Imagine standing on the 1st tee at the Masters for the very first time.  How would you feel?  Would you experience butterflies in your stomach, tightness in your chest, arms, legs, or in all your muscles?  Would you fear making mistakes or looking foolish in front of the greatest players in the world, all the spectators at Augusta National and the millions worldwide watching on television?  Do you think you’d experience any other symptoms of stress and anxiety?  Of course, we all would.  And it doesn’t make any difference how great our game.  Even the greatest players experience stress and anxiety in important situations where the outcome is uncertain and where they might fail to achieve their expectations for success.  Jack Nicklaus stated that if he didn’t experience these things he knew the outcome wasn’t very important. 

Great golfers have a way of neutralizing the effects of stress and anxiety so they perform as if there was no pressure most of the time.  But even the greatest golfers in the world, like Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, succumb to pressure more than they would like.  Their physical gifts don’t immunize them from these effects.  If they did, they would never make a mistake.

You don’t have to be playing in the Masters or other Major golf tournament to experience stress and anxiety.  Every golfer experiences pressure many more times than we would like to admit.  If we don’t deal with pressure we do not perform up to our potential.  Ignoring, denying, suppressing, or repressing our responses to stress and anxiety only make things worse.  We must be proactive and develop the ability to inhibit or reverse the effects of stress and anxiety when they occur.  Knowing what happens to us when the demand to perform exceeds our perceptions of meeting those demands and having techniques that override the stress response helps us perform up to our potential more often.

Regardless of how we define success, the pressure to succeed in uncertain situations triggers stress and anxiety, activating our fight-or-flight reflex.  While this primitive, instinctive, automatic, and unconscious reflex helped our earliest ancestors survive their hostile environment, it wreaks havoc on our ability to perform our best in situations, like golf that require a high degree of physical competence, complete and appropriate attention, as well as control over our visual and emotional behaviors. 

Neuro-chemicals, referred to as hormones, are released into our bloodstream when danger threatens and it doesn’t make any difference whether the danger is to life and limb or the fear of failure to play golf up to our expectations.  The same chemicals are released and produce the same effects on our nervous system, body, mind, eyes, and emotions.

Our pupils dilate to increase our peripheral vision so we can see the danger better.  The more we see the more difficult it is to keep our eyes still and our mind target oriented.  Our muscles tighten or become jittery.  This makes it difficult to produce our best swings, putting strokes, etc.  Access to memory centers that house information about intellectual and physicals skills is interrupted, making nearly impossible to recall the mechanical abilities we worked so hard to develop.  When we’re being chased by a saber-toothed tiger, we don’t need to have access to skill memories so there shut down so as not to interfere with or slow down our survival instincts.  The same is true when we fear hitting the ball in the water or missing an important putt, even though we need these memories at the time.

The connection between the right and left hemispheres of our brain is interrupted.  The left hemisphere is where we do our thinking and the right brain is where our creativity and emotions are housed.  So we lose the ability to control our thoughts and emotions.  We lose the ability to properly analyze the situation to make the best decision possible and have difficulty with feel and creativity when needed.  The more stress we experience, the greater the release of hormones into our bloodstream, the more intense the stress response, and the greater the effect on our performance.

Because of the nature of golf, even the slightest concerns about our performance can begin to affect our performance.  As we press to improve our performance, without addressing the effects of those concerns, the more stress we experience and the worse our performance.  Going back to the range to hit more balls does nothing to improve our ability to perform under pressure.

We must know and acknowledge when stress and anxiety strike, learn how we respond to pressure, attentionally, emotionally, visually, physiologically, and behaviorally, and develop techniques for inhibiting or reversing the effects on each of these systems.  And if we truly want our efforts to control the effects of stress to be effective, we must practice them with the same intent we practice our physical skills so that they become second nature.

Fortunately, the techniques for addressing each of the systems affected by stress and anxiety are simple so are learned very quickly and only have to be practiced a few minutes a day, a couple of times a week.  You can learn more about these techniques in my book, Kingdom of the Tiger:  A Golfer’s Guide to Playing in The Zone, which you will find at my website, http://www.haveabettergolfgame.com/, and at Colin Cromack’s website, http://www.targetorientedgolf.com/.  Till next time,

Happy golfing

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