Every one of us has a shot or a hole or a course that causes us issues like fear, worry, or anxiety. You don't have to be a "head case" for this to be true. You might be terrified of into-the-grain chip shots. Or maybe it's tee shots with OB on the left. Or tournaments where people are paying attention to what you shoot.
Events are neutral
The thing is, none of these are inherently bad things. They might be difficult to you and cause you more problems than they do to other people, but an into-the-grain chip shot is not good or bad until you label it. OB on the left side of a hole is only bad or difficult because you label it as bad or difficult.
Now, that's not to say that your problems or difficulties are made up and you just need to get over them because they’re not real. Quite the opposite. The very fact that you have created those negative (or positive) labels means that they can be un-created. You have control over the labels that you give things.
You have control over the labels that you give things.
Where do tense, quick swings come from?
Now that we've identified that events and their emotional labels are inherently neutral and we make them good or bad, why do we make them good or bad? Where do these emotional labels come from? And how can we get rid of them?
Let’s lay some groundwork here: your brain's #1 job is to keep you alive. As Dr. Raymond Prior says in his book Golf Beneath the Surface, “The brain is responsible for a wide range of functions, but above all else, your brain is designed to ensure your survival.” (1)
So it's safe to assume that your emotions, which originate in your brain, are ways that your brain uses to keep you alive. What emotion pops into your brain when you are startled by a snake? A knee-jerk reaction to pull your leg out of the way. What emotion pops into your brain when a car in front of you slams on its brakes? A knee-jerk reaction to swerve out of the way. These emotional reflexes are not good or bad, they're tools that your brain uses to keep you alive. They're neutral.
But where the complication happens is when the situation you're in isn't life or death. An into-the-grain chip shot is neutral, or a tournament you're competing in is neutral, they're not life-or-death and don't require those survival reflexes. But at some point along the way, your brain was taught (by you or others) that this situation is do-or-die and if you don't execute properly it's the end of the world. So to your brain, the into-the-grain chip shot isn't so tame anymore. It’s as life-threatening as a wild animal that wants to end your life.
So then during that into-the-grain chip shot or on the tight tee shot with OB down one side, your brain, doing it’s #1 job as a life-preserver, will send all the same signals to your body to protect you and keep you alive. It will tell your body to tense up, make very fast movements, and do whatever it takes to get out of there as quick as possible.
This tension and jerkiness might sound awfully familiar. It's very rare to hear a player say they got too slow when they were afraid of an outcome. Do you ever make too smooth of a swing when you’re anxious about hitting it in the wrong spot? It's almost always some combination of short, jerky, tense, and fast.
To your brain, this is success. Your brain did exactly what it thought it was supposed to do in the scary situation. It made you tense up and go faster, and you survived, so cha-ching it got what it was going for, which solidifies the behavior the next time you're in that situation (or any situation deemed threatening by your brain).
The spiral goes like this:
Tough chip > threatening situation > brain survival mode > tense, quick motion > bad chip, but you survived > tough chip > brain survival mode > tense, quick motion (because your brain knows this keeps you alive) > bad chip, but you survived > and on and on and on.
Your brain did exactly what it thought it was supposed to do in the scary situation.
How we usually try to fix this issue
So we know we’ve got to end this vicious cycle from spiraling out of control and letting yet another round turn south.
What do you do after you hit a bad chip? You probably rehearse a better chipping motion. You try to figure out what you did wrong mechanically so you don’t do it again on the next one. And you go ahead and block off 30 minutes after the round because you’re going to need that to head to the chipping green.
But in working on your swing (instead of addressing your psychology) you’re teaching your brain that being more perfect is what will help. So each new time you have that shot (or any scary situation) you try even harder to do better, which usually leads to more tension, not less. And in being judgmental of yourself about a bad shot and resolving that better technique is the standard, you further teach your brain that trying harder and tensing up and forcing yourself to make good swings is the only way out of this, which makes the thought of failure even worse, and even more of a life or death situation to your brain.
Maybe you’re starting to see how perfectionism breeds anxiety which breeds more perfectionism which breeds even more anxiety.
The loop continues like this:
Yet another tough chip (isn’t it funny how you get more impossible chips when you’re anxious about them?) > even more threatening of a situtation because of the last one and risk of more embarrassment > try even harder to make a good move this time > even more tension > bad chip, but you survived > brain really thinks it’s doing a good job now.
The swing is the symptom, the psychology is the actual sickness. Addressing the symptom may provide temporary relief, but addressing the actual sickness makes the problem go away permanently. Trying to swing better during the round might feel good for a shot or two, and might even help for a bit, but you’re really just teaching your brain to dig in even more into the unhelpful habit.
The swing is the symptom, the psychology is the actual sickness.
How to actually fix this, long-term
So then how do you address the deeper cause (your psychology), not just the symptom (your swing or your tension)? Let’s use a couple steps from a process I learned from Judson Brewer’s book Unwinding Anxiety.
It starts with awareness. You have to first notice that your brain is perceiving the current situation as threatening. Until you notice those thoughts, you will just be in autopilot living in that perceived life-or-death feeling. As Judson Brewer puts it in Unwinding Anxiety, “You can learn to recognize your habit loops while they’re happening, rather than “waking up” at the end of them…” (2)
So first, simply notice the feelings and emotions you are experiencing.
Then next, let those feelings and emotions go by bringing a curiosity to them. Likely, when you hit a bad shot you knee-jerk react to it in a negative way. A lot of us in these moments say fake positive things to try to cheer ourselves up in a fake-it-til-you-make-it sort of way. Fake never works for your brain. Curiosity lands somewhere between negative and positive.
Again from Unwinding Anxiety, curiosity is asking questions to yourself like, “What am I getting from doing this behavior? Do I want to keep doing this?”
So for our example of a tough, scary chip shot, you might bring a curiosity to it like “Interesting how I think being scared of this chip shot is going to help me hit it better. But what do I get from being scared?”
And the key is being nonjudgmental toward yourself. Curiosity isn’t judgmental. When you’re genuinely curious about something, you leave your opinions and biases at the door and simply explore this new thing with open-minded interest. Take that same curiosity to your own thinking and behaviors. “Why am I tensing up before I hit this shot? What’s so scary about a chip shot? Does fearing a bad shot help me hit a good one?”
Compare this to how we normally react to a bad shot: “Dang it you did it again. You always do that here. You’re so bad at chipping. You need to work on this and get out of your head.” We berate ourselves and then try to force ourselves into correct behavior.
But instead, by curiously investigating our behavior, we are showing our brain why it’s unhelpful.
The brain will always do what feels better to it. If you show the brain that being tense and afraid is actually not rewarding, and being open and free is much more rewarding, eventually your brain will default to the more rewarding thing. Your new autopilot mode will be automatically doing a helpful thing.
This process is subtle and slow, again contrary to how we normally want to force things to be. But you will be able to notice the change over time. Rather than judging and berating yourself and forcing yourself to try harder and swing better next time, you’ll feel how different it is to be curious about an unhelpful habit.
And because you’re being more aware of what you’re thinking and feeling, I’d encourage you to journal these experiences to better see them change over time. Even if it’s something really small like “noticed my tension on that chip on hole 4” or “got scared on the tee shot on hole 16. Is being scared going to help me? No, it makes me more tense and make quicker swings.”
This may sound too easy, just notice with curiosity and journal, but again you’ve got to show your brain the more rewarding behavior, and eventually it will change. You’re untangling deeply ingrained habits which takes persistence and patience.
As Dr. Prior said in his appearance on The Mental Golf Show (1:09:47), “Patience is a long road, but it’s still the shortest road to significant and sustainable change.”
Having emotions doesn’t make you a head case, it makes you human
Your brain uses emotions like fear to keep you alive
Survival means tense, quick swings, which means bad shots
We try to fix this through doubling down on fixing our technique
Trying to have perfect technique makes us even more tense
Instead, address the actual issue which is the fear through awareness and curiosity
Verbalize your thoughts and track your progress through journaling what you notice
(1) Prior, R. (2023) Golf Beneath The Surface - Draft for Reviewers (Kindle Location 306). Kindle Edition. BenBella Books.
(2) Brewer, J. (2021) Unwinding Anxiety: New Science Shows How to Break the Cycles of Worry and Fear to Heal Your Mind. Avery.