“Cortisol focuses the athlete and allows access to the behaviors practiced over and over again so that in the game he will be able to display the practiced skills with greater ease.”
- Activate Your Brain by Scott G. Halford (1)
This one’s a little neuroscience-y but I think it’s a really good concept for all of us to know, so hang in there with me.
Cortisol is known as “the stress hormone”. It’s what your brain releases when it perceives something important is happening or about to happen.
Cortisol itself is very important, because without this hormone, you wouldn’t feel that sense of readiness on, let’s say, the 1st tee box. That nervousness that you feel? That’s cortisol coursing through your body. Don’t wish it away. You need it.
But as this quote shows us, cortisol has another function. Along with that readiness comes a heightened sense of focus. You become less interested in things that don’t relate to the important task at hand. Your brain goes into habit mode, and performs the “behaviors practiced over and over again…”
This can be a blessing, as long as your habitual behaviors are helpful. This is why you see some of the best players in the world perform well under pressure. And why you have probably felt that “zone” feeling, even when everything was on the line.
Not often though, and here’s why I think that is:
Cortisol makes us “fall back” into our basic habits, which I think is another way of saying that cortisol brings out the worst version of ourselves.
Maybe you can relate to this: when you’re on the range and there’s no real consequences, you can hit that nice little baby fade out there. Your tempo is good, your transition is smooth, and that swing that you’ve been working on lately feels cohesive. But when you’re on the course, and there’s some consequences and permanence to the shots you hit, the brain dumps out that cortisol to be ready for that important thing, and you just don’t hit it like you did on the range. You dropped back to what you most habitually do, which for most of us is that old bad swing habit that we’ve been trying to get rid of for years.
This is why the worst shots happen under the most pressure. Most of us know this experientially, but this is the reasoning and reality behind those experiences.
You might ask “then how can I ever hope to hit a good shot on the course under pressure?” I want to go through two answers to that question, one for off the course, and one for on the course:
Off the course: raise the level of your worst
On the course: lower the level of cortisol aka stress
1. Raise the level of your worst
If cortisol makes us drop to a worse version of ourselves, and stressful situations are inevitable, then we should prepare before competitive rounds to handle those situations better.
As the quote says, cortisol brings out our most practiced behaviors, so what you’ve most committed to habit is what will come out under the stress of pressure.
So what have you committed to habit? What level of skill is your most habitual? What are those ingrained habits that you’ve been working to fix? When you’re under the stress of important competition those are the habits that will reveal themselves. So if those habits wouldn’t help you play better, then those are the ones you need to work on improving. Make better behaviors habitual.
How best to practice is a whole different topic to cover, but this is the purpose of practice: to ingrain good behaviors into habit so that when you go into habit mode when the cortisol hits, your habits are good ones that help you shoot good scores.
This is the purpose of practice: to ingrain good behaviors into habit.
2. Lower the level of stress during the competition
While it’s essential that you improve your habitual behaviors in practice between tournaments, it’s equally as important that you have ways to lower the feeling of stress to a helpful level on the course in the middle of an important situation.
First, as always, you have to be able to recognize what specifically causes you stress. Is it a specific type of demanding shot? Is it other players? Is it expectations on you from you or others? Is it course or weather conditions? Which of those causes your stress to increase to an unhelpful level?
Once you’ve identified your particular stressors, you need to be able to have a non-judgmental acceptance of what you notice. This means seeing the thing that stresses you, and accepting the fact that it is a stressful thing, and accepting the fact that you’re stressed at all. Stress is nothing more than the feeling you experience as a result of your brain readying you for battle. Unless you bring worry or guilt or judgement into it, stress is just a thought and a feeling. Like Dr. Raymond Prior says in his pre-release draft of Golf Beneath the Surface (2), “we [can] treat uncomfortable thoughts and feelings as we would other temporary experiences, like passing sights, sounds, smells, or tastes.”
Thoughts about stressful situations, or the feeling of the stressful situation itself are just “temporary mental events.”
Stress is nothing more than the feeling you experience as a result of your brain readying you for battle.
While fit’s essential that you improve your habitual behaviors in practice between tournaments, it’s equally as important that you have ways to lower the feeling of stress to a helpful level on the course in the middle of an important situation.n.
So you’ve recognized, brought a non-judgmental acceptance to what you’ve recognized, now you can be in the present.
The very act of bringing a non-judgmental awareness to your own thinking and experiences means you’re not being brought into the past or the future by your thinking. You’re seeing your own thoughts and experiences as if they’re passing cars on the road. They are separate from you, and you can watch as they come and go without getting in any one of those cars. Keeping this detached view of your own thoughts and feelings means you’re already in the present.
So the basic concept is to raise the level of your worst through more and better practice, and lower the feeling of stress during important rounds to a helpful level through having a more mindful mentality.
As you can probably gather, these processes are not overnight fixes. They are processes that address things on a deeper level. You are trying to untangle habits that you’ve probably been ingraining over months or years. So bring a strong sense of patience and forgiveness and acceptance towards yourself and your efforts as you attempt to stay disciplined on this journey.
(1) Halford, S. G. (2015). Activate your brain: How understanding your brain can improve your work-- and your life. Greenleaf Book Group Press.
(2) Prior, R. (2023) Golf Beneath the Surface: The New Science of Golf Psychology. BenBella Books.