Pressure is defined as a “force that pushes or urges”. From a mental standpoint pressure is usually perceived as a negative force that affects thoughts and behavior. I have heard many elite athletes explain that pressure is self-inflicted. What is pressure for one athlete is not for another. There are methods to reduce the negative affect of pressure and turn pressure into an ally. The first goal is to help the athlete define pressure as something neutral instead of something to fear. Pressure triggers words such as “failure” which can make us feel nervous and anxious. Failure can be switched to “results”. This removes the negative connotation on things if they don’t work out as we might wish. We can then evaluate results and decide how to improve, instead of labeling them as failures which stops many from learning.
The first technique is to define the situation in a different way. This reframing will switch the perceived pressure to clarifying what is in the athlete’s control in the event. The greats in sports look at pressure as a positive and that when they feel pressure that it means this event is important and they are looking forward to the opportunity to show their skills. Rather than think/say, “I am tense and anxious”, say, “I am excited, I am ready!”
The next technique is an If…Then visualization exercise. Most athletes under pressure are worrying about the outcome. Having the athlete visualize different scenarios before the actual event and seeing their desired behavior with each scenario will help the athlete gain control over the “what ifs”. When an athlete keeps focusing on the potential outcomes the focus shifts away from the process and stays on the potential negative outcomes. Actually visualizing potential pressure situations will reduce the anxiety in the future as the athlete imagines ways to perform. This preparation helps the athlete gain confidence that they will be able to handle whatever situation arises.
Athletes need tools for both before performance and during performance. I have addressed the before performance through reframing and “If…Then” visualization. For during performance the athlete can use focus cues and breathing to gain control of their inner world. When the athlete is in the present, pressure doesn’t exist. Pressure only exists as worrying about the future. This is where training with focus cues will bring the athlete back to the present moment. For golfers I ask, “What is the lie of this ball and how will it affect the ball flight?” For a batter in baseball it is watching the release point of the pitcher to pick up the pitch. Going back to process cues in the athlete’s routine is a great way to switch focus. The other affect that pressure can bring is tension. The simplest, yet most powerful tool to combat tension is breathing. Being aware of tension is a skill and then using deep diaphragmatic breathing is the tool to bring the athlete back to a desirable arousal level. Thinking of the breath will also shift focus to the present. By training present state focus and breathing the athlete can get back to what matters most, the present moment.
The summer has now ended and what a summer it has been. I have enjoyed coaching so many wonderful people and seeing great improvement along the way. One area I always preach to my students is learning. You can always expand your learning and this summer I spent some of my off time learning some new tools to help my coaching. I became certified in a mental game coaching system called Mind Factor which was created by Dr. Karl Morris the leading mental game coach in Europe you has worked with many champions and Major winners. I also became a Habit Factor Professional which is based on the best selling book The Habit Factor. Finally I began working with a great new device called the Focus Band which measures brainwave activity and trains the peak performance state of the zone. I will be sharing these new learnings in future articles and with my students. Learning never stops!
To play your best you need to have a pre-shot routine that gets you mentally focused, emotionally confident, and physically relaxed before you execute a shots. Watch this video on the steps of an effective pre-shot routine.
This is the second year I will be speaking at the Southern California Golf Association Junior Summit. These three events focus on what it takes to play college golf. Many juniors and parents don’t know all the aspects of playing at the college level. I will be speaking on the mental side of college golf. Many juniors think it is just about the scores and even though that is important, the college experience will challenge the junior on and off the course. I have seen many talented juniors who were not prepared for the academic challenges and the time management issues that college golf presents. The potential pressure increases and some fold under the pressure of playing at that level. Preparing for college golf mentally requires confidence, focus, and emotional control. Staying confident in one’s ability needs to be the foundation for the junior golfer. Improving confidence is about positive self-talk, proper preparation/practice, and seeing success beforehand. The skill of focus is about training one’s attention on what is relevant. In college there are potentially more distractions that get in the way of focusing on golf. Those that can compartmentalize will be more successful than those that bring outside issues onto the golf course. Finally emotional control is crucial. The ability to stay calm and minimize frustration will help with the long-term development at the college level. The college season is long and there are a lot of ups and downs throughout the year. Bouncing back from poor shots/rounds is a skill. Learning from experience instead of being critical is the key distinction. I loved playing college golf and wish I had been more focused, confident, and emotionally in control.
Golf Tips Magazine just announced their top 25 instructors in America. I was one of the fortunate few to be named on the list. Golf Tips Magazine is the third largest magazine in the country and I have served as senior instructional editor for the past three years. Look out for some of my articles in the spring 2012.
I was fortunate that I was asked to be a presenter at the Southern California PGA teaching summit in Palm Desert. I was one of speakers alongside Hale Irwin and Jim Flick who were providing coaching presentations to the other PGA members. My presentation was on the “Psychology of Teaching”. I touched on many ideas of how instructors and students can get the most out of a golf lesson. I talked about communication styles, learning styles, and some psychological skills of students. It was great to share information and to be with so many respected professionals. In future tips I will be sharing more information on how a student can get more out of golf lessons.
Here is a short 10 minute radio interview I did with a sports show in Toronto on Tiger Woods’ comeback. I share my thoughts on his swing and his mental outlook as he tries to recapture his winning ways.
I loved watching the final round of the PGA Championship. I was watching how these great players handled the major pressure. I will be honest in that I don’t know a lot about Keegan Bradley and Jason Dufner; however they looked like totally different types of golfers on Sunday. What I mean by this is the “state” they played the final round. The commentators mentioned time and again how Dufner seemed to not let anything bother him. As the round went on I thought Dufner was trying to be so unemotional that it affected his intensity level. I understand that if we get too emotional it can hurt performance, yet Dufner was going the other way with this idea. He looked complacent, almost uninterested. This can lead to focus that is not as sharp and energy levels that are too low to be at your best. On the other hand Bradley was so in the moment he allowed himself to celebrate great shots with a fist pump, big smile, and hop in his step. He actually looked like he enjoyed the pressure. I coach golfers to be humans, not robots. Throughout sports history the champions showed a certain intensity and energy. Some showed it in how they reacted, while others you could see it in their eyes. Bradley had that intensity and energy and he allowed himself to experience the moment. Dufner looked as if he was trying to ignore the importance of the event by not caring. Some golfers are told to play like you don’t care and never show emotion because that is bad. I don’t want to coach robots, I want to coach golfers who do care, who do get upset, who do celebrate a great shot, that’s life. I think that what makes life great is to be emotionally in the experience, that what’s makes us feel alive. I know people will tell me that too much emotion can hinder performance. I agree if the emotion is not channeled properly it can become an issue. I sometimes think that trying to not show emotion can be more damaging as one loses the spark that brings the competitive spirit alive when you need it most. Both played great golf for four rounds and Bradley proved yet again that emotion can be an asset to performance. I’m looking forward to following Bradley throughout his career, because it is refreshing to see someone enjoy the game so much
As we the summer concludes I’m surprised how many junior golfers over extend themselves during the summer. What I mean is that parents and juniors feel compelled to play in every tournament on the schedule. The problem is that the junior has no time to practice and bad habits set in and poor performance follows. The best professional players in the world play maybe three weeks in a row and have time on Tuesday and Wednesday to practice. Juniors bounce from one tournament to another tournament with no down time and no time to practice. The pressure of rankings and competing is overshadowing proper training and long term development. I like to help juniors and parents set up a realistic schedule that includes practice, physical training, mental training, practice rounds for important events, and prioritize the best tournaments to play. In the long run, playing in one tournament a week with scheduled practice time in between is more beneficial than playing 8 tournaments in a 10 day stretch. Juniors get burned out and by the time the summer ends they don’t want to play anymore. Set up a realistic schedule that balances out training and competition. Look at long term improvement over short term results.
Even the weekend warrior has experienced a time on the golf course when they felt the exhilaration of competition. Maybe it was the time you had to make par on the last hole to break your own low score, or make a putt to win a bet with your buddies, or even winning your club championship. It doesn’t matter if you are in the hunt to win the US Open or trying to win a skin from your weekend foursome, the same mental skills need to be learned to give yourself a chance to come out on top. Nerves, tightness, and distractions are all apart of playing in a competitive environment.
By learning the 5 C’s any level golfer will perform better the next time they feel the heat of competition.
The ability to stay focused on the shot at hand. Not allowing you to become distracted by the importance of the situation. Pressure creates distractions for most golfers. They begin to think more about the importance of the situation. This outcome thinking gets in the way of staying focused on the process of being in the present moment. A great shot is a result of being present with the current process. Take your focus away from what ifs and focus on what you can control. A golfer can use their eyes, self-talk, and routine to improve their concentration. Train yourself to concentrate on what you want, not on what you don’t want.
As the pressure increases golfers are more apt to act differently. They allow the pressure to change their emotional state. Golfers who don’t stay composed will act flustered, rush movements, and let little things affect their composure. Emotions can affect decision making and shot execution. The best stay at the same composed state that they played with on the first hole. Being composed is consistent from hole to hole. As the competition increases it becomes even more important to act calm, cool, and collected. Act as if you belong and are ready. Use your body and breathing to get back to being composed. Act like Tiger when he is playing in the final round of a major. Tiger is always composed when it matters most.
Competition pushes our comfort zone to the edge. Most feel uncomfortable as we have new golf experiences. The best push out their comfort zones by embracing the challenge and wanting to accomplish something they haven’t accomplished before. Breaking out of a comfort zone could be as easy as defining the situation differently. Instead of looking at the new situation as something to be nervous about, see it as something to have fun with and embrace the chance to go for it.
Every shot requires you to make the right decision for the situation. Under pressure each golfer tends to make decisions differently. Usually a golfer feels time moving faster and they end up making decisions quicker then normal. The skill of taking enough time to accurately assess the shot is needed to make the right decision. Also under pressure golfer will tend to make low percentage decisions and risk a lot more than under normal situations. The goal is to treat each shot the same and go through your proper mental routine that creates the best decision for you. When you can calculate what the shot entails and the risks involved you are more likely to be committed to that shot. When you are committed you minimize the affects of pressure on your game.
Every shot requires total commitment for the shot to come off successfully. In competition golfer tend to doubt more often which creates poor shots. Pressure creates the mind to race to swing thoughts, past poor performances, and potential future disasters. Committing to a golf shot is the most important skill that any golfer that learn to improve performance. Commitment involves knowing your game, the situation, narrowing your possible choices to one. Commitment is confidence in your ability for each shot you attempt. Confidence can be changed in an instant with the use of visualization of past successes or visualizing the successful completion of the present shot. The next time you are playing in competition remember the 5 C’s and you will be better prepared to hit a great shot no matter the pressure. Your mind tells the body what to do. Start training your mind so your body can just take over.