Conquering the Mental Game of Golf with Lou Solarte

LOU SOLARTEFor over two decades, Indian Lakes’ PGA Professional Lou Solarte has coached many top players in the Chicago area. His teaching system includes video and 3D motion analysis, personalized mental game coaching and he is also certified by the Titleist Performance Institute. For more information on Lou, visit his website at www.lousolarte.com.

In this episode of The Chicago Golf Report Podcast, Lou gives you some valuable quick tips on how to reset your thoughts after bad shots and how your mind alone can dictate your success on the golf course.

Interviewer: Walter Lis. Running Time: 38:07
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WL: Our guest this episode is Indian Lakes PGA professional Lou Solarte. For over 2 decades, Lou has coached many top players in the Chicago area and many junior golfers who have played at the collegiate level. His teaching system includes video and 3D motion analysis, personalized mental game coaching, and he’s also certified by the Titleist Performance Institute. For more information on Lou, visit his website at lousolarte.com.

Thanks for joining us today Lou. Can you start by talking a little bit about how and why you got involved with golf?

LS: I’ve been a pro since 1986 and have worked at various clubs, mostly on the east coast. I came back to Illinois; I grew up in Towne Park, on North Shore. I came back to Illinois in 1996, I believe it was and was the Director of Instruction at Cantigny Golf for, I guess, about 13 years. I left there a couple years ago. I got to teaching full time when I was at the Country Club of Fairfield, in Fairfield, Connecticut and my… one thing I found out quickly was that there are just so many different aspects of being an effective coach. You’ve got to be able to fit golf clubs; teach the mental game; golf swing mechanics, the obvious one; the last 10 years or so, golf fitness and 3D analysis. Now the launch monitor technology is really taking off in the last 6 or 7 years.

So just to be a well rounded coach was always my goal when I went full-time. When I was at Cantigny, I created a sort of one-stop shop that you could get all those things in one place. It was supposed to have him see a specialist in different areas. So that’s always been my goal is to just kind of stay ahead of the learning curve and learn as many different things as I could to be a well-rounded coach.

WL: You also have a bit of a background in baseball, is that correct?

LS: I do. I am actually in the process of taking over 5 Tool Baseball Academy in Naperville. I was a baseball player, as well, in my youth and I was actually pretty good. I got back involved with it when I started doing 3D analysis with Chris Welch at ZenoLink; I was one of his first few golf clients back in 1998. Chris does 3D analysis in virtually every sport. His 2 main are baseball pitching and hitting, and golf. But he has also done a lot of work with US Track and Field. He’s done New England Patriots football; he’s worked with the Calgary Flames in hockey. Once I got effective at reading the grass, and prescribing sort of training, regimenting golfers; he’s always said that golf is the most difficult of all sports as far as from a 3D analysis perspective.

I got interested in the baseball. Once I had the learning base for golf, the baseball came pretty easy. I got hooked up with 5 Tool Academy about 4 years ago, doing the 3D analysis and then got into coaching both pitching and hitting, more from that sort of angle, which is just not found in traditional baseball instruction; at least at the root level.

WL: So you’re experience with the 3D analysis, is that something that you utilize with…Like what kind of percentage of your golf students do you implement that with, too?

LS: I would say at one point or another, the longer I stay with a client, I would say probably 50%. Especially somebody that is really trying to make a go of it as a professional, I always do it. The 3D analysis really is sort of the underlying fingerprint of the motion. It kind of drives the mechanics of what we see with our eyes. A lot of times, what’s happening at the surface…If you don’t see what’s underneath it and supporting it, it’s very difficult to change. You see a lot of players that get great lessons, but once they go back out on the golf course or get under competition, those underlying patterns take back over. The brain typically likes to do what it is familiar with, as opposed to what might be best. I think that’s were that 3D really helps you make long term changes.

WL: So, in addition to your 3D analysis, background, and all the other, as you said, putting together all these tools on your tool belt and your background with the 5 Tool Academy, you also just started with Indian Lakes. Is that correct?

LS: Yes, I just started there back in April.

WL: Okay, and there you are able to implement all of these other tools.

LS: It’s going to take a little time to get the client base up there. The way we’re going about it is we’re trying to get a really good junior golf program going. I have a lot of adult clients that are up in that area. But it will take a little bit of time to get the word out up in that area. Even though I’m moving, what 20 miles or so, 15 miles? It does make a difference. It seems like once you get out of your neighborhood; even though I have a somewhat recognizable name in the golf industry, to get it to the root level, it will take a while to get everything built back up.

WL: One of the other tools in your arsenal that is very interesting to me is you are certified with GolfPsych. Can you tell me a little bit about that and the mind-fitting approach that they talk about?

LS: Sure. GolfPsych was started by Dr. Deborah Graham; I want to say back in the mid to late 1980’s. She actually did her Doctorate with Formula One drivers. What she did is she gave, and I don’t know the numbers but I imagine it would have been a pretty significant amount of data she collected, the drivers the Cattell 16pf personality profile. What she wanted to see was; was there sort of a mental model that made up a great Formula One driver. She took that research-she was a golfer at the time-and started working with LPGA Tour players.

She formed 3 test groups. One was champions; the champions group had at least 10 years on tour and an average of one win per year. Or if you had a player, say like John Daly, who’s won 2 Majors, that sort of counted as a champions group if you did really well in Majors.

The second group was the near-champions; 10 years on tour; one or 2 wins.
And then the third group was the non-champions, 10 years on tour with non-wins, zero wins.

What she found in the champions group, of the 16 personality traits was that 8 of the traits, the champions group scored within the 95 percentile. So, fairly significant number, and that’s how she developed the 8 traits of champion golfers.
She then took that research and applied it to PGA Tour players and Senior PGA Tour players; just because obviously she felt a men’s Tour player wouldn’t really buy into what she found with the LPGA, so she wanted confirmation of her findings across gender. She found that it was virtually the same.

What she has done is developed a program within the 8 traits, for lack of understanding, and she’s created sort of a mental model. When a student comes in the first step is to do the personality assessment. We see where their scores are and then we overlay their profile over the champion’s profile and we get to work on the most significant areas.
Does that give you a sense?

WL: Yes, it definitely does. Can you give me an idea of how do you…Say you talk about the 8 personality components…Say, for example that I’m missing a lot of that. How do you go about improving that? Or can you? Can I be adjusted and can you work with me so I could score higher and improve myself in those specific areas?

LS: Well, we’re talking about personality. First we do an initial consultation; we see what the main issues are with the player. Then, as I said, we do the personality assessment. And within each of the 8 traits, there are skills that you can learn. Say, an effective pre-shot routine. If somebody tends to have a little bit wider focus, meaning that their senses are stimulated externally. Somebody that stands over a putt and notices people walking around or hears the cart going into reverse 2 fairways over versus somebody who is more sort of internally stimulated.

You’ve heard these stories about Hogan; he would walk by and not recognize you; or Nicklaus where his hat blew off and he walked off the green and didn’t even know his hat was no longer on his head. That’s somebody that is able to block things out.

So we see where that person is and then within each of the 8 traits, there are mental skills that we teach that help you at least get better on the golf course. We’re not looking to change somebody’s personality. But we sort of hold up the mirror; let them see where their mental game is causing them to lose shots; or their mental game is causing them to be less than effectively prepared to play tournament golf. And, basically, how they may be mentally sabotaging their game.

WL: I think that was one of the things that stood out with me when I was learning a little bit more about GolfPsych.
There were a couple of the components that they talked about working with you to improve on and a couple of them were “eliminate faulty thinking and strengthen your confidence.” Those kind of stuck out with me. I recently was playing a round and I was playing very well through about the first 8 holes, and right around the 9th or 10th hole, I started to get that idea of, well how long is this going to last? I was almost self-sabotaging myself at that point. I’m thinking, “Okay, well, you were playing above your level.” And I was thinking, “How do I do this, why do I do this?”

LS: Right, exactly. A lot of it is that you are obviously getting ahead of yourself. You’ve heard the old cliché “one shot at a time.” One of the things that we use in that particular scenario is that we give you a set of skills to help you exchange thought at that point. One of them that I use is once a player acknowledges “uh oh, here I go. I’m thinking or I’m getting way ahead of myself” obviously. So somewhere around the 8th hole you probably started thinking about your career best round or “If I do this, if I shoot 39 on the back I break 70” all sorts of little mind games. At that point we give you, “If this happens, then count backwards from 100” and then with each number; especially the guys that love sports, I get them to think about an athlete whose number represents the number that you are at. So 99 would be Wayne Gretzky; 98 would be a lineman in football; and so on. You actually go out and find players in different sports that represent that particular number and then you just start going backwards as far back as you can take it.
You typically, if you get really effective at that game, since the mind really can only think of one thing at a time; what that does is it takes you out of that negative thinking.

WL: So it’s just replacing a thought at that point and time.

LS: Replace the thought. Another one is; and this was a great one at Cantigny; typically when a player is inside their head…If you watched any of the open yesterday, after about the 5th hole they didn’t show Dustin Johnson anymore, he was pretty much out of contention. A couple of the times they were showing him, he was staring straight down.
So typically when a player is looking down, he’s not really looking at anything as much as he’s inside his head. So we have our players pick their eyes up. At courses up in the North, such as Cantigny, I have them count squirrels. So you look up in the trees and see how many squirrels you can find. Anything that will take your attention and throw it outwards. So you are bringing information in as opposed to creating it inside your head. It has the same effect of where you are actually substituting the thought as opposed to standing there and saying “No, I can’t think about that; I can’t think about that.

You’ve heard that in psychiatry circles they say “Don’t think about the pink elephant.” The more you say that, the pinker and the bigger the elephant seems to get.

WL: Yes, that’s very interesting; the whole idea of controlling your thoughts, controlling what is being pumped into your mind and how you are affecting. I would imagine golf probably lends itself to that more than any other game just because it is so cerebral.

LS: Cerebral and you just have so much time in between shots. In tennis, the next serve is coming within 30 seconds. In tennis, just by the nature and speed of the game, the mental game tends to be different. Golf and baseball pitching tend to be so much similar. Because of the pace of the game and you’re actually the one that’s controlling the action. Meaning, once you get over the ball, golfers are limited in time as are pitchers, but 30 seconds to a minute over the ball is just an eternity.

WL: One of the things that always seemed to happen with me, and I think I’m getting a little bit better, thankfully, with age; when things would go bad for me on the golf course, it would seem like the whole world would be imploding. Literally, everything could be going from “It’s a beautiful day and we’re having a great time out here” to “It’s a horrible day in my mind and my game has never been worse.” It’s funny how the whole world can come collapsing down quickly. Is that something that is kind of unique? That whole the way we put everything into how our lives are shaped on the golf course? Or is that unique to golf, or is that something that you can see with other sports? Or is it a case of, like you said, where you just have so much time between shots?

LS: That’s part of it, and then a lot of that part of the mental game is the player’s reality, how we think about things we tend to create. You had alluded to earlier you have to aid them and you said something like here we go again. Typically we like to sit down with a player and really go back in time and re-create history so what I mean by that is especially tournament players, they can typically go back to a point in their lives where certain things might have happened that created sort of those thoughts like “Woe is me, everybody is against me,” that sort of thing.

One of the skills that I use, I’m also an NLP practitioner in neuro linguistics programming and one of the skills that I learned in NLP was re-creating past history. Basically you take a person and you have them sit down and it’s almost like they’re in a meditative state and you have them re-live that situation or describe it in as much detail as possible. Their playing partners, the weather that day, how they got to that point in their round that one thing may have happened.

Then what we do is just like re-writing scene in a movie because we take them through that with a different outcome and then in time just teach the player how to un-hook that so that when they get in similar situations, their brain starts drawing from a different resource and when they get in that same situation in a round it may be that when we re-write the script it’s just simplifying the shot, if they had to hit a drive in a tough position then what they did was tried hitting sort of a miraculous recovery shot and the ball ended up in a worse place. Very similar to what happened to Dustin Johnson yesterday.

If I had been his caddie, I would have just had him walk backwards down the fairway and just completely disengage from where he was. I don’t know if you saw that pit shot he tried to hit from that after he hit it left-handed, then he [fled 0:24:24.7] that little pitch. That just looked like a shot that you would hit when you’re screwing around with your buddies on the practice screen where you flip the face open and just do goofy stuff.

I would have just disengaged him completely from the situation and said, “Let’s just figure out a way to start this round over again.” But I would have done something to get him out of that situation, so, he’ll have to un-hook that if he doesn’t want to be drawing from that experience at any point in his career from this point on.

WL: In your experience with NLP, is that sort of a process that Dustin Johnson would go through? Is that doable for him?

LS: Absolutely. I mean, we do this stuff. I don’t know if you know much about NLP but its neuro linguistics programming. If you Google NLP of Chicago it’s basically the study of human excellence and how we do things sort of at a subconscious level and then the opposite of that is how we do the exact same things but only just wire things together so that we can achieve that state of excellence, so yes, he could definitely do that.

It would probably be a pretty good idea for him going forward because I’m sure that was such a traumatic experience for him. What he did, he almost feels as badly I imagine as Graeme McDowell feels exhilarated. He would be the opposite side of the coin.

WL: I would say too that for some of us watching, it was pretty traumatic too.

LS: Absolutely.

WL: For someone like myself who’s prone to get those kind of secondary thoughts creep into my mind, I’m thinking, “Oh no, this is a nightmare.” I almost kind of felt like I was living it with him.

LS: Exactly. The kid, I can’t recall his name now, I think it was just last week in Memphis. Robert Garrigus. It’s that same thing and I said to somebody, “If you’ve ever played tournament golf, you’ve had a dream like this.” You’ve woken up in the middle of the night and gone, “Thank God.” That’s the reality of it and you know exactly what I’m talking about. If you’ve played, you’ve been there, done that.

WL: Yes, that’s kind of remarkable in the last two weeks in the PGA tour, we’ve these kind of had these mental breakdowns as severely as they’ve been. Especially for Garrigus, he played 71 holes flawlessly and then the wheels came completely off. With Dustin Johnson, he was exceptionally dominant through the first three rounds so it’s quite amazing and it was interesting what Dustin Johnson’s caddie was saying, and Johnny Miller kept talking about how he was a flatliner, and Johnny Miller said, “There’s no such thing as a flatliner at the US Open,” which came true I guess.

LS: Right.

WL: This is all very fascinating. It sounds like from your swing teaching through the 3D analysis especially through this stuff, the GolfPsych and the neuro linguistic programming. You have a lot of tools in the arsenal. For somebody who is a golfer and say the average 20 handicapper, would they benefit from coming and seeing you and working through GolfPsych?

LS: The GolfPsych is basically a complete game improvement plan. I don’t know how much you’ve gone into their website. What I can do is set you up a little mock town on there and basically I take a client, we do the initial assessment to do the personality profile. We set goals and we create a locker online that is where they can put their physical ratings as we call it so that would be greens and regulations, number of pods, fairway hits, etc., and then also we give them a way of assessing and grading their mental game round to round and they put those scores in there.
It can actually keep track of how they’re progressing. The typical amateur will learn how to improve. There’s sort of an industry wide belief that you need to have a good swing before you can be a good golfer so people spend years and years trying to figure out the elusive swing, and yet they step up to the tee with a real faulty mental game and the faulty mental game will win virtually every time.

If Dustin Johnson goes to see his swing coach to figure out what went wrong yesterday, he’s in the wrong place, wouldn’t you agree?

WL: Definitely.

LS: I think a lot of amateurs buy into this belief, “I have to take lesson after lesson to get the golf club I’m playing, get the grip right, do this and that.” Although that is important, to shoot in the 80s, you can be much less than perfect and what the GolfPsych teaches you is simple things like a pre-shot routine.

What are the essential things or the process that I go through to hit a shot from Point A to Point B. It teaches you visualization so t he way I describe it is before you ever take a golf club out of your bag, especially in a short game, you’ve got to create a mental movie of what you want to see the golf ball do, so how high, where is it going to land, how is the ball going to react once it lands, how much roll and which way is it going to break, etc., etc., and as much visual detail that you can sort of program into the brain before you ever select a club then your chances of hitting that shot are much greater.

The fact is that most players simply take a club out and then go into the aspects of making a swing as opposed to being more artistic and seeing the shot which is the way that the majority of people’s brains work, if you can’t see it then it’s going to be pretty hard for you to actualize it.

WL: That’s really fascinating. Many of the things you just talked about there kind of apply to myself too because I’m thinking how many times have I just… every day, go out, have a bucket of balls but then mentally, that’s where it’s all falling apart a lot of times.

LS: Effective practice so when you go to the range, there’s a thing that we call block practice which is basically you get a bucket of balls and then you take, most people typically it is the seven iron with the exception of the drivers is the most used club in the bag. The coach told them to fold their right elbow so they pull a ball over and they started thinking about folding their right elbow, and they work their way through the bucket with that same exact thought.

They can fall in a positive trance on the range where they start believing that they’re actually hitting the ball well because all they’re really judging is contact and direction, and they may shank one but if the next one goes straight, then they forget about the shank. The next three or four kind of land in general areas that seem to be somewhat straight and then they may hit a couple of poor ones then they hit a couple of good ones.

Then they go to the first tee and now you’ve got out of bounds right, water left, and you have to carry it 180 yards over some high rough or something. Then now the situation takes their mind out of that block practice. They didn’t go through a routine of picking a target, visualizing a shot, controlling their thoughts, doing a couple of breathing exercises and things like that, that would actually calm themselves down and make what we could call an effective swing as opposed to a mechanically driven swing.

They hit the ball out of bounds and then they tee another one up and they top it. The first thing that I always hear is, “I was hitting it so great on the range” but they’re not practicing golf the way it’s played.

WL: Okay.

LS: So hitting out into sort of a flat empty range is a whole different game and I’m sure you’ve heard of this where we have one of the greatest training games you can play on the range is to actually play the golf course. If you hit driver off the first hole, you take out your driver and then the white flag is the right edge of the rough and the big old tree on the left is a left edge and then now you’ve got to hit a shot in between those two spots.

You hit a decent shot so that would probably leave me a six iron out so then now you go and you put your driver away and you get your six iron out. Now the red flag is 160 yards out or whatever and now you go through the process of hitting a shot at the red flag. If you miss the green it would leave you a short pitch and you take out your wedge and you hit a pitch shot.

You’re actually going through and training in a more creative way and actually playing around in your mind and what you’ll find is that once you start hitting spots with different clubs, you actually start hitting the fairway with your driver and then hitting that six iron on the [graham 0:36:40.9] and now you played each of the par threes where you actually go through and play the entire course. You’re not hitting nearly as many repetitive shot s but you’re actually learning how to play golf.

WL: I would imagine that’s a much more efficient way to practice as well too.

LS: Absolutely. If you’ve got a beginner, there is a benefit to repetition to groove [inaudible 0:37:13.4] and get to the muscle memory or the mental memory of making a swing but really even with our kids, we’re teaching them how to play through their senses more than just standing there and doing repetitive practice like I mentioned earlier.

WL: Great. Thank you very much for your time and I will talk to you again.

LS: I appreciate it.

WL: Thank you Lou. Goodbye.

This has been the Chicago Golf Report podcast. Visit chicagogolfreport.com right now for exclusive discount offers, Chicago golf news, and in-depth event listings.

For over two decades, Indian Lakes' PGA Professional Lou Solarte has coached many top players in the Chicago area. His teaching system includes video and 3D motion analysis, personalized mental game coaching and he is also certified by the Titleist Performance Institute. Facebooktwitterredditlinkedinmail

Walter Lis

Walter Lis is the managing editor of Chicago Golf Report, which launched in 2010.

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