Famed golf instructor Jim Flick was quoted as saying, “Golf is 90 percent mental, and the other 10 percent is mental too.” The sport has a unique way of challenging its competitors between the ears, testing one’s mental fortitude as much as their physical abilities.
Dr. Kevin Sverduk has made a career of teaching the mental approach to sports. Originally a tennis player at the University of Pacific, Sverduk briefly pursued a professional playing career on the court before becoming a coach. His coaching career began at his alma mater, where he served as head coach of the men’s tennis program, and included stops at Northern Colorado and Oregon. In an effort to improve as a coach, Sverduk began a master’s program in sport psychology at Pacific. He became so fascinated by the subject, he eventually earned his PhD in exercise and sport sciences, with an emphasis in sports psychology.
For the last two decades, Sverduk has been a professor in Long Beach State’s kinesiology department, and has worked with countless athletes throughout the region. He’s in his ninth season working with the men’s and women’s golf teams at USC, and Sverduk has also worked with many of the sports programs at Long Beach State.
“The most common reason people would seek a sports psychologist is this disconnect between the way they’re playing in practice and the way they’re playing in competition,” Sverduk explained. “That’s the most common frustration among athletes, parents, and coaches. They feel in practice they’re displaying a certain level of skills, but in competition they’re not getting that skill level coming out.”
One of the best pieces of advice that Sverduk can offer is to have athletes adjust their focus. In his experience, when athletes become overly focused on the results, it creates anxiety and tension which tends to push them further from their desired result.
“For a golfer, it might be a swing feel or a swing thought,” Sverduk said. “Rather than thinking of hitting the ball in the fairway or on the green, they should instead think, ‘This is the feel I want to recreate with my swing.’ And if they can focus on doing that, they get more bang for the buck. Their focus is going towards something that has a payback.”
Sverduk’s expertise has been shared with members of the Wilson golf team, including his daughter, Emi, who is one of the top young players in the area. Emi is just starting her junior year at Wilson, but has already been in contact with college coaches and has gone on a few recruiting trips.
“I definitely think my dad has taught me a lot of things,” Emi Sverduk said. “A lot of golfers care about their results all the time, and that can be really discouraging. I feel like I have a really positive outlook when it comes to golf and I think that’s why I enjoy it so much.”
Emi said that self talk is one of the main mental skills she utilizes on the golf course. Whenever she’s in the middle of a difficult round, she takes a moment to say a few encouraging words to herself and clear her head. When asked what the main advice she’s garnered from her dad, Emi was right in line with her father’s message.
“Not being so focused on the results and not getting discouraged if I don’t do so well that day,” she said. “And having mental toughness. I feel like I get so frustrated sometimes and he really helps to encourage me and that makes a huge difference.”
In addition to Emi, Kevin Sverduk also works with her teammate at Wilson, Alyson Sor, the reigning Moore League individual champion who won back-to-back Toyota Tour Cup events earlier this summer. Likewise, Emi has had her own share of success this offseason with a handful of Top 5 finishes, including a tournament win at the Phil Mickelson Junior Players Championship in San Diego a few weeks back. According to Wilson girls’ golf coach Kurt Holmes, both Emi and Alyson are special players on the golf course with a positive perspective on the game.
“Both those girls are very happy-go-lucky on the golf course,” Holmes said. “They’ll feel pressure sometimes, but it’s not very common. They just go out and play for the joy of playing. I don’t have to psychoanalyze anything, I just have to say ‘Ok, go play.’ … I’m sure Kevin helps a lot with both those girls on their mental outlook of playing golf.”
Both players will have two more years of high school golf together before Emi heads off to college, where she will no doubt continue to receive encouragement and guidance on the mental side of the game. Though they’ve never had a formal training session, Kevin says he hopes his wisdom is still being shared with his daughter, perhaps through osmosis.
“I don’t deliver it with Emi. It’s never us sitting down like we’re having a session,” he explained. “It’s me being a very supportive, caring parent who has a little bit of knowledge. I really try to pay attention to feedback and the way I communicate with her, relative to performance. I try to consistently send messages that you’re trying to have the best process, and I reinforce that with a lot of positives when her process is great.”