Overcoming the Fear Factor
There are fewer crueller labels to be put on a golfer than that of ‘choker’. It suggests that the person in question is somehow weak and has an inability to be mentally in control in a demanding situation. We are all familiar with the expression ‘best player never to have won a major’. It always raises the question, do they really have what it takes to win when the heat is at it’s highest?
Be clear about this: every person who has ever swung a golf club in competition has choked at some point or another. There are those rare individuals who seem impervious to pressure, and who could – even under the most testing of examinations – be counted on to produce the winning shot. Think of Ben Hogan, whose intimidating gaze of the master poker player gave nothing away, suggesting total control of his emotions. But make no mistake about this, Hogan choked many times in his early years, had a hook he couldn’t control, and battled all sorts of demons on left-to-right dogleg holes. Such was his iron will, he simply taught himself to be mentally able under pressure. After his wife died, and the family home was being packed up, in his study it was discovered Hogan had booklets on mental strength and positive thinking with passages that had been underlined. He knew the importance of a strong mind alright, and he worked on that aspect of his make-up as a player.
Tom Watson was labelled a ‘choker’ before he won his first major title. He has said many times, “you have to learn to lose before you learn how to win”. How true. And with his incredible talent and determination, Watson went on to win 8 major championships.
I am sure, like many of the great champions, Watson – a highly intelligent individual – learnt how to manage and control stress coming down the stretch. Learning to manage pressure is a process we learn, not a skill we are born with. When we experience a heightened state of pressure, the adrenaline kicks in and we experience the ‘fight or flight’ response. If we do not learn to manage this, then we will falter under pressure and be liable to choking when then critical moment arises. So, the question is, how do the greats teach themselves how to manage the pressure?
From my research it appears that in the age before sports psychologist, the majority of the great players grew up tough, often via the caddy yard, where bullying and learning to stand up for yourself were key to survival. So, from an early age they learnt to control their fear and face their challenge, be it fighting the caddy yard bully or playing for $5 when they only had 30 cents in their pocket. Hogan, Byron Nelson, Walter Hagen and Slammin’ Sam Snead were all self-taught products of this school of hard knocks. Which served them well in later life when faced with tough shots in pressurised competition – they had the necessary skills to maintain their composure and play their own game.
In other words, they had mastered their reaction to fear. They were not unfamiliar with the feeling and had taught themselves create strategies to help them cope. Hogan maintained a calm acceptance throughout his rounds, totally self absorbed in the next shot. Hagen joked with the crowd, Nelson smiled and spoke to his playing partner, while Sam Snead played as though he had nothing on his mind. I think they had found the way to best keep themselves calm and use it on the golf course. We need to do this to, and the fastest route is to imagine a high stress situation where we would normally choke, then visualise ourselves feeling calm and coping with the situation positively. Easier said than done. But achievable for anyone willing to put in the time.
When I learned to skydive, the number one lesson impressed upon me was to relax. Because to successfully and safely fall through the air at 120+ miles an hour and land in one piece requires that you be relaxed and flexible, not tense and stiff.
However, that’s easier said than done. It is extremely counter intuitive to jump from a plane and be relaxed about it, but it is exactly how you have to be to do it well. The single most effective technique I was taught over the years is that the key enabler to performance-based relaxation is to control your breathing. Later in my skydiving career, I began to try more advanced techniques of flying my body. My instructor would continue to reinforce the importance of breathing and relaxing. As we would both climb out of the door of the aircraft and face each other in the slipstream, my instructor would always point to his mouth to remind me to take a deep breath. When we are tense, nervous or in a state of great concentration we often simply stop breathing. There is no point for me to tell you to relax if you do not know how to relax (other than having a gin and tonic or lying in bed for an extra hour on a Saturday morning).
When two players are neck and neck coming down the final holes of a match, be it a club competition or the last hole of a major, it is the player who has learned to manage that pressure in a positive or constructive way who is most likely to win. To manage the pressure, you first have to learn how to manage yourself, and take control of the adrenaline flowing through your body.
In skydiving you have a main and a reserve parachute. After you exit from the plane at 12,500 feet you deploy your main parachute at a pre-determined altitude (usually between 3,000 and 4,000 feet). Statistically I have been informed that approximately one time in every 607 it will deploy with a malfunction, which means it will either not open, or open partially but will be sufficiently distorted that you cannot land safely. Either way you have an emergency on your hands and have to do something about it, or you will probably die.
Every person who has learned to skydive has drilled into them from their first day of training what to do when they have a malfunction; they initiate their emergency procedure in a precise order. You practice this on the ground and sometimes even in the minutes before the pilot switches on the green light and shouts, “Exit! Exit!” you frequently see people with their eyes closed going through their emergency procedures. The procedure I learned is very straightforward; you will look and locate your red cutaway handle, then hold it in your right hand. You will then look and locate your silver reserve handle with your left hand, and hold it. Then, you peel the red cutaway handle from the Velcro and punch it downwards; this detaches the main canopy from your harness. Pull and punch downwards with the reserve handle; this deploys the reserve parachute. At this point, in every skydiver’s career, one recognises that the emergency procedures are a matter of life and death, and therefore, you practice again and again and again and again. You drive these procedures into your subconscious mind so that when the emergency happens, you don’t think, you act.
In golf we have mental malfunctions; I would thoroughly recommend whenever you are on a golf course and you feel yourself getting angry or upset, to find your “calm” words that quickly help you restore a positive attitude. Find and use words that make sense and work for you (and that you have used during your visualisation exercises at home), so that when any mental malfunction begin, you can immediately go into your “emergency drills” and metaphorically get your reserve parachute out. Thereby quickly and effectively getting back into the perfect state of mind to play your best golf.
I played in a four-ball better ball knockout competition some years ago. I started with a truly awful drive; I must have looked like a guy swinging an axe in a lumberjack competition for the first time. The ball took off at a 45-degree angle then started to slice before diving into some penal rough. There was a somewhat prolonged pause, as there was nothing the other three players could say – other than to pretend it didn’t happen, which they didn’t. So I hit a provisional – to the same place, before giving my partner that well worn universally acknowledged facial expression which means, “Can you believe that?” Unfortunately for me, he could.
Walking up the fairway I reminded myself I had played a lot of good golf in the past, and all I had to do was just get back to basics. In effect what I had done – and have done ever since – is to hit the stop button that prevents me from having negative thoughts. I stopped beating myself up and I stopped worrying too much about the outcome of the match. That forced mind-set created an immediate change in attitude and encouraged me to stop over-analysing and to relax. So I’d like to give you the following advice: should you find yourself having a day when your golf swing deserts you, give yourself an immediate attitude-check, and relax.
My positive words usually include “Love” and “Joy” and “Positive Attitude”. They become a simple mantra to me, and help remove tension, and remind me that I play golf because I love it and want to play it joyfully. I also want a positive attitude at all times and in all situations. When I feel anxiety or a build up of tension come into my swing, I very slightly and deliberately slow down my walk, I breathe more consciously, and I repeat these very simple words to myself: “Love, Joy and a Positive Attitude”.
The effect is to completely distract me from my negative mood and are my EP’s (emergency procedures).