Take one of the two or three best players in the world and mix in a dose of the full-on "zone" and you get Rory McIlroy's first seven holes at the Players Championship Friday: Five birdies, an eagle and a par, to go out 7-under after seven.
Your own personal streak might constitute five pars in a row -- or even five bogies -- but the question is the same for every player. How do you get on a roll, and once you're on it, how do you stay on it?
Peak performance expert Dr. Michael Lardon has worked with players from the PGA Tour, NFL and MLB, as well as Navy SEALs and Fortune 500 CEOs. His research into the mind and the "zone" has turned into two books, Mastering Golf's Mental Game and Finding Your Zone. He says the top competitors use a variety of strategies to achieve "thought hygiene" -- a state where bad thoughts are cleaned out and replaced by positive ones.
"You think of hygiene mostly in the sense of going to the dentist and getting your teeth cleaned, but the word works equally well for your mental state," says Lardon. "It's the process of saying to yourself, what is the best way to think if scoring better is the goal?"
In Mastering Golf's Mental Game, Lardon described working with Phil Mickelson during a time when Mickelson complained that he was getting too technical with his swing. At the range, Lardon asked Mickelson to picture himself when he was swinging well. Once Mickelson had that image solidified in his mind, Lardon asked him to use that -- and only that -- as his pre-swing mental picture when he warmed up before his next tournament round. "The goal is to work on reproducing the image and feeling, not getting caught up in mechanics or 'don't do this,'" says Lardon. "Reproducing the feeling of swinging well will take care of the mechanics. The mind works best when it keeps things nice and simple."
"Think about something else" might be the most trite advice in the mental performance playbook, but it can be useful if you actually do it the right way, says Lardon. The problem comes when players try to "go blank" in pressure situations. Instead of thinking about the nerve-wracking putt or drive they need to hit, they try to think about nothing. That's really hard for anybody to do. A better strategy is to look at the pressure situation realistically -- "I have a hard shot here, so what do I need to do?" and then substitute a "process" thought for an "outcome" thought and focus that way. For the average player, that means thinking about "finish high" or "make my turn" instead of "don't hit it right."