How to improve your ability to handle pressure on the golf course

By on 22nd February 2016
Golf Choke

We’ve all felt it. Those times when panic sets in and you can’t think clearly or get control of your movement. Hands shaking, heart beating out of your chest and the feeling that everyone is watching. In golf, you get tense, lose trust in your swing, and in the worst case, “choke”. You don’t know how to stop it or what will happen next…

What is nervousness and what triggers it?

Simply put, nervousness is your mind and body preparing for danger. “Danger?” I hear you ask…” How is anything related to the game of golf, dangerous?”

The fight or flight response

When we experience fear of danger, the body’s “stress response” begins. Human beings have had the same stress response for hundreds of thousands of years – a system that developed when we had a real need for it. In the face of serious danger, like a large predator, our brains evolved to prepare for either running (flight) or fighting (or fight). Hence the name “The Fight or Flight Response”. Without going into too much of the science behind it, when this happens our cognitive thinking is shut down (in the face of serious danger you don’t need to weigh up all the options) and the body is prepared for intensity (heart pumping fast to get blood to the muscles and increased muscle tension to run fast or fight). At which point, clear thinking and use of fine motor skills is limited.

So what does this have to do with golf?

Our primitive ancestors would have have triggered the fight or flight response through fear of a serious threat to their lives. But today, that same physiological response to fear is caused by far less harmful threats. It happens to various degrees on the golf course, when you worry about:

  • Losing a match
  • Not playing well in a big tournament
  • What other people will think if we fail (embarrassment)
  • The outcome of a shot (like going in the water or OB)
  • Not meeting our own high expectations (or not seeing improvement for our efforts)

When you are fearful of any of these things during a round, you start the stress response. It starts with butterflies and then depending on how well you are able to manage your mental game, it can increase to shaking, tension, a quick swing, poor decision making and no touch on and around the greens.

Controlling the stress response

However, a little nerves are a good thing. Ask any elite player and they will tell you that they want to feel some nervous energy while playing. It increases your focus and awareness. That same fear is a reminder you care – it also provides you with motivation to succeed. But that same fear, if not controlled, can limit your chances of success. Take a look at the graph below:

Yerkes–Dodson law - Inverted U

Yerkes–Dodson law – Inverted U

The first sign that you are getting stressed is an increased heart rate. The faster your heart beat, the more prepared for “fight or fight” your brain becomes. Therefore, a big part of controlling your stress response when you start to feel nervous is controlling your heart rate. If you can get control of your physiology, you can retain full access to your thinking and skills under pressure. I’ve got plenty of breathing (and other stress control) techniques in my Mental Game Training Program.

Can we practice control of the stress response when we’re not on the course?

Yes. By creating pressure in our practice via “Competitive Skills” practice we can learn how to stay in the “Optimal Performance Zone”. The more you can simulate the pressure you feel on the golf course, the easier it will become to handle it and succeed when you’re playing in competition.

For at least a 1/3 of your practice, every shot should count, just as it does on the golf course. Competitive skills practice is about creating consequences for missing a target or not beating a score, so you can create pressure and learn how to control your stress response. This is the only time I would recommend being score focused (purely for creating pressure). On the golf course it’s the reverse – it’s about process goals and taking pressure off!

If you’d like ideas for games that create pressure, you should check out my Practice Drills ebook, available here.

An example of a Competitive Skills drill is a game which requires you to hit 3 imaginary fairways consecutively on the driving range. First hit 3 balls down fairway A. When you’ve achieved this, you will move on to fairway B and when you’ve hit 3 balls down it, you move on to Fairway C. You should give yourself only 1 attempt at this drill per practice session to maximize pressure even further.

Another way to do it is to run on the spot before hitting a shot and then try to use your breathing to control your heart rate.

For each of the Competitive Skills drills, try to keep a log of your scores. This way you’ll have a target to beat next time. If you have someone to practice with you could even do some friendly betting to help create the tournament situation and increase the consequence for missing!

I hope this lesson will help you get better control of your thinking and your movement when you’re playing under pressure. It’s always a good idea to acknowledge what you are actually fearful of and remember that nerves are a positive if managed properly.

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David MacKenzie is the founder of Golf State of Mind and he lives in Washington, D.C. David is an expert on the Mental Game of Golf, Short Game and Putting – those areas that are the most effective in lowering scores. David has been a coach for almost 15 years and has taught every level from beginner to Tour Pro with huge success. David is a scratch golfer and attended the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, UK. He uses the perfect blend of sports psychology and practical application to ensure no time is wasted in you working towards consistently playing to your potential. David is the author of Golf State of Mind: Mental Game Training Manual, Practice System, and How to Become a Great Putter. Also, David runs a audio membership site on Golf State of Mind at Audio Membership

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About David MacKenzie

David MacKenzie is the founder of Golf State of Mind and he lives in Washington, D.C. David is an expert on the Mental Game of Golf, Short Game and Putting – those areas that are the most effective in lowering scores. David has been a coach for almost 15 years and has taught every level from beginner to Tour Pro with huge success. David is a scratch golfer and attended the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, UK. He uses the perfect blend of sports psychology and practical application to ensure no time is wasted in you working towards consistently playing to your potential. David is the author of Golf State of Mind: Mental Game Training Manual, Practice System, and How to Become a Great Putter. Also, David runs a audio membership site on Golf State of Mind at Audio Membership

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