Is Your Brain Working Against You on the Golf Course?
Updated: Sep 8, 2022
Some golfers seem to play at their best in high pressure situations, while others crumble. When it comes to being clutch on the golf course, there was a time where we thought some golfers "have it" and others don't, but we know from brain research and neuropsychology that we can train and improve our minds. The first step is to be aware of what is going on and how your brain works, so that you can then take back control.
Right now, there is a good chance you aren't paying attention to what the bottom of your feet feel like, or at least you weren't. Now, if I were to ask you to wiggle your toes, it might be a completely different story. Your brain can take in an extraordinary amount of sensory information and regulate what is "important" and what isn't. Whether your feet feel sweaty, freezing, dry, wet, comfortable, or uncomfortable isn't "important" to you being able to read this article about improving your mental performance on the golf course, so your brain has unconsciously decided to ignore that sensory information. MOST of the time, this is a good thing...when our mind pays attention to what it should and ignores what it shouldn't.
Since you started reading this article, it is safe to say that most of you have not been paying attention to your breathing. Unless you are hooked up to some medical equipment right now, you aren't telling your heart to beat or your because your brain does that for you. The process is entirely automatic. But what if I asked you to inhale for 4 seconds, hold that breath for 4 seconds, exhale slowly for 4 seconds, and then pause for 4 seconds before starting the next breathing cycle? Something that your mind was doing automatically you have now intentionally taken over.
Let's look at one last example before discussing why all of this matters on the golf course. When you see the word:
Your brain instantly identifies it as a four-legged furry creature. You probably imagined either a best friend you have at home or maybe a terrifying experience you had with a fierce canine as a child. Regardless, you didn't have to sound out d-d-do-do-doggg each letter like a small child who is just starting to read might need to. Your brain has done that so many times that it can automatically read it.
On the other hand, if I were to ask if which friend the following passage remind you of:
"If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer." - Walden, Henry David Thoreau
It would require some intentional thought. The same applies to math equations. You automatically know the answer to 2+2=_, but it would take some serious intentional thinking to figure out 17x36=_.
In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman describes this as System 1 and System 2. System 1 does things automatically (i.e., breathing, pumping blood, reading short words, 2+2, etc.) while System 2 requires intentional effort (i.e., slowing our breathing rate, analyzing complex sentences, challenging math equations, etc.).The human brain is incredibly complex, and entire volumes of textbooks have been written about the different parts and functions. Not to mention the fact that we are learning more every single day through advances in functional MRIs and other brain-scanning technology. When it comes to applying this on the golf course, simpler is better, making System 1 & 2 perfect for our purposes.
Let's look at a few golfers I have worked with individually and what intentional solutions we put in place to help them take back control of their minds and bodies on the golf course. While I have swapped some details and names around to protect my clients and maintain the trust we have built between us, the symptoms I describe, and the solutions we put in place are entirely accurate.
"Not this shot again..."
Sydney was an incredible high school golfer. Syd had a fantastic high school career and headed off to college with a pretty impressive trophy case. She went to a university with a solid golf tradition and found herself surrounded by players who were also elite players. As an underclassman, this was ok, because if she didn't do well, everyone would shrug it off as a freshman who was still developing. As upperclassmen, though, things changed. There was pressure. All around her. All the time.
Her team tracked every imaginable statistic, and her coach, teammates, and she knew what specific distance on the green cost her strokes. On the one hand, this would seem valuable because she would know what she needed to work on in practice, but it became a problem in reality. When an approach shot landed within that specific distance to the pin, her brain engaged the fight or flight response. This upcoming putt was not a good situation that she wanted to be in, she had failed here before, and there was no sense in letting that happen again. The little voice in the back of her mind started screaming things like, "Oh no, not this again. I don't know if I can do this. What if I screw this up again?" Not a recipe for success.
System 1 freaked out and automatically went into protection mode to try and avoid this at all costs. System 1 doesn't want you to fail, look like a fool, or let your teammates down and sometimes do whatever it can to prevent those things from happening, but playing it safe isn't an option for elite athletes. She needed to intentionally take back control of her focus, how she talked to herself, and breathing to control her heart rate so she could calm her nerves physically. The first step was to be aware of what was happening in her mind and body automatically, and when that reaction usually occurred. Then we came up with some intentional ways to use System 2 to get out of protection mode and into performance mode. After learning how to control her mind and body, she was able to get comfortable from that putting distance and turn it into a strength in her game that gave her confidence.
Physical Reaction to Stress
Mike was a golfer who had unbelievable success at lower levels, but he felt something strange in his hands in his first state tournament. All of a sudden, his hands felt tight, almost like he couldn't get them to relax. Not only had System 1 increased muscle tension (fight or flight response), but now Mike was paying attention to it. Not only was he paying attention to it, but it was also the only thing he could think about at each tee box.
Stress and anxiety don't just affect our mental health; they impact every single system in our bodies. Just like Sydney wasn't trying to psych herself out so that she would perform better, Mike wasn't trying to increase muscle tension to improve his swing. When System 1 causes a psychological or physical reaction to a situation, we need to be intentional with System 2 to take back control. Mike was able to find relief and get back to "normal" by changing his focus, controlling his breathing, and using forced muscular relaxation that we will discuss in the article on managing your body on the golf course.
Part of being an elite competitive golfer or even becoming a scratch golfer at your local club is being able to handle the stress and pressure that come before, during and after big moments on the course. Golfers have to learn how to handle nerves at the first tee box, how to handle a bad shot, what to do if you experience the yips while chipping, finishing a round when you are about to shoot an all-time low score, or being confident while putting on the green. There is a big difference in playing on the course by yourself and teeing off on the 18th hole in a big tournament when you are down by 1 stroke. Anyone who says otherwise has never been in a high pressure situation. The reason some people could be described as clutch golfers in those moments and others crumble under the pressure simply comes down to being able to control your mind and body. So what about you? What moments in your game could be improved?