Mind & Body

Injury is a challenging time for any golfer. Firstly, you can’t do what you love to do – play golf – but there is also the worry about your game being affected if you can’t practise and play. However, as tough as injury can be, it can actually be a great time to brush up on some mental skills so that you come back a better golfer!

If I had to pick one mental skill for injured athletes, it would be mental rehearsal (or as we often call it ‘visualisation’).

Brain studies have revealed that thoughts or imagined movements produce the same mental instructions as actual actions. In other words, when you imagine performing a particular skill or movement, your muscles fire in the same sequence as if you were actually performing the skill (obviously on a much smaller scale, though). The brain is tricked into thinking the body is needed for action and sends neural signals to the muscles that would be used in that action.

This is why mental rehearsal is such a useful skill when you are not able to physically practise. It keeps muscle memory going and helps reinforce the mental blueprint you have of your swing.


Dr Kirsten van Heerden chats to Olympic double gold medalist and swimming legend Penny Heyns talks about performance and purpose

I like the term mental rehearsal rather than visualisation because this mental skill involves all the senses, not just “seeing” your performance or having a picture in your mind’s eye. To truly create and recreate a skill or action, you need to tap into all your senses:

  • Visual – seeing yourself performing; for example, a golfer may “see” the ball travelling in the air and landing on a spot on the green or fairway.
  • Auditory – hearing specific sounds related to performance: the sound the ball makes when it hits the sweet spot on the club, or the “clunk” it makes when you sink a putt.
  • Olfactory interestingly, of all the senses smell is most closely linked to memory – maybe the smell of cut grass takes you back to that great putt you sank to take the win!
  • Of all the senses, though, my favourite for mental rehearsal is this one:
  • Kinaesthetic (feeling) – an important part of mental rehearsal is feeling yourself performing. Each shot has a particular rhythm to it, and, in fact, a lot of performance is about finding and maintain this rhythm. Feelization is about feeling the rhythm of the movement you are mentally rehearsing. You may not be able to put into words what you are feeling – that’s OK – but you should “feel” it in your body. By feeling the skill you want to practise, you help your muscles remember the correct sequence of firing needed for that movement.

What I like about this is that not everyone can “see” themselves performing – they can’t create a clear image in their minds – or some can’t hear the sounds of performance. But almost all golfers can feel the rhythm of a great swing.

Try to pick a skill (a drive, a chip or a putt) and spend a few minutes every day mentally rehearsing and feeling the skills. That is practice without practising.


About the author

Dr Kirsten van Heerden is one of only a few people in South Africa to have represented her country as an athlete and hold a PhD in sport psychology. She has worked and travelled extensively within high performance sport for more than 15 years. She has published a book on the challenges athletes face when they retire from elite sport called Waking from the Dream and hosts her own podcast called ‘Behind the Dream’ where she talks with some of the world’s best athletes about the ups and downs of being a professional athlete. She is also the founder and chairperson of Girls Only Project – a non-profit company focusing on women in sport issues. She is in private practice at Newton Sports Agency.