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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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