Make pressure your friend

No matter who we are or what we do, we all feel pressure at times. Whether it’s on the golf course or at work or when you’re the emcee at your friend’s wedding reception and everyone is counting on you not to stink. Achieving anything in life will have some level of pressure associated with it, therefore pressure isn’t something we should avoid, but rather something we should embrace.

Pressure, in general, usually arises in two situations; (1) when there’s a consequence for not doing something well, and (2) when doing something well is important to us. Or some combination of those two situations.

Golf is a tough game and at times we can feel a lot of pressure while playing it. Whether it’s pressure to close out a match against your friend, to have a good showing at your club championship, or simply to fulfill self-imposed expectations.

It’s fascinating how important trying to get a little ball into a hole can feel to those of us who don’t play the game for a living. I believe it has something to do with the opportunity golf provides to satisfy several basic human psychological needs — a sense of belonging, a sense of achievement, and a chance to garner respect/praise from others. We keep telling ourselves “it’s just a game”, but deep down it’s more than just getting a ball into a hole in the least amount of strokes possible. It feels bigger than that because it helps us satisfy primitive psychological needs.

Tips to perform under pressure usually involve ways to distract yourself from the result and stay in the moment. Basically, trying to get your mind to believe there is less pressure than what you might be feeling naturally.  So much focus is on how to side-step and deflate pressure, because we operate under the assumption that pressure is negative and inhibits our ability to perform our best.

What if rather than side-stepping pressure, we simply changed the way we view pressure?

I came across an interesting talk by Stanford University psychologist, Kelly McGonigal. Kelly’s talk focuses on stress, but pressure is really just a form of stress. In a very general sense, the case she makes through her research is that stress may only be bad for you if you believe that to be the case.

So if we apply this to golf performance, does pressure only affect us in a negative way if we believe it’s supposed to? It’s certainly not a concept to scoff at.

“One thing we know for certain is that chasing meaning is better for your health than trying to avoid discomfort”, says McGonigal.

I used to play a lot competitive hockey when I was younger. I remember how excited I used to be on game day. Those adrenaline pumping nerves were a feeling I craved. The more people that were going to be coming out to watch, the more adrenaline started pumping, and the more I liked it.

I didn’t start to dabble in much competitive golf until 5 or 6 years ago. That’s almost 12 years after my competitive hockey days had ended. I would play matches against friends and the odd team event, but nothing that I would consider real competition (with all due respect to my friends). The first thing I noticed when I entered my first few competitive golf events after a long hiatus from a true competitive atmosphere was how my body reacted to stress and pressure. I perceived the nerves and adrenaline I felt as a negative response, and it was almost nauseating. While golf and hockey are obviously completely different games, it still felt like my relationship with competitive pressure had changed, or at the very least was rusty.

It’s not very fun to feel like that before or during a round of golf, so I decided something needed to change. Before I even knew about McGonigal’s research, I simply decided to change my attitude towards pressure and nerves, and put it back in a positive light. The idea isn’t to feel void of nerves before competition, those will never go away, but the way my body reacts to nerves has changed completely now that I look at them differently. Now that butterfly-inducing, hand quivering feeling on the 1st tee of competition is one I crave. One I enjoy again, just like my old hockey playing days. It’s my body’s way of telling me it’s go-time. Feeling pumped up is a reminder that I should feel thankful for the opportunity to embark on something that’s fun and important to me.

“In a typical stress response, your heart rate goes up, and your blood vessels constrict. And this is one of the reasons that chronic stress is sometimes associated with cardiovascular disease. It’s not really healthy to be in this state all the time. But in the study, when participants viewed their stress response as helpful, their blood vessels stayed relaxed. Their heart was still pounding, but this is a much healthier cardiovascular profile. It actually looks a lot like what happens in moments of joy and courage.”, says McGonigal.

Of course, there are other factors involved in performing under pressure. Everyone’s mind and body is different, and nothing replaces good old fashioned preparation. However, knowing that the way you choose to perceive your body’s response to stress can alter the way your body physically behaves is powerful knowledge.

“When you choose to view your stress response as helpful, you create the biology of courage.” – Kelly McGonigal

Sometimes pressure can create a feeling of isolation as if you’re the only one on earth experiencing it, but if you’re in a match that’s headed to the 18th tee all-square and your heart is starting to rattle around in your chest, chances are your opponent is feeling the exact same way. Being the one who views this pressure-response as positive and is able to embrace it with a deep breath might just be the difference maker.

-Josh

Victoria Golf Club 7th hole

Golf isn't just a game, it's a lifestyle.

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13 thoughts on “Make pressure your friend

  1. Josh, awesome post here. Do you have specific strategies to combat? I’m thinking it’s either how to best react to pressure or prepare for it.

    Thanks!

    Brian

    1. Thanks Brian! My strategy is being prepared for pressure and nerves. Coming to accept that I’m going to feel nerves and embracing it as a positive response (rather than try to fight them off) has been a huge help. I just look at it as a fun chance to rise to the occasion. It took a little time but it’s getting there. How about you?

      Cheers
      Josh

      1. Josh, my preferred method is to prepare for pressure by simulating game conditions in practice. Easiest to do on the putting green, not so much on the driving range. If you want a cool drill, find a straight three foot putt. Try to make 50 in a row but start over when you miss. Even if you’re in a groove and you get to the high 40s, the pressure to not choke is significant. Might want to leave yourself half an afternoon for that one 🙂

        Thanks,

        Brian

      2. I’ll definitely give that one a go, Brian! Have you made 50 in a row?

      3. Josh, never made 50 in a row when playing “start over” but I used to take 100 regularly without starting over and when I got on a roll could make 95-98. The start over rule definitely adds the pressure!

        Thanks,

        Brian

  2. Josh,

    Experience tells us that pressure can be managed with the proper frame of mind. Your decision to embrace pressure and challenge it is the best advice for anyone starting to play competitive golf. Over the years success under pressure was achieved by relying on what I can do in pressure situations instead of focusing on what I cannot do. This is a great article. Well done!

    Cheers Jim

  3. Josh really great post. I think a lot of what makes golf special is how much of a mental game it can be at times, which gives birth to a wide variety of scenarios. I know for a fact that it’s easy to feel pressure as soon as you hit the first drive. I think we’re consciously always trying to improve our mechanics and get better, but subconsciously this is a huge element of what we’re trying to overcome.

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