Try this. Think about the last time you got into an argument with your partner. Try to recall how frustrated or mad or upset you felt at the moment. Now think about how other memories bubbled up at that moment — memories of all the other irritating things your partner does or has done.

OK, let’s reset. Now think about sitting and having a beer with an old friend. Consider how much time you spent reminiscing on happy stories and laughing about ridiculous things you did together. I bet you told stories of the good ole days that you’ve repeated again and again.

These situations didn’t play out this way because our friends are awesome. and our partners are annoying — though sometimes true. It happened because how we perceive a situation in a given moment shapes the way our brains respond and behave moving forward. 

The emotional state that we are in can predict what thoughts will come next and what choices we will make.

When you’re upset, it’s easier to remember previous times you were upset. When you’re happy and having fun, stories of past fun times pop right to the surface. When you’re feeling nervous, it’s easy to remember the failures of the past.

How you perceive a situation in a given moment affects the choices you will make, which can set off an entire feedback loop.

Stimulus Interpretation of Stimulus-Response

The interpretation process is one of the most underappreciated processes when we analyze our own behavior.

If the stimulus is seeing a bunker ahead, how I interpret that bunker makes all the difference in the world. If that bunker is a threat to me, my arousal will rise; I might change my strategy and my response may not be the most technically sound or strategically smart strategy. If that bunker is one I’ve outsmarted before and I’m feeling confident, I may not think much of it and I’ll stick to my strategy and likely see a positive outcome.

If the stimulus is playing with someone better than me, I might interpret that as meaning that I suck. I will then respond by second-guessing myself, playing hesitantly and therefore more poorly — reinforcing the idea that I suck. Alternatively, I may feel excited to play with someone better than me because I can learn from them and up my game. This will lead me to be curious, confident, and open minded and likely lead me to play better.

How will you let a stimulus influence your game?

Perception is so important. But the awareness of the perception is the key to controlling it. Take a moment to pause, in life and in golf, and assess how you are reacting to any stimulus before you respond. 

The gap between the stimulus and the response often feels outside of our control. But by pausing, taking a deep breath, and becoming aware of the assessments we are making, we can shift them to something more helpful and cause our behaviors to better align with our goals.

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.