President of New Edge Performance.
Does pressure in golf really exist?
Well, according to some researchers and experts, it really doesn’t. It’s all dreamed up by you to make it difficult for you to perform when it counts. According to a noted study (Beilock 2010), people create pressure for themselves. The only way we can ever experience pressure is to create it in our own minds. It is a product of our imagination. Another research paper explains that if we experience pressure, it is because we are projecting an imaginary view of the future (Markman et al 2008).
But, have these researchers ever had a 5-footer to win the match or had 20 friends standing around the first tee waiting for their opening tee shot and anticipating something great? Or have they ever acknowledged the pressure and used the energy as a positive tool that elevates their performance so they go beyond where they thought they could go?
Well, the general definition gives us a good picture of what pressure is … “the feeling of stressful urgency caused by the necessity of doing or achieving something, especially with limited time.”
Do you know this feeling?
You practice and practice in a controlled environment you’ve created; hit a few balls tweaking your swing, watch some video to analyze your mechanics, create a few putting stations to work on your stroke and casually work on your game. All good.
But then you arrive at the first tee, and everyone and everything seems more serious. Someone hands you a scorecard and a pencil, and the feelings of your controlled environment now seem slightly out of your control.
Where Does Pressure Come from?Pressure can come from both within you or from the outside. Your own expectations are often sources of pressure where you expect a lot (sometimes too much) from yourself. After all, you’ve worked hard, spent hours practicing and would like a good result. Expectations can also come from the outside. With young players, parents can pile on what kind of results they may be expecting. Coaches can expect results, too. Any kind of expectations invites pressure for players.
There are a number of sources that raise the boiling point and can give you the feeling of pressure:
- Thinking about your score (the outcome) and not focusing enough on “how” you are doing it on each shot (your process).
- Timing: You have four holes left and you need two birdies to win.
- I’m not ready: Your practice did not go well and you don’t feel ready.
- You’re working on something new: Will it work when it counts?
- The environment around you: Things are a little more serious than they were in practice.
- Media and audience effects: If you are playing in a big event, there’s lots of drama and opinions all around you.
- Doubting your own abilities: Can I do this?
- Perception of importance: Wow, this is a big event! The spotlight is on me!
What the best do
I have the great privilege to work with some of the world’s leading athletes, those who are constantly surrounded by “pressure” and we talk about it often.
The great players all acknowledge pressures, but work on creating the best approaches for themselves to deal with it and maximize their abilities. The very best I work with welcome pressures; it means they have the privilege of playing for something worthwhile and the opportunity to test the hours and hours of work they’ve put in to get to where they are.
Great players acknowledge the reality of pressure and don’t pretend it’s not there. Pressure, for them, is in perspective and always positive. Consider Jordan Spieth in the 2015 Masters, marching to the first tee through thousands of people on Sunday knowing he had the lead and he was four hours from history. You can be sure the 21-year-old felt the pressure on that day, but used it in a positive way to focus himself and go about his business with his personal game plan and experience and reflections from 2014.
How to best create positive pressure for you
Acknowledging that pressure exists and turning it into a positive is your first step forward. You can also better prepare yourself for pressure situations by following a few key steps that will, like the greats, keep pressure in perspective and use it to your advantage.
Here are a few ideas to start:
- Close the gap between practice and play. For most players, the level of attention and focus is completely different. Consider a more structured routine for your practice. Apply approaches to reach targets and goals. For example, to move on to the next phase of your practice, you must hit five shots in a row that meet a certain standard.
- Thinking ahead to what you can’t control creates fear and additional pressure. Keep your focus on each shot and executing to the best of your ability. The current shot is what you can truly control.
- Align your expectations with your abilities right now. What is reasonable for you right now? You might overestimate your abilities sometimes and even you can’t live up to them. This creates additional pressure. The expectations of others is not within your control and should not be a reasonable source of pressure for you.
- Build confidence proactively. Your confidence is built over time from the ground up. Allowing little dips in performance to impact your overall confidence will add pressure that will impact your performance.
- Stick to the plan. Develop a plan that plays to your strengths and don’t deviate from it unless conditions really change. Jordan Spieth relentlessly sticks to his plan and wears everyone down with it.
- Enjoy the environment and activity around you, but remember that focusing on you and not on the drama or others around you is what leads to high performance.
- Remember why you play. This seems simple, but it’s important. Golf and sports are not life or death. You play for enjoyment. Embrace the opportunity to feel the privilege of playing, competing and putting yourself in a position to do something meaningful.