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How To Succeed Under Pressure

For us golfers, pressure can come from things such as:

· Not performing to the level that we expect
· Losing status and respect (Fear of what others will think of us)
· Losing an opportunity to win
· Disappointing our parents and coaches
· Not making the team or losing a spot on the team

What is FEAR?

Fear is the emotion created by the brain due to the uncertainty of the future and the potential threats that may lie ahead. This was very useful to our early human ancestors when faced with serious threats to their survival (like a large predator), but not so useful in our relatively safe modern world. Unfortunately though, we still have the same mental and physical response to fear that we’ve had for hundreds of thousands of years. 

It’s normal to feel the effects of fear, but the top players are more comfortable playing with it, managing it, embracing it, and using it to raise their performance. To take your game to the next level, you will (unavoidably) be in situations where you will experience it and your success will depend on how well you manage it.

What are the mental and physical effects of pressure and fear?

The main effect of pressure and the emotion of fear is the change in our “arousal state”.

Right now, as you’re reading this article, your arousal state is likely to be low – that is, you’re calm and your heart rate is normal. Focusing is not a problem and your muscles are relaxed.

Under pressure, your mind-body prepares for potential threats, which raises your arousal state. You will probably know this as the “Fight or Flight” Response. The level of this response will depend on what you perceive the stakes to be (the gains and losses from possible success and failure), how aware of it you are and how well you are able to control it.

How does arousal state affect performance?

I’m sure you already know what’s meant by arousal state – it’s the degree to which you feel “nerves” i.e. the butterflies in your stomach, your heart rate, the clarity of your thinking, tension in your muscles, etc. If your hands have ever shaken while putting the ball on the tee for your first tee shot, or you’ve felt your heart racing before a 3-foot putt to win, then you’ve felt pressure and the effects of fear.

However, a low to moderate arousal state is helpful to our performance in golf, as it heightens focus and awareness. Ask any Tour player or athlete whether they would rather play with nerves or not, they would say “with nerves”. The key to accessing your best is maintaining that optimal level of arousal.

Playing under pressure, even if you are able to control your arousal or performance state, will always feel a little uncomfortable. Gary Woodland said this about his final round of the US Open in 2019, which he went on to win:

“I kept telling myself, even this morning, to enjoy this moment. Enjoy the pressure. Enjoy the stress. Enjoy being uncomfortable. And don’t shy away from it, embrace it. And that’s what I really tried to do, is embrace that pressure all day. And I think that helped me stay a little more calm.”

The feeling of nerves and performance anxiety, although uncomfortable, is part of becoming a more successful player so you might as well accept that now, if that’s your goal. Pressure is all relative – whether it’s the club championship, a betting game with your friends or a major championship – nerves will be there if you care about the outcome.

From my experience of working with competitive golfers over the past 10 years, here are 10 effective ways to keep yourself in that low to moderate arousal range, so you can break through the barriers to your future success.

1. Change Your Perspective and Lower Your Expectations

Pressure mostly comes from within – from our perspective and the expectations we have about the future.. Playing tournament golf is always going to make you feel nervous if you care about the outcome. But that shouldn’t be perceived as a bad thing.

As expert on “The Zone”, Steven Kotler says, “Stress is the gateway to the zone, without it you can’t get there.” You are always more likely to perform better with a heightened arousal state – so embrace that nervous feeling when it arrives. If it’s channeled properly, it can lead to extraordinary performance.

As confident as you might feel about your game, never expect to shoot a low score. Instead, let go of predictions about your score and expect that it will be difficult – with a strong mental game you have the tools to overcome any of the challenges the round might bring. This perspective will help you persevere in the face of adversity.

2. Be More Self Aware

Dennis Waitley, author of “The Psychology of Winning” says that “Winners have learned to know themselves intimately”.
Winners are able to acknowledge how they are thinking and feeling, which gives them the control to do something about it and shape their behaviors under pressure.

Thoughts, feelings and emotions are at work all the time, and without awareness, we won’t be able to manage them and succeed under pressure. When you know yourself and what your tendencies are, it’s easier to adjust during your rounds.

3. Learn How To Control Your Physiology

As you become more aware of how you feel on the course, you’ll notice how the pressure of competition changes your physiology. By physiology, I mean changes in your body.
When you’re feeling under pressure, you might notice your heart beating faster, your muscles tighten, butterflies in your stomach or your hands shaking. When you experience this, it’s important to know how to get control of your physiology, instead of losing control and becoming more tense and confused.

4. Change Your Thinking Patterns and Be Optimistic

When you’re under pressure, self-doubt will always be lurking. If you pay attention to it, negative thinking and pessimism can take hold. Don’t let the enemy win. Instead, act as if you are the hero and tell yourself that good things are about to happen. With repetition, the hero will appear more often as you change your automatic thinking patterns towards optimism. You have the power to choose which player shows up on any day, so choose wisely!

5. Staying More present

“I just stay in the moment. I never think one hole ahead. I’m not thinking about tomorrow. I’m not thinking about the next shot. I’m just thinking about what I need to do right now. It’s very simple.” – Brooks Koepka

In between shots, most golfers allow their minds to drift into the past or future. When focus is on past mistakes, or on the uncertainty of the future, performance anxiety will increase.

The best place to be in between shots or when you feel performance anxiety building, is in The Present. The present is where you are just “being”, it’s a calm place where thoughts and emotions are noticed, but not experienced. Whenever I speak with a student after a great round, that’s what they describe. When you are present, you are immersed in what you are doing and experiencing the moment to its fullest, not thinking or worrying about what has happened or what might happen next. Being more present takes practice – I have plenty of techniques for you in the My 8 Week Golf State of Mind Training Program.

6. Slow Everything Down

When we’re feeling under pressure, one common tendency is to get quick. Not just with the swing, but with everything. This is your subconscious mind telling you that the situation is uncomfortable, so let’s get it over with and escape it. With more self awareness and knowing that you are feeling the effects of pressure, you’ll be able to remind yourself to “Slow Everything Down”.

7. Notice Your Body Language

Unless you’re aware of it, pressure can negatively affect your body language. Research shows that body language can change our chemical balance and the way we feel. Instead of letting your head drop and shoulders hunch under pressure, choose to have a dominant, powerful posture which is proven to increase feel good chemicals and lower the level of the stress hormone cortisol.

8. Notice Your Self-talk

Words can have a powerful emotional effect and can change the way you feel. Notice the dialogue you are having with yourself. If it’s negative, you’ll have to learn how to change it. Humans are innately negative, we have a predisposition to look out for potential threats – but those negative thoughts don’t have to become negative self-talk, which is far worse. Practice being compassionate, supportive and optimistic with yourself, as your best friend and coach would.

9. Practice With Pressure

Very few golfers practice in a way which simulates how it is on the golf course. You don’t have the luxury of a do-over, nor do you get to hit the exact same shot twice. Allocate time in your practice sessions to “performance practice”, where you are doing drills which add pressure and consequences to missing. This way you’ll make practice not just about improving your swing, but working on your skills to manage pressure too. I’ve got over 70 performance practice drills that come with the mental game training program.

10. Focus on your process

It’s very important that you have a game plan and a way to measure the success of your rounds that has nothing to do with the numbers going onto your scorecard. Building a player’s “Performance Process” is something that’s a high priority in my digital programs and one on one coaching sessions. The purpose is to give each player the goal of executing this plan when they play. Because that player has complete control over whether they do it or not, it keeps it really simple and gives that player a plan for any situation. Being more present and giving careful attention to each step of the journey, is far more effective than chasing results.

Thanks for taking the time to read to this week’s lesson, if you enjoyed this weeks lesson and feel like your game will benefit from it, please share it with others. You can also receive regular updates from me by liking any of my social media channels which have the handle @golfstateofmind.

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