What comes first, your attitude or your performance? The field of positive psychology examines the patterns and habits of successful people to determine what makes them rise above the curve. Unlike many other sports players, we spend 85% of our time on the golf course not playing our sport. It is estimated that the golf swing takes approximately 2 seconds from start to finish. Add a few more seconds for your set up and that means during a normal four hour round of golf most golfers on average spend just over 35 minutes actually “playing golf.” This gives us plenty of time to allow our thoughts to influence our performance. Sports like hockey, tennis, baseball and such have us react to what our opponent has done. In golf, the ball is stationary and it is our thoughts and an ever-changing playing field that creates the challenge. How we think and act in between golf shots has a huge impact on the next shot we take.
There is no doubt we need an understanding of how to play different shots, how the golf club influences the ball and the skills of coordination, balance & flexibility to perform the golf swing. Golfers spend hours practicing swing mechanics for each type of shot and unique course condition but often golfers forget to practice the one skill that will pay dividends on each and every shot they take - learning how to control their emotions on the golf course.
We know that when we experience an emotion our body releases chemicals into our body. For example, stress produces the chemical cortisol and happiness produces the chemical serotonin. Negative emotions such as fear or anxiety result in impaired thinking and loss of coordination, and positive emotions such as appreciation and gratitude actually help us function at peak performance. Science has proven that our brain cannot decipher between real and imagined. If we fear a 100 yard carry over the water our body will respond the same as our ancestors did when they feared being chased by a man-eating animal. Our heart will race, our muscles become tense, and our ability to think and reason become compromised. We simply focus on getting out of an uncomfortable situation as quickly as possible.
If we can change our mind, we can change the way the brain sends messages to our body. Learning to acquire the emotional skills in golf can be as important to lowering our score as much as practicing any swing technique. The first and most important step in this process is learning how to identify when your thoughts are keeping you from playing your best golf. A simple scan of your self-talk, how you are breathing, where your eyes are focused and the pace you are moving, can reveal volumes of what may be in store for your next shot. For example, a golfer who is telling him/herself how bad they are, staring down at the ground, barely taking in air with short quick breaths and rushing to the next shot will likely produce an unwanted golf shot. On the opposite end of the spectrum, a golfer who is realistically confident, believing he/she can make the shot according to their ability, visualizing the ball flying through the air taking, slow deep breaths, calmly approaching the golf ball, is setting the stage for success.
Try these three keys during your next round. First, have realistic expectations of your game. Nothing can apply pressure faster than thinking you should be playing better than your lesson and practice history indicates. You can always get better at golf with proper instruction and practice, but for now play the shot you know you can handle. Second, keep your chin up, look to the sky and breathe in the fresh air. Golfers who look down at the ground tend to have thoughts of the past or the future while those who look up to tend to be present in the moment. Finally, play from a place of gratitude. Golfers who appreciate the game are more accepting of whatever way the golf ball rolls. They are less likely to become upset and understand that in each shot they take lays an opportunity for success. They savor the challenge and do not fall apart when they don’t get exactly what they hoped.
Spend some time this season becoming familiar with your emotional patterns on the golf course and practice keeping your emotions in check to give you the best chance for a successful golf shot. A few minutes spent practicing this needed skill, until it becomes a regular part of your game, will help you enjoy the great game of golf for many years to come.