Many players spend the offseason implementing swing changes and wearing out gloves while hitting ball after ball on the driving range.
For Canadian Alena Sharp, this past offseason was all about what was going on between her ears. The seven-year pro took six weeks off to decompress, play some hockey and work on changing her mental approach to the game she loves.
Working with a mental strength coach, Sharp has altered her mentality toward golf and has admittedly eased up on herself.
“I’m working with a mental toughness coach named Chris Dorris,” Sharp said. “I worked with him back in 2004 when I first turned pro, and he’s really helped me. We’ve just worked on the things we’d talked about then – just staying positive on the course and really objective, really get into your routine and stay target-focused. It’s been really good working with him.”
There’s no doubt in her mind that the mental aspect of the game is harder than the physical.
“Everybody can hit the ball and putt well,” she said. “It’s just a matter of believing in yourself and staying up with your mental attitude every day you’re out there, every shot, every hole.”
Often her own toughest critic, Sharp used to dwell on every negative that came her way. But she’s realized how unhealthy and counterproductive that kind of attitude can be and is refocused with a new approach on the dawn of the 2012 season.
“I’m pretty tough on myself, and I need to do better about not getting so down on myself,” Sharp said. “I’ve always been like that since I was a kid. Getting rid of the negative interpretation of an event and trying to be objective about it, get after it and hit a better shot the next shot is something I really want to be better at this year. I don’t want to dwell on the past, a certain shot or a part of my game.
“I want to stay very objective this year. I got a little bit negative last year, and that’s why I started working with a mental coach. I’ve been doing a lot of work on that this offseason, and I think it’ll help me stay strong throughout the whole year.”
Through the years, Sharp has learned a lot about what it takes to be a professional golfer – from how to organize her schedule and travel to when to practice and when to get away from the game. Having a balance of off-the-course interests, she said, is crucial to her life.
“Playing golf 24-7, 12 months a year is not my cup of tea,” said Sharp, who likes to hike, mountain bike, roller blade, work out, among other things. “I like to play hockey in the offseason, and I think it’s just a good balance for me to get away from golf so I’m refreshed when I come back to it. Having that good balance is something I’ve done well the last couple years. There are a lot of things you can do to get your mind off the game.”
After a highly successful amateur and collegiate career that included NCAA First-Team All-America honors and the prestigious Edith Cummings Munson Award, Sharp struggled to adjust to the pro game. Her most successful season came in 2007, when she had two of her four career top-10s and earned $223,258.
She earned at least $100,000 from 2008-10, but consistency escaped her, causing frustration and turmoil.
“I had some good tournaments every year, but never really had much consistency,” Sharp said. “I’d play well one week, and then the next week I’d miss the cut. It’s tough playing that way, and it’s all mental. Your swing doesn’t change from one week to the next.
“It’s about knowing the courses and knowing what it takes to win. It’s not easy to do that every week, but the players who do it well are really strong and know they’re going to play well every week.”
Sharp plans to play in some mini-tour events in Arizona in February before making her 2012 LPGA debut in Phoenix in March and said she’s ready for a breakout season. With another $125,436, Sharp would join the LPGA millionaires’ club, and with her new approach, that could be a real possibility this year.
“I really feel like I’ve been doing all the right things to get ready, and I feel comfortable with where I am,” she said.
She’s worked hard to have more fun as an LPGA Tour pro, and Sharp appreciates the fact that she gets to play golf for a living.
“I’m really happy I’m on the LPGA Tour, and I don’t take it for granted,” Sharp said. “I know it can go away really quickly, so I feel that it’s really special to be on the Tour, play golf for a living and travel the world. It’s a pretty amazing job.”