Mental conditioning a growing segment of the golf game

By Stuart Hall

Golf history is abundantly filled with victories claimed as a result of another golfer’s failures.

Few can forget Rory McIlroy’s final round at the Masters two years ago. He began the day with a four-stroke lead, but starting with the 10th hole, made triple bogey-bogey-double bogey en route to an 80 as Charl Schwartzel slipped on the green jacket.

Or the story of the 1966 U.S. Open, when Arnold Palmer squandered a five-stroke lead with four holes remaining to fall into a 72-hole tie with Billy Casper, then lost the 18-hole playoff the next day. Or there was Jean van de Velde making a debacle of the 72nd hole at the 1999 British Open Championship at Carnoustie. Needing only a double bogey on the final hole, van de Velde inexplicably made triple bogey to create a three-man playoff that he lost.

Those collapses we remember because they came on golf’s biggest stages. But countless, but no less significant $5 Nassau bets have also been lost in similar fashion.

For years, such instances have simply been categorized as a case of choking or cracking under pressure with no formal basis for the claim. And when noted instructor Jim Flick said, “90 percent of golf is mental, and the other 10 percent is mental too,” who really knew what he was talking about?

But there are reasons why those – and other – collapses occurred. With the naked eye, we can see what pushed a drive into the rough or why a putt was pulled from 3 feet. What we can’t see, though, are the mental machinations that triggered the errant shots. To some degree, a swing honed through hours of practice on the driving range is only as good under pressure as the mental resiliency of the golfer.

Enter Seth Kaplan, 42, director of mental conditioning at Raleigh-based Competitive Golf Advantage, which provides mental skills education and training for golfers at the junior, collegiate and professional levels.

“We’re starting to see (mental conditioning) become a huge area of growth,” he said. “Performance is performance. Chipping and putting are different than giving a presentation and engaging prospective clients in a business setting, but the whole idea of performance psychology applies to all types of performance – surgeon, pilot, athlete, military, first responder, executive.

“Common to all of them is mental and emotional factors that underlie and fuel that performance and when these performers execute with confidence, trust, focus, composure and control it’s going to give them the best chance to let out the talent and ability that they have.”

In early July, Kaplan was named the eGolf Professional Tour’s mental conditioning coach. Kaplan makes his services available to any of the developmental tour’s players.

David Siegel, president of the eGolf Tour, believes the addition of Kaplan is in keeping with the multi-dimensional evolution of today’s players.

“His resume certainly speaks for itself, and I feel as though he will be a great asset for our players,” Siegel said. “The importance of the mental aspects of golf have come full circle over the last decade, solidifying the thought that time spent on that facet of your game is every bit as important as time spent on the driving range.”

Kaplan eschews the term sports psychologist because of the embedded perception of athletes sitting on a couch and being analyzed. In fact, with golfers, Kaplan goes right to their place of business – the course.

Once Kaplan establishes a working relationship with a golfer, he performs an assessment and tailor-fits five 90-minute on-course sessions. “I walk with them just as if they were playing an actual round,’ he said. “Once they go through the mental conditioning program, then they really are at the point of self regulation.”

Kaplan, a native of St. James, N.Y., originally got an undergraduate degree in broadcast journalism at James Madison University. During his decade-long career as a sports reporter and anchor Kaplan was first drawn to the mental side of sports.

“From covering elite athletes in various sports I became fascinated with the mental aspects of the game,” he said. “When I interviewed these athletes, they were always citing mental and emotional factors that either fueled performance or hindered performance, and rarely did they ever talk about their technical game.”

In his mid-30s, Kaplan made a career move. He went back to school and earned a graduate degree in the field of sport psychology at Springfield College. Afterward, from his applied work with athletes in the Boston area, he was given the opportunity to work as a mental performance specialist for U.S. Army Special Forces and the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg.

During his time working with the military Kaplan began to realize that mental conditioning cut across all forms of professions.

Competitive Golf Advantage, launched earlier this year, is the third company created by Kaplan that focuses on the mental aspect of performance. In 2010, Kaplan began Elite Performance for elite-level athletes such as Major League Baseball’s Baltimore Orioles, who are a client. A year later, Corporate Warrior Consulting was created for managers, executive and business teams.

“All of the emotional and mental skills can be developed through mental skill building,” Kaplan said. “Often we see a golfer practice hitting a particular shot on the range or focusing on an area of physical conditioning through certain exercises. Well, the same can be done with the mind through mental conditioning.”