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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: [email protected]

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

What to look for in a golf instructor: The difference between transformative and transactional coaching

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Golf instruction comes in all different styles, methods, and formats. With that said, you would think this would be a good thing due to there being so many different types of people in the world. However, it is my opinion that the lack of standardization within the industry makes it confusing for the athlete to determine what kind of golf instruction they should seek out.

Before we can discuss what may or may not be the best type of instruction for yourself, first we need to know what our options are. Whether we are taking a “broad-spectrum approach” to learning or a more personalized approach, it is important to understand that there are differences to each, and some approaches are going to take longer than others to reach goals.

Broad-Spectrum Approach

Welcome to the world of digital golf instruction, where tips from the most famous coaches in the world are a click away. The great thing about the internet and social media for a golfer is there has never been more access to the top minds in the field—and tips and drills are plentiful. With that said, with there being so many choices and differing opinions, it can be very easy to become distracted with the latest tip and can lead to a feeling of being lost.

I would describe “internet coaching”—or YouTube and Instagram surfing—as transactional coaching. You agree to pay, either a monthly fee or provide likes or follows and the professional provides very generalized tips about the golf swing. For athletes that are new to golf or golf instruction, this tends to be the first part of their process.

There are people who prefer a more transactional approach, and there are a ton of people having success working together over the internet with their coach. With that said, for someone who is looking for more of a long-term individualized approach, this may not be the best approach. This broad-spectrum approach also tends to be the slowest in terms of development due to there being a lot of trial and error due to the generalized approach and people having different body types.

Individual Transactional Coaching

Most people who are new to golf instruction will normally seek out their local pro for help. Depending on where you live in the country, what your local pro provides will vary greatly. However, due to it being local and convenient, most golfers will accept this to be the standard golf lesson.

What makes this type of instruction transactional is that there tends to be less long-term planning and it is more of a sick patient-doctor relationship. Lessons are taken when needed and there isn’t any benchmarking or periodization being done. There also tends to be less of a relationship between the coach and player in this type of coaching and it is more of a take it or leave it style to the coaching.

For most recreational or club-level players, this type of coaching works well and is widely available. Assuming that the method or philosophies of the coach align with your body type and goals athletes can have great success with this approach. However, due to less of a relationship, this form of coaching can still take quite some time to reach its goals.

Individual Transformative Coaching

Some people are very lucky, and they live close to a transformative coach, and others, less lucky, have had to search and travel to find a coach that could help them reach their goals. Essentially, when you hire a transformative coach, you are being assigned a golf partner.

Transformative coaching begins with a solid rapport that develops into an all-encompassing relationship centered around helping you become your very best. Technology alone doesn’t make a coach transformative, but it can help when it comes to creating periodization of your development. Benchmarks and goals are agreed upon by both parties and both parties share the responsibility for putting in the work.

Due to transformative coaching tending to have larger goals, the development process tends to take some time, however, the process is more about attainment than achievement. While improved performance is the goal, the periods for both performance and development are defined.

Which One is Right for You?

It really depends on how much you are willing to invest in your development. If you are looking for a quick tip and are just out enjoying the weather with your friends, then maybe finding a drill or two on Instagram to add to your practice might be the ticket. If you are looking to really see some improvement and put together a plan for long-term development, then you are going to have to start looking into what is available in your area and beyond.

Some things to consider when selecting a coach

  • Do they use technology?
  • What are their qualifications when it comes to teaching?
  • Do they make you a priority?

As a golf coach who has access to the most state-of-the-art technology in the industry, I am always going to be biased towards a data-driven approach. That doesn’t mean that you should only consider a golf coach with technology, however, I believe that by having data present, you are able to have a better conversation about the facts with less importance placed on personal preference. Technology also tends to be quite expensive in golf, so be prepared if you go looking for a more high-tech coaching experience, as it is going to cost more than the low-tech alternative.

The general assumption is that if the person you are seeking advice from is a better player than you are, then they know more about the golf swing than you do. This is not always the case, while the better player may understand their swing better than you do yours, that does not make them an expert at your golf swing. That is why it is so important that you consider the qualifications of your coach. Where did they train to coach? Do they have success with all of their players? Do their players develop over a period of time? Do their players get injured? All things to consider.

The most important trait to look for in a transformative coach is that they make you a priority. That is the biggest difference between transactional and transformative coaches, they are with you during the good and bad, and always have your best interest top of mind. Bringing in other experts isn’t that uncommon and continuing education is paramount for the transformative coach, as it is their duty to be able to meet and exceed the needs of every athlete.

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The importance of arm structure

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How the arms hang at address plays a vital role in the golf swing. Often overlooked, the structure in which we place the arms can dictate one’s swing pattern. As mentioned in the article How Posture influences your swing, if you start in an efficient position, impact is much easier to find making, the golf swing more repeatable and powerful.

To start, I opt to have a player’s trail arm bent and tucked in front of them with angle in the trail wrist. While doing so, the trail shoulder can drop below the lead with a slight bend from the pelvis. This mirrors an efficient impact position.

I always prefer plays to have soft and slightly bent arms. This promotes arm speed in the golf swing. No other sports are played with straight arms, neither should golf.

From this position, it’s easier to get the clubhead traveling first, sequencing the backswing into a dynamic direction of turn.

@peterthomson

When a player addresses the ball with straight arms, they will often tilt with their upper body in the backswing. This requires more recovery in the downswing to find their impact position with the body.

A great drill to get the feeling of a soft-bent trail arm is to practice pushing a wall with your trail arm. Start in your golf set-up, placing your trail hand against the wall. You will instinctively start with a bent trail arm.

Practice applying slight pressure to the wall to get the feeling of a pushing motion through impact?. When trying the drill with a straight trail alarm, you will notice the difference between the two? arm structures.

www.kelleygolf.com

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What is ground force in the golf swing?

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There is no doubt about it, the guys and gals on tour have found something in the ground—and that something is power and speed. I’m sure by now you have heard of “ground reaction forces”—and I’m not talking about how you “shift your weight” during the golf swing.

Ground force in the golf swing: Pressure and force are not equal

With respect to ground force in the golf swing, it’s important to understand the difference between pressure and force. Pressure is your perception of how your weight is being balanced by the structure, in this case, the human body. Your body has a center of mass which is located roughly one inch behind the belt buckle for men and about one inch lower in women. When we shift (translate and/or torque) the center of mass, we create a pressure shift as the body has to “rebalance” the mass or body. This pressure shift can help us understand some aspects of the golf swing, but when it comes to producing power, force and torque are where it’s at.

Pressure can only be expressed in relation to the mass or weight of the body. Therefore, if you weigh 150 pounds, you can only create 150 pounds of pressure at one time. However, when we direct that mass at a larger object than our mass, all of a sudden that larger mass directs an opposite and equal reactionary force. So now, when a human being “pushes” their legs against the ground and “feels” 150 pounds of pressure, they now get 150 pounds of force directed back towards them from the ground, creating a total of 300 pounds of force that allows them to jump off the ground in this scenario.

If ground reaction forces don’t have anything to do with the “weight shift,” then what do they affect? Everything!

Most people use the same basic ingredients to make chocolate chip cookies. However, almost everyone has chocolate chip cookies that taste slightly different. Why is that? That is because people are variable and use the ingredients in different amounts and orders. When we create a golf swing, whether we are aware of it or not, we are using the same basic ingredients as everyone else: lateral force, vertical torque, and vertical force. We use these same three forces every time we move in space, and how much and when we use each force changes the outcome quite a bit.

Welcome to the world of 3D!

Understanding how to adjust the sequencing and magnitude of these forces is critical when it comes to truly owning and understand your golf swing. The good news is that most of our adjustments come before the swing and have to do with how we set up to the ball. For example, if an athlete is having a hard time controlling low point due to having too much lateral force in the golf swing (fats and thins), then we narrow up the stance width to reduce the amount of lateral force that can be produced in the swing. If an athlete is late with their vertical force, then we can square up the lead foot to promote the lead leg straightening sooner and causing the vertical force to happen sooner.

While we all will need to use the ground differently to play our best golf, two things need to happen to use the ground effectively. The forces have to exist in the correct kinetic sequence (lateral, vertical torque, vertical force), and the peaks of those forces need to be created within the correct windows (sequencing).

  • Lateral force – Peak occurs between top-of-swing and lead arm at 45 degrees
  • Vertical torque – Peak occurs between lead arm being 45 degrees and the lead arm being parallel to the ground.
  • Vertical force – Peak occurs between lead arm being parallel to the ground the club shaft being parallel to the ground.

While it may seem obvious, it’s important to remember ground reaction forces are invisible and can only be measured using force plates. With that said, their tends to be apprehension about discussing how we use the ground as most people do not have access to 3D dual force plates. However, using the screening process designed by Mike Adams, Terry Rowles, and the BioSwing Dynamics team, we can determine what the primary forces used for power production are and can align the body in a way to where the athlete can access his/her full potential and deliver the club to the ball in the most effective and efficient way based off their predispositions and anatomy.

In addition to gaining speed, we can help athletes create a better motion for their anatomy. As golfers continue to swing faster, it is imperative that they do so in a manner that doesn’t break down their body and cause injury. If the body is moving how it is designed, and the forces acting on the joints of the body are in the correct sequence and magnitude, not only do we know they are getting the most out of their swing, but we know that it will hold up and not cause an unforeseen injury down the road.

I truly believe that force plates and ground reaction forces will be as common as launch monitors in the near future. Essentially, a launch monitor measures the effect and the force plates measure the cause, so I believe we need both for the full picture. The force plate technology is still very expensive, and there is an educational barrier for people seeking to start measuring ground reaction forces and understanding how to change forces, magnitudes, and sequences, but I’m expecting a paradigm shift soon.

 

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