How to approach & cope with a competition round By Dr. Noel Blundell
Biography Dr. Noel Blundell has gained worldwide recognition in Sport Psychology in a myriad of sports. The elite athletes with whom he has worked include seven World Champions and a number of Olympic medallists. Golfers with whom he has worked closely include Sandy Lyle, Rodger Davis, Peter Senior and Bradley Hughes. In addition, he has a proud association with the Victorian Golf Associaiton and the Victorian State Senior and Junior Teams which has extended over many many years.
Introduction The par 3, 16th hole at the Royal Melbourne composite course presented a daunting challenge when birdies were paramount. The pin was cut way left, just below a ridge on the lightening fast green. To attack the pin was folly, while a shot to the heart of the green still presented a significant challenge to the blade. Three putts were common among the world's greatest players as their approach putts gathered pace down the slope 2 metres from the hole to present a slick 3 metre return putt. The tournament challenge was presented in stark reality by the scoreboard behind the 16th green, Couples 17 under, Davis in red figures at 16 under. Finish one under over the last three to enter a playoff, two under to win. One error would lead to relegation to the "what if" ranks. How disciplined was his mind? Would Davis be capable of dismissing thoughts of the $500,000 first prize money? What effect would winning or losing have on his future? Win the tournament for a fiercely parochial Australian crowd. It was a return to the Davis Cup of the fifties, Australian versus America, toe to toe!
An approach to the middle of the 16th, a par saving putt of 3 metres found the heart of the cup. An outstanding 40 metre bunker shot and a 2 metre birdie putt on the 71st tied it up. Davis was now faced with a 1.7 metre putt on the second hole of a sudden death playoff to collect the unprecedented first prize cheque and perhaps more importantly, ensure that victory in this tournament to commemorate Australia's 200th birthday would belong to an Aussie. The crowd in the triple decker stands that lined both sides of the final hole cheered in grand final fashion as the combatants marched towards the final green. The atmosphere was electric as finally a hushed silence descended on Royal Melbourne.
Davis surveyed the putt from all vantage points, his walk, smooth and unhurried. His eyes reflecting a level of concentration that suggested line and pace were his exclusive focus. Would the mind and heart race uncontrollably, or would the nerve ends twitch at the thought of the potential outcome? The putter had been his nemesis and had contributed to premature retirement several years earlier. Would the sickening feelings and doubts come to haunt him at this critical point? It was the ultimate test for both the mental skills we had diligently worked on and the mental discipline of the player. The result is history. Davis knew he had made the putt before the blade was half was back, and Peter Thomson best described it for us all - "... they (his shots) made one proud to be his countryman".
While few are ever likely to be faced with such a situation, all players, be they club players desperate to win a monthly medal, or tournament players desperate for consistency, are constantly faced with searching examinations of the game. Often we stumble, fall short, successes seem few, and the "secret" of the game seems to reveal itself i many forms and in often unsuspected circumstances - but it is all too fleeting. The search for mastery is never ending, but the challenge, mingled with intermittent success, drives us forward!
The challenges faced by Davis embodied the essence of the mental skills of the game. These were:- 1. To manipulate his emotional level so that he was "in the zone" therefore enabling him to work his way into winning contention. 2. Once in contention he had to maintain the correct emotional level and not get too excited or apprehensive. 3. He had to discipline his mind so that he didn't project to the future or reflect on the past, but stay totally focused on the upcoming shot. 4. He had to totally trust his golf swing and not question it even though it was not the most elegant or technically perfect in such an elite field. The aim of this chapter is to provide some key insights as to how you too can address the inner challenge of preparing and competing.
The mental controls the physical There are many facets that contribute to success in golf. Being born with the right genes and inheriting talent is certainly beneficial. Developing sound technique that is flowing and repeatable is also naturally a high priority. Moreover, sound physical fitness and eating the appropriate food, both on and off the course, are also highly relevant factors. However, on any given day, the degree to which you capitalize on your combination of the above factors is determined by the mental aspects, and, more specifically, your emotional level, i.e. the mental controls the physical. This notion applies whether you happen to be Seve Ballesteros or a Saturday morning social player. When referring to emotional level it is easiest to relate to as a combination of the degree of anxiety/calmness and alertness. When you are in a state of inner calm, yet still very naturally alert, you will play your best golf. However, when your anxiety level is elevated, golf tends to become a battlefield as you fight with yourself and struggle with the golf course. The key principal to understand is that your emotional level controls three critical facets relative to your golf. These are:-
A. Muscular Tension Levels As your anxiety level increases so too does your muscular tension, particularly in your shoulders, arms and hands. This has a major effect on your timing and rhythm. Once your muscles become tight, your arms and body cease to work as a team and any slight swing flaws become magnified as you begin to spray the ball all over the course.
B. Energy Levels As your emotional level becomes elevated, you suffer an excessive depletion of energy. As a result, you are likely to feel drained by the completion of your round or tire on the back nine.
C. Concentration Levels When your emotional level is excessive due to either frustration or over excitement, the quality of your concentration is markedly reduced. The tendency is to think about the future, what people might say, how to make up for dropped shots, or technically to tear your swing apart in your mind. To further clarify the relationship between emotional level and golf performance, presented below is the notion of your Emotional Thermometer. It has an arbitrary scale ranging from zero to one hundred, which reflects the range of your emotional level from sleep (zero) to the extremes of anxiety or frustration (100).
As indicated by the Thermometer you will play your best golf when you are 'in the zone' represented by the shaded area between points 45 and 55. Your absolute best golf will coincide with 50 on the scale - your Peak Performing State. As your emotional level elevates above 55 you become 'too high' and your game progressively deteriorates and as you drop below 45 on downward, your performance also deteriorates.
Emotional Level Indicators
To assist you to recognize where you are at any point in time on your Emotional Thermometer the indicators have been divided into 3 areas, the Mental Aspects, Physical Aspects and Golf Specific Aspects. Set out below are the indicators pertinent to being 'in the zone', our aim every time we play in events of significance. In the Zone Physical * Feeling quite energized * Muscles feeling relaxed and loose, no tension * Heart rate will increase some* A few butterflies
Mental * Feeling of confidence, belief in self * Knowing you are going to compete well * A clear mind, able to switch in and concentrate * A sense of inner calm * Feeling in control * Looking forward to playing Golf Specific Physical * Swing feels rhythmical, timing perfect * Power generated with ease * Touch and feel perfect * Feel capable of manipulating the ball with ease * Seem to have a great deal of time throughout all phases of the swing, never rushed Mental * Able to 'zone in' or immerse yourself in each shot, you, the ball, your target - nothing else in the world exists. * Your 'spot' on the ball becomes exceptionally clear * You 'see' shots and the line of putts very clearly and easily * You are able to maintain focus on the 'spot' on the ball right through impact
Unfortunately, if you leave your mental preparation to chance and have not established a consistent workable pattern, you are not likely to be 'in the zone' with any frequency, perhaps once or twice a year at best. Furthermore, this will seem to occur at random, with your performance apparently in the hands of the "Golfing Gods" who don't tend to smile on you when you need their help most.
Too High As much as you would prefer to remain 'in the zone' as human beings we are subjected to a barrage of influences that potentially have a distinct influence on our emotional level, e.g. interpersonal interactions, ever present biochemical changes within our bodily systems, work commitments, traffic, expectations - the list is endless. Most golfers who take the game at least somewhat seriously tend to unknowingly attempt to function at an emotional level that is significantly too high, often in a range of between 60 and 75 on the Thermometer. The higher the emotional level, the more potent the negative effects.
Some Danger Signs - Emotional Level too high
Physical * Tightness - shoulders, arms, abdomen, legs - any of these * Heart racing * Very sweaty palms * Frequent visit to the toilet Mental * Doubts about how well you are going to play * Feelings of panic * Difficulty concentrating on what others are saying Golf Specific Physical * Swing lacks rhythm and timing, not free-flowing, arms and body not coordinating as a unit * Lacking power - club head speed down, lacking your normal zip through the ball * Inconsistency of striking and shot shaping * Tempo feels rushed * Changes in the sequence of your pre-shot routine Mental * Just want to get the shot over with * Distracted by the crowd or your opponent * Thinking about the result, the score, or future holes * Being concerned about what others may think about you or your performance * Mentally drained after the round
Using the Emotional Thermometer to your advantage
Step 1 - Establishing a Reference If you are to play 'in the zone' it is important to have a feel or a reference for what this is like. Using the above 'the zone' points as a guideline, relate back to the times you have played extremely well. Recall how you felt physically, the type of thoughts you experienced, and the feel and rhythm of your golf swing. Your aim is to re-create these feelings and thoughts. This is your reference that you can also further refine now that you know what to look for.
Step 2 - Monitoring Your aim is to be able to read or monitor yourself so that you can detect exactly where you are on the Thermometer. Refer to the examples set out above to assist in this process, noting the indicators that specifically apply to you. Without becoming over zealous and paranoid, begin to enhance your awareness of fluctuations in your emotional level.
Step 3 - Making the Adjustment Given that you detect that either before or during a round your emotional level is not at the desired point, it is imperative that you have a repertoire of techniques to adjust it either up or down so that you return to 'the zone'. Basic strategies such as taking some deep diaphragmatic breaths, chatting to your caddy or fellow players, slowing yourself down a little, re-affirming your goals for the round, are helpful methods. More formalized centering procedures and sophisticated application of progressive relaxation techniques should also be part of a golfer's mental skills, practiced daily and used in competition when required.
Doing your homework A strategy that I have used with many elite players is to get them to do a little homework after each round. In the evening after a round, sit quietly for fifteen minutes and reflect on your round. Consider where your emotional level was at various stages. Did any fluctuations occur? How rhythmical and coordinated did your swing feel? What was the rate and quality of concentration that you applied to each shot? You will soon realize the effect that your emotional level has on all aspects of your performance, as well as becoming aware of your personal indicators that tell you just where you are on your Thermometer.
Using your new insights Now that you understand the connection between emotional level and performance, the next step is to address some strategies that can markedly influence your emotional level.
Choosing appropriate goals Before a round most players tend to set a score in their minds as their goal for the day. Setting a goal such as this is fraught with danger. First, it tends to project your mind to the future, in terms of how you are progressing relative to that result. Consequently, it becomes more difficult to keep the mind focused on the present, i.e. this shot. Second, if you are not scoring as well as your final goal would dictate, pressure and frustration build, your emotional level soars, your swing pattern and rhythm break down and your confidence is shattered so that you shoot a much worse score than you were capable of on the day. Also symptomatic of this situation is poor shot selection. Often your shot selection will be dictated by how your score is progressing relative to your goal rather than an objective evaluation of the shots given this situation. The tendency is to gamble on a very low percentage shot and end up taking triple rather than a bogey or a possible 1 put par. Another point that is frequently overlooked is if you happen to be playing exceptionally well and perhaps are several shots ahead of your scoring goal. More often than not, your subconscious commitment to your goal tends to drag you back to your "goal score". Thus you have unknowingly limited yourself and your capacities on this given day. Naturally, these scenarios don't apply to every player in every context, but believe me, they occur in the vast majority of cases from touring pro to amateur.
If you absolutely commit to the following goals and become proficient at practically applying them, you will capitalize on your talent to its full extent. Goal 1 - To be totally immersed in every shot your play during the round to the exclusion of all else, i.e. nothing else in the world exists apart from this shot. Goal 2 - To monitor and adjust (where necessary) your emotional level so as to remain 'in the zone'. If you commit to these goals and focus on the quality of your application to each shot, the score will look after itself. I must warn you though, you must consistently make the commitment to exercise mental discipline of the highest order. For most players this requires a re-orientation of their thinking to get their minds away from score or constantly analyzing their technique during a round. However, just as you have spent untold hours working on perfecting your technique, learning to apply those goals is also a skill, a mental skill, which requires application, evaluation, learning and more application until these skills become ingrained and second nature.
Whenever possible establish a pattern or routine that you can comfortably follow. Without becoming a robot and totally lacking in spontaneity, you will find it most stabilizing to follow a basic routine in your pre round preparation as well as your pre shot preparation. Set out below is a basic routine to follow for a player involved in a tournament. If you don't play at this level but would like to do better in your weekend competition, choose the sections you can apply and establish your personal routine.
* Dinner, preferably high carbohydrate * Organize equipment, check and clean where necessary * Relaxation technique (if necessary) followed by 5-10 minutes of visualization of shots to be played. Confirm in your mind the likely targets for each hole. * Having completed the above, do something that naturally interests you and takes you mind away from golf, e.g. video, music. Don't sit and think about golf all evening. * Go to bed at a reasonable hour, preferably when you are naturally tired. Don't go to bed too early in an endeavor to get an extra few hours sleep and lie awake thinking about golf for 4 to 5 hours, then frustrating yourself trying to force yourself to sleep.
The morning of the round
* Breakfast * Stretch, to loosen and free muscles * Use music to suit your emotional level and adjust your emotional level if required, (e.g. if you are too low, something more up beat) * Arrive at the course approximately one hour before tee off time. * Warm up on the practice fairway. Further stretching if required, followed by hitting some easy, lazy, sand wedges, leading into some full shots with selected short irons through to driver. Finish with a few short pitches. The major aim is to loosen the muscles and establish some rhythm, not to examine your technique in detail and work on swing adjustments. Tune your mind up by choosing about 10 balls and hitting specific shots using your pre shot routine. * Warm up on the putting green. After approximately 30 minutes on the practice fairway move to the putting green for 10-15 minutes with a view to getting a feel for the pace of the greens. Once again the aim is to establish feel, rhythm, and timing as well as gradually tuning and focusing the mind. Hit some putts of varying length and create a warm up routine on the green that makes you feel comfortable and ready to play. Throughout this total warm up process you should be naturally monitoring yourself to see where your emotional level is and making adjustments if necessary.
On the course Hopefully, you already possess a well established pre shot routine. Be mentally disciplined and apply it. If you don't have a pre shot routine, you had better create one that is workable and comfortable immediately, if you desire to play half way decent golf on a consistent basis. Your routine should involve:- * evaluating the conditions and choosing your shot * choosing a specific target(s) * creating a feel for the shot and an image of the flight path in your mind * taking your set up by feel, within minimum fuss and adjustment * keeping the body mobile, the muscles soft and pulling the trigger without delay. It is possible to function effectively with a single swing thought prior to initiating your backswing. However, you will find that you play your absolute best by creating a feel for the shape of the shot with minimal to no conscious thought interference.
Dealing with Adversity It would not be difficult to chronicle a text on the multitude of circumstances that serve to amaze, frustrate, infuriate, and potentially destroy golfers of all skill levels. Overcoming adversity is the challenge of the game. When things are not proceeding according to plan, you have several choices. You can feel sorry for yourself and slip into the "why me"? Syndrome, e.g. "the wind always seems to change direction just as I'm about to hit"! The scapegoat approach is also available, whereby you can always blame someone else, e.g. crowd, caddy, playing partners, or your equipment. Then there is the tried and true favorite of becoming angry and frustrated and tearing yourself apart as you fight with yourself. The possible numbers of negative self destructing options are endless. However, if you wish to become a player, (ie. a real competitor) as opposed to a shot maker, I suggest the following steps. (1) If you have played an errant shot, check your emotional level and clam yourself before even considering your next shot. (2) Re-affirm in your mind exactly what your goals for the round are, then buckle down and totally immerse yourself in the upcoming shot. Every time you achieve the above you are becoming a player. The most important score for a round of golf is not the one written on your scorecard. It is the number of times during a round that you totally committed yourself to the shot at hand. Remember, failing to prepare is preparing to fail.
A professional golf instructor qualified as the coach of the highest Australian professional golfer association of Triple AAA which is regarded as the highest level at the Australian · Pro · Golf Association (PGA). As with the Australian Coach Council (ACC) level 5 license certificate, I have been told that I am among the top 50 in Australia. He is active in international coaches such as Japan, Malaysia and Singapore as well as in Australia. It has a reputation for the latest golf theory and analysis such as using a computer.Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.
Tom Fielding is a golf instructor with long experience in Australia and Asia. For those interested in learning more, or those wishing to take a lesson in Japanese or English, please visit the website www.jp.tomfieldinggolf.net or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org by e-mail.