By Kiran Kanwar
Sports psychology has come a long way in the past few decades, and given the topsy-turvy performances by the leading golfers in the world – and the rest of us – during the year, it seemed a good idea to find a leading sports psychologist to give us some tips. Neale Smith is one of the top ten golf psychologists in the nation according to Golf Digest magazine, and is the only one who has played competitive golf at the highest level, rather than coming merely from an academic background.
Smith is someone who, growing up in Australia, played every sport imaginable, and, after retiring as a junior high jumper because of injury, decided to play competitive golf. That was an exciting time to be playing golf with so many amazing role models to look up to in Australia. Golf, according to him, reinforces the importance of the mental aspect, because it is a difficult game, requiring frustration control. This was especially true in his case as he started his competitive career rather late at the age of around 16 years. In fact, the reason Smith pursued an MS in sports psychology was not only because of his enhanced interest in the subject, but in order to manage his own game better.
After acquiring his degree, Neale Smith turned pro and began playing the Southern California mini-Tour, with a low round of 62 at his home course being a turning point. He then went to Q-School and qualified to play on the PGA Tour. He had only ever played seven four-round events prior to his participation in his first Tour event, the Hawaiian Open. All those early successes, achieved while having only limited competition experience, Smith ascribes to the very strong mental game he had at that time.
As a well-known sports psychologist who has helped sportspersons participating in a variety of sports, about 98% of Smith’s current clients are golfers. He has worked with, or currently works with, many famous Tour players including Marc Leishman, Greg Chalmers, Ryan Palmer, Jason Day, Kevin Chappell and Cameron Tringale.
So what are his beliefs regarding maximizing performance, especially since he describes himself as a “performance enhancing consultant”? A golfer, especially one competing at a high level, needs a good mind, a good body, good technique, and good equipment. The mental game is like the conductor of a band, while the other parts are important in order to create beautiful music. Thus a strong mind is critical to making the development of the other aspects easier. Why is that? “Your thoughts and feelings affect your technique. If you are fearful of going left, for instance, and thus go right, it is a focus and tension issue.”
Often players will either not have a clear plan or not believe in it. “If you have a clear plan that you believe in, you feel comfortable over the ball, and then you hit a poor shot, then you have useful feedback on your technique and can make adjustments. Conversely, if you are not clear, very fearful or tight, then hit a poor shot, the feedback is more about your mental and emotional state, not your swing.” The time to focus on a technique change is only after a player has a clear plan and trusts the swing, but that does not work. It is very important to realize that fear will cause tension and mess technique. Ideally, a golfer should be told to “Do your best with a positive plan, and have positive thoughts about what to do, not what to avoid.”
A golfer’s practice style is also important. In fact, there is a role for a good pre-, post- and between-shot routine, which a golfer should practice diligently. For a pre-shot routine there are five important elements to consider, which are to collect information, create a plan, build an image, aim, and do. If the golfer is comfortable about the first three steps, 1,2,3 happen quickly. If uncomfortable in a particular situation, the player should work harder to increase tension control, so should consider having a second routine for such situations. To address some of the fear and the resulting physiological dump of chemicals, a golfer should create a positive plan, control breathing and muscle tension, especially in the hands, forearms and shoulders, and work harder on attention and tension, with more mental rehearsals.
Are there some areas of sports psychology – such as goal setting, imagery/visualization, relaxation or self-talk that Smith prioritizes over others? Yes. He believes in a hierarchy of skills and responsibilities – each golfer should be responsible for what can be controlled, especially in the four key performance areas, which are mental, physical, technical and equipment. There are more factors of course, but these are four are the core ones. Also each player should study what helps her or him play well or play poorly.
When a client first approaches Smith, he starts with a 3-4 hour session which involves an interview, nine holes of golf while he observes the golfer and some directed practice. That is followed by a couple of hours every two weeks for a while, until all that is left is to maintain the mental skills through occasional meetings. His main goal at that stage is to maintain what they do well and grow and improve what they need to. Mainly, then, a healthy perspective and good mental skills combined with improved course management and confidence management can go a long way in improving performance, at any competitive level of golf. As it surely has done for one of Smith’s current clients – Leishman