You Can Still Play Great Golf While Being Nervous, Here’s How
This past weekend, Viktor Hovland won the Mayakoba Classic — with a birdie on #18 no less — for his 2nd win on the PGA Tour. But it wasn’t his win as much as how he described his mental game that caught my attention.
In Sunday’s post-round summary, Viktor didn’t recite the usual mantras spoken by almost every Tour winner. In fact, his comments suggested he was able to succeed without getting into a zen-like trance that peacefully and powerfully anchored him into one shot at a time mode. Rather, Viktor said, “I don’t feel like I’m very good in those pressure situations … I was shaking there at the end … I don’t feel comfortable in those moments at all.”
Give a listen to Viktor’s actual words here:
Personally, I found Viktor refreshingly honest. And more. His words shone a light on what seems to be a fundamental tenet of golf psychology: To play your best golf, you must establish a calm and confident mental state and remain there for 18 holes.
It Ain’t Necessarily So
As a mental coach and an avid tournament golfer, I don’t buy it. In fact, I see it as a myth. And as evidence, I point to Viktor Hovland. If a peak performance mental state was essential for success on Tour, there’s no way he would’ve won at Mayakoba. By his own admission, he wasn’t in the zone on the back nine. He actually sounded like a guy who was closer to morphing into Jean Val De Velde than closing the door with a birdie on 18 … especially with Aaron Wise on fire and literally breathing down his neck until the final putt was holed. But despite his nervousness, Viktor got it done. He drained the final putt and walked away with the equivalent of over 10 million Norwegian Krone.
Perhaps there’s more to an effective state of mind than meets the eye …
With that said, let me invite you to consider a contrarian possibility.
Different Stroke For Different Folks
For some golfers, attempting to develop the standard suite of mental skills — becoming more positive, more decisive, more able to lock into your target, and trust your swing under pressure — is embarking on the wrong path. Simply because an approach is right for many players — and endorsed by PGA Tour stars — doesn’t mean it’s exactly right for everyone. In fact, I’d go as far as saying if you’re attempting to incorporate the wrong toolkit into your mental game, you’ll harm your overall golf experience and suck the joy out of tournament play.
Here I’m not suggesting I’ve got a solution for everyone. But if what I’m about to say hits the bullseye for you, what follows could offer you game-changing insight.
You see … if you tend to react to pressure the way Viktor Hovland did this weekend, the key to unlocking your A-game, when it matters most, is using your mind the way he did. To put it bluntly, you’ve got to stop trying to control or refine your mental state and learn how to execute golf shots despite what you may be feeling.
Let me explain by inviting you to reflect on a self-evident truth we all encounter every day of our lives — people are different. Some people are mechanically inclined and seem innately able to fix anything broken. Some people can’t hammer a nail. Some people are musically gifted, and some are tone-deaf. Some people (introverts) gain energy by being in solitude and lose energy because they feel stressed when part of a large group gathering. Some people (extroverts) get antsy being alone and feel energized and alive in a group setting.
When we take the concept of personal differences into the arena of sport, we can identify an important aspect of the mental game: Every athlete has unique subconscious characteristics that shape his/her athletic persona.
We All Have Different Motivations
For example, some athletes are driven to win. Some are driven to avoid losing. Some athletes are externally motivated and need feedback from a coach to progress. Some athletes are internally motivated, and their personal conclusions will always matter more than what any coach can ever say. In my work as a coach, I’ve noticed a third subconscious category that directly impacts your physical ability in pressure situations … some athletes are inclined to be performers, and some are inclined to be players.
A performer loves pressure. He or she naturally gets calmer, more engaged, and more focused when the heat is on. In fact, an athlete who is strongly inclined to be on the performer side of the equation will often require the big stage to inspire total interest and muster up their best effort. See Reggie Jackson and Tom Brady. In golf, look no further than Jack, Tiger, and up until his recent bout with injuries, Brooks Koepka.
A player doesn’t like pressure. He or she can often find “the zone,” but it typically happens in practice or less-meaningful competitions. On the big stage, such a player gets easily overwhelmed and often shrinks from the moment. After a choke job or two, they will seek help to overcome what is perceived to be an inner flaw. In golf, see Greg Norman at Augusta, and most recently, I suspect, Rickie Fowler.
Be True To Yourself
Here’s what you must understand: You can’t change the way you’re wired.
Now don’t get me wrong. You can leverage your strengths and change your habits. Every day, people make significant changes in the way they live their lives. But our subconscious tendencies are akin to our height, basic body type, and the color of our eyes. They arrive with us at birth and remain with us until the end.
If you’re wired to be a player, and you function in the mold of Viktor Hovland, you’ll be a player forever. Don’t fight it. Work with it. Just because you don’t relish pressure like Michael Jordan in his prime doesn’t mean you can’t succeed. It simply means you must develop mental skills that are right for you. Instead of trying to become someone you’re not, become the best you can be.
These four principles will help your cause:
1) Reject the Myth
Your mindset is a factor in your game, but how you think/feel isn’t a direct cause of your score. I’m sure you’ve had the experience of finishing a hole where you’ve striped it down the middle, hit your approach tight, and drained the birdie … and been standing on the next tee brimming with confidence … only to hack your subsequent drive into the crap.
Conversely, I’m sure you’ve been so frustrated with a run of bogeys that you’ve given up the ghost in disgust, only to find yourself hitting a wonderful shot or making a brilliant 40ft putt.
Good golf — and now and then, great golf — doesn’t require a perfect state of mind. You don’t need a flawless mental game any more than you need a flawless swing. As Viktor showed, you can feel nervous and doubt your ability to get it done … and … you can still execute golf shots down the stretch.
2) Make a Distinction Between Thoughts and Emotions
If your subconscious tendency is to be a player, your challenge on the golf course isn’t dealing with your dominant thoughts. It’s dealing with your dominant feelings.
In other words, it’s emotions that threaten to overwhelm you, and it’s your method of handling emotions that stand between you and your best golf. The thoughts you think are along for the ride.
Of course, thoughts and emotions are interwoven. But make no mistake, the two are distinct internal processes.
3) Learn to Observe Your Emotions
Once you can successfully place your awareness on what you’re feeling instead of what you’re thinking, the next step is observing the truth of what happens when you begin to feel nervous, or anxious, or uptight, or afraid, or whatever word you use to describe your emotional experience.
Suppose you have an upcoming tournament; great. Use it to be a better inner observer.
If you don’t have an upcoming tournament to practice this awareness level, go back in your memory and call to mind the last time you experienced your emotions as a problem during a competitive round.
Relive the memory as best you can, and note how you sense your emotions in your body. Do you get sweaty hands? Are you feeling “shaky,” as Hovland described above? Does your stomach get queasy? Your throat gets dry? Whatever it is, simply become aware of it.
The idea here is observation … without judgment… and without the intention to change or alter what you’re feeling. The term in psychology is dissociation, and it means being able to step back and witness your inner experience mentally.
4) Change the Pattern
After you’ve become adept at observing how you feel without trying to change or eliminate your emotional state, it’s time to put trust to the forefront of your game.
Next time you’re in a tournament and notice yourself feeling nervous, it’s important to observe the feeling and talk to yourself in the 3rd person.
Here’s the internal dialogue I recommend. Say, “I’m feeling nervous right now, and I’m able to focus on my target and execute this shot. Or, “I’m noticing that I’m walking faster right now, and I’m able to focus on my target and execute this shot.” Or, “I’m starting to feel the way I feel when I choke, and I’m able to focus on my target and execute this shot.”
Notice this — your focus begins with the truth of your emotions and then moves onto what you see in the external world.
It’s essential to focus your awareness on your feelings first because, as a player, that’s your natural inclination under pressure.
Observe the feeling, or if you’d prefer different words, give the feeling some attention. Then, use the energy you save by not trying to control your emotions to shift your focus onto something outside your skin — preferably your target.
And don’t merely peer forward in the general direction of where you want you’re able to go. Look at your target the way a hawk looks at its prey.
Just remember — pay attention to your feelings first, or they’ll make you pay attention!
So there you have it … a process that’s honest about the reality and power of personal emotions and ends with a focus on the shot at hand.
If you’re a player, I hope you give the four steps above an honest consideration. And I also hope you can look back after a tournament that’s meaningful to you and say, in words resembling Viktor Hovland’s at Mayakoba, “You know … I didn’t feel totally comfortable there at the end … and yet, I got it done.”
Jon C says
This is a valuable article. As a teacher, I have long known of the concept of “multiple intelligences“, that each person has a different intelligence or skill set, whether athletic, mechanical, artistic, or academic. Frankly, it is a relief realizing I do not to have to be ‘in the zone‘ or feel calm during play. Thanks for the article.
Question for Kent, if he’s following these comments…
Are the Performer / Player types mutually exclusive, or can someone be a combo and have characteristics of both types..?
Also, would the “the standard suite of mental skills” be considered more appropriate for a golfer who is more strictly the Performer type?
At any rate, it was refreshing to read through this and to realize that .. hey! .. there still may be hope for me yet! 😉
Karl Willis says
…he says to speak in third person, then proceeds to tell us to use first person phrasing. Lol.