Bergen County Record – Jun 13, 2005 – Greg Mattura – You’re at the first tee, preparing for the swing that will set the tone for the entire round, perhaps the entire day. If it’s in the fairway, it means a good round, and probably a good day.

You take a quick peek behind to see how many people are watching and waiting to tee off after you, and hope this first drives finds some part of the fairway and –

Stop – you’re doing it all wrong.

Welcome to the Brain Game, the frequently frustrating facet of the game that happens between your ears and often does more harm than good. It’s that evil little inner voice that can sap you of enthusiasm, energy and confidence.

The Brain Game is the reason sports psychology continues to gain popularity, particularly for golfers and tennis players.

“In golf, there’s a lot of time to think, and it’s very difficult to fight fear or to try to be perfect, and people get in their own way,” said Lynda L. Cunjak, a psychologist and sport coach with an office in Highland Park. “You have to be able to train your mind as well as your body.”

You can train your mind, but like the game itself, it takes time and practice.

“Golf is the ultimate stress sport. In golf there’s not too many things to do, but there’s too much time to think about it,” said Robert Gilbert, an associate professor at Montclair State’s department of exercise and physical science education who teaches courses in sports psychology.

“The whole secret of sports psychology is to keep your mind off your mind.” It’s about fun and focus

Suggestions from John F. Murray, a clinical and sports performance psychologist in Palm Beach, Fla., whose clientele includes many golfers:

1. “Remember it’s fun, so have fun. Having fun in itself will take care of so many mental blocks. It erases so many problems.”

2. “Keep your focus on the moment. Don’t let your mind wander. Keep it in the present. Golf is only one shot. Even though you may shoot 72 shots if you are a scratch golfer, it’s really only one shot. It’s one shot repeated 72 times.”

PRE-COURSE PREPARATION: The Brain Game begins several hours, or even days, before you arrive at the course. It starts with your focus and commitment to avoiding the emotional highs and lows that come during a round.

“You can decide days before you play what is the perfect mental state to have,” said John F. Murray, a licensed clinical and sports performance psychologist in West Palm Beach, Fla., whose list of clients include many mini-tour golfers. “And you don’t let the moment or the disappointment or the excitement in any way, shape or form disrupt the process that you decided is beneficial to perform.”

The Brain Game also includes lots of positive imagery, before and during the round. Imagine yourself at the first tee hitting a good shot. Imagine a good chip, and a putt that finds the cup. Imagine it and you have a better change of doing it.

“You don’t want to just see it,” Gilbert said. “You want to see it, hear it, feel it, taste it.”

PRE-ROUND PREPARATION: When you arrive at the course, leave your troubles behind. Bad week at work? Problems at home? An unpleasant drive to the course? Forget about all that.

“I hear people say that they just need to clear their mind and get rid of those distractions, those stresses in life,” Murray said.

“You are going to be distracted by negativity and by bad events – those events always are going to be around you. So do you respond like [Green Bay quarterback] Brett Favre did when his father died, or do you respond the opposite way and let it destroy your performance?”

PRE-SWING PREPARATION: When you arrive at the first tee, the focus should be on your pre-swing routine. You must have a pre-swing routine, because it keeps you focused on what’s in front of you, not around you.

“Golf is such a mental sport in a sense that so much of the time is spent preparing for the next shot, so you have to be able to prepare the mind with what I call preshot routines,” Murray said.

“So what you’re doing between shots is just as, if not more, important than the shot, because that’s already an ingrained skill that hopefully you have.”

“Most people think it’s about the mind – it’s about the body,” Gilbert said. “Your acting can change your attitudes, your motions can change your emotions and your movements can change your moods.”

BATTLING ADVERSITY: Be prepared to work through adversity. Don’t let an errant shot or a bad hole destroy the round.

“Just like in life, everybody has a terrible day, and you have a choice,” Cunjak said. “You can either continue to obsess about the terrible hole, or you can say, ‘OK, I [goofed], but I have eight more holes to go and I’d really like to have a good time.’Ÿ”

IT TAKES TIME: Mastering the Brain Game takes time. A lot longer than 18 holes. It could take months.

“I don’t think there are any quick fixes out there – that’s a mistake,” Murray said. “If you look at a graph of an arrow going upward, which indicates success, there are many, many faults or failures along the way. But over time, you do improve. So you don’t want to get caught up in the short-term approach to that.”

“Mastering your thinking is not that difficult,” Cunjak said. “It has to be cultivated like any other skill. And if you’re motivated, you’ll do it.”

Dr. John F. Murray is a sports psychologist and clinical psychologist providing sports psychology and counseling services based in Palm Beach, Florida.