Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Your Tension Shows!

Does a certain shot make you nervous and tense?  How about a fast, downhill putt that slides right?  How do you feel about carrying a shot over water?  What if you need to hit a 3 wood on that shot over the water?  Do you play the game avoiding bunkers?  Most of us have some sort of shot that makes us nervous or tense.  What happens when we get tense?  One of the body's responses to tension or anxiety is to trigger shallow breathing from high in the chest. 

When you are relaxed, your breathing is deep and moves your belly more than your chest.  If you watch an athlete who is focused and in the zone, she appears grounded and calm.  An athlete who is uncomfortable with her situation will breathe from the chest and her shoulders will creep closer to her ears.  What if, instead of taking a lesson focused on how to hit it over the water, we started by working on our physical state and learning to control our breathing when we face that shot?  Learning to have control over your breathing and therefore, your body's state is one facet of a good pre shot routine.

Its okay to be nervous prior to a shot.  Most people feel anxiety on the first tee shot of the day.  Trying to ignore your thoughts or fears simply doesn't work.  Instead, acknowledge them and take action to put them in the proper context.  In order to play your best golf, you must be able to control where you put your attention and focus.  Where that focus should go is different for everyone.  Many great players have tempo thoughts.  Many focus on the target.  Some have a mechanical trigger and some think about their ball flight.  It doesn't matter what you focus on as long as you are making a conscious decision to do it.  The spiral of bad choices for your focus happen quickly and automatically, unless you put an end to them and move your thoughts to where you want them.  It may not seem like a choice when you are standing on the tee worried about the water on the right or what your buddies will think of your swing, but it is a choice.  It is a choice of avoidance, of laziness, or of stubbornness.  Decide to make the change you need to make to put your focus on what will help your game.

It is okay to adjust your plan if you acknowledge your nervousness and feel it is overwhelming.  For example, if you have a shot that needs to carry 180 yards and you have a tight lie that makes you uncomfortable, it is okay to lay up.  Feeling backed against the wall isn't a positive way to act on the course either.  In any situation, the trick is to understand the importance of your pre shot routine for putting you in the right mind set. 

Don't believe for a minute that pros don't face the same nervousness and tension over certain shots they face.  The difference is, they have the training and experience to know how to deal with the situation.  They have a pre shot routine that incorporates many things to keep your physical state in the right place.  Does your pre shot routine have a deep breath in it?  Do you take your stance and feel balanced and grounded?  Do you have a waggle that keeps your muscles moving and loose?  Do your eyes connect to the target to keep your focus on what you want instead of allowing your mind to wander to places you don't want to hit the ball?  Does your pre shot routine allow you to see the shot fly high and land comfortably on the other side of the water?  Does it put your body in a state of readiness?  Does it have some tempo cues to help your rhythm and tempo?If not, you need to work on your pre shot routine and make sure it puts you in the physical state of alertness, not tenseness.

First, keep your breathing in your stomach, instead of in your chest.  Next, feel as though your center of gravity moves lower.  Yes, you can thoughtfully move your center of gravity lower simply by focusing on doing so.  You did it automatically as a kid when you didn't want to be picked up.  You mentally hunkered down and physically lowered yourself as though you were connected to the ground.  If you played contact sports in high school, it is that reaction to seeing someone about to run into you.  You lower and brace automatically.  If you love balance sports, it is the feeling of gathering yourself to stay centered through anything, such as skiing in a blizzard when the visibility is poor.

It seems as though nothing is automatic in golf and that it must be learned.  The reason for that is most of us learn golf later in life and instead of relying upon our natural instincts, we take lessons, we read how-to articles and blogs ;-), and watch the pros and copy their movements.  If we could all learn golf as children, we would inherently have a feel for body awareness and make the adjustments needed when faced with challenges on the course.

Your pre shot routine should take 20 or 30 seconds.  Taking more time means you will have more time to think the wrong things.  Put a good thought in your mind and execute the shot.  Any act that takes courage is best tackled quickly, without a lot of thought.  Hitting that shot over the water might take a little courage on your part, so keep it short and measured.

As with everything, your pre shot routine needs practice.  If it is to be dependable under pressure, it should be thought through, timed and practiced on the range and during practice rounds.  Don't expect it to work for you if you have a vague idea of what you want.  It won't help your focus if you allow your mind to wander to mechanics or other things on the range.  Chatting with people on the range in the middle of your routine will definitely effect your focus.  Put some solid time into your approach to executing shots and it will pay off at the most important times. 

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