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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

Walters: Avoid these 3 big chipping mistakes!

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Chipping causes nightmares for so many amateur golfers. This s mainly due to three core mistakes. In this video, I talk about what those mistakes are, and, more importantly, how to avoid them.

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The Wedge Guy: The importance of a pre-shot routine

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I believe one of the big differences between better recreational golfers and those not so good—and also between the tour professionals and those that can’t quite “get there”—is the consistency of their pre-shot routines. It is really easy to dismiss something that happens before the ball is even struck as irrelevant, but I strongly urge you to reconsider if you think this way.

To have a set routine to follow religiously before every shot gives you the best chance to execute the shot the way you intend. To do otherwise just leaves too much to chance. Indulge me here and I’ll offer you some proof.

It’s been a while back now, but I still remember an interesting account on this subject that used the final round of the 1996 Masters—when Nick Faldo passed a collapsing Norman—as his statistical proof. This particular analyst reviewed the entire telecast of that final round and timed the routine of both players for every shot. What he discovered was that Norman got quicker and less consistent in his pre-shot routine throughout his round, while Faldo maintained his same, methodical approach to every shot, not varying by more than a second or so. I think that is pretty insightful stuff.

A lot of time has passed since then, but all competitive tour professionals pay very close attention to their pre-shot routines these days. I urge you to watch them as they go through the motions before each shot. And notice that most of them “start over” if they get distracted during that process.

While I do not think it is practical for recreational golfers to go into such laborious detail for every shot, let me offer some suggestions as to how a repeatable pre-shot routine should work.

The first thing is to get a good feel for the shot, and by that, I mean a very clear picture in your mind of how it will fly, land and roll; I also think it’s realistic to have a different routine for full shots, chips and pitches and putts. They are all very different challenges, of course, and as you get closer to the hole, your focus needs to be more on the feel of the shot than the mechanics of the swing, in my opinion.

To begin, I think the best starting point is from behind the ball, setting up in your “mind’s eye” the film-clip of the shot you are about to hit. See the flight and path it will take. As you do this, you might waggle the club back and forth to get a feel of the club in your hands and “feel” the swing that will produce that shot path for you. Your exact routine can start when you see that shot clearly, and begin your approach the ball to execute the shot. From that “trigger point”, you should do the exact same things, at the exact same pace, each and every time.

For me (if I’m “on”), I’ll step from that behind-the-shot position, and set the club behind the ball to get my alignment. Then I step into my stance and ball position, not looking at the target, but being precise not to change the alignment of the clubhead–I’m setting my body up to that established reference. Once set, I take a look at the target to ensure that I feel aligned properly, and take my grip on the club. Then I do a mental check of grip pressure, hover the club off the ground a bit to ensure it stays light, and then start my backswing, with my only swing thought being to feel the end of the backswing.

That’s when I’m “on,” of course. But as a recreational player, I know that the vast majority of my worst shots and rounds happen when I depart from that routine.

This is something that you can and should work on at the range. Don’t just practice your swing, but how you approach each shot. Heck, you can even do that at home in your backyard. So, guys and ladies, there’s my $0.02 on the pre-shot routine. What do you have to add?

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6 reasons why golfers struggle with back pain: Part 1

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This article is co-written with Marnus Marais. Since 2011, Marnus has worked with some of the world’s best players on both the PGA Tour and European Tour, helping them to maintain optimal health and peak physical performance. His current stable of players includes Dustin Johnson, Patrick Cantlay, and Louis Oosthuizen, amongst others.

You find more information on Marnus and his work at marnusmarais.com

 

Back pain is by far the most common complaint among regular golfers. It is estimated that up to 35 percent of amateur golfers endure lower back injuries. And in our experience working with tour players, the prevalence is even higher in the professional ranks! 

Back pain can affect our ball striking and short game, diminish our enjoyment of the game, or even stop us playing altogether. It can make us feel anxious about playing (and making the pain worse) and just generally disappointed with current performance falling way short of our expectations. 

There is certainly no shortage of information on the topic of back pain, and with myriad back pain products and supplement options available, confusion about the best path to pain-free golf is one of the main reasons we don’t actually do anything effective to alleviate our suffering! 

We aim to present in this article an easy-to-digest explanation of the common causes of back pain, alongside some simple and practical ways to address the underlying issues. 

The recommendations we make in this article are generic in nature but effective in many of the low back pain cases we have worked with. However, pain can be complex and very specific to the individual. You should seek the personalized advice of a medical or exercise professional before undertaking any form of remedial exercise.

Reason 1 – Lack of mobility in 2 key areas

Certain areas in the body need to be more stable, and others need to be more mobile. The lumbar spine falls into the stable category, partly due to its limited capacity for rotation and lateral flexion (side bending). We know the unnatural golf swing movement imparts both rotational and side bending forces on the spine, so it’s an area we need to keep stable and protected. 

In order to avoid excessive low back rotation in life and especially in the golf swing, it’s very important that we try to maximize the range of movement in other areas, most notably the joints above and below the low back, where the majority of rotation in the golf swing should take place:

Area 1 – Hips

We need sufficient range of movement to turn into, and out of, both hips. For example, if we can’t turn and load into our lead hip due to a lack of internal rotation mobility, we tend to compensate with excessive rotation and side-bending in the lower back.

Suggested Exercises – Hip Mobility

Foam roll glutes, you can also use a spiky ball

90 90 hip mobility drills, fantastic for taking the hips through that all important internal rotation range

90 90 Glute Stretch – great for tight glutes / hips

Area 2 – Thoracic Spine (mid to upper back)

Having sufficient rotation in our thoracic spine to both left and the right is extremely important. The thoracic spine has significantly greater rotational capabilities compared to the lumbar spine (low back). If we maximise our mobility here, we can help protect the lower back, along with the cervical spine (neck).

Suggested Exercises – Thoracic Mobility

Foam rolling mid / upper back

 

Cat / Camel – working the T-Spine through flexion and extension

 

Reach backs – working that all important T-Spine rotation

Reason 2 – Alignment and Muscle Imbalances

Imagine a car with wheel alignment issues; front wheels facing to the right and back wheels facing to the left. Not only will the tires wear out unevenly and quickly, but other areas of the car will experience more torque, load or strain and would have to work harder. The same thing happens to the lower back when we have body alignment issues above and/or below.

For example, if we have short/tight/overactive hip flexors (muscles at the front of the hips that bend our knee to our chest) on one side of the body; very common amongst golfers with low back pain. This would rotate the pelvis forward on one side, which can create a knock-on effect of imbalance throughout the body.

If the pelvis rotates in one direction, the shoulders naturally have to rotate in the opposite direction in order to maintain balance. Our low back is subsequently caught in the middle, and placed under more load, stress and strain. This imbalance can cause the low back to bend and rotate further, and more unevenly, especially in the already complex rotation and side bending context of the golf swing!

Below is a pelvic alignment technique that can help those with the afore mentioned imbalance

Reason 3 – Posture

Posture can be described as the proper alignment of the spine, with the aim of establishing three natural curves (low back, mid/upper back and neck).

 

The 3 major spinal curves – 1-Cervical, 2 – Thoracic, 3 – Lumbar

Modern lifestyles and the associated muscle imbalances have pushed and pulled our spines away from those three natural curves, and this had a damaging effect on our spinal health. Our backs are designed to function optimally from the neutral illustrated above, and the further we get away from it, the more stress we put on our protective spinal structures. 

Aside from promotion of pain, poor posture also does terrible things for our golf swings; reducing range of motion in key areas (hips, mid back and shoulders) and creating inefficiencies in our swing action, to give us a double whammy of back pain causes.

Fortunately, re-establishing good posture is really simple and you can combine the information and exercises featured in the videos below with the mobility exercises featured in the Reason 1 section above. The equipment used in the videos is the GravityFit TPro – a favorite of ours for teaching and training posture with both elite and recreational players.

 

In the next installment of this article, we will cover reasons 4, 5 and 6 why golfers suffer from back pain – 4) Warming Up (or lack thereof!), 5) Core Strength and 6) Swing Faults.

 

If you would like to see how either Nick or Marnus can help with your golfing back pain, then check out the resources below:

Marnus Marais – marnusmarais.com

Nick Randall – golffitpro.net

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