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If you’ve ever seen anyone panic as he or she is about to give a speech, you know it’s not a pretty sight. The speaker’s galloping anxiety, surely accelerated by uncontrolled irrational thoughts, resembles part of the classic “fight-or-flight” syndrome, where worry, tension, fear and panic all converge, making the person virtually helpless to act calmly and rationally. It may get worse – “freeze-or-faint” may also be reactions.
Emotional tension is the enemy of the golf swing, and the emotions rule where tension is concerned. Golf is a rare game where the swing occurs voluntarily, not as the result of a reaction, like a batter hitting a pitched ball. Negative thinking and negative feelings co-exist and will handicap a golfer more than any course conditions or opponents.
When you engage in rigid “I” thoughts attached to “must,” “should” or “have to,” even below your awareness threshold, you are simply jacking up the tension and making it harder to perform as well as you want to.
Any round of golf can be an emotional roller coaster if we fail to recognize the warning signs of maladaptive feelings, thoughts and tension. It strikes me that there is a close tie between confidence and emotional regulation, one that we need to comprehend and embrace if we are to make ourselves our own best friend on the golf course, rather than our own worst enemy. Just like positive, performance-enhancing emotions, confidence is something we choose, not something that just pops up in our mind and our game by happenstance.
Yes, you can take action to create your own confidence, and that happy anticipation that goes along with it. Start by practicing and warming up in a way that promotes the feel of solid contact and holing short putts.
So many golfers unthinkingly go to the range, automatically pull out their driver and start wailing away, lucky to hit a good shot at random, instead of starting with short, controlled shots, like half wedges.
Next, learn to manage your anxiety by personal affirmations (e.g. “I feel calm and in a good place”) and relaxed breathing. These are all self-directed moves to build your confidence.
Self-image and self-talk are both closely associated with emotional well-being; they can result in positive or negative influences.
When advising us about the role self-image plays in our performance in his book “Your 15th Club,” Dr. Bob Rotella offers this: “You can think of the self-image as the sum of all the thoughts you’ve had about yourself. Some of them have been supplied by others. But most of them originate with you. These thoughts stay in the conscious brain for a while. They are then absorbed by the subconscious.”
Self-image, he says, can produce such self-affirming thoughts a,s “I’m a pretty good golfer and I’m a good putter;” or horribly maladaptive self-talk such as, “I’m just a choking dog. I just suck.”
It’s like the warped inner image of an anorexic turned to golf. And as Dr. Rotella points out, your self-image lives in your subconscious, while you remain unaware of how influential it is to your behavior.
“But it’s your subconscious that rules your golf game,” he says. “That’s because golf is one of those physical activities, like driving a car, that are learned by the conscious brain and then controlled by the subconscious brain.” Very similar to our emotions.
When you’re on the golf course, think of yourself as your own caddie. Caddies on tour don’t tear their players down; they build them up! Don’t be overly critical of yourself. Be your own caddy, and coach yourself into good decisions, a good mood and good shots.
Make a choice to feel good about yourself regardless of the outcome of any single shot or any single round. If today didn’t go well, there is always tomorrow, and we can accept the challenge of changing what we didn’t like about yesterday.
One of Annika Sorenstam’s first coaches, Pia Nilsson, put it best, telling Annika, “Learn to guide your emotions on the golf course and in life.”
Dr. Charlie Blanchard is a licensed psychologist specializing in sports and leadership. Contact Blanchard at firstname.lastname@example.org.