“Know thyself” – Socrates
Dennis Waitley, the author of “The Psychology of Winning” says that “Winners have learned to know themselves intimately”.
Winners are aware of how they are thinking and feeling, which gives them more control to manage themselves under pressure.
Only with awareness of our thoughts and emotions do we have the power to pause and choose the best thing to do next.
Self-awareness is one of the human skills that we must continually work on to perform better on and off the course. To do this, I’d like you to start becoming more aware of:
- Physical sensations in your body (tension, changes in breathing, butterflies, etc.)
- Your thinking
- Your emotions
- Your body language
- Your self-talk
- Whether you are in the present moment or not
- Your cadence (how slow or fast you are moving)
When we’re under pressure, it’s easy to get caught up in it and lose control of what we’re doing. With increased self-awareness and looking out for the “cues” of the stress response, we have an opportunity to gain control and get back on track.
Getting control of your Physiology
As you become more aware of how you feel on the course, you’ll notice how fear changes your physiology. By physiology, I mean what’s happening in your body.
As we discussed earlier in this module when you’re feeling fear your heart will beat faster, your muscles will tighten, you’ll start sweating and your hands might shake, all of which are not conducive to playing your best golf.
The good news is that the effects of fear occur in stages, so if you are alert to the signals, you’ll have the time to prevent yourself getting sucked into the downward spiral. The best way to do this is to get control of your physiology.
“When I learned how to breathe, I learned how to win” – Tom Watson
Experts tell us that breathing plays the biggest role in reducing the effects of the stress response. When we feel fear and pressure, our breathing becomes shallow, quick and erratic,
meaning there’s less oxygen going to your brain and thinking and focus becomes harder. In pressure situations, we need to steady the ship and tell our mind-body system that we are in control and we do this by getting control of our breathing.
When we deliberately deepen and slow down our breathing, we activate the parasympathetic nervous system (the rest and digest system), which counters the activation in the sympathetic nervous system (the fight or flight response).
Brian MacKenzie, a Human Performance Specialist, suggests that to learn your most effective breathing technique for stress reduction, requires experimenting with different breathing “protocols”. Each person has a different Carbon Dioxide tolerance (it’s CO2 levels in your body that causes you to breath), anxiety level and physiology, so there’s no best breathing technique for all people. Different breathing techniques can also fit different situations to maximize performance depending on what stage of it you are in.
Explore these different breathing protocols (do 10 sets of each) and pay attention to how it changes your mental and physical state.
- Start with “Box Breathing”, which is 1-1-1-1 ratio e.g. inhale through your nose to the count of 4, hold for a count of 4 – exhale through your nose or mouth to the count of 4 and hold for 4, then repeat. Try changing the counts for to 2 seconds, 3 seconds or 5 seconds.
- Next try a 1-1-2-1 technique, which for example would be 6 seconds for the inhale, 6 seconds for the hold, 12 second exhale and 6 second hold.
- Next try a 1-2-2 technique, which would be a 6 second inhale, 12 second hold and a 12 second exhale (this one is more difficult).
Practice your breathing
Very few people utilize the power of the breath, because they don’t breathe properly. Basic mouth breathing, that most people do throughout the day, only uses the upper part of the lungs. The mouth was not designed by nature to breathe. Research shows that breathing in through the nose is proven to increase Oxygen uptake by 10-20% and improves overall lung volumes.
Spend some time practicing deep belly (diaphragmatic) nasal breathing. Personally, I practice this during my daily meditation practice, which we’ll get to later in this module.
Sit with your back upright – proper breathing is facilitated by good posture, i.e. back straight and shoulders back. On your inhales, feel your belly go out as your diaphragm contracts and your lungs fill with air. Make this type of breathing more automatic and it will help you under pressure.
Dr. Andrew Huberman, a professor of neuroscience at the Stanford University School of Medicine, has studied the link between vision and the limbic system (the part of the brain which regulates the stress response). The conclusions of his study show us that there is a link between width of your vision and your arousal state. A tighter focus for a sustained period can activate the stress response, whereas a more panoramic or peripheral vision is associated with a decrease in arousal. Huberman says that when we are feeling fear, an effective way to calm down is to keep your focus broad or “Wide Vision”, to take in more of your surroundings. Next time that you’re feeling anxious or nervous, experiment with this technique by seeing as much of your panorama as you can.
When we’re feeling nervous, our muscles will naturally tighten. In a physical movement requiring fine motor skills like the golf swing, tension can hugely affect it.
Being aware of any increase in muscle tension is an important part of playing under pressure.
To reduce tension, we first need to notice where it is, with a body scan. Getting into a regular habit of doing this (even when you’re not on the course) will help. Is it in your hands, arms, shoulders, legs, chest or jaw?
Simply focusing on that area while you are breathing in will help relax it. Another technique to lower muscle tension is called Progressive Muscle Relaxation:
- Do a body scan and notice where any tension is
- Squeeze that specific muscle group for 4-10 seconds while inhaling through your nose. If you’d like to know how to tense each muscle group, check out this paper by the University of Michigan School of Medicine
- Breathe out slowly and completely relax that muscle group.
- Relax for 15-20 seconds before repeating or moving onto a different muscle group
With repetition of this exercise and with repeated body scans you’ll be able to calibrate your tension levels and keep them in your optimal range.
Another tendency that a lot of players have under pressure is to do everything faster. Your flight or flight response is at work to try to move you out of the uncomfortable situation. You might rush through your Pre Shot Routine, walk faster in between shots and swing faster. When you’re feeling under pressure, you will need to be aware of your “cadence” – how fast you are moving and going through the steps of your performance process.
When you’re feeling nervous, deliberately try to slow everything down. Slow your walk, your routine and your swing. Deliberately rehearse a slower swing during your practice swings and be sure to make a nice smooth take-away from the ball.
Justin Rose said that before the final round of the 2013 US Open (which he won) he slowed everything down as soon as he woke up – even brushing his teeth slower and eating his breakfast slower.
“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
At any moment in time, your mind can be in 1 of 3 time zones: the past, present or future. In golf, when you’re thinking about the past, it’s usually to think about missed opportunities or mistakes. When you’re thinking about the future, it’s usually to speculate about what might happen. Being in either of these time zones can cause performance anxiety and stress.
Whenever I speak with a student after a great round, being present is what they describe. When you are present, you are immersed in what you are doing and experiencing the moment to its fullest, not being distracted by what has happened previously or what might happen next. You are just “being”, fully aware – not thinking and judging. Your focus is at its sharpest and your mind at its quietist.
However, from my ongoing work with competitive golfers, I’d say that being in the present is one of the biggest challenges that golfers face. The world that we live in with all its distractions is lowering attention spans and making it harder and harder to quiet the mind and be in the moment.
One of my Tour player clients who won last season, talked about her experience of having a 1 shot lead with 3 holes to play. She had seen the leaderboard, which immediately made her feel more nervous, but we had trained her for the challenges of being in that situation.
A far from easy task, she knew that staying in the present and keeping her mind quiet was the thing that was going to help the most during those long walks in between shots. She knew that her mind would want to start predicting the future and her chances of success – but if she let it – it would reduce her chances of getting the outcome she had worked at for most of her life. She told me that those few holes seemed “to take an eternity”, but she kept reminding herself to be present and that time would eventually pass. And it did, with her first win on Tour.
To access our best skills in the biggest moments, we must work on the skill of being more present.
How to practice being more present
With practice, it will become easier to access the present moment in times of stress and get control of your mind.
To train yourself to be more present, you’ll need to develop greater self-awareness of what you are focusing on (to know where your mind is) and have an anchor to bring your wandering
mind back to. The more you can do this, the more you improve your ability to stay present.
Focusing on your breathing is probably the best “anchor” for your attention, – it not only keeps you in the present, but as we’ve already discussed, proper breathing is calming. You can prevent paying attention to your mental chatter even further by counting your breaths.
Another way to access “the now” is through your senses. What can you see, feel, hear and smell? On the golf course you might do “walking meditation”, (which is one of the reasons I prefer to walk than take a cart) where you pay attention to the trees, the sky, the clouds, the smell of the grass, the feel of the wind and the ground beneath your feet. When you notice your mind wandering to your thoughts, bring it back to your senses.
Reward yourself by staying in the present. When you are doing any task, set a timer and tell yourself that you are going to do this, and only this, for the time period that you’ve allocated to it. Whether it’s practice, work or study, put your phone somewhere that you can’t reach for it and reward yourself with a look at it after you’ve finished your focused session. After time spent doing this, you’ll begin to notice when you’re losing focus and by bringing it back to the task, you’ll improve your ability to stay present.
Meditation and mindfulness are another great way to practice this, which we’ll get to later in this module.
Body language is another way to help you reduce the stress response and be confident when you’re under pressure. Research shows that body language changes our chemical balance. When we adopt strong, confident postures (shoulders back, chest out, eyes up), we don’t only show others that we are feeling confident, but we trick our mind into producing feel good chemicals called endorphins. Contrarily, when we are in weaker postures, we tell others and ourselves that we are feeling weak. Our bodies produce more Cortisol, also known as the “stress hormone”.
Author James Clear tells us that a study was done between Harvard and Columbia Universities which had 42 subjects adopt different body postures and afterwards, their hormone levels were tested.
The results showed that those with the more “high-power” postures (standing up, back straight, shoulders back), had much higher levels of testosterone and lower levels of cortisol i.e. those people felt more confident, powerful and less stressed. Conversely, those subjects that adopted “low-power” postures (slumped over, hunched shoulders, looking down etc.), had higher Cortisol levels and felt less confident.
The same thing works for facial expressions. Actors use facial expressions to create feelings within themselves and make a performance more authentic. E.g. Frowning can make you feel concerned and worried by itself. Smiling can immediately lighten your mood and make you feel happier. What do your facial expression say about how you feel on the golf course? Remember to put your “game face” on and look confident!
Use body language to your advantage. Make it part of your
performance process to walk and act confidently as it will make you feel that
 The health benefits of nose breathing, Nursing in General Practice, Ruth Allen