The past, present and future of mental coaching in golf

As professional golf grows more lucrative, the sport’s elite players are left searching for an advantage. That edge is coming in the form of sports psychology

Davis Love III vividly remembers the events that ultimately led to his introduction to sports psychologist Bob Rotella. During the 1970s and 1980s, Golf Digest sponsored three- and five-day golf schools that were co-hosted by Jim Flick, Peter Kostis and Davis Love Jr. During one of those academies in the mid-1980s, Golf Digest brought in Rotella, positioning him as someone who was “on the cutting edge of sports psychology.” Even with that endorsement, some of those in attendance were dubious, including at least one of the school’s co-hosts.

“In the beginning, my dad thought it was witchcraft,” Love says. “He was very skeptical. But my dad also wanted to learn.”

As Love acknowledges, once his father understood what Rotella taught, how he taught it, and that those teachings could make a difference, he quickly converted from being a skeptic to being someone who wanted Rotella to write a chapter in his upcoming instructional golf book. He also wanted Rotella to begin working with his son (Love III), who had just started out on the PGA Tour.

Shell Houston Open — Davis Love III
Davis Love III wishes he would have adopted sports psychology younger in his career, which featured 21 PGA Tour wins, including the 1997 PGA Championship.

Of course, Love also reveals that his father adhered to other old-fashioned tendencies that have been decisively refuted by today’s best players. As the major champion recalls, his father told him to stop playing high school basketball because the team lifted weights as part of its training regimen. “You can still be fast and flexible but also very big and strong,” Love III says. “Look at all the best pro golfers [today]. They’re just as fit as any NBA player.”

Similarly, he believes that more golfers will soon incorporate regular mental coaching.

“Golf has become a big-money, high-profile sport, and if you want to win you have to work out and you have to use a sports psychologist,” he says. “You have to be doing the little things that other people aren’t willing to do. More people use the gym on tour these days than they use sports psychology, but I think that’s going to catch up because guys are looking for an edge.”

In fact, when a young golfer approaches Love III and asks what he would’ve done differently during his playing career, the 1997 PGA Championship winner and two-time U.S. Ryder Cup Captain doesn’t suggest making swing plane adjustments. He doesn’t point to different coaching or equipment. And he doesn’t wish that he had spent more time hitting balls on the range. Instead, he tells that junior golfer that he wishes he had dedicated himself more to fitness and regrets not incorporating sports psychology into his regular training program.

“A perfect swing,” he says, “can’t overcome a bad attitude or a lack of confidence.”

For more than 40 years, Rotella has been a confidence guru for scores of collegiate and professional golfers, and as he reflects back on those four-plus decades, Rotella acknowledges that what he teaches and how he teaches it hasn’t really changed. “I’ve spent my whole life trying to make psychology simple and explainable,” he says. “Basically, I tell my players if it’s not simple and doesn’t sound logical, you better question it. Most of the stuff that works is pretty simple and pretty logical.”

That said, he does admit that his approaches have changed subtly over the years; however, that evolution has less to do with what he teaches or even how he teaches it. Instead, it’s a reflection of how he might convey a psychological principle to a client. “It evolves with people you work with,” he says, “because over time you have a better understanding of them and they have a better understanding of what comes easy to them and what doesn’t.

“The easy part is telling them what they need to do,” he adds. “The challenge is to get them to be in that state of mind and live it every day, year after year after year.”

Golf Is Not A Game Of Perfect cover

As more elite golfers — professionals and amateurs alike — begin incorporating routine sports psychologist sessions into their training programs, more mental coaches have predictably joined the ranks. As Rotella has observed, not all of those psychologists seem motivated by the most basic tenet at sport psychology’s core. For example, Rotella dedicated 15 years working with the world’s best players before he wrote his first book on the topic. That book, “Golf is Not a Game of Perfect”, was published in 1995 and serves as a foundational reading for amateur golfers of all ability levels who want to learn how they can maximize their potential.

“I wanted to make sure that everything I was telling people worked,” says Rotella, offering up an explanation as to why he waited so long to write that book — he’s now published a dozen titles on the mental side of golf. “But today, I see people write a book before they’ve helped anybody. They’re writing a book to promote their name.”

While Love III believes that sports psychology is gradually becoming a more prominent piece of training for the world’s elite players, all of whom are looking for any competitive advantage that they can get, Rotella acknowledges that an increasing number of golfers are in need of a mental coach’s acumen due to how and where younger players are seeking fixes to their self-diagnosed swing flaws. “A lot more young players are getting really confused on their mechanics because they’re reading so much online instructional material trying to find ‘perfect’ and they end up not believing in anything,” he says.

“The real goal,” Rotella continues, “would be to have everyone have the right information — to make it available so a player could coach themselves and we [sports psychologists] aren’t needed. It probably will never happen, but philosophically it’s the right way to approach it.”

Like Love III, Brad Faxon remembers a time when the concept of mental coaching was heavily stigmatized. “Back then if you saw a sports psychologist, you didn’t tell a lot of people about it,” he says. “Now everyone calls themselves performance coaches, so the name has evolved, too.”

Unlike Love III, who regrets not dedicating more time during his playing career to the strengthening of his mental capacities out on the course, Faxon immediately embraced his sessions with Rotella. “When I met him, there was nobody else like him,” he says. “I probably talked with Rotella every week of my career. I was as close to Bob as any of the players back in the day. He was one of the biggest influences in my life.”

Today, Faxon spends a fair amount of time coaching younger players, specifically in the areas of putting and the short game. “You can’t talk about that without talking about the mental side of the game,” he says. And Faxon does talk with his students about the mental approaches that will assist them, but he also knows his boundaries.

“I know what’s helped me and what’s helped other players, so I can repeat what Rotella has told me, but that doesn’t make me a sports psychologist,” he says. “But it’s incredible when somebody gets into a state of mind — whether you want to call it ‘the zone’ or ‘a flow state.’ They play better once they start thinking better and without a lot of technical change.”

Faxon may not refer to himself as a sports psychologist and he’ll likely never call himself a performance coach, as some psychologists do. But he’s observed the tendencies and the approaches that a younger generation of sports psychologists are bringing to the game, and he’s skeptical of their effectiveness.

“They’re trying to use bigger words and fancier terms and more science and more data,” he explains. “It’s hard to pare that down and make things applicable. Who are you trying to impress?  Yourself?  Or are you trying to get your athlete to play better?”

Even as some players now have to work harder to find a mental coach who’s right for them, the potential improvement that working with the right coach can bring provides all the necessary motivation for those players to make the effort. In fact, Faxon believes there’s so much left to learn about psychological training that there may come a time when the best golfers have the mental ability to consistently play in that ideal flow state. “It’s a resource that we’re just tapping into,” he says.

Like Bob Rotella, Bhrett McCabe, a licensed clinical psychologist, is popular among PGA Tour players. His client list includes amateurs and professionals who have won at the highest level, but as someone who ventured into mental coaching for golf only a decade ago, he has a slightly different perspective on where and how the business is changing. But according to McCabe, it is changing.

“We’re starting to embrace the unique way in which people face and respond to pressure — the psychological fingerprint,” he says. “It’s focusing on individual personalities. How does the person see the shot in their unique way? We’re getting much more personalized with mental coaching and psychology. We’re learning more that the way people process information is truly unique from person to person.”

First and foremost, McCabe explains what he does and how he does it by saying, “it’s not very psych-y or shrink-y.” And he’s quick to point out that he’s not typically talking with players while they’re lying on his couch sharing their darkest fears. Instead, he’s meeting and talking with players and their entire team—the caddy, swing coach, fitness coach, and anyone else that has been brought in to that player’s entourage. “I enjoy working within a team,” he says. “And everyone knows that when I’m there I’m a part of the team and we try to work within that dynamic.”

A lot of times, those team meetings occur on the range, and there will be instances when McCabe spends more time listening or talking with the swing coaches than he will talking with the player.

“Swing coaches are much better in the application of the many underlying psychological principles that we teach. They’re integrating that into their daily training,” he explains. “So I’ll teach the coaches how to teach the practices.”

McCabe has also discovered that he may learn something about the player’s mental state by talking with the swing coach, only because that coach is working with the player on such a regular basis that he’ll hear things the player says that the player won’t even think to mention to McCabe directly.

“I’m communicating through the coach or through the caddie about something that I see,” he says, “and then we’ll talk about it afterward.”

In some cases, McCabe’s clients can’t even put a finger directly on what it is that they’ve worked on with the psychologist, but the results speak for themselves. As one of the players who routinely works with McCabe likes to say, “I don’t know what we work on, but I always feel better [afterward].”

Much like Faxon and Love III, McCabe acknowledges that as overall performance training has gotten better and as the stakes have risen in professional golf, players are recognizing that they have to stay on the cutting edge. Because of that, mental coaching is poised for a major surge in popularity.

“The field is deepening,” he declares. “We’re about 20 years behind physical conditioning, and we’ve seen the growth that that has had. I think we’re on the tip of the iceberg on the mental coaching side.”