I recently had the pleasure of spending some time on the course with a golfer I’m working with. We were out on the putting green talking through high pressure scenarios. We talked about managing the double break, sight lines, and so on. My area is certainly not the technical aspect of these things. But throughout our conversation and time spent talking through different scenarios, the theme that kept emerging is the difference between being out on the green on a for-funsies day and being on the green when something is on the line. 

Last week I hit the links with my husband for the first time in far too long (first 9 of 2021!). And, unfortunately, I got to see this in action. I viewed the first few holes as a warm up. So there was no pressure. Nothing on the line – not even my pride. I had the great excuse of this being my first time on the links all year so, of course, I’m rusty. As the round went on, the banter amplified, I was hitting like I’ve held a club before instead of looking like a first timer. I went from cool, calm, and collected to competitive and angsty. I noticed it helped me on the tee shot and hurt me on the green. 

So what’s going on when that don’t-usually-even-need-to-think-about-it 3 footer suddenly becomes a 2 stroker? Let’s break it down a bit. 

We know that managing physiological arousal allows us to swing our club smoothly and to trust in our golf knowledge and strategy. But as soon as something is on the line – pride, money, the next beer – our body takes notice of the shift in the thought. Unfortunately, the brain isn’t sophisticated enough to know the difference between a bear attack and a 3 foot putt with $50 on the line. So it gets ready to fight or flee. Our muscles tense, our vision narrows, our thoughts race, we think of all of the worst case scenarios, our heart rate increases, our breathing rate changes – all without our true knowledge or consent. With all of those changes, it makes sense that our stroke might change. It makes sense that our decision making might change. Instead of feeling relaxed and confident, we feel tense and “threatened”. 

The “why” is easy. Our body sees a threat. The “now what” is hard – simple, but hard. Competition can increase bravery and risk taking but with it comes a shift in thinking. Once there’s something on the line, it’s impossible to pretend there’s not. So instead of managing that specific line of thinking, focus on what you can manage. Manage your attention. Focus on how the club feels in your hand and the swing cadence you know works for you. Take your attention to your breath. If you can slow your breath, you can slow your heart rate. These two things naturally allow the fight or flight response to slow. When you can get that arousal level under control, you’ll be able to perform as if you’re back to playing for funsies – and you’re far more likely to succeed and to rock it when there’s something on the line!

Dr. Chelsi Day

Dr. Day is a licensed clinical psychologist. She is an Ohio native who completed her Bachelor's degrees in Psychology and Health and Sport Studies at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio while competing on the Varsity Swimming and Diving team as a diver. She then went on to earn a Master's degree in Sport and Exercise Psychology from the Chicago School of Professional Psychology followed by a Master's degree and later a Doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology from Antioch University New England in Keene, NH.