Today I thought we could all use a nice golf psychology reminder about truly enjoying a sport/game we are obsessed with. Because golf is the sport I am obsessed with, this post will be specific to golf performance; however, I see no reason why this same attitude I want to discuss cannot be applied to any other sport or activity.
Over this past weekend I participated in another amateur golf tournament over a 2 day stretch. In the end, this would end up to be my worst performance yet…ouch. Not only that, but it was entirely draining for me and not all that fun. Then, on Monday, I went out to play 2 full, fun rounds of golf with some friends. No pressure, just golf! I shot 6 and 13 shots better in these two rounds compared to my tournament rounds. I already knew I put a lot of pressure on myself to play well during tournaments, but I don’t think I really understood just how negatively this was affecting my golf performance. No fun = negative golf psychology and poor performance.
Anxiety and Golf Performance
There are many studies out there regarding perceived anxiety and performance outcome of physical tasks. For the most part, the perception of anxiety has a negative impact on performance (1, 2, 3). Anxiety can increase the perceived distance to a goal target (ie. the hole), making it more difficult to visualize success (1). Stress can also have a negative effect on the automaticity of our swings (2), which can clearly relate to poor performance. Anxiety can also impact movement patterns, possibly by causing us to put too much focus on specific body movement as opposed to external outcomes (2), and also cause unwanted muscle tension. At the end of the day, as I know you have all experienced it before, I don’t think I have to provide too much evidence to you all that anxiety decreases our potential golf performance results. The mechanisms responsible for such decreases in performance are also not that relevant since we are well aware that improperly focused anxiety plays havoc with our games regardless of the specific mechanism. So, what we really need to know is how to improve our golf psychology on the course. I don’t profess to have the answer to this; however, I will do my best to give some suggestions based on what I have read for myself. In the end though we all know ourselves best.
Pressure and Golf Psychology – It’s all About Perspective
To clarify how anxiety impacts our performance a bit further, it appears as though one’s response to pressure or anxiety is what seems to really matter. Basically, for any given task, one can perceive it as a threat or a challenge, depending on one’s confidence in their abilities to be successful (3). Individuals who perceive the situation as a challenge show consistently better performance compared to those who perceive it as a threat (3). I don’t think this is a big surprise by any means, but the interesting thing is that a level of pressure is still present for both groups, the difference lies simply in how we “perceive” that pressure. It’s all about perspective!
The impact of how one perceives pressure on our golf performance becomes even more apparent when we compare the reactions of elite vs non-elite athletes to pressure situations. In experimental studies, elite/expert golfers exhibit much higher performance results than non elite golfers (4, 5) under pressure. These results occur even though similar levels of anxiety are seen between the different groups (4, 5). Explaining these results seems very simple; elite level competitors have more positive reactions, and better coping tactics during pressure situations than non-elite competitors. Next comes the question: “what are the tactics used by elite performers”
Golf Psychology Tips
I found a couple studies regarding techniques that can be used to reduce the impact of anxiety on performance, while these techniques may or may not be used by professionals, the results of the studies show promise so let’s have a look. One study used a technique called “implementation intentions” to mitigate anxiety levels (1). This type of technique involves a way of thinking along the lines of: If (insert negative event) happens, then I will (insert positive response to negative event). So for example: “If I hit a poor tee shot, I will simply make an up and down for par”, or “if I have a poor hole, it will not affect my performance on the next hole”. Another technique that has shown to produce positive results for reduction of pressure related decreases in performance in focusing on something external vs internal (2). For instance the referenced study indicates that focusing on the club motion vs. your own body movements produces much better results under pressure. I would add another example and say that one needs to trust their swing and focus more on what they want the outcome of that swing to be. I wrote previously about trusting your own swing and not thinking too much previously. As I noted above, another study (3) discussed how one perceives a certain situation. Do they see it as a threat or a challenge. If one feels they have the necessary skills to deal with the situation it will be seen as a challenge and produce better results. I think that by using the above techniques, we can put ourselves into a position where we see any presented situation on the course as a challenge vs. a threat.
Here are a couple of resources for on the course golf psychology tips that can help you embody the above attitude when you are on the course.
Just Have Fun Golf Psychology
Here’s the thing, why are we jealous of PGA tour golfers? because they make lots of money? Sure, but more than that I think it is really because they get to do what they love for a living, and for those of us that love golf, that makes us want that same thing. For me, I have realized that putting too much pressure on myself takes away from the fun of the game and basically leads to too much anxiety. I can’t avoid pressure during a tournament, that’s a given, but if I apply some of the above techniques, and really just let myself enjoy golf for what it is no matter the outcome, I believe my results will improve, and if they don’t then at least I still had fun.
So let’s go out there, trust our swing, know we can get ourselves out of trouble, understand that is the nature of the game, and when we feel some anger and anxiety coming on, simply tell ourselves “hey, I’d still rather be here playing the game I love than doing…….”
Have fun out there everyone!
The Barefoot Golfer