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Golf, The New Martial Art

Updated: May 8

From martial arts to golf

In 2001, I took my first Thai Boxing class and it changed my life. A few years later, I was teaching my first class, and a few years after that, I made the ridiculous decision to pursue a full-time career as a fight trainer. It was the best decision I’ve ever made. But after many years of fight training, and the wear and tear on the body that came along with it, I decided to retire from combat sports. But what does any of that have to do with golf? 

Golf has been a part of my life since I was a kid. My dad was a good golfer and he introduced me to the game. I’ve played on and off for most of my life. I played socially with friends in my twenties, then took it a little more seriously for a couple of summers in my thirties, but then moving around a lot led to my clubs collecting dust in the garage for a pretty long time, and when we moved to a small Brooklyn apartment, I gave them away, not sure when or if I would use them again. They were pretty old clubs anyway.

Then about 5 years ago, while living in Los Angeles, golf came back into my life after an 8 year hiatus. I ordered some old clubs off E-Bay and figured a few trips to the driving range would have me back on track in no time. I was wrong. Turns out the golf swing isn’t like riding a bicycle. At least it wasn’t for me. After a few very frustrating driving range sessions and a pathetic attempt at playing an actual round where I quit after 9 holes, too embarrassed to continue, I had a choice to make. I could either give up on my return to golf or I could try a different approach. Not being one who gives up easily on things, I chose to explore a different way. But what would that approach look like? 

That’s when I turned back to martial arts. When you think about it, the entire point of a golf swing is to hit something, just like a punch or a kick. And, just like punching or kicking, before you can hit hard and fast, you need to learn the basics. So that’s what I did, I went back to basics. I worked on easy quarter-swing shots, focusing purely on making good contact. Once that felt easy, I moved up to half swings, again focusing on contact. As I got closer to a full swing, I studied slow-motion videos of some of the best players, to see what position their bodies were in at contact, then recreated those positions as best I could. This was how I learned many of the martial arts techniques I came to master, so I figured why not use the same strategy for golf? After a few more weeks, it all started to click. I can still remember the exact moment when I flushed a 5 iron for the first time and hit the 200-yard marker at the driving range. It felt amazing! I was ready to head back onto the course. 

Of course, there’s more to golf, and especially scoring in golf, than hitting good shots on the range. I was reminded of that point pretty quickly when I discovered how terrible my short game was. So, I started the process all over again, starting with the easiest chips and working my way back. It took a little longer than I would have liked, my ego taking a significant beating at times, but I eventually got there, and my scores started getting better. But after a few months and several rounds later, I felt stuck. Though my technique kept improving, my scores didn’t. What was going on? After one round where I felt like I had hit the ball really well, yet didn’t have the score to match it, I went over my round shot by shot. That’s when it hit me. There were at least 6 or 7 bad shots that could have easily been avoided if I had just taken my time and made better decisions. It had nothing to do with technique or any of the physical aspects of my game, it came down to the mental game. 

breath training for golf
Breath training and visualization for golf

Again, I was able to draw from my fight training experience here too. There was a time in my fighting days when I had all the technical skills I needed, and the physical fitness to match it, but I wasn’t getting the results I wanted in the ring. A lot of that changed when I discovered breath training and meditation. Adding those tools to my arsenal allowed me to slow things down in the ring, take control of my mind and my emotions, and I started to perform to the level of my abilities. So why couldn’t I do the same for golf? 

So I started experimenting with different ways to introduce breath training and visualization into my golf game. Looking back at the mental mistakes I was making on the golf course, I realized that they were often due to moving too quickly and not taking the time to think things through. So how could I slow things down? Simple, by forcing myself to take a long deep breath before each shot. I tried it on the range first, standing behind the ball, taking a deep breath, and then stepping up to hit my shot. It only took a few extra seconds, but the results were promising. I felt more in control and more confident when I stepped up to the ball. But would it translate on the golf course? Only one way to find out. 

I wasn’t consistent with it right away. Like all new things it can take some time to replace old habits, but as my consistency with my new pre-shot routine started to improve, so did my scores. But it wasn’t just my scores that improved, it was my overall golfing experience. I remember playing one summer evening when I was on the course as the sun was setting with a few holes left to play, taking a deep breath before a shot, then stepping back from that shot, turning to my playing partners and commenting on how beautiful this moment was. They probably thought I was weird, but I learned something else about golf that day, it can be so much more than what score you shoot. In that moment, I could have hit the worst shot of my life and probably wouldn’t have cared, well maybe I would have cared a little, but the lesson was clear - taking the time to breathe, to appreciate the moment, improved my golfing experience exponentially, and as a bonus, my scores got better too. 

Over the past few years, I’ve applied more lessons from my martial arts training to golf. Using combinations of breathing and visualization to prepare for a round. Learning how to manage stress and my emotions in those high-pressure moments. Improving my pre-shot routine to include better decision-making and visualizing the shot I intend to hit. But for all the mental tools I was developing, I never forgot the importance of putting in the reps and focusing on the technical aspects of my swing, which in turned built up my confidence, which fed back to my mental game. I also knew that I needed to balance all that work with fitness and mobility training if I wanted to stay strong and avoid injuries, another principle I learned from fight training. Eventually, when I felt confident enough in the formula I was developing, I decided to share it with others, much like I did when I started teaching my first Thai Boxing classes. The initial feedback was promising, so I kept going. 

Today, I get to work with some of the best golf instructors I’ve ever met as part of the Foisy Golf Academy, and they’ve helped me take this formula to a whole new level. I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to serve as a performance coach with a couple of professional golfers, on the Korn Ferry Tour and LPGA Tour, who validated my efforts even further. “Retiring” from fight training was hard at first, but now that I’ve taken all that knowledge and passion and applied it to golf, I didn’t actually retire at all, I just moved in a new direction. 

Golf is my new martial art.

Patrick Sebastien

Performance Coach For Golf


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