Golf is a uniquely competitive sport. Whilst you are attempting to outperform your opponents, their performance has no impact on your game. You play in a vacuum. To win you must overcome your own mental demons.
“We try to look at [golf] as you’re not actually trying to hit a serve past someone or block a shot or tackle someone, you’re really much more trying to play your game to the best of your ability,” said Kevin Rhoads, head coach of both the men’s and women’s golf teams at Harvard. “[Our philosophy] is about trying to focus our efforts onto things we can actually control.”
Rhoads, who was recently named the 2013 PGA New England Teacher of the Year, has coached the women’s team to Ivy League championships in four of the past six seasons. He has led the girls to their best start to a season in recent memory this year, winning three tournaments outright already in 2013-14.
Rhoads’ success as a coach is guided by a distinct philosophy that aims to alleviate the mental rigor of competitive golf. In seeking the best outcomes for his players, Coach Rhoads consistently stresses the process over the outcome.
“It makes logical sense to me that we are always trying to judge ourselves on controllable factors and though I care very, very deeply about the outcome in golf, namely the outcome of ‘the score’, unfortunately it is a couple of steps removed from what we can actually control,” Rhoads said. “So when people get really focused on trying to beat an opponent or shoot a certain score on a given day, sometimes they do it and feel really good about themselves but oftentimes they don’t … which leads to diminished performance.”
Rhoads’ introduces his argument with the following thought process: For a round, can I control the score I am going to shoot today? No, he answers, otherwise I would just shoot my best score every time. On a given hole, can I control the number of strokes I am going to shoot? No again, otherwise I would make a birdie every time. He continues: on a given shot, can I control exactly where I want to hit it? No, not even tour players have that ability, he says, if they did then they would play perfectly every day.
By embracing the above logic, Rhoads’ players are encouraged to consider what things are truly under their control, subsequently optimizing those through a well-defined process. The process is different for each player and Rhoads coins the term ‘sensory focus’ as to what goes into each individual’s process.
“We like the idea of sensory focus, which can mean many different things,” Rhoads says. “It can mean I see the outcome of the shot, I visualize it and I try to make my body do it. Or it can mean I focus on a certain tempo and when I swing like that my ball tends to go in a certain direction. For some people it’s more of a technical feel and can be feeling the club coming from a certain direction or feeling what their wrists are doing at a certain time in a swing.”
Through practice, players are able to nail down what they need to focus on in order to produce the process most suited to their game.
Crucial to this philosophy is rewiring one’s brain to evaluate shots not by their specific outcome, but rather by how the process was followed. In this way, Rhoads can ensure his players’ temperament never becomes too negative. This allows them to unleash, as he puts it, their inner athlete.
“Defining that as success instead of the other stuff frees us up to say ‘Hey, I’m doing the things I am supposed to be doing’”, Rhoads says. “Having the freedom to really only judge on those things, in my opinion, frees up each player’s athlete or machine to perform at its highest level. Whereas if we are focused on ‘I want to shoot a certain score’, or ‘I don’t want to hit it in the water’ or ‘I do want to beat that person’, then most people’s bodies don’t know what to do with that and they get a bit defensive, and they don’t perform the same way.”
Senior captain Bonnie Hu, who has played under Rhoads for four years, explains that while this philosophy has always been part of Rhoads’ creed, it has been stressed more this season than in years past. During the spring last year, Rhoads met several influential coaches in Arizona who emphasize a more mental approach to the sport, spurring him to formalize his philosophy in practice.
Hu said that her continued experience under Rhoads has allowed her to gain more from his philosophy, as she has the self confidence to overcome short-term bad outcomes.
“Once experienced you’re able to get a better perspective on things and not get too attached to an individual shot outcome,” Hu says. “As you get older you are able to have more confidence in yourself as a player. You are able to better internalize the notion ‘I just hit a bad shot, but that doesn’t mean I’m a bad player’.”
Hu’s specific process is grounded in being fully committed to the shot and that coupled with her experience has allowed her to blossom under Rhoads’ tutelage.