Mastery Orientation

GGA Mental Game Coach

Your brain is amazing.

It regulates your body process, allows you to analyze and interpret external stimuli and is the source of the very consciousness that allows you to read this sentence.

And it is also an incredible survival tool.

The brain has a very powerful (but primitive) threat response system designed to keep you alive. Great when you need to run from a tiger (as you may have needed to 50,000 years ago), but not so great when you want to perform at your best in a competitive situation (like the Spring member-guest against your buddies.)

Your brain’s threat response system is always monitoring your external environment to determine if your safety is in jeopardy, much like aa software program running silently in the background. You probably aren’t even aware of it.

The challenge with this system is that it is not smart enough to know the difference between a saber-toothed tiger running toward you (which could ACTUALLY harm you) and a slippery downhill 10-footer on the eighteenth hole to tie your match.

In both cases, your brain goes into threat response because it has assessed that you might lose something very important to you. It signals to your body that you are in danger.

The problem? On the golf course, this response has physical and mental implications. Sweaty palms impact your ability to hold the putter properly. Nervous, shaking hands affect your ability to move the putter as you would like to. And clouded judgment can impact the kind of decision-making that keeps you in your process.

So what to do?

I believe that we can be successful more consistently in nearly any performance context when we do certain things to prevent the brain’s threat response from activating.

I coach my clients on the distinction between operating from a Mastery Orientation versus operating from an Outcome Orientation. And I teach them how to adopt a Mastery Orientation whenever stepping into any kind of performance arena.

The primary difference between the two operating orientations is this: people who operate a Mastery Orientation are concerned with elevating their competence. People who operate from an Outcome Orientation are concerned with proving their competence.

Because of this, a golfer with a Mastery Orientation has a distinct performance advantage. They are more likely to stay connected to all their skills and abilities. And they can execute at a high level and do things like:

  • tune into their surroundings in productive ways
  • stick to their game plan and make clear decisions
  • stay in the present moment and execute their process
  • feel the putter move freely
  • be playful and PLAY the game

This is because they are not wrapped up in results. To them, outcomes are important, but only insomuch as they (the outcomes) reflect where they (the golfer) are on their own path to mastery.

They know deep down that the WORST that can happen is that they will learn something: about their game, their capacity for resilience, their ability to compete in certain conditions…etc. And because they hold this knowledge, their brain’s primitive threat response is not activated as easily.

When they hit wayward shots, they see those shots in the context of their overall goals in golf – and not as defining moments in that particular competition, nor even how they define their own self-worth.

In a way, golfers who operate from a Mastery Orientation have written a story for themselves about what their experiences on the golf course mean to them. And they access that story each time they play.

For them, golf is not (entirely) about winning or losing, but rather about growing in their mastery of the game. Each shot – no matter the stakes – is an opportunity to learn and improve, not a challenge.

The result? They play better. They score better. And typically enjoy themselves more.

On the other hand, the golfer who operates from an Outcome Orientation is typically in for a much more emotionally-charged ride on the course. Why? Because their ego is heavily involved in how they see each shot. (Remember, they are trying to PROVE their competence, not grow it.)

When they stand at the first tee, they experience anxiety because they are trying to show the world the fruits of all their hard work on the range. (We call this pressure.)

And when they have to face that slippery downhill 10-footer, the dominant thoughts are not about what they could gain, but rather about what they might lose. They experience what my colleague and NHL hockey prospect coach Walter Aguilar calls horizontal thinking: they “move horizontally” in their thinking to the future, imagining how awful it would be to miss the putt and to lose their credibility with their friends and/or competitors.

As a result, they begin to lose access to their high-level cognitive functioning, as well as the physical skills and abilities they possessed prior to starting the round. And of course, this can start a kind of performance death spiral that is very difficult to pull out of.

The good news is that you have options. You can choose the mental and emotional stance from which to operate when you play. You can choose the orientation you want to adopt when playing golf.

I hope you choose a Mastery Orientation.

Paul Monahan, PCC is a Peak-Performance coach, member of the International Coach Federation and a certified COR.E Performance Dynamicsä Specialist. He resides in Cleveland, Ohio with his wife Paula and is the proud dad to three young men. He works with elite-level performers and leaders, helping them to expand their awareness so that they perform at their best more consistently.


He can be reached at

Paul Monahan

Paul Monahan

Paul Monahan is an International Coach Federation (ICF) - credentialed coach working in the arena of human potential. Paul’s clients are leaders, executives, athletes and musicians who are serious about transforming how they perform in critical moments. His experiences in leadership and development over a highly-successful 25-year corporate career have created powerful context and understanding for the leaders and executives he coaches. Additionally, his passions and experiences in sports and music have uniquely positioned Paul to profoundly impact his clients in those areas as well.

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