Most golfers want to get better. What’s holding us back?

We’ve all heard for years that golfers in general aren’t getting better. Presumably, some are ok with that; playing at a level that allows them to enjoy the game without putting pressure on themselves to learn new skills, practice more etc. But many of us struggle to break free of plateaus that we seem to get stuck on. We want to break 100, 90 or 80 or maybe just beat the guys in our regular foursome for a change. It’s not for lack of skill or lack of practice but something is holding us back. What can we do? To find out, we talked to Mental Performance Coach Tim O’Connor (

Peter Mumford: Welcome Tim. Can you shed some light on our dilemma?

Golf Performance Coach Tim O’Connor

Tim O’Connor: So glad you asked because this is an area where I spend a lot of time. It’s kind of a unique silo, if you will, in the golf world. I think a lot of us struggle in this game not because of bad genes, not because we started the game late or we can’t practice enough or we’re just not good and not athletic. Rather a lot of times I think what happens is that our patterns of behavior and our belief systems just get in the way. And so, when we’re going to hit this little white ball to this target, in essence, it should just be a natural thing. I’ve done this many times. But unfortunately, there’s all kinds of interference, and most of it is between our ears, and that gets in the way of our body as well.

So, what gets in the way is not the fact that we’re incapable of making a good athletic motion. It’s that we, in essence, have some belief systems about ourselves, about how competent we are, about whether we’re just good enough.

A lot of this stuff, unfortunately, operates below the surface. We don’t even really know that belief is there. Because most of the time we’re going through life, we’re just trying to survive and get by and have a good front nine or whatever, get through work. So, the bulk of us aren’t really thinking too deeply on what’s going on. But usually what’s happening is the things that get in our way are in our blind spots. And what I mean by that, we don’t even realize they are there. And that’s the area that fascinates me, is what are the things that are operating in our blind spots that prevent us from moving forward in our lives? How come I apply for this promotion at work over and over and I just never get it? Or every time I have a chance of breaking 80, somehow, down the stretch, I screw up. The whole day is going great and then for some reason I can’t find the fairway and stick handle my way to a triple bogey on the last hole and don’t break 80 again.

Is it because somebody told you on the 18th tee that if you par this hole you’ll break 80?

That happens, man. That’s when you need to draw some boundaries. Oh my gosh, that happens to everybody. Well, in that sense, what happens there is you become self-conscious. And I use that literally or intentionally, is that sometimes when we’re just playing golf … You’ve had this experience; thousands of golfers have. You’re playing along and hitting the ball pretty nicely. You’re having fun. Perhaps you’re enjoying the day. And then you stand on say the 15th tee and you go, “Holy crap, I’m six over. Maybe today is the day I finally break 80.” So now you’re conscious of yourself, self-conscious. So now maybe you start to grind a little bit. Be careful. Don’t mess this up. So, you take a little extra time in your backswing, make sure everything’s right. And then you know where this is going. Next thing you know, you’ve choked your guts out and you’re standing beside the tee and it’s like 82 again? What the hell?

We’ve all had this happen. So, my experience with golfers ranges from things like that to people who are, quite honestly, golf professionals, who teach the game – what they know about golf could fill a book – and they can’t break an egg. They’re afraid to go play golf with their members or with other people. And I have people who are quite athletic and they’re strong and maybe they’ve played golf at a high level before. But again, they just feel tormented in this game, and they take lessons, they try to do everything right, and yet they just can’t break through. And usually, the harder they try, the worse they play.

Is that because they’ve set themselves up as an expert and they’re afraid that if they go out and play, that they may not perform to the same level that they present themselves?

Well, I think a lot of times it’s certainly expectations. And a great phrase is the man who has no expectations is never disappointed. That’s a really good one. But I think what, in essence, happens is that we’re all prone to wanting life to happen the way we want it. We want to control what happens in our life because we’re addicted to comfort. And we’re addicted to outcome. We want things to be the way we want them. So, despite maybe what people have read, maybe about psychological techniques, ways that they’ve read or heard about that can help them deal with their nerves or their thoughts or something like that, which isn’t unlike golf instruction, put your right elbow here and do this with your hip, etc.

Unfortunately, that’s a lot of thinking. And basically, people just kind of get themselves tied up in knots of thinking. And then when the outcome that they’re seeking doesn’t come, that leads to more thinking. And they can get angry, frustrated. Some people can keep an even keel, but inside, there’s a lot of chirping going on, a lot of noise. And it gets really bad. The inner critic can be like, “Well, you don’t practice enough.” Or “Look at all this practice you put in and you can’t get better. I guess you’re just not very athletic. You suck. Dad was right. You’re a loser.” Seriously, it can get down to that level in terms of the messages and the stories we hear in our heads.

But again, we come back to things in our blind spots, things we’re not aware of. So, it’s really frustrating when there’s a shot you know you can hit, and you find that you can’t hit it in this round, or for weeks, or even for a season. For some reason, there’s something going on. And whatever that reason is, it’s in our blind spot. We’re not aware of what’s happening. That’s a tough place to be and try to move forward because, in essence, we’re in a fog or we’re in the dark of what’s going on.

Okay, let me give you an analogy. My car has a little orange light on the dash that warns me when something’s in my blind spot. How do I know in my life when there’s something in my blind spot that’s going to throw me off?

Wow. I don’t often say great question, but that’s a very cool question. I think we know something is in our blind spot when we’ve done our best and we still can’t perform or make things work the way we really want to. There’s something going on. And I’ll give you an example. About three years ago, I was just hitting the ball off the tee dead left a lot, and I didn’t know what the hell was going on. I took a lesson with somebody who said, “You’ve got to rotate more.” Okay, I do that. Still hit the ball dead left. And I just had no idea, and I was reading stuff and trying to basically stay off the mechanics stuff, but this was driving me nuts. And then finally, a professional friend of mine who lives in Pennsylvania said, “Send the video.” When I set up, my head was behind the ball. There’s the ball. If you draw a straight line up, my head was here. So, I was preloaded back here, and I couldn’t get forward. And I wasn’t even aware of that.

Now, sometimes, it just takes a great instructor to help you with that. But where it becomes really difficult is when the thing that’s in our blind spot is a message or a belief about ourselves. One of the ones, and we talked about this earlier, is let’s say you have someone who grew up with a really demanding father. The type who reamed them out on the way home from hockey and, in a fit of rage, a couple times he says, “Well, you’re a loser.” Or “You choking dog.” Or whatever. And so this guy, he grows up, gets into golf, and he becomes a pretty good player. But every time he’s in a tournament and he gets in contention, there’s something going on. He can’t quite put his finger on it, but he feels really uncomfortable. Whatever. Basically, there’s something going on in his body he doesn’t know, and he can’t close a tournament. And in this example the thing that’s going on in his background is, “You’re a loser. You’re a choker.”

Unfortunately, a lot of times what happens is things that we’ve heard or experienced or even created in our own minds is a message, and we start to live that message out. So that’s why you’ll often hear people on the golf course have a bad shot and say, “Well, you suck.” Or they’ll call themselves names. Well, they may not understand that there’s a real cost to that, and it’s not just said in anger. If you get right down to it, it’s something that they actually believe about themselves. But most people don’t know that that stuff can really, really affect them.

This sounds like one of those movies where the guy says, “We can fix this if you see me twice a week for the next year and we go through some therapy. We can put all this behind you.”

Well, it’s not unlike that. For a lot of people, whether they want to become a better controller in the company, a better HR manager, a better guitar player, golfer, is that you’re going to need some support to take a look into these places. And most of us don’t want to go there. Why is alcohol so freaking popular? Why do people stay at work longer? Because, in many ways, what we’re trying to do is distract ourselves and numb ourselves from this stuff that goes on. Drinking and golf go together because a lot of golfers find they can’t even get off the first tee unless they’ve got at least two pops in them, and they can keep it running. Because it’s the only way that will allow them to really function with any degree of feeling relaxed. And it’s their attempt to numb out and silence a lot of the noise that’s going on. Because, again, like I said, we’re addicted to comfort. We don’t want pain, and our ego doesn’t want us to have pain.

So, people think, “Heck, I don’t want to talk to some coach or therapist about this crap. I hate it.” The ironic part is that when we go down into those places and give voice to those things that we’ve generally repressed, not told anybody about, it’s cathartic. And what I mean, it’s like a release. It’s like we let go of the stuff that’s down in the muck and the mire, and by releasing it, it’s like a mind-body experience that actually feels good. It’s like we’ve got all this poison roiling around in our gut of negative stories about ourselves. You suck, whatever. I can’t be trusted. I’m a choking dog. By giving voice to that, you release it. You’d be amazed how good it feels to finally say that and share it. Because a lot of this stuff is the stuff that scares people about their lives. They don’t want to face it. But when they do face it, they find out, “Unbelievable! I told somebody this thing I’ve never told a single person in my life, and I didn’t die. In fact, I feel better.”

Okay. I get that. But if you release all this stuff, do you not have to replace it with some positive self-belief or something?

It’s not a replacement with something that makes us feel good. Positive self-talk doesn’t work, basically. We all have this in golf. You can stand on the first tee and say to yourself, “Okay, this is going in the fairway. I can see it going into the fairway. This is going down the fairway.” You hit it and it doesn’t go in the fairway. Now what do you do? Most of what we’re talking about here is a subtraction, not an addition. Everyone basically has what they need already. And what happens is that because we have these messages and feelings and beliefs that make us feel really uncomfortable, we look for solutions. So, we generally look outside of ourselves. The book that was endorsed by Oprah, the feel-good message you see on YouTube, a course you took. And all that stuff can help broaden our horizons to what’s going on.

But mostly in my experience is that when people start to understand that the story they’ve been carrying around, this belief they have – it’s just a story. It’s just their thoughts. It’s a made-up thing, usually from when they were young. So it makes no sense if you’re 43 to be living by a script that you wrote for yourself when you were three. But when you understand that that was just a story you invented about yourself, now you get a sense of like, “Wow, I actually have some skill, some talent, some traits that I like.” And you start to experience your own gold a little bit more, and you start to build on that. And it’s usually from our own experience.

So, this isn’t a quick fix kind of thing. This isn’t like, “Oh, I didn’t perform well on the 16th hole, but I can go through some mental exercises and fix this before I get to the 17th.” This is deeper, heavier stuff that I need to get out of my system, out of my mind.

Exactly. This is deep-dive stuff.

For some people, they can use skills of mindfulness. But really, if you still have a core belief about yourself or just something that gets you triggered in certain situations, if you really want to move forward, you’re going to have to deal with it. And it doesn’t mean that you have to suddenly go into therapy for two years or enter an ashram and meditate for six months. Usually, it’s just finding someone in your life that you can trust to create a safe container. That’s the word that I wanted to come out. A place where you can go and you can have a conversation and you know that whatever you say will be entrusted and never shared with anyone else, it just stays with you two.

If you have someone who knows how to just ask questions in an open, nonjudgmental way, you start to feel safe to talk about what’s going on. And as you talk about it, you begin to realize, “That’s kind of dumb.”

It seems to me that the idea of seeking help for your feelings or some deep childhood experience that is affecting your golf game has a huge stigma attached to it. If you break your arm or have a physical ailment, you go to the doctor and you get fixed, and that’s quite normal. But if there’s something wrong with my brain, then there’s something wrong with me. It’s hard to deal with that.

Yeah. And unfortunately, for a lot of people – I think this is becoming increasingly true with women – is that you’ve got to be strong. Don’t show weakness. And the standard thing that our society says, “Power through it. Suck it up.” Right back to the cliché of boys don’t cry, if you will. And to me, all that stuff is pure toxic.

If you look at professional athletes today, most have someone – not necessarily an official sports psychologist – but there’s someone in their life that they can talk to. And those are generally the healthy ones. And you can see some who just continually seem to spiral into problems and different things. Well, a lot of times, those people don’t have support. And it’s squishy territory for most men, really. I mean, it goes so much against what’s modeled in movies and TV and media about what a real man is. And to me, the most courageous man is someone who says, “You know what? I have flaws. I’m screwed up.” Because we all are, and if you don’t understand that we’re all flawed, you’re delusional.

About Tim O’Connor

Tim O’Connor is a golf and mental performance coach, an award-winning writer, and Head Coach of the University of Guelph golf team. He is the recipient of the 2020 Lorne Rubenstein Media Award, presented by Golf Ontario. Tim is also the author of The Feeling of Greatness: The Moe Norman Story, and co-host of the Swing Thoughts podcast with Howard Glassman. And he plays bass in CID—a punk band! To learn more about the mental performance side of golf, check out Tim’s website

Peter Mumford
Peter Mumford is the Editor of Fairways Magazine. He's played over 500 different courses in 21 countries and met some fascinating people along the way. He's also a long-suffering Toronto Maple Leafs fan.

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