A Mindful Walk Spoiled? Golf and the Ultimate Performance Myth
Updated: Jan 28, 2021
For years I stayed away from the golf course. Perhaps it was the traumatic incident of breaking down into tears after losing to my best friend in pitch & putt at 10-years-old. Or maybe it is being an adult that somehow manages to lose to children at miniature golf by a wide margin and not on purpose.
Anyway, I spent years turning down offers to play golf and likely as a defense mechanism (sorry to sound like a psychologist) I would criticize the sport for being boring and not a real sport.
And now…I’m hooked! Terrible at it, but hooked.
So what happened?
First, I just married into a golf family so it was either learn to play golf or get really skilled at shopping in local outlet stores with my wife (apologies for the microaggression). Second, the nature of my work with golfers made me want to gain a deeper understanding of the sport. Third, playing golf reinforced all the concepts I believe contribute to peak performance. That’s the good news.
The bad news – other than the potential for me to cause damage to nearby strangers when I tee off – is that playing golf also reinforced my belief that very few people have an accurate understanding of effective strategies for managing their mental game.
The most influential and impactful sport psychologist of our time, Dr. Michael Gervais, suggests that we can only train 3 things – Our Body (e.g. weightlifting, cardio), Our Craft (e.g. practicing your putting), and Our Mind (e.g. ??????). Notice the question marks.
Typically people have a solid understanding of how to train their bodies and crafts. However, when it comes to training the mind people often rely on what I like to call “grandmom’s advice.” Grandmom’s advice usually includes free tips such as “just think positive,” “just relax,” “just picture the ball going in the hole,” “just pretend the sandtrap isn’t there” and “you’re too thin, eat some more of my meatballs.” Sure, grandmom means well but she does not have an accurate understanding of the science of performance and therefore her advice typically amounts to sport performance myth rather than sport performance reality.
So in today’s blog I wanted to tackle one of the greatest sport performance myths of all-time – an anxious state = poor performance.
Google “golf and anxiety” and you’ll find articles telling you how to “beat tension”, “crush your nerves”, “control your anxiety with these tips.” These all convey the wrong message. Anxiety is not something that needs to be controlled or crushed. It needs to be greeted with open arms and welcomed to the party. The key to dealing with an anxious state is paradoxical. You do not fight it, you let it in. Yet somehow this counterintuitive philosophy remains underappreciated, unknown, and poorly understood by amateurs and professionals.
For example, it did not take more than 10 minutes during my first trip to the driving range for an onlooker to tell me, “You are too tense. The key is just to relax.” To which I replied, “Thank you Mr. Woods. That green jacket looks great on you.” Okay I actually said, “Interesting, thanks for the help. How would you suggest I relax?” The answer, “just don’t let yourself get anxious.” Guess he did not pick up on my Jewish neuroticism to know that’s not possible (apologies for the microaggression).
As noted by Russ Harris in the book “The Confidence Gap” – “People trot out the myth that high levels of anxiety impair performance – and therefore it needs to be reduced. Unfortunately, this deeply held belief is not only regurgitated in many books on business and sport psychology but also in many popular self-help books. Luckily, there’s plenty of research to show it’s not true,” (p. 172).
Empirical studies have not been able to clearly demonstrate that anxiety level has a direct correlation with performance outcomes. Rather, it appears that the relationship between anxiety and performance is mediated by our interpretation of the anxiety and our capacity for task-focused attention. When anxiety is interpreted as a threat rather than an emotion that can facilitate performance, performance tends to decline. For example, in a study of Olympic runners vs Weekend Warriors (amateurs running 5k’s) it was found that both groups experienced the same level of anxiety prior to the race. However, Olympic runners believed that the anxiety would help with performance, whereas, the Weekend Warriors saw the anxiety as a barrier (threat).
When we develop the belief that anxiety is a threat and essentially equals “bad” we engage in excessive efforts to make it go away. We start to wage war on the anxiety. We fight it. We go to battle. All based on the myth that if anxiety is here, I will not be able to perform well.
As you may guess declaring war on your anxiety takes away from task-focused attention and can lead to a sensation of feeling tense. It is true that tensing up is not good for golf. However, it is also true that judging yourself for feeling anxious and then fighting to relax will only make it worse. Nobody in the world has ever been able to relax when being told to relax.
Imagine getting hooked up to the world’s most sensitive anxiety detector test and you are asked to just not get anxious. All you need to do is relax. However, if you get anxious you will receive a terribly painful electrical shock. How’d that work for ya?
In a similar way, imagine walking up to putt and telling yourself “just don’t get anxious, you’ll sink this putt if you just don’t get anxious, just relax…” Did you just tense up and miss the putt?
During your next round, if you discover that you are playing tug of war with anxiety or any other form of discomfort (i.e. frustration), just drop the rope and apply the 4-step strategy listed below. Keep in mind, these steps can be done in a matter of seconds and the more you practice the more automatic they become.
Step 1: Notice it
Notice sensations of anxiety (or other forms of emotional discomfort) in the body. Perhaps certain body parts – hands, feet, jaw, toes, forehead are clenched/tight. Let a spotlight zoom in on where you are carrying tension in your body (i.e. grip on club). With openness and curiosity, observe the sensations of anxiety in your body and the thoughts/images associated with it.
You are separate from your thoughts and feelings. You are not anxiety. You are the audience, the observer, the watcher of your emotional experience, not the emotional experience itself. In this sense you can observe anxiety for what it really is – a cluster of thoughts, emotions, and physiological sensations - that can be viewed without judgement as passing internal states. Nothing more, nothing less.
Try it now. Just scan your body from head to toe. What is there to be felt? Perhaps take a moment to notice the feeling of the bottom of your foot against the floor or the sensations of your back against the chair. You could even just notice the sensations in your left big toe if you wanted.
Now notice your mental narrative occurring in this moment. Where is your mind? Is it distracted? Is it impatient and wanting to move onto what is next? Is it judging? Is it fully engaged in this moment?
If you are not able to take even 30 seconds or less to do this activity, why not? What do you notice that gets in the way?
Step 2: Name it
Once you notice emotional discomfort in the body you can then name it. “This is anxiety,” “This is frustration” or “Here is anxiety”, “Here is frustration.” You can also name the thoughts associated with emotional discomfort such as “there is judging”, “there is doubt”, “there is self-criticism” or “there is impatience.”
Step 3: Make Space for It
With practice you can learn to put out the red carpet for anxiety rather than fighting to make it walk the plank. It is already here, why fight it? Just make room for it. Imagine creating space within you as vast as a golf course and just opening up to whatever is there to be experienced. You may not like it but you can make space for it.
Remember adopting a stance that anxiety is the enemy interferes with performance, not the presence of anxiety itself. If it is already here why not greet it with kindness, compassion, and openness.
Step 4: Refocus in the Present Moment
Once you become aware using the steps above, you awaken to the moment and can intentionally redirect your attention to the task at hand. The best way to do that is to use your senses. Notice the temperature of the air against your skin. The feel of the club or surface of the golf ball in your hand(s). The smell of the air. The sight of the golf ball - its color, its shape, the smoothness, the dimples. Take in the beauty of the golf course itself and surrounding environment. Or simply reconnect with the breath as it flows in and out of the body. The breath is always with you, so it can serve as a wonderful way to anchor attention in the present moment.
You can try this now. Connect with three different senses for three seconds each. Notice 1 thing you hear for 3 seconds….1 thing you feel for 3 seconds….1 thing you see for 3 seconds. Or see if you can follow the breath for three full in-breaths, and three full outbreaths. If this is challenging or you find that it is difficult to engage in the task, notice whatever it is that is getting in the way of grounding yourself in this moment.
Often it is our constant desire to move onto what is next, rather than fully appreciate what is here that takes us away from being present. If this happens for you perhaps try not to waste time, energy, and effort struggling to change what is. Rather invest all of that into consciously attending to the present moment.
For additional help check out my acceptance of emotions meditation at http://catchingzs.libsyn.com/acceptance-of-emotions-meditation-with-mike-gross
As for me, my golf game will remain a work in progress. Any time you put yourself out there – hosting a party, starting a romantic relationship, beginning a new job - you risk failure. Typically, those unwilling to take risks inevitably end up living a life in the comfort zone which is a failure in itself. Wisdom from the greats teaches us this lesson. It was Wayne Gretzky who famously said, “you miss 100% of the shots you never take.” And of course, Michael Jordan quipped “I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
Needless to say hitting a golf ball in front of my family and friends can be embarrassing. However, at least I am swinging. So if you find yourself missing out on the many opportunities life has to offer because you fear failure, it is time to start to swinging. You may not always hit ‘em straight but at least you are in the game.