Performance anxiety in golf is the biggest difference between the range and the course. On the range, with no consequences, the swing is free and fluid, the mind is quiet and focused on the target. When performance anxiety kicks in, focus on the target is often replaced by focus on the trouble and the swing, which gets tense and quick. Timing and coordination gets compromised.
If there’s a gap between your performance in practice and tournaments, then performance anxiety in golf is the likely cause.
That said, everyone that plays golf experiences performance anxiety. Biofeedback devices tell us that our heart rates are always higher in a tournament round than when we are practicing. If you care about what you are doing, then your nervous system will become “activated” to get you ready for action. You might have felt this as butterflies, or in some cases, your heart pounding, your mind racing, sweating, shaking and tension in your muscles.
If you are going to succeed in pressure situations, you’ll have to learn how (to quote psychologist William James) “make the nervous system your ally, not your enemy”. In this week’s lesson, I’m going to share 10 ways to do it.
What is performance anxiety in golf?
Performance anxiety is our body’s response to fear of danger in the future. It’s a primal survival mechanism inherited from our early human ancestors. By certain changes happening automatically in the body and mind, it increased their chances of survival in the face of a serious threat to their lives, such as encountering a large predator. To prepare for this, the “fight or flight” response evolved – the heart beats faster to pump blood to the muscles which tense up and get ready for action, senses become heightened and the mind goes blank limiting us to the simple options of fight or flight. Even though we’ve evolved in many ways since then, our response to fear has stayed the same. Instead of it being a large predator that we fear, it’s more emotional, social and psychological danger.
Why do we experience performance anxiety in golf?
The more we care about the outcome in any activity, the more performance anxiety there will be. Having your life depend on the outcome would obviously be the highest level of performance anxiety. Thankfully, unless you’re doing extreme sports like Free Solo Climbing, there isn’t any danger to your life in sports such as golf. That said, the following types of fear can be present, which activate the nervous system and make us feel performance anxiety.
Fear of failure
You invest a lot of time in your game. You know what you are capable of. But will that game appear in the tournament or will you “fail”?
Fear of what others will think
Fear of what others think is a common source of fear. Whether it’s your peers, playing partners, college coaches or parents, many golfers play “ego golf”, which inhibits their performance and exacerbates the feelings from making mistakes.
Fear of losing an opportunity
Sometimes there’s more than just score at stake. A good performance can open doors to opportunities such as more higher ranking tournaments or even a college scholarship. Fear of not playing well enough to open those doors can also cause nerves and performance anxiety.
To access your full potential, you’ll need to learn how to address the causes and the effects of your performance anxiety in golf. Let’s start with these 10 simple ways (more detail is available in the Mental Game Training Program):
How do we control Performance Anxiety in golf
1. Increase self-awareness
What is it that makes YOU nervous? Identify what you are in fear of. Once you acknowledge it and become aware of its presence and its affect on you, you can change your relationship with it and reduce its influence on your performance. Mindfulness practice can help with this.
2. Break your performance down into things you can control i.e. set Process Goals
Break your performance down into controllables that you know for certain that you’ll be able to do. The outcome will always be uncertain and not completely within your control, so shift your focus away from it and towards “your performance process”. What will you focus on in each moment on the course? How will you behave in different situations? Have a plan for it and create a “mental game scorecard” (which you can download at the bottom of this post) to hold yourself accountable to it.
3. Be prepared
You’ll need to put in the work to be able to trust your abilities in tournaments. This will involve:
- Practicing the shots required for that particular course
- Playing the course both at practice rounds and in your mind
- Having a clear course strategy for golf
- Knowing your misses and what to do to correct them
- The same pre round warm up routine for every round
Feeling prepared will increase your confidence and lower performance anxiety.
4. Know how to get control of your nervous system
The best way to lower your arousal state (nervous system) is to use breathing techniques for golf. I’ve got more information on these techniques in the Mental Game Training Program.
Practicing in a way that will raise performance anxiety will train you how to manage it and focus on your process when you feel nervous. Make practice hard with golf practice games and have consequences to the challenges. Use your imagination to experience how it will be to play at the level you want to play at. If playing on the PGA Tour is your goal, imagine you are playing against some of the world’s best players and get familiar with it. If it happens for real, you won’t be as intimidated.
6. Use body language and self-talk
Your self talk can guide your thinking and your feelings. Deciding on the best self-talk for you in different situations is one of the performance modules we work through in the Mental Game Training Program. Body language is also an important “controller” of your performance state. Your posture and facial expressions not only tell others how you feel, but it can influence how you feel inside. When you are experiencing performance anxiety, choose to look more in control and that’s how you will begin to feel.
7. Improve your concentration
Being able to focus on what you need to while you’re under pressure is another key to high performance. Performance anxiety can make it hard to get control of your negative thoughts. Using techniques to improve focus for golf daily can help you shift your focus away from negative thoughts to the present and your process. Medititation is a great way to improve your concentration, awareness and ability to stay more present (where fear doesn’t exist).
8. Tap into your subconscious
The more belief and trust you have in yourself, the less performance anxiety you will have. Part of your confidence comes from your experiences and how well you’ve been able to deal with challenging situations and fear in the past, but some comes from within (it’s subconscious). By tapping into your subconscious mind using visualization, you can increase your belief and confidence ahead of those situations for real.
9. Be grateful
Gratitude and optimism have both physical and psychological benefits and can be seen as an antidote to performance anxiety. Simply put, performance anxiety comes from focusing on those things you fear and what could go wrong. The opposite is focusing on what could possibly go well (optimism) and what about your current situation you can feel positive about (gratitude). Both gratitude and optimism should become a daily practice, so it’s more automatic on the course.
10. Welcome performance anxiety in golf
Stress and an activated nervous system will always be part of reaching higher levels of performance – you’ll have to learn how to be more comfortable when you’re out of your comfort zone. Put yourself in situations that raise your intensity (on and off the course) and learn how to get better at it.
Thanks for reading. I’m confident that with the techniques we’ve covered that you’ll understand more about your fears and what you can do to overcome them.