The Biggest Secret to Golfing Well Under Pressure

Matteo Manasseroby Stephen Walker, PhD

Do you ever wonder why so many good golfers seem to fall apart at tournament time? How come they tend to play better in practice than during Championships? Why does someone always play better in a four ball, or scramble, or team event than solo match events? There’s a one-word answer to all three of these questions: PRESSURE! There’s much more pressure in the bigger tournaments than there is in practice.

Pressure tightens a golfer’s muscles, chokes off their breathing and robs them of their confidence. Big tournament pressure can make a well-conditioned fundamentally sound golfer feel completely out of synch after just one hole of the first day! It can turn your arms into Jell-o and your legs into lead. Pressure is what 7- time Gold Medalist Mark Spitz was referring to when he said, “competing is 90% mental and 10% physical.”

If you can learn to handle the pressure big tournament competition, then you will start to play to your potential. If that sounds good to you your next question should be, “HOW do I do that?”

To play well under pressure you have to learn to relax. The biggest secret to golfing well when it counts the most is to keep yourself loose and calm. The more relaxed that you are, the smoother your muscles function, the better your feel, the softer your hands, the faster your club head speed. Relaxation is the key to playing in synch with smooth rhythm and crisp ball striking. Unfortunately, not too many golfers understand this important connection. And even those who do, aren’t disciplined mentally enough to take that time to relax their muscles deeply and efficiently when they need to.  Because golf is such a result oriented game, and the slightest bit of doubt can fill their minds with chatter, and things they “must do” before they tee off,  they go into their rounds and put far too much pressure on themselves. “I’ve got to make the cut.” “I have to beat Billy Bob!” “I’ve got to go low.” It’s these kinds of pre-round thoughts which will make it impossible for you to relax and, as a result, rob you of your confidence, focus, and relaxed swing.  More than anything, this kind of thinking projects you into a future moment – and that – is a ticket to disaster.  The number one key to managing stress in pressure situations is to “STAY IN THE NOW MOMENT!”

The bigger the tournament, the more important it is for you to stay cool and calm before teeing off. This should be your goal before every one of your important events. If you accomplish this goal, I can almost guarantee that you’ll play better, if not exactly the way that you want to. However, too many golfers, coaches and parents don’t focus on this pre-round goal. They get much more caught up in the “outcome” goal (beating someone, or place). Outcome goals will take care of themselves if you make staying relaxed and loose before your tournament your PRIMARY goal.

Now that I’ve told you something you probably already know, that relaxation is the solution to the pressure problem and the key to golfing in the “zone” if not playing excellence, what CAN you actually do to stay calm when the heat of competition is turned up really high?.

#1 Stretch – Stretching is a great way to calm yourself and stay loose as long as when you stretch you keep your entire focus of concentration on what you are doing. Visualize your muscles getting warm, supple and relaxed as you also “breathe” into them.

#2 Focus on YOU – Paying much attention to your competition pre-tournament will raise your level of nervousness. Keep your focus on yourself beforehand and you’ll stay looser.  Consider where your control lies and limit your conscious awareness to those things you control.

#3 Talk with teammates/friends – If hanging out with your buds pre-tournament keeps you keep loose and distracts you from thinking too much about the event, get in the habit of making that an important part of your pre-round ritual. Have some “quick reads” available for inspiration, or funny, or clever reminders that this is a game – not life or death combat.

#4 Listen to music – A lot of golfers keep themselves in control by listening to their favorite music. Be sure that the tunes that you play in your head are calming and don’t wire you up for sound. Consider them as aids to find your perfect rhythm, and focus your relaxation where its needed.

#5 Distract yourself – Many golfers think too much about their event or part of their game, or their opponents just before teeing off, and therefore work themselves up at the worst possible time. Find other things that you can do pre-round that will distract you from these pressure-causing distractions. Remember your primary goal – to relax. Be real with yourself if you haven’t mastered the skill of relaxation.  It is learned just like the knock down shot, only your dependence on your ability to execute it is a 100 times more relevant than the few times you’ll need to hit it low.

#6 Go somewhere relaxing mentally – I teach many of the golfers I work with to go to a “safe place” in their mind’s eye where they feel completely relaxed and far away. This can be a beach, a vacation spot, or anywhere else. If you mentally practice visiting this special place at night before bed, it will be available to you on any day….especially tournament day.

#7 Do Diaphragmatic (deep belly) breathing – You can not freak out if you are breathing from your diaphragm. It is physiologically impossible. Learn to do diaphragmatic breathing. Sit quietly, inhale through your nose to a slow count of 4, pause, then exhale through your mouth to a little faster count of 7 or 8. Focus your concentration on the rise and fall of your diaphragm as you do this. Practice this at home for 4 minutes a repetition, 10 times a day. When you’re under pressure, one or two of these breaths will then help you calm yourself – and – by focusing on your body’s breathing pattern you limit your thinking to the “NOW MOMENT.”

#8  Practice your routines by subjecting yourself to “pressure situations” – and – require yourself to become centered, loose and focused before you hit your next shot.  These pressure situations can be “recall” of a situation you’ve already played – or – and anticipated one your coach can push on you.

The ability to relax, to channel that neuromuscular sensation systematically to every muscle in the body (especially the hands, forearms, upper arms, shoulders, deltoids, upper traps, lats, abdominals, legs and  feet) is not to be underestimated.  It is largely this single skill that separates those that can play ‘in the zone’ in tournaments and win, and those that just don’t develop the ability to play under pressure.

Those that are able to discipline their thought habits into making this a daily ritual, and incorporate some specific relaxation techniques throughout their warm-up, and constantly during their rounds can and will perform their best.  Remember:  Performance (minus) interference = Pressure

“Through Consistent & Efficient Handling of  Pressure will Enable You to Perform Your Best”