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Emotions run the show in golf

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How many times have you heard broadcasters say during a golf tournament, “If Rory or Rickie or Stacey or Inbee can control his (or her) emotions today, they can win this event.” That applies to you and me, too; if you don’t have an answer for your emotions, you’ll struggle to win, or not play as well as you’d like.

I know in my own professional golf career, negative emotions were a major cause of grief. I just didn’t have any answers when emotions spiraled, and started to go from hesitation to confusion to frustration and even anger. I was continually knocked off my focus by lingering negative emotions, and in my opinion, it was a game-changing factor in an inconsistent career.

I think we can all agree that golf is a difficult and an emotional game. In fact, understanding emotions may be more important in golf than any other sport. 

Why?

Three main reasons
  1. You are alone. There are no teammates to take the blame or lean on when you aren’t at your best.
  2. Time is not your friend. There is far too much time in between shots to mull over what happened or what’s going to happen.
  3. Chemicals don’t help. Stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol that can help boost performance in other sports won’t help you in golf.
Check Your Emotional Muscles

How prepared are you to deal with the “emotional hazards” in golf? How much “emotional muscle” do you think you have?

Before I explain some simple biology about emotion in golf, and give you a few ideas to help, click here to take a quick quiz and check the level of your “emotional muscle” to see where you are.

Chances are you need to build your emotional muscles to get to the next level in the game. Working on your swing motion and short game is important, but building emotional muscles will help you leverage all of your talent, work and efforts.

So let’s start…

If you find emotions might be keeping you from better performance, a little understanding about performance and the brain may help you. After all, performance starts in the mind.

Some great work by Dr. Joseph Ledoux of the Centre for Neural Science, New York University and Dr. Daniel Goleman, a Harvard educated Psychologist and author of “Emotional Intelligence” has helped highlight the importance and role of the emotional brain in performance in corporate leadership — and now in sports.

The Alligator and the Computer

Generally, two sections of the brain are important to your game. To keep is simple, let’s call them the alligator and the computer. The alligator, or the emotional brain, is the ancient part that has protected human beings from danger through time. It is what leads to “fight or flight.” When threats arise and you need to escape trouble, the alligator kicks in.

The computer, or the thinking brain, makes the decisions. When the alligator perceives a threat and starts snapping, the computer decides on the level of the threat and the action. Is it important enough to respond?

What does this mean to you and your golf game?

When survival was the daily priority for human beings and reacting to threats was a constant reality, the alligator was a caveman’s best friend. But threats are generally not life threatening today. You’re a golfer, not a caveman, and your brain can’t differentiate between a life-threatening situation and a four-foot putt for par and your best score of the year. Your alligator’s threats are a sudden hook out of bounds, a ball buried in the bunker, three putts, a missed green with a wedge and other golf “threats”.

The Little Troublemaker

amygdala

There’s a little, almond-shaped part of your brain, the control center of the alligator, called the amygdala. It’s the troublemaker, pushing you around on the golf course and causing you to lose your cool. Even if you play like Rory McIlroy on one shot or one hole, the overstimulated alligator can make you play like Charles Barkley on the next.

When the amygdala “hijacks” your brain and the alligator overrides your computer, the computer responds to the threat, and your ability to reason and think logically are reduced. Your working memory becomes less efficient while your blood pressure, adrenaline and hormone levels rise.

Some great work by Harvard trained Brain Scientist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor highlights that we can manage responses. Within 90 seconds from the initial trigger, the chemical component of your negative emotion dissolves from the bloodstream and the automatic response is over. The emotion is expressed. So, showing some emotion after a bad shot or bad break isn’t bad. After all, you’re human.

But, what’s important is if you allow the negative emotion to heat up past those 90 seconds, you have chosen to allow the circuit to continue to run. Those 90 seconds gives your brain time to engage the computer which has an inhibitory circuit for the alligator (amygdala). You can then choose a more “performance-friendly” response. 

If you allow the circuit to run and the negative emotion to continue, it can take 3-to-4 hours (coincidentally the same amount of time it takes to play a round of golf) for the hormones to clear your system, with the possibility of more hijacks being triggered along the way.

So, simply, the control center of the alligator can undo all of your preparation and sabotage your (and my) golf score. If you’ve ever heard the saying “I was so mad I couldn’t think straight,” this means the alligator is in charge, the computer is over-run and rational decision-making goes out the window. You might know the feeling during a round when things start going south and you can’t reverse it.

Build Your Emotional Muscles

Emotional discipline is like a muscle you can build. In order to build your emotional muscle, here are a few simple ideas that can help you keep the alligator in its cage and make sure the computer is making clear, stress-free decisions. 

Know yourself, Know You!

It is very common for you as a golfer to consistently play to your weaknesses and to the course’s strengths. Clearly understand your own strengths, limitations and triggers in the game. What do you do well, what is not so comfortable for you, and what bothers you and triggers a negative reaction?

A lack of awareness can push you to do things you can’t do in your game. How many times have you tried to do things on a golf course that you know you can’t do, but tried them anyway and ended up frustrated and frazzled? Clearly understand what you can and can’t do and always to play to strengths.

The 90-second rule

Tame the alligator with the 90-second rule. The ability to notice what’s going on as it arises, and to slow down before you respond, is a crucial emotional skill. Brain experts tell us an emotion is expressed in about 90 seconds. It’s fine as a golfer to feel and express the emotion within reason in that 90-second window. But, when you feel the emotion building, take a breath and be aware. This awareness will help you control your feelings and soften them before they damage the rest of your game.

Stay in the Moment to Stay Calm

The future and past are distractions for you and stir emotion. Unfortunately, on the golf course there is little you can do about either one. Carrying the past with you will also distract from the current moment and can have a major impact on your execution. Your destiny lies in the present moment. While the future is where your goals and achievements live, you achieve them through playing in the moment.

Emotions are the engine in the vehicle of performance, and the skills associated with building emotional muscle are indispensable to achieving competitive advantage for you in the game of golf.

If you want to enjoy the game more, activate your potential to bring your game to the next level, and be more effective in everything you do, spend some time building your emotional muscles.

References

Bolte-Taylor, Jill (2008). My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey. New York, NY: Penguin Group USA.

Goleman, Dr. Daniel, (1995). Emotional Intelligence. New York, NY: Bantam Books.

Ledoux, Dr. Joseph, (1998). The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

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John Haime is the President of New Edge Performance. He's a Human Performance Coach who prepares performers to be the their best by helping them tap into the elusive 10 percent of their abilities that will get them to the top. This is something that anyone with a goal craves, and John Haime knows how to get performers there. John closes the gap for performers in sports and business by taking them from where they currently are to where they want to go.  The best in the world trust John. They choose him because he doesn’t just talk about the world of high performance – he has lived it and lives in it everyday. He is a former Tournament Professional Golfer with professional wins. He has a best-selling book, “You are a Contender,” which is widely read by world-class athletes, coaches and business performers.  He has worked around the globe for some of the world’s leading companies. Athlete clients include performers who regularly rank in the Top-50 in their respective sports. John has the rare ability to work as seamlessly in the world of professional sports as he does in the world of corporate performance. His primary ambition writing for GolfWRX is to help you become the golfer you'd like to be. See www.johnhaime.com for more. Email: john@newedgeperformance.org

12 Comments

12 Comments

  1. John Haime

    Apr 5, 2015 at 11:09 pm

    Hi Bernard,

    Yes, the 90 second rule is helping alot of athletes – recreational and professional. Really be aware of what can trigger the negative emotion, express it and quickly move your focus to what needs to be done to perform well on the next shot. As I mentioned above, mistakes are a big part of golf and it’s very difficult to control when a mistake will happen. But, you can control if you compound the mistake by managing your responses.

    This will help you enjoy the game more and, in the long-term, really help your performances.

  2. Ned J

    Apr 5, 2015 at 8:11 pm

    “Keep your alligator in its cage” – Thats brilliant! Definitely going to give this a try in my game.

    • John Haime

      Apr 5, 2015 at 10:45 pm

      Thanks for the comment Ned.

      Yes, think about keeping that ancient part of your brain from taking over. Golfers don’t have to be robots – you can express emotion – but managing that 90 seconds is important. You’ll have more fun playing – and will really keep you balanced on the course. Mistakes are a big part of the game – they will happen – but compounding mistakes is something you can control.

  3. Tom Duckworth

    Apr 5, 2015 at 2:54 pm

    This is just what I have been thinking about lately. I decided this is what I need to work on to take that next step in my game. No pressure on the range just work on the swing. I love doing that. Hit a bad shot, no problem just figure it out and hit again until it’s right.
    How many times do we go to the driving range and hit the ball like a champ only to wonder why we don’t take that game to the course? No penalties (no alligators) on the range.

    • John Haime

      Apr 5, 2015 at 10:50 pm

      Stay with us over the coming months Tom and I’ll help you really take your game from the practice tee to the course.

      Golfers have two choices – either intensify your practice or change the intensity on the course. It’s important that the feelings on the practice tee parallel feelings on the course. Most players are very loose on the practice tee and then can’t adjust to the mindset required on the course “when it counts.”

  4. Mike J

    Apr 5, 2015 at 1:35 am

    I think this article is a hit. I like your quiz, and found it very itneresting. Obviously we all go out there for the fun of golf, and if we can remember that, I think it helps with the emotions. That being said, nothing ruins competition like (subjective) poor performance.

    • John Haime

      Apr 5, 2015 at 10:55 pm

      thanks for the comment Mike – pleased you liked the quiz. It’s a simple exercise to highlight what you might need to work on and to create some awareness about levels of emotional muscle.

      I agree that we must keep golf in perspective. Enjoyment must be the priority – when we enjoy something – it is often reflected in the performance. Just think about JB Holmes this week – I’m sure he is bringing great perspective to the game after life-threatening brain surgery not long ago. He’s loving his time on the course and that is reflected in his results.

  5. jim

    Apr 4, 2015 at 9:18 pm

    dufner stays calm on the course and hes got one more major than most guys on tour

    • John Haime

      Apr 5, 2015 at 10:58 pm

      Hi Jim,

      Emotion is OK – we are all human and golf is a very human game. But, we must manage the emotion and stay balanced. Frustration and anger can really destroy performance if we allow it.

      I agree that a very calm approach has helped Jason in the majors.

  6. Double Mocha Man

    Apr 4, 2015 at 4:30 pm

    “You are alone. There are no teammates to take the blame or lean on when you aren’t at your best.”

    But if you’re Bubba Watson you can blame and berate your caddie.

    • John Haime

      Apr 5, 2015 at 11:03 pm

      Hi DMM …

      Thanks for the comment. Interesting observation about Bubba. I agree that this type of behavior directed to caddies crosses the line and emotions get the best of the player. I have seen it happen with a number of players. You could certainly say emotions get the best of the player at this time – an amygdala hijack – and it often results in poor performance.

      Bubba has obviously found a sweet spot for himself at tournaments like Augusta – his manner is calm and he is really able to play “Bubba Golf”.

  7. Bernard

    Apr 4, 2015 at 12:52 pm

    I find the 90 second thing pretty interesting. I will utilize this on the course, especially when I ‘prepared’ and things are not panning out.

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Instruction

The 3 best ways to train your golf swing

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Understanding how to effectively train and practice is critical to transferring skills to the golf course.

In golf, I view training as a thoughtful, deliberate rehearsal of a motion to develop technique. This is better rehearsed away from the golf course. Practicing golf consists of developing your skill to take to the golf course—an example being learning to hit shots in certain winds and shot shaping.

“A lawyer will train to be a lawyer, then he or she will practice law” – The Lost Art of Golf

I find the below examples the best ways to train effectively. These techniques will also help facilitate a swing change and make your training and practice more efficient.

Mirror Work

I like my student to implement what I call “mirror work”. This is done by looking into a mirror from the face-on position.

This is a great way to get external feedback (information delivered from an outside source). Learning by external feedback will help facilitate the required body movement to produce a particular shot. It’s also a cheap and effective way to train. Research suggests observation in a mirror is considered external, so the use of mirrors will elicit external feedback, enhancing the learning process.

I prefer students to only check positions from the face-on view. If a player starts checking positions in a mirror from down-the-line, moving your head to look in the mirror can cause your body to change positions, losing the proper direction of turn.

Train Slow

Learning a new motion is best trained slow. At a slower speed, it is easier to monitor and analyze a new motion. You will have increased awareness of the body and where the shaft is in space. At a faster speed, this awareness is more difficult to obtain.

I often use the analogy of learning how to drive a car. First, you took time to learn how to position your hands on the wheel and position your foot next to the break. When comfortable, you put the car in motion and began to drive slowly. Once you developed the technique, you added speed and took the car on the freeway.

In martial arts, there are three speeds taught to students: Slow-speed for learning, medium speed for practice and fast speed for fighting. Again, the movement was trained slow to start. Once comfortable, the motion was put into combat. This should be similar to golf.

Finding Impact

Use an impact bag to get the feeling of impact and an efficient set-up. If you don’t have an impact bag, a spare car tire, bean bag or something light and soft that can be pushed along the ground can be used.

I like to refer to the impact bag as a “Push bag”. Start by setting up into the bag, lightly pressing the shaft into the bag. You will notice how your trail arm slightly tucks in and as your right shoulder drops below the left with your body leaning forward, an efficient set-up.

To get the feeling of impact swing the club back and down into the bag while maintaining your body shape. Don’t move the bag by hitting it, rather pushing it. Note how you maintain your wrist angles while pushing the bag (not flipping) and the right side of your body moves through impact.

Train your swing with these three training techniques to play better golf.

@KKelley_golf

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How posture influences your swing

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S0 what exactly is posture and how can it alter your swing? Posture is often the origin to a player’s swing pattern. I like to look at posture as the form of the body from the front view and down the line position at address.

“Shape” in posture is the angles our body creates at address. This includes the relationship between the upper and lower half of our bodies. This article will examine the importance of this shape from the face on view.

For an efficient posture that creates a simple, powerful, and repeatable swing, I like a player’s shape to be set into what I call their “hitting angles.” Hitting angles are similar to the impact position. In the picture below, note the body angles at address highlighted in green.

Once we are set into these hitting angles, the goal of the backswing is to maintain these angles, coiling around the spine. When these angles are maintained in the backswing, the club can return to impact in a more dynamic form of our set-up position. This creates minimal effort that produces speed and repeatability—essentially doing more with less.

The further we set up away from these hitting angles, our bodies will have to find impact by recovering. This is often where a player’s swing faults can occur. We want our body to react to the target in the golf swing, not recover to strike the ball.

Think of a baseball player or football player throwing a ball. When the athlete is in their throwing position, they can simply make the movement required to throw the ball at their intended target. If their body is contorted or out of position to make the throw, they must re-position their body (more movement) to get back into their throwing position, thus making them less accurate and powerful.

The good news about working on your posture is that it is the easiest part to control in the swing. Posture is a static motion, so our body will respond to 100 percent of what our mind tells it to do. It’s talentless.

Here is a simple routine to get you into these hitting angles.

To start, tuck in your trail arm making it shorter and below the lead arm, which makes your trail shoulder lower than the lead shoulder. This will give you the proper shape of the arms and wrist angles. Pictured right is Ben Hogan.

With these arm angles, bend from the hips to the ball and bump your body slightly forward towards the target getting ‘into yourself’. You may feel pressure on your lead foot, but your upper half will still remain behind the ball. Note the picture below with the blue lines.

Practice this drill using a mirror in front of you, head up looking into the mirror. Research has shown mirror work enhances motor skills and performance. Anytime you have external-focus based feedback, the learning process will escalate.

There are a lot of different postures on the PGA Tour and many ways to get the job done. There are no cookie-cutter swings, and players have different physiology. However, research and history have shown that an efficient posture gives us the best chance for solid contact and our desired ball flight. Work hard on the areas that are easiest to control: the set-up.

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Golf 101: How to chip (AKA “bump and run”)

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Although golf for a beginner can be an intimidating endeavor, and learning how to chip is part of that intimidation, this is one part of the game that if you can nail down the fundamentals, not only can you add some confidence to your experience but also you lay down a basic foundation you can build on.

How to chip

The chip shot, for all intents and purposes, is a mini-golf swing. To the beginner, it may seem like a nothing burger but if you look closely, it’s your first real way to understand contact, launch, spin, compression, and most importantly the fundamentals of impact.

What is a chip shot? A pitch shot?

Chip: A shot that is hit typically with anything from a 3-iron to a lob wedge that launches low, gets on the ground quickly, and rolls along the surface (like a putt) to the desired location.

Pitch: A shot that is hit typically with anything from a PW to a lob wedge that launches low- to mid-trajectory that carries a good portion of the way to your desired location and relies on spin to regulate distance.

Now that we have separated the two, the question is: How do I chip?

Since we are trying to keep this as simple as possible, let’s just do this as a quick checklist and leave it at that. Dealing with different lies, grass types, etc? Not the purpose here. We’re just concerned with how to make the motion and chip a ball on your carpet or at the golf course.

Think “rock the triangle”

  1. Pick a spot you want the ball to land. This is for visualization, direction and like any game you play, billiards, Darts, pin the tail on the donkey, having a target is helpful
  2. For today, use an 8-iron. It’s got just enough loft and bounce to make this endeavor fun.
  3. Grip the club in your palms and into the lifelines of your hands. This will lift the heel of the club of the ground for better contact and will take your wrists out of the shot.
  4. Open your stance
  5. Put most of your weight into your lead leg. 80/20 is a good ratio
  6. Ball is positioned off your right heel
  7. Lean the shaft handle to your left thigh
  8. Rock the shoulders like a putt
  9. ENJOY!

Check out this vid from @jakehuttgolf to give you some visuals.

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