My student TW (no, not that TW), has been coming to me for over a year on a regular basis. Over that time his ball striking has improved dramatically.  He has been working consistently on his short game to get it in the single-digit parameters, owns great equipment which fits him perfectly – from the driver through the putter and, we’ve mapped out a course strategy to that maximize his potential for staying out of trouble, giving him the best chance of making some birdies.  Outstanding!

However, Houston, we have a problem. TW has been shooting scores in the high eighties and he didn’t understand why and frankly, neither did I.   Even after a stat analysis of his cards, while the problem was clear (too many penalty shots) the reason(s) were still elusive.  TW is a middle-aged guy, quite calm in general demeanor and keeps himself in good physical condition.   From a ball-striking and short-game perspective, there is no reason why he hasn’t been playing better. I began to suspect that this wasn’t a mechanical or swing-technique issue.

During a recent lesson,  I watched TW hit flushed shots for forty five minutes. I told him it was time for us to go on the course and see what was different when he took his game to the first tee. It didn’t make sense to me that his results weren’t better.  He agreed, so we set up a playing lesson the following week.

Forward eight days.  After a nice warm up in which we rehearsed the shots he would hit over the first three holes, I felt confident, in spite of what he had been doing in his recent outings, TW could produce a nice, solid front nine.  My confidence was based on his warm up; he flushed every shot and kept them  all on a rail.  However, as we went to the first tee, I could hear Moe’s voice in the back of my head. “The longest walk in golf is from the practice tee to the first tee.”   This was prescient!

At the first tee, a 500-yard Par 5, TW proceeded to hit a shot I had not seen him hit in at least six months.  It was an ugly duck hook into the trees, followed by a poor recovery shot putting him only 30 yards ahead into a long bunker. Then, he chose the wrong club out of the bunker and chunked it. He was now laying 3 and still had 350 yards to go!  TW went further downhill from there, as he eventually missed the green about 20 feet to the right from 100 yards with a wedge.  Eventually, he chalked up a triple bogey eight.

The second hole was no better.  A lost tee shot to the right set the pace for the hole. By the time he finished, TW carded an 8 with a nice three putt.  My goodness what was happening?  As I observed this usually calm, happy guy was now one tense dog with a clenched jaw, rapid breathing and jerky movements.  His entire demeanor had gone from a usual peaceful demeanor to looking like he was plugged into a 220 outlet. He was wired and it was visibly showing in his energy and body tension!

After a dead pull into the trees on his third tee shot, I called a Time Out.  If there was ever a time to talk about the mental-emotional state one brings to the game, this was it.  He had literally hit a series of shots in the first three holes that I had not seen from him on the range in three months.   I posed a single question to him. “What are you feeling right now?”

Without a moments delay, his response was totally revealing. “My heart is racing and I can feel it beating in my chest.  I am feeling fearful about hitting the next shot and I feel anxious about not doing better.  In fact, as I think about it, this is how I get in a lot of my rounds, so fearful of making a mistake.”  Then, after a few seconds of reflection,  he commented wryly. “Oh Doc, tell me it’s not mental.”  Ok, now we had something to work on.

After some more chatting, we began to hone in on the fact that TW was experiencing classic performance anxiety as often experienced by athletes in all types of sports.  I define this as the difficulties experienced when seeking to perform well under pressure. This is a common affliction – probably better known as stage fright.  It has a wide variety of symptoms and levels of severity. But in the end, the result is similar – the normal level of performance suffers.

Stage fright is well known to those trying to perform a task when it matters to them, ie; giving a speech, singing  in front of others, maybe taking a driving test or hitting a golf ball to a predetermined location within a certain number of attempts for an agreed upon prize – maybe a score. Any time the outcome matters to you, anxiety over your performance can raise its disagreeable head. A recent Gallup Poll reported that 40 percent of adults in the US experience some degree of stage fright. I personally suspect this number is way too low.  I know very few people who don’t have a measurable degree of nerves when getting outside their comfort level.

Some will hold that the antidote to stage fright is the self-confidence that comes from preparation and training. If that was totally true, why do many professional athletes still get nauseated and highly nervous before a big event or even experience choking at critical moments during their performance?  While having a significant amount of training and preparation is necessary to being ABLE to perform at a high level, it is absolutely not a guarantee one won’t experience anxiety. Watch the last nine holes of any PGA event and you will see the tourniquet tighten.

There Is a Simple Solution?

There is a surfeit of books written seeking to illumine the variety of strategies, tactics and techniques for staying calm when your get into your personal pressure cooker. Remember, pressure is any time the outcome matters to YOU.  It doesn’t matter if it is for a .50 cent Nassau or a $10 million dollar FEDEX CUP closing nine.  When it matters to you – your susceptibility to pressure is exponentially increased.

However, given that almost all pressure is self-imposed, I believe there is a simple solution to most mental and emotional pressure. It is basically to pay exquisite attention to what you are doing. 

Because it is simple, that doesn’t mean it is easy to do. Paying attention to what you are doing this precise moment requires great discipline and intention. If you will practice and develop a routine that facilitates you paying attention to your immediate and present actions, it is very difficult for the over-riding emotional concerns to take precedence.

This insight is grounded in the awareness that the majority of pressure felt is a result of your mind being oriented in the past or future, not in the present.  In TW’s case, he was thinking about how he would feel if he didn’t play well in front of his friends and how disappointing it was to put in all this time and energy practicing not to get the results.   Recognize that these thought patterns are located in the future and the past, and have nothing to do with picking up a 3 iron and hitting a ball 210 yards in the middle of the fairway. NOTHING!

The objective here is to have you stay totally and completely focused on your routine or pattern and not the outcome or meaning of the result.  An example of your internal dialogue shift could sound like this:

  • Current:  “Darn, first tee shot.  Hope I don’t embarrass myself  by jerking one into the trees on the left.   The last couple of times I blew this hole and it started the whole round off poorly.”
  • New:  “OK, set up on the right side of the tee box and focus on hitting the ball straight at that tree behind the fairway bunker.”

Then, pay total attention to what you are doing.  Focus on taking the proper grip, establishing the proper alignment and posture and then initiating the swing.  Your entire attention is on the PROCESS of what you are doing, not on the potential outcome.  You can evaluate the shot after you hit it, not before. Until the shot is completed, any anxiety over the result is self-defeating.

If you take a swing you will get a result. That result will either be positive or negative based on your personal criteria. Stay focused on your present activity and you can minimize your anxiety.  Give this a try and you will find your stage fright will begin to reduce and you will optimize your potential for a good result.  What have you got to lose other than hindering anxiety?  Go for it!

About the Author:  Ron Cruickshank, Ph.D., is a GGA Master Instructor and he teaches the single plane golf swing at our Canadian HQ, The Royal Ashburn Golf Club, in Whitby, Ontario. Go on-line and book a school or a lesson