Husky Golfers Benefit from Mind Games

UConn golf team 2011-2012 (Steve Slade '89 (SFA) for UConn.
UConn golf team 2011-2012 (Steve Slade '89 (SFA) for UConn.
UConn golf team 2011-2012. (Steve Slade '89 (SFA) for UConn)
UConn golf team 2011-2012. (Steve Slade '89 (SFA) for UConn)

When that noted philosopher Yogi Berra theorized that “90 percent of this game is half-mental,” it was easy to tell that he was not talking about golf. The numbers were not nearly high enough.

In perhaps no other sport does the mental part of the game so influence the results – not only match by match, or round by round, but even swing by swing. And when it comes to golf at the collegiate level, mental influence may play an even larger role.

“Pretty much every kid in college golf can hit it far or whatever, but when it comes to scoring, it’s 99.9 percent mental,” says Huskies golf coach Dave Pezzino. “These kids can play. They don’t need swing instructors, or if they do, I’m recruiting the wrong guys. Everybody makes birdies when the pressure’s not on, but can you string three days together, three rounds together? That’s the biggest thing.”

Jon Wortmann  has been coaching the members of the golf team in the mental aspects of the game. (UConn Athletic Communications Photo)
Jon Wortmann has been coaching the members of the golf team in the mental aspects of the game. (UConn Athletic Communications Photo)

Still, it was not as if Pezzino went out looking for a mental coach as a way to help his Huskies improve their focus on and off the course. When one was placed right in front of him, however, he was smart enough to recognize the possibilities. Jon Wortmann was not going to try teaching the UConn players how to drive the ball farther, chip it closer, or read the green better – although as close to a scratch golfer himself, he probably could help do so – but rather, he could try to give each of the Huskies the mental strength necessary to improve in all phases of the game.

Wortmann is a highly-successful non-profit leader and corporate coach and trainer, specializing in communication, leadership, and stress reduction skills. A graduate of Carleton College, where he played tennis on a national level, and with a master’s degree from Harvard, Wortmann has co-authored three books, including Hijacked by Your Brain: Discovering the Path to Freedom From Stress. He lives in Ellington with his wife Jennifer, a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at UConn, and had absolutely no plans to become an assistant golf coach at the University.

But not long after Pezzino and Wortmann became acquainted while playing golf at Ellington Ridge Country Club, they began to talk about applying Wortmann’s skills to Pezzino’s players.

“I was first looking for ways to communicate better with our players,” Pezzino says. “With all the new media and everything that’s thrown at our guys, and all our guys are different types of learners, I was looking for different ways to communicate. Jon was able to evaluate guys by just standing off to the side in practice.”

From there, it was a short step for Wortmann to become a volunteer assistant coach and get more deeply involved with the development of the UConn players.

“When Dave asked, `Hey, would you want to help these guys?’ I was very excited because no one had ever given me deep insight as to how my head worked,” Wortmann says. “If they had, I might have had a chance to do more with my athletics, while at the same time been a good student and leader.”

The Huskies did not turn into a team of Rory McIlroys, but each of UConn’s top five players – Jeb Buchanan ’12 (BUS), Brian Hughes ’13 (CLAS), Matt Carroll ’12 (CLAS), Matthew Dziubina ’12 (CLAS), and Chris Wiatr ’15 (CLAS) – had a top 10 finish this season. And that was a first for UConn golf.

“I really didn’t know what we would be able to accomplish going in,” Pezzino says. “But to see all the guys on the team have a top 10 finish; that was a big deal. I think Jon and I are onto something here.”

Wortmann’s lessons could be applied to many sports, but can be especially effective in golf.

“It’s all about focus,” Wortmann explains. “The reason golfers make mistakes – that’s golfers at this high competitive level – is not really because they have a swing problem. If they do, they can go see Dave or their golf pro and they can get that fixed in 30 minutes. But the reason they shoot 4-under versus 4-over is the decision-making process they use to get singularly focused on doing one thing at a time. Great golfers know how. When you learn how to do that and choose those kinds of optimal ways to focus … literally, guys were making putts they never thought they could.”

With the Husky golfers’ improvement, Pezzino can work on the consistency the Huskies need to become a legitimate contender in every tournament they enter.

“What we were missing here was some mental toughness,” the six-year UConn coach says. “Trying to get the guys to understand that playing one shot at a time is a huge thing, but if they get distracted or a thought comes into their head, they have to clear their mind and start over.”

Wortmann is clearly excited about the results he has seen with the UConn golfers and intends to continue his role next season and beyond. Golf, in fact, might just be the start of something bigger.

“Certainly, this can be applied to other sports as well,” he says. “What’s interesting is, when you learn to manage your stress response, you can in fact turn it up to give yourself more adrenaline in high-impact sports like football, or even running. All this is new in being applied to sports, and UConn is the place where we are testing it. We’ll see where it goes, based on its success with golf.”

Pezzino hopes the approach will also help with the golfers themselves off the golf course.

“My biggest thing with Jon helping is that, yes, it’s going to help them play better, because it helps them think in a more relaxed way,” he says. “But we hope it helps them think better in their whole lives – with their test-taking, dealing with their parents, dealing with relationships … It’s more than golf mental skills, it’s life mental skills.”