What Are You Afraid Of?

“Of all the hazards in golf, fear is the worst.” Sam Snead

Reflecting back on my first CSGA qualifier, I had never been so afraid in my golfing life. Despite my theoretical understanding of the impact of fear on performance, my body’s survival instincts took over. My heart was pounding. My breathing was getting shorter and tighter, and my mind went blank. My hands were shaking so badly that it took me three tries to get the ball to stay on the tee.

You may think psychologists are immune to the anxieties that so often plague our clients. No such luck. When the body is told by the mind there is something to fear, even the most mentally tough struggle. 

From an evolutionary perspective, fear is a natural, physiological response to danger. Which makes perfect sense if you’re confronted by an angry bear, or a speeding car, or sitting in a plane white-knuckling it through turbulence. 

But the first tee of a Connecticut Amateur qualifier?

Other than the possibility of having a heart attack because I was so terrified, my life was hardly in danger. So, why was I reacting this way?

The simple answer is that to our nervous systems, a threat is a threat. It doesn’t matter whether or not the threat is real or imagined, rational or irrational. In my mind, I was afraid I was not good enough to be playing in a CSGA event, I was going to fail, and people were going to laugh at me for my incompetence. To my body, I might as well have been floating in shark infested waters wearing a bloody steak around my neck ringing a dinner bell. 

In golf, being at the mercy of one’s nervous system is a problem: Our thinking becomes quick and impulsive rather than slow and deliberate. We are more apt to be guided by our emotions than by critical thought. Our ability to focus, pay attention and be creative decreases. So does our working memory. We become defensive, pessimistic, and primed to see threat in situations where it doesn’t exist. Our ability to absorb and learn new information is impaired. There is a significant increase in muscle tension, a reduction in our visual field, and our breathing is restricted. Sound familiar? 

The next time you find yourself afraid on the golf course, whether it be first tee jitters, a pressure putt or playing in front of an audience, consider the following suggestions to hack your fear response and get back on track to playing your best:

Brain Hack No. 1. Breathe. BREATHE! What yogis and Buddhists have known for thousands of years, we can now validate with science. Slow, smooth, and rhythmic breathing will counter the negative effects of the fear response. When you experience fear, take a moment and breathe slowly, at an interval of a 5 second inhale and a 5 second exhale. This type of breathing, also called coherent, or resonant, breathing, would be a great addition to your pre-shot routine as well. 

Brain Hack No. 2.  Reframe it: Instead of accepting your irrational fear as truth, question it, and come up with an alternate and more positive explanation. For example, my irrational thoughts on the CSGA qualifier were, “I suck,” “I’m a failure,” “People are going to think I’m a joke.”  A more rational, accurate, and positive reframing of those thoughts would be, “It makes sense that I’m afraid. This is new for me. I don’t suck and I deserve to be here. People are going to think what they think and I can’t control that. What I can control is my mind. I will work hard and compete on every shot and whatever happens, happens.” This is called “cognitive reframing” and it can not only reduce anxiety but provide genuine relief as well. 

Brain Hack No. 3.  Vent. Expressing any emotion is a great way to release yourself from it’s grasp—especially true of fear. Tell a friend or your caddie, or even write it down in a notebook or your yardage book, the way you might make notes on a hole and how you played it. Be specific. Is it physical tension? Dark thoughts? Both? The more you understand how your fear manifests itself, the easier it will be to deal with.

Brain Hack No. 4. Anticipate and plan ahead: If you are someone who is prone to experiencing fear on the golf course, remind yourself before a round that this is may happen and plan on how you’ll counteract it. Remind yourself also that it’s a sign of your commitment to your game. Great players often talk about anxiety as “excitement.” They embrace it. 

By the way, I shot 83. I didn’t qualify, but played pretty well for me. And I survived—with a smile.

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