Tuesday, April 12, 2011

One Swing From Disaster

If you were like most golf fans, you were captivated by the Masters this past weekend.  There were abundant story lines, such as a young player finishing strong, a past champ mounting a comeback and a young prodigy experiencing a golf disaster.  Are we all just one swing away from a similar disaster?  Here are some ways you can avoid your own next time you are feeling the pressure.

What causes us to lose our focus, our confidence, our tempo or our ability to execute on the golf course?  We have all been there, which is why it was easy to feel Rory's pain on Sunday.  The feelings of frustration, anger, hopelessness and embarrassment seem overwhelming.  After 15 years of watching junior golf, college golf and a lot of pros play the game, I have seen the situation that Rory was in many times.  What happens?  It is very hard to speak for what is going on mentally or emotionally for another golfer, but we are all more similar than different.  One moment, we can be in complete command of the game and the next, it is as though we have never played.  The cause is usually pressure, either applied by your self talk or an unfamiliar situation.

Rory McIlroy showed us the talent he had in the first three rounds and then showed us his humanity in the final round.  This young man will win many majors before it is all said and done.  He will also continue to handle himself with class and graciousness.

It is easy to say you should ask for pressure and want a challenge.  Yes, that is the mentality you would like to take into a major or any round of golf.  However, dealing with that pressure and those challenges is a lot tougher than stating what you read in a sports psychology book.  You need actual methods to deal with the feelings of pressure.  Here are some tools you can use the next time you feel yourself buckling under the weight of pressure.

There are some simple things to learn that will help you if you practice them whenever you play.  First, you need to stay in the moment.  That might seem like a cliche and a very overused piece of advice, but it is a key to performing on the golf course.    If we allow ourselves to fast forward to the end of the round and envision ourselves holding the trophy or celebrating with our friends, we are in trouble.  It is pretty tough to focus fully if you are dreaming of the future or the past.  Day dreams are handy when you are away from the course and visualizing your success, but day dreams get in the way when they happen on the course.  You need a plan when your mind wanders.

Place any word you want in the bubble.  Do you want birdie?  One putt?  A win?

Rosie Jones, in a coaches clinic, told us her mechanism of bringing her mind back to the present is to simply look at the grass.  She notices how green it is, or picks out a blade to admire.  This simple change of focus puts her back into the moment and gets her mind in a neutral place to then move to the focus needed to hit the next shot.  This might sound too simple for you, but the recognition of needing a neutral state is hugely important.  To know yourself and your mental state well enough to move to this place and then to intensify your focus and begin a pre shot routine is a process that will serve you well when you need it.  From there, you can use a physical trigger to snap yourself into the moment.  Some players tug their shirt sleeves, while some tap the driver head on the ground.  Watch a professional tournament and see if you can recognize the triggers being used to get into the moment.

Something that happens when we feel pressure is, we press.  The word press comes from the word pressure!  Pressing is when you try to make things happen or force the action.  Think about when you play your best golf for a moment.  How hard are you trying?  Most great players will give a number around the middle of the scale.  For example, on a scale of 1-10, your best golf might be played when you are trying at about a 5 or 6.  Anything over those numbers could cause some stress and tightening of the muscles.  Anything less than those numbers will cause a lack of focus or arousal.  Most amateurs are all over the scale during a round.  They play shots going through the motions without paying attention to details and then on the next hole, they grip the club tight and screw their eyes into focus on the pin.  If possible, figure out where you are on that scale and get yourself there during your next round of golf.

If this is your lie, is your attitude to take a chance or play it safe?

Here are some adages that you should have in mind so your game doesn't unravel when you make that one, bad swing.
  • You can recover from one bad shot on a hole.  Most double bogeys are caused by bad shots that are followed by stupid shots.  When you hit a bad shot, you might want to employ more risk to make up for it, but that is the opposite reaction you should have.  Instead, play a conservative shot and make your goal simple.  A great goal after a bad shot is, play for a putt for par.  If you do that, you will often make that putt and if you don't, you walk away with a bogey.
  • When you are in trouble, don't worry about how you got there.  You can think through your mistakes after the round is finished, but on the course, you need to think of the shot at hand and nothing else.  
  • Try to find the bright side in the heat of the moment.  I know that sounds a bit crazy, but imagine if Rory stood between the houses on Augusta and thanked the golf gods that there were no out of bounds stakes.  Would his attitude about his position been different?  Your goal on the course is to keep yourself focused and going forward.  As soon as you lament a shot, your position or a bad break, you become a victim.  If you control your attitude, you will never be a victim.
  • Remember to control what you can control and let the rest go. 

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