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 for performing 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 negatively affect us 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 of 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 truly 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 entirely 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 a 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 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 are 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 can embrace it with a deep breath might just be the difference-maker.