Silent Mind Golf - The Fear Factor
WHY DOES PRESSURE CAUSE US TO CHOKE?
We choke and become emotionally overloaded when under pressure, because we are afraid of something going wrong – something that is our own fault. When we become fearful we fail to operate intuitively, we refuse to allow our physical actions to flow in the involuntary manner they have been trained through practice and experience. At such moments we deliberately become very aware of everything around us, and in this state of heightened awareness we become fully self-conscious. This can lead us to get irritated by the smallest thing. As the writer P.G. Wodehouse expressed so succinctly in his short story Ordeal by Golf, ‘The least thing upset him on the links. He missed short putts because of the uproar of butterflies in the adjoining meadow.’
‘The person I fear most in
the last two rounds is myself.’
These are the effects of adrenaline – and they allow us to become distracted. Some professional golfers betray their distraction by asking nearsilent galleries to be quiet, or by becoming preoccupied with simple things that, in a normal round, would not concern them.
In the Ryder Cup at Oak Hill Country Club in 1995, Nick Faldo, having played a superb wedge at the final par-four hole, had a four-foot putt to give himself a chance of beating Curtis Strange and winning the tournament for Europe. To the spectator watching on television it was business as usual and we knew that if anyone in that situation was capable of making that putt it was Nick Faldo. He stroked the putt dead into the centre of the cup. When interviewed afterwards, however, he admitted he had been physically shaking and his heart had been thumping; he really didn’t know how he had got the club back. I suspect that no matter how much Faldo understood the physiological process of choking, given the amount of pressure on that putt, it would have been almost impossible for him to be casual about it. The important thing was that when the pressure came he was able to function, he was not overcome, he did not panic, he did not freeze. He did not choke. He was able to swing the putter smoothly enough to make the shot, even though he had so much adrenaline coursing through his body that, by his own admission, he could feel himself shaking.
Other players in that situation could so easily have pushed or pulled the putt badly, losing control over the delicate muscle motor skills required for such a shot. Rather than stroking the putt as they would during a regular session on the putting green, when a player chokes it is often because they become emotionally overloaded with the negative potential consequences of the action before them. Just as some players are afraid of losing, others are distracted by winning, because both of those outcomes have a high emotional value and inevitably create tension.
When Doug Sanders stood over the infamous putt he needed to win the Open Championship at St Andrews in 1970, he was already thinking about what to do after he holed the winning putt. Explaining his thought process in a subsequent interview, he wondered: should he raise his hands into the air?, or do something else appropriate to that moment? He had got ahead of himself and, while his thoughts might be seen as positive, in practice they distracted him and created a heightened awareness of the implications of the putt, thereby unconsciously raising the stress and so the difficulty of the shot at hand.
There are players who have won majors through the accomplishment of astonishing shots. Two of the most famous of all time have been Bob Tway’s holed bunker shot on the final hole of the 1986 USPGA Championship against Greg Norman and Larry Mize’s once-in-a-lifetime chip during the sudden-death playoff of the 1987 US Masters (also ironically against Norman).
Both bordered on the unbelievable. I doubt any bookmaker would have given you odds shorter than 1000 to one on either player achieving those shots. And I believe that because of the extreme difficulty they faced, neither player realistically thought they would make the shot. As a result, I believe they were not especially anxious or emotionally overloaded as they stood over the ball, and this physical and mental state put them in the best possible position to hit it perfectly – which is exactly what they did.
Fear of losing is a much stronger emotion than fear of winning. This is one reason more tournaments are won by the players who are not leading at the start of the final round: they have no position to protect. So, is there anything we can do to reduce our fear? When I took up skydiving some years ago, I remember being very nervous about the whole jump sequence. From the moment I gave my name to the flight manifester and was told which load I would be boarding, right up until when I exited the plane, I had an uneasy tension in my stomach, like a million butterflies having a party. Curiously when I left the aircraft at 12,500 feet the fear and anxiety went away. Why? I believe that once out of the aircraft and in freefall I was ‘in the moment’: I had no time to process the future, so wholly engaged was I with the here and now. After I had accumulated over 120 jumps, I realised I still got fairly nervous before each jump. True, the sensation was a little less intense, but it remained and it was unpleasant.
I had thought that with experience my confidence would grow and these ‘jitters’ would disappear. I discussed it with a number of more experienced skydivers and instructors, and they told me that the fear never really goes away. Even those with over 8000 jumps told me they still got a little nervous before each jump!
Pressure never goes away, but by learning to accept it as part of the process and enjoyment of the sport you love, you will get used to it. When we play golf under pressure, we will experience emotions that are similar to fear or worry. If we simply try to ignore them, I doubt we will have much success – the processes at work are too central to our physiology.
Better that we learn from the skydivers who come to accept that it is normal and natural to experience fear. Through rehearsing the negative scenarios that could happen and practising their emergency drills as normal, the skydivers are able to manage any potential situation. As golfers we have to do the same, and not let situations overwhelm us, which is what is happening when we choke.
One of the exercises I do with my clients is to have them visualise a stressful situation on the course, one which in competition would create tension and the likelihood of a bad shot. Whilst they are visualising this scenario in their head and experiencing the associated feelings of pressure, I ask them to visualise playing this shot perfectly. What I am doing is familiarising them with the idea of playing under pressure, and removing the association between pressure and the increased likelihood of a poor shot. This exercise can be applied to a number of different on-course scenarios, each time with the player executing the shot they want to play, and not the shot they fear.
Just as the skydiver rehearses on the ground what they will do in the air during an emergency, golfers need to rehearse mentally, off the course, what they will do in a pressure situation on it. The more we do this, the deeper in our subconscious will we embed the memory of managing pressure on the course. When we find themselves in competition for real, and face a pressure shot that we have visualised a hundred times or more, we will have the memory of having hit the shot just the way we want. Fear of losing is a stronger emotion than fear of winning, so focus your expectation on a successful outcome. Accentuate the positive.