Presence - Being in the moment
On the golf course and often before a match itself we can often experience nervousness. This emotion can (and will) manifest itself in a number of different ways, but the most common are sweating, ‘butterflies’ in the tummy and in extreme cases shaking. Why is this? What causes us to feel this way and how can we deal with the emotion?
The symptoms of the nervous tension we are experiencing are caused by adrenaline being released into our bloodstream, which causes the ‘fight or flight’ response. It is an evolutionary inbuilt survival mechanism. When our Neanderthal relatives were hunting 20,000 years ago, the sight of a woolly mammoth lumbering toward them would immediately result in an injection of adrenaline that would give their body the best chance of survival (by increasing heart rate, concentrating the blood flow into the core organs for speed and strength). The great woolly mammoth may no longer be a threat to human survival but the fight or flight response to stress remains, and this is what causes our mouths to dry, sweat ducts to open up, heart to race and stomach to feel queasy.
Which is no state to play good golf.
The reason we still experience this reaction under pressure, I believe, is that we get ahead of ourselves. We think about the negative consequences of a future outcome, and immediately start worrying about it. Let me give you an example. A nervous airline passenger is told they have to fly in six days to attend a business meeting. The person begins to think about the things that can go wrong on the flight: the plane may crash, or be hijacked, they may suffer claustrophobia, or get food poisoning, or may accidentally get sucked into the engine. (Yes, I have heard that one before!) So, by focusing on the possible negative outcomes of the plane trip, they create in their minds a very powerful (and very real to them) mental image of exactly the thing they fear: flying. As a consequence the body responds and they experience nervousness and anxiety.
What does all this have to do with golf? I mean, generally no one expects to die on the golf course as the result of a shot. It just isn’t that serious a deal. And yet we are all only too well aware of the implications of these emotions and their negative effect on performance. So how do you deal with it?
Well, through years of research studying top golfers and other high achievers, I discovered a common denominator: successful athletes and businessmen master to a better degree than others the ability to be ‘in the moment’ – another term for this is mindfulness.
In the Silent Mind approach to golf, we need to be in a state of mindfulness in which there is no thought at all. I call this presence. We become totally ‘in the moment’, a state where we have no thoughts of the past or future, and, most importantly, no thought in the present moment (which is simply the duration of the swing).
I’ve heard of professional golfers who are asked about the greatest round they ever played. Many tell of a stunning round of near-perfect golf during which they were, so they say, ‘in the ‘zone’. When asked years later what they felt about that round, they remember it as being their best ever, but when asked how they felt at the time, they reply ‘Nothing’.
Rather than find this odd, I find this wholly consistent with the state of perfect mindfulness – when we no longer associate any emotion to the act of doing, or the outcome of the action. We exist in the moment, which explains why people in this state (psychologists explain it as ‘optimal flow’) feel ‘timeless’ with “a strong sense of certainty towards achieving desired results.
The Chatterbox Mind
Clearly, the more we are aware of the conditions required to bring about such a state, the more likely we are to make it occur and reap the benefits in terms of our performance. I believe that as we stand over the shot, the ability to think of nothing at all is the single greatest mental key to peak performance.
Curiously most of us experience this every day. When you drive a car you simply get in with the knowledge of where you want to go...and then you go there. You don’t think about the position of your feet, your hands, or the route you are going to take. You just jump in the car and drive to your destination without any clear memory of the journey. Yet (and here is the truly disturbing part) as statistical analysis will clearly prove, every time you get in a car you run the risk you may be killed. But we never think of that.
With the exception of nervous drivers, the majority of us jump into our car and drive without sense of fear or dark, foreboding thoughts. In the game of golf, I want you to go about each shot in exactly the same way you would drive your car or walk down the street – i.e. with no thought at all – just an understanding and awareness of where you want the ball to finish.
Of course, as golfers we are all too aware of the barriers to this. When we arrive at the golf course to play an important match, more often than not we get ahead of ourselves, and worry about bad shots, losing the match, how we are going to tackle to tough drive at the 8th hole (when we are walking down the 2nd!), and so on. In so doing we are no longer ‘in the present’, we are now getting nervous about a future outcome we fear. We are the victim of what I call the ‘chatterbox mind’. We have to learn to control the chatterbox mind.
Though this can sound a somewhat too analytical a view of what many would consider a natural part of the game, I have no doubt that anything you have learnt you can unlearn, so just as easily as you intuitively allow yourself to think of the future (generally in a negative way) so too can you train yourself to ‘be in the moment’, and think of nothing at all. But learning to still your mind and be in the present takes time and daily practice. You learn to still your mind with repeated practice.
Some people find it much easier than others. Some spend a great deal of time learning to still their mind. The good news is that everyone can do it. However, like anything in life that needs to be learned, it takes repetition, dedication and diligent practice. It is ironic that to learn how ‘not to think’ might sound like a paradox, it is unlikely you will get it right the first time. When we first try to sit in silence and think of nothing, thoughts will pop into our heads. Usually these random ideas and images will just appear in our conscious minds. Through repeated practice we learn not only how to still the mind at will, but also, when these random thoughts do appear, how not to pay them any attention or focus on them at all.
Thinking of nothing
I would like you to put down this magazine and sit upright in a comfortable position for 10 minutes with your eyes closed. I want you to think about nothing at all Absolutely nothing. I imagine, right now, you think this will be the easiest thing in the world to do. Some of you may think it is an opportunity to have a quick snooze, but this is not about going to sleep, this is about emptying your mind of thought. Ten minutes, eyes closed, without sleeping or thinking of anything.
What happened? I imagine for the first 10 or 15 seconds you may have been able to think of nothing and then, slowly but surely, random thoughts popped into your head. Maybe you were just aware of your seat or felt very self-conscious that you were trying to think of nothing.
Time slowed down, and when you opened your eyes (after what you imagined was 10 minutes), you discovered that maybe only four minutes or less had lapsed.
There is good reason why it is hard to think of nothing: not thinking is an alien concept. The brain doesn’t switch off – even when we are asleep it generates dreams. And yet stilling the mind and emptying our brain is the key to releasing our true potential in golf, silencing the ‘chatterbox mind’ and allowing what we have learned to flow.
When you’re walking down the street, you’re not thinking about walking. When you start a journey, you actively know where you’re going, and without thinking you walk or drive in that direction of your destination.
In the game of golf, we need to swing the club in the same way we walk along the road, with no thought at all, just an awareness of where we want the ball to finish.
Stilling the mind
We do not still the mind simply by telling it to ‘be quiet’. The very act of telling ourselves to think of nothing requires thought. Rather, we learn to still the mind through practising ‘silent meditation’, and creating a trigger word that we associate with this stillness.
Using the Silent Mind techniques of focus, faith and presence, it is only in the final stage, presence, that we actually enter the Silent Mind state, where no thoughts exists, just being and doing.
(For those of you wishing to explore this further, my book comes with a guided meditation CD that explains this process in more detail.)
In the high-stakes arena of major golfing events, this ability to empty or ‘still’ the mind is tested to its limits, and the players who are best able to play one shot at a time, keeping their focus in the present, are most likely to give themselves the best chance to win. In short, the chances of them choking are reduced, because they are not being anxious about the future. Less thinking and more going with the natural flow.
Justin Rose’s phenomenal performance at Muirfield Village in the Memorial Tournament recently struck me as one of the greatest closing rounds of golf I have seen in a long time by a player who was, evidently, ‘in the zone’ all day long. He didn’t miss a shot and seemed to get better as the round went on – none other than Jack Nicklaus himself greeted Justin as he left the 72nd green and told him simply: “You’re swing was perfect.” Justin has always had the talent; here it was allowed to flow (without interference) from his body – the only thoughts in his mind would have been on precisely where he wanted the ball to go.
Looking back through history, one of my favourite examples of this perfect mental state manifesting itself on the course involved none other than Bobby Jones during a playoff for the 1923 US Open Championship.
After seven years of high expectations from the boy wonder, Jones had yet to win a major, and here he found himself in a playoff with Scottish professional Bobby Cruickshank. After an epic battle the players were tied after 17 holes. The 18th hole at Inwood is a dramatic finishing hole. It is a long par-four guarded by a lagoon. To have any chance of reaching the green in two, players have to hit a long drive. For once Cruickshank’s drive was poor.
He hit a low hook that travelled about 150 yards and meant that he could not possibly reach the green in two. Jones played his customary fade, a long shot that landed just off the right side of the fairway but his ball was on a patch of dry hard ground surrounded by dirt. He had 200 yards to the green over the lagoon. Cruickshank had no option but to lay up and he played his second shot to leave himself an easy pitch to the flag.
All of the contemporary accounts of the day say that Jones didn’t waste any time over his second shot. He pulled his driving iron out of the bag. (The driving iron is the equivalent of a 2-iron, a club which is notoriously difficult to get right.)
Jones’ father, his friend and journalist, OB Keeler and his teacher, Stewart Maiden, could hardly bear to watch. All three men said afterwards that they had never seen Jones play a ball with such deliberation and so decisively. The ball cleared the water, bounced twice on the green, nearly hit the pin and came to rest six feet past the flag.
Jones himself said that he had no memory of the shot itself. He says that he remembers looking up and seeing the ball on the green and wondering how it had got there. For me this is the single most revealing event in Bobby Jones’ golfing career. He faced a difficult shot under intense pressure and he executed the shot to perfection yet he had no memory of the decision making process he went through before making the shot. He was what we would describe now as being “in the zone” and on auto pilot.
This for him would have the feeling of time standing still as he instinctively made the right decisions, dismissed any element of worry from his mind and concentrated totally on the task in hand as action and awareness combined and his subconscious mind took over. The fact that Jones had no recollection of the shot is what convinces me that he was at that point ‘in the moment’.
We may not have Jones technical skill and timing in the swing, but the mental game is accessible to all. But remember – it requires regular daily practice of the practice of being present in the moment.