How To Play Your Best Under Pressure
Nerves and stress can hit us in all areas of our lives. From being agitated over being late and stuck in traffic, to teeing off in a big tournament. Calming nerves on the golf course and overcoming fear, is something that I’m constantly working on with my players.
One of the things I love about mental coaching for golf, is that it doesn’t just apply to golf or sports, but to life in general. The techniques I’m going to share with you here, will not only help you with calming nerves on the golf course, but they will help you deal better with stress in all areas of your life.
Why do we get “nerves”?
Nerves and “performance anxiety” (which is it commonly known as in sports) is our response to fear. Fear exists in many forms in golf, and becoming aware of what your fears are, is a good first step in overcoming them. What it is that you fear?
Fear of bad results?
Fear of not winning?
Fear of not meeting your expectations?
Fear of making mistakes?
Fear of how you look in front of other players?
Every player, or athlete for that matter, experiences fear. It’s how it is handled that determines how successful that player becomes.
One of the reasons we love sports so much, is because they are a “metaphor for life” and reveal character. They’re like a virtual reality for life – we get to experience the same emotional ups and downs without real life consequences. But one of the most important benefits of sports, is that we can develop mental skills and confidence that can help us grow in all areas of our lives.
Fear exists when you are entering into the unknown. You’re out of your “comfort zone” and it makes you feel a certain way. But those uncomfortable feelings you get when you feel fear are an important factor in the journey to growth and success. They’re an indicator that at your current limits, and you must break through them, to succeed.
A good place to start in breaking through those barriers, is understanding what’s happening in the body and mind when we feel nervous, and how we can control it.
The Autonomic Nervous System
Your Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is what maintains your internal environment without you having to consciously think about it i.e. your heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, body temperature etc.
The ANS has 2 parts to it, the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous Systems.
The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is responsible for what you will know as the “stress response”, or “nerves” i.e. your heart racing, sweating, feeling hot, inability to think clearly, shakes etc. The SNS’s primary job is to protect you and prepare you for imminent danger.
The Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) works in the reverse of the Sympathetic Nervous System. It slows the heart rate and relaxes the body, to enable functions such as digestion to take place. For this reason, it’s the PNS that we need to stimulate when we’re feeling too nervous or too stressed.
How to activate the parasympathetic nervous system when you feel stress, to calm nerves on the golf course
With the practice of deep breathing, we stimulate the “Vagus nerve” which is one of the main nerves that make up the PNS. “Diaphragmatic breathing” slows the heart rate, lowers blood pressure and tension in the muscles. Breathing techniques for golf are key for calming nerves on the golf course.
Paying attention to your senses
When you’re sensing, you’re not “thinking”. Negative thinking or focusing on what’s going to happen in the future (the rest of your round) can trigger the stress response. A good way to keep yourself calm and stay “in the present” is to focus on your senses. How does the ground feel beneath your feet? How does your shirt feel on your body? The wind against your skin?
Visualizing scenes that make you feel relaxed
I’ve heard of players doing all sorts of things during the time in between shots to calm nerves on the golf course, such as: imagining you are walking down a favorite beach, sitting in a cafe with friends, recalling great shots you’ve hit in the past. Any images that are calming to you, will stimulate the PNS.
Observing how you feel without engaging in thought
Another good way to activate the PNS is to simply acknowledge how you feel without digging deeper into “why?” E.g. “I feel nervous”, or “I feel frustrated”.
Focusing on calming words and being grateful
If you’re a more verbal person, saying words to yourself such as “peace”, “relax”, “stay calm” or “breathe” etc, or other positive self-talk can help you activate the PNS. Try reminding yourself of the things that you are grateful for, that have nothing to do with the outcome of your round.
Off the course mental game practice
All the mental coaching techniques I use with my players can be practiced off the course. Here are a few ways you can “practice” controlling the stress response.
Meditation (present moment awareness)
The Buddhist traditions have worked for thousands of years to keep their nervous systems more “parasympathetic”. One of the ways they do this is with meditation and mindfulness practice. Many of the players I work with practice daily meditation with apps such as Headspace.
Studies have shown that light aerobic exercise of at least 30 mins per day is a great way to lower stress and activate the PNS. Yoga, with it’s slow breathing, meditation and guided imagery is a great way to (not just improve flexibility), but lower stress.
Either way, a light workout before a round is not a bad idea!
There are plenty of studies which link poor eating and drinking too much alcohol with increased stress, so getting on a healthy eating regime is an easy way to increase your mood and lower stress.
Balancing the Autonomic Nervous System
I should also mention that it might not always be the case that you need to reduce activity in the SNS and activate the PNS. It could at times be the other way around. Finding your “optimal intensity level” and knowing how to control the nervous systems to keep you there, is a key part of maximizing your performance.