the world with an iconic break up. This can occur when the mind is full of false confidence and we try and convince ourselves that we can stand at the front of a house and believe we can jump up on to the roof with one leap, and then blame and berate ourselves for the lack of ability to do so.

This is the damage that can be done when one tries to say it is one over the other, a common misconception or debate happening in the world of instruction lately. If someone believes that one heavily outweighs the other instead of blending together, they are doing a disservice to their students.

East Meets West

A lot of the discussion surrounding mind set or positive thinking these days comes from studying the meditation, visualization and mindfulness that originated in the Far East. It is true that all of these things hold powers to calm your mind, to create a better and more productive thought process, to allow yourself to take control and perform at a higher level and to be in a more positive outlook in everything you do. I have had the privilege of living over in Southeast Asia the past couple of years and practiced with monks, in Ashrams and Vipassana retreats and know the power this has on all aspects of one’s life.

However, if you simply become a positive thinking, calm, mindful golfer with no actual skills to back it up, all you will get from this is a Zenlike horrible golfer. Now, don’t get me wrong, this is much better than a horrible golfer that throws tantrums and clubs on the course with every bad shot, but I think you and I both know you don’t want to be a Zenlike horrible golfer, you want to be an at peace, self-believing, one with the moment player who your local partners are dying to know how you became the golfer you are.

With this in mind let us look an Eastern skill that uses both a little more closely, you will see this mind set is only half of the ingredients. If you take the art of swordmanship or the art of a Shaolin Monk you will further understand how one cannot exist without the other.

A young boy to be trained in the art of becoming a Shaolin Monk would never be told to close his eyes, visualize his skills, believe he can accomplish anything he puts his mind to and then be given a sword to wield around. To think this is foolish and dangerous. Instead the young boy will be immersed in learning how to meditate, to clear their mind and become focused on the task and have nothing interfere with this task and create a state I like to refer to as “heightened awareness”.

They would then be taught movements with their body, legs, and arms without a sword and do multiple and multiple repetitions of routine exercises to understand the flow of the movements required. After passing this, they would be given a wooden sword or bokken to practice the same movements in repetition and get a feeling of how they are performed with the sword in hand. After countless hours with the bokken would they then be given a real sword to demonstrate their skills. Years of repetition and routines lead to the success of the swordmanship.

As their skills developed, their mind developed as well. The two harmonized and fed off each other. As their skills improved, their mind became strong in self-belief, as their mind strengthened, it allowed them to perform the tasks faster and without fear improving their skill level. Working on both, having the mindset that they could accomplish the task better than anyone and repetitions of the skill over and over to make the movements feel second nature and natural create an effortless flow of magical swordmanship.

How to build the relationship that will last

How does this relate to golf and where do we start? To improve your own golf game, you need to take this same path as the Samurai warrior and you need to train both.

Firstly, have a beginners or child’s mind. This is a mind that is open to anything. Try to not have your own expectations, beliefs, doubts or fears interrupt with improving your skills. Be open to the fact that there will be frustrations in learning something new, that bad shots will happen and this is simply part of the process of reprograming your kinesthetic movements with new ones, but also, having the openness that the next shot could be the greatest that you have ever taken. Be open, nonjudgmental and look forward to the experience. Be childlike and enjoy learning something new.

Then, find a professional that can help you on your way to improving your swing and game. Someone that you trust in allowing to tamper with your game that has frustrated you and has the knowledge to get you the desired results. Make sure that they communicate well to you and that you understand what they are saying. Golf instruction needs to be a two-way street and lessons need to be a sharing of information, ideas and techniques.

With the information from the professional, you should be doing repetitions of anything new that is to be learned, whether this is simply applying your hands to the grip, getting into a stance and posture, working on shots around the green or full swings. Correct repetitions of movements need to be done for you to get a kinesthetic feel and the ability to repeat over and over again. This process needs to happen so that the body can feel the move, the brain can understand the move and your mind can trust the move. As these three things happen, the swing or move starts to become more automatic feeling or only needs a few cues (waggle, movement of a finger on the grip or forward press) to initiate the chain of events needed.

Building your mind and your game

As you are working on the skills by repetition, it is also time to work on your mind. Again, be open to the fact that some shots are not going to be perfect, and some might downright suck. This is where your mindset can take hold. Instead of becoming upset, accept the poor shots and learn not to follow a bad shot with another bad shot. Create an openness that accepts the poor shot and without becoming irate think of what the best next shot you can perform. This is along the lines of course management. The more you become aware of what you are capable and not capable of, the more you can navigate YOUR game around the course, the better scores you will record. It is one thing to tell yourself that you can fly the ball over a bunker that is 280 yards off the tee and another thing to actually have the skills to do it. If you have never flown a ball 280 yards, aim to the right or left of the bunker and take the bunker out of play.

As you learn to believe in your abilities and trust what you can do, your skills will also improve as you will be getting out of your own way. You will not be trying to do something you are not capable of and will start to understand more on how to navigate the golf course in the best way that you can. At the same time research or work with someone who understands mindset and learn the advantages of visualization and breathing techniques to keep you in the present.

Learn to have praise and belief in yourself. If we ever learn to talk to ourselves the way we do to our friends when playing, we would improve ten-fold. What do I mean by this? When your friend hits a bad shot or flies one into the woods, your first response is going to be something like “that’s ok, we will find it and you can pitch it out and try and get up and down”. Now if you hit the same shot in the woods, what do you say to yourself? “You idiot, moron, man I suck today.” This is where we need the most work in our mind set. Learn to become your own friend, encourage yourself, have belief in yourself and inspire yourself. Again, be open that poor shots will happen and mindful enough to stay in the present and think of how to recover.

Taking it to the next level

This is how the golfers on tour compete with one another. They know the skills of their own games and manage them to the best of their abilities around the course without letting poor shots effect their judgement or demeanor and accept that they may not hit it as long as others, as high as others, putt like others, but have a full understanding of their own games and skills and make a plan of execution.

When something derails their execution like Spieth hitting it right of right into the fescue and gorse on 13, his mindset then kicked in and calmed him in the intense situation allowing him to think of all the variables instead of reacting out of fear and panic. He then decided that if he dropped in the range area he had the skill to hit a club high and long enough to give him a chance to save bogey. This mindset coupled with his skill allowed him to execute the shot and the following up and down that many believe spurred him on to win the championship.

Let’s stop the debate on what is the key to better play, mindset or skillset and recognize that only in a perfect relationship that the two can intertwine and allow us to become the golfer that we can all become. Find your own true greatness by improving your belief and outlook in yourself and practice all the skills that you need to perform.

“Work on your weaknesses until they are strengths, and work on your strengths until they become second nature.” Mindset and skillset living harmoniously within your daily life and your game.

See you in the fairway.

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