Of the many psychological skills that will be on display at this weekend’s Ryder Cup, none will be more impactful than the golfers’ ability to handle pressure.
Every two years, the golfing world screeches to a halt focusing its full attention on the battle between the United States and Europe, not just for bragging rights, but for global golf supremacy. It is a time when players put aside individual differences, and rather than compete for themselves, the players unite in common cause to defend the honor of their team and country. Not surprisingly, with higher stakes comes higher pressure.
What is pressure and where does it come from? According to the American Psychological Association, pressure is defined as “excessive or stressful demands, imagined or real, made on an individual to think, feel, or act in particular ways”. As with most psychological phenomena, pressure originates in the mind, and its intensity is a function of how the individual experiencing the pressure perceives, or interprets, the excessive or stressful demands. In other words, what one person perceives to be excessive or stressful might not have the same effect on another person. For example, say two golfers have a 3 foot putt to win their club championship. The amount of pressure each golfer feels will be determined by the meaning they attach to the outcome of the situation and thus influence their behavior. If Golfer #1 attaches the meaning that he will be letting down his friends and family if he doesn’t make the putt and his life will be ruined, he will feel more pressure than Golfer #2 who interprets the situation differently and attaches the meaning that it’s just another putt and her life will go on whether she makes it or not.
Importantly, there is no right or wrong way to interpret any situation. However, it is important to know that how we interpret a given situation will affect the amount of pressure we experience. The skill of being able to recognize the consequences of a particular interpretation and then change your interpretation in an effort to improve outcome is known as cognitive reframing. The next time you head out to the course, pay close attention to how you are interpreting your play. If you are like most golfers, my guess is your interpretations will lean toward judgment and self-criticism. My experience tells me that judgment and self-criticism don’t often lead to improved performance. If I am correct, consider reframing your negative interpretations in a more rational, reasonable, and optimistic way like Golfer #2 in the example above. I have no doubt that this will lead to greater enjoyment of the game and improve your chances of shooting lower scores.
Pressure is in your head and how you interpret a given situation will not only determine the intensity of the pressure you experience but will also play a role in determining the outcome of your behavior. By reframing your interpretations you can, in effect, regulate the amount of pressure you feel and thus be in greater control of outcome. The ability to cognitively reframe will be a critical factor this weekend and the team that can do it best will undoubtedly hoist Samuel Ryder’s Cup late Sunday afternoon.