You know the feeling. You're playing a round of golf. You're playing well for several holes. But inevitably you encounter some kind of difficulty, whether you hit a bad shot or you drew a bad lie in the rough or you have a long par 3 with a tucked pin or you're coming down to the wire at the end of a tournament. This happens pretty much every round. It's very rare that a round of golf goes perfectly smoothly from start to finish without any hiccups.
So we all know these obstacles are inevitable, yet how we choose to react to them varies, and is more often than not in a negative way. Why is this?
You've probably heard the phrase "vicious circle" or "spiraling out of control", or maybe the more scientific term "feedback loop". Long story short: this is why we react negatively to the obstacles during a round of golf.
Long story short: this is why we react negatively to the obstacles during a round of golf.
So it starts like this. You have a conflict with your environment. Let's take having a double bogey on a hole. What most people do is take this conflict and internalize it. This can manifest in different ways. Some people feel mad. Some feel defeated. Some people feel hopeless. However it is, it is all an internalization of the conflict. You take it from outside of yourself where it normally lives and bring it inside of yourself. The body's natural response to an internal conflict is anxiety. There is no getting around this. Anxiety is an involuntary bodily response when your body recognizes something is wrong. Mayo Clinic says about anxiety: “Intense, excessive, and persistent worry and fear about everyday situations. Anxiety can be normal in stressful situations such as public speaking or taking a test. Anxiety is only an indicator of underlying disease when feelings become excessive, all-consuming, and interfere with daily living.” So this anxiety is a normal response produced from an excess of emotions, but later we’ll get to how it can be avoided altogether.
Next in the vicious circle, the anxiety in turn causes an automatic defense mechanism (you may know this as “fight or flight”) to avoid the unpleasant experience. At this point you might say something like:
"I need to make a birdie to get that one back" (fight)
"now I need to hit it really close or I might make another bogey" (fight)
"I hate being in this position I just wanna go home" (flight)
"I REALLY need to hit this next fairway or this round might get away from me" (fight)
And because these defense mechanisms are not suitable to handle the current situation properly, they almost always result in further worsening of the situation, i.e. another bad shot. You snap one into the left trees.
So now you have an all new conflict with your environment. You internalize being in the trees by getting mad, feeling defeated, or becoming hopeless about the left turn your round is taking. This internalization naturally causes anxiety because you just told your body that something is wrong, which triggers an automatic defense mechanism to stop the unpleasant experience:
“Oh wow I’m really screwing up. I’ve got to get this back on track”
A feeling of embarrassment: "I've never played this bad before"
Or like you’re letting yourself or others down: "I was really hoping to play better than this".
And again, because these thoughts are not appropriate to remedy the situation you’re in, they almost guarantee another bad shot. You let the defense mechanism skew your judgment and you go for a narrow gap in the trees to attempt to right the ship. But because this shot is 1 in 20, you squarely catch a tree and it bounces further into the woods.
Some might say at this point you are properly spiraling out of control. You are caught in the vicious circle and the only way to get out is to get lucky with a great shot, or just finish the hole and limp to the end of the round. But if you've read or listened to anything I've said, you know that things in your past don’t have to affect your present or future. You can interrupt this vicious circle at any point, you just have to choose to. But how is that done?
So you just ricocheted it off of a tree, you flinched as soon as it happened because you thought you might get hit by the ball, and you’re kind of stunned. But this time, now that a new conflict with the environment has arisen, you go against what you normally do and instead choose not to internalize it. You consciously choose to say “well, that just happened. This isn’t like me. Now let’s go hit the next one.” You remove any emotion from it. Emotion is the car that conflict drives to go from outside yourself to inside your mind. By removing emotion, you are making it less about something you did, and more about a simple moment that has happened and is now past.
Emotion is the car that conflict drives to go from outside yourself to inside your mind.
Now that the internalization of the conflict has been cut off, the anxiety that normally ensues never has a chance to happen. You never told your body something is wrong, so there is nothing to be anxious about. And because there is nothing to be anxious about, your automatic defense mechanisms never click into gear. When your mind would normally be throwing phrases at you like
“now you’re done for”
“it’ll have to be a miracle for you to shoot [insert good score]”
You are now thinking thoughts like
“nothing in the past can affect my present or future”
“I am going to give every shot the same importance no matter what happened before it”.
And since you have introduced thoughts that are suitable for the situation, the likelihood that you hit a good one is so much higher, and therefore makes the likelihood of further conflict with the environment lower and lower.
The new, better circle looks like this:
conflict with the environment > keep the conflict external > calmness > positive thoughts > higher likelihood of a good shot > lower chance of conflict with the environment
And you'll see that it doesn't feel like a circle at all because over time "conflicts" with the environment no longer feel like a battle, but more of an opportunity.
Think about it this way. By default the result of a shot is neutral. It’s just a ball flying through the air and ending up somewhere. The only way the result gets meaning is through what you ascribe to it. So the best place to cut off the cycle is where emotions come into play. This is done by staying unemotional about the result. Like Dr. Parent says in his book Zen Golf, when you hit a shot that’s not up to your standards, you say “hmmm, interesting. That’s not like me.” And you move on without much thought.
The importance of cutting off the vicious circle is obvious. It’s the best way to make up for a “bad” situation and finish the round with freedom and enjoyment, and most likely with a better score.
If you'd like to learn more about how to turn this into a habit in your own game, start by taking the Mental Game Assessment.