Controlling your body on the golf course
Updated: Sep 8
We have already looked at how stress and pressure on the golf course can impact what we focus on or how we talk to ourselves, but there is also a physical impact. Golfers have to learn how to deal with things like tight hands, stiff arms, shaking or trembling, feeling like their heart is beating out of their chest, and sweaty palms, to name a few. Taking back control of your body physically is just as important as being able to control your mind. Let's look at a few tools you can put to use the next time you feel the physical effects of stress or pressure.
Breathing - I will never forget sitting in a mental toughness session at a conference in Indianapolis with Dr. Jason Winkle. He described a study conducted by the United States military where they were looking to help soldiers control their minds and body during high-pressure situations. Soldiers on the battlefield face much higher stakes and exponentially more anxious moments than we ever will on a golf course, but I was excited to hear the results of this study. So what were the results after spending tens of millions of dollars researching how our minds and bodies perform under pressure? Breathing. At first, I was disappointed, thinking this was a giant waste of time, but then Dr. Winkle went into more detail. It turns out the lower part of our brain directly connects to our heart, lungs, and just about every other vital organ through what is called the vagus nerve. While we can't directly control the amount of adrenaline, fats, or sugars released by our liver and other organs, we can take back control of our breathing, interrupting the fight or flight signal sent throughout our body. Going back to our article on how our brains work, this is essentially System 2 taking back intentional control of the freak out session that System 1 is automatically throwing during this high-pressure situation. Our fight or flight response is useful in the wilderness if we have to fight off a bear, but it is something we need to control on the putting green. Breathing is the first, fastest, and most effective way to do so. Here are a few pointers:
Inhale for 4-6 seconds to fill your lungs with oxygen. Stick your belly button out to allow your lungs to fill completely.
Pause for 2-4 seconds to allow your lungs to absorb the oxygen.
Exhale slowly for 4-8 seconds to get rid of the carbon dioxide that has built up
Wait for 1-4 seconds before repeating the cycle all over again to slow down your breathing rate and your heart rate.
There are all kinds of recommendations for different breathing patterns from various groups and experts, from 4-4-4-4 to 6-2-8-1, and just about every other combination you could imagine. In my experience working with athletes in real life, many of them have different preferences for what works best for them, and all of them certainly have unique lung capacities. So grab a stopwatch, time your breathing, and see what works best
Forced Muscular Relaxation - We have already discussed your brain's ability to pay
attention to some stimuli and ignore others. For example, your brain is probably not paying attention to how your shirt feels on the back of your neck as you read this article, but if I
asked you to shrug your shoulders, you might notice what your shirt texture feels like. Usually, this is not a problem, and our minds do a pretty good job of filtering unwanted information. Sometimes on the golf course, though, our mind might pay attention to how our hands or shoulders feel during our swing and start to over-analyze some muscular tension that is quite normal during high-pressure situations.
Suddenly, we begin to focus on something like our hands feeling funny or our arms feeling tight during our backswing, becoming a big problem. The first step is to focus on something else. As discussed in the focus article, you can't just tell your mind not to think about how your hands feel, but you can focus on something else like your routine or focus cues. If that doesn't take your mind off of it, another technique you can use is forced muscular relaxation, and it does precisely what the name suggests, you force your muscles to relax. If you have ever taken a big important test at some point in your life and felt a high level of shoulder tension afterward, you have experienced involuntary muscular tension. This tension is simply another part of the physical fight or flight response, which we want to control on the golf course. Rather than allowing System 1 to tighten your hand or shoulder muscles automatically, we will use System 2 to take back control intentionally. Try this:
Inhale and completely fill your lungs with air. At the same time, grip your hands as tight as you can.
Hold your breath for a couple of seconds and maintain your grip.
Slowly exhale and allow your hands to loosen. I sometimes find it helpful to visualize a syringe being pushed down and want to allow my body to release that tension in the same way.
Shake your hands a few times and then move on to the next body part, maybe working up through your forearms and then into your shoulders. Each time, visualizing that syringe pushing tension out the whole way down your arm and out your fingertips.
I have some golfers that I work with who like this exercise so much that they have just incorporated it into their pre-shot routine to be proactive in taking back control of involuntary muscle tension.
Sleep, Hydration, and Nutrition - These start to get outside the neuropsychology realm and into sports performance. Still, I would be completely missing a vital part of controlling your body if I left out sleep, hydration, and nutrition. Most athletes that I work with see these as an afterthought, but there is a reason that elite athletes pay better attention to these areas than everyone else. If you don't read any other part in this section, please read this:
If you are not getting proper sleep, hydration, and nutrition before, during, and after your rounds, you might as well be intentionally adding strokes to your game. Not getting proper sleep or having a hydration and nutrition plan is about the same as leaving your putter or favorite wedge at home. You are intentionally putting yourself at a disadvantage.
A study of highly skilled golfers from the University of Lincoln found that dehydration negatively affects accuracy, distance, and decision making on the course. Is staying hydrated going to magically make you more accurate, hit the ball further, and make better decisions? No, not necessarily, but failing to be hydrated will undoubtedly give your opponents an edge. If you are taking the time to read this article, I am assuming you would like to gain an advantage on your opponent, something that proper hydration can certainly provide if your opponent fails to do the same.
Just as important as being hydrated on the course is having proper nutrition. A round of golf takes a long time and will require appropriate energy and nutrition to perform at your best. Here are some quick tips for evaluating your nutrition plan during a round of golf:
There are plenty of free fitness trackers out there, so find one and input all your vitals like gender, age, height, etc.
Input a calorie-burning activity like walking a round of golf for however many hours a typical round takes at your level.
Input all of the food that you consume before and during a round of golf.
Examine your nutrition totals. Are you taking in as many calories as you are burning? Are you getting enough protein, carbohydrates, and fat throughout the day?
If you want more help in this area, find a licensed dietician in your area who can help customize a plan specifically for you.
The final part is getting enough sleep. In the book, Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams, Dr. Matthew Walker dives into the neuroscientific research of getting enough sleep. Failing to do so negatively affects your problem solving, decision-making, learning, memory, heart health, brain health, mental health, emotional well-being, immune
system, and even your life span. While this book focuses more on the general life benefits of sleep, it can also help you see the enormous role sleep plays in our mental and physical health. Again, getting enough sleep might not take strokes off your game, but failing to properly rest can undoubtedly add to your score. Proper sleep is another area in the physical side of things that serious golfers can gain an edge on their opponent.
To control your body on the golf course, you can:
Control your body's fight or flight response through breathing.
Control muscular tension using FMR (forced muscular relaxation).
Develop a hydration plan before, during, and after each round.
Develop a nutrition plan before, during, and after each round.
Make sure you are getting enough sleep (especially on nights leading up to a big tournament).
Use a timer to find out your optimal breathing pattern. Practice it during stressful times at school, at work, or on the course so that you are confident in using it when it matters most.
Practice FMR three times per week for 5 minutes. Commit to using it on the course and consider adding it to your pre-shot routine as needed.
Dig into hydration and nutrition requirements for your age, gender, height, weight, etc., and develop a customized plan to be at your best when it matters the most.
Track your sleep using a journal or fitness tracker, and see if you are getting the required amount of sleep for your age group.