This article appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of LINKS.
BY ITS VERY NATURE, golf is an exercise in stress management, from the hazards that line the holes to the pressure of the match to the swing demons in your head and the friends you want to impress. Blissful ignorance is one way to deal with it but that’s easier said than done. A better way, according to a new book, Hijacked by Your Brain, by University of Connecticut’s men’s golf team assistant coach Jon Wortmann and UConn psychiatry professor Dr. Julian Ford, is to understand how your brain works and how to use it properly. Stress is not the problem; how you handle it is. Here are the top five mistakes they say golfers make during a round.
DENYING STRESS Stress comes from your amygdala, the alarm in your brain that wants to keep you safe. Your brain doesn’t want you to snap-hook your drives or miss the little putts. The first thing to do is acknowledge that you feel stressed, not deny it. Noticing stress won’t take it away, but it will help you focus on making the highpressure shot even as you’re nervous. Deny you feel stress and the alarm will send more stress chemicals into your body and you will choke.
THINKING OVER THE BALL Make any decision—club, target, how to adjust to an uneven lie, or deal with wind—before you take your address. If you try to think about your swing or the conditions while you’re over the ball, the alarm in your brain will fire. When your alarm fires, it sends adrenaline into your body. A little adrenaline can help; too much and you tighten up and balls land in the woods or putts miss the hole entirely. Ideally, as you swing you have no thought; you’re just focused on the ball.
TRYING TO MAKE PUTTS The thinking center in the brain can focus on just one thing at a time. The only things we can control are the direction we start the ball and the force with which we stroke it. Worrying about results makes it impossible to focus our mind and body on what we need to do in the present—make a firm, confident stroke. Believing you can make every putt is a lot different than trying to make every putt.
TRYING TO HIT THE BALL LONGER The moment we think about hitting the ball farther than we usually do, it triggers the alarm. Our brain knows our driver usually goes a certain distance. It wants to prevent us from making a mistake, and the ensuing tightness from the stress response causes a tight swing. Tight swings produce over-the-top hooks or blocks when we fail to release the club. Learn how to hit the ball longer on the range. On the course, choose the club that will comfortably get you to your target at 90 percent effort.
TAKING GOOD ROUNDS FOR GRANTED The road to better golf is bumpy, often with more poor and mediocre rounds than great ones. Celebrate the great rounds as rare and precious. That will enable your brain to value the memories of what you did right. The stronger our emotional attachments to memories, the more easily we can repeat what we’ve done. Practice after bad rounds. After great rounds, recall the play of your best holes or write down what you did well. A brain that remembers the great shots can make great shots more consistently.