Today is part two of the Pressure to Succeed series from Tony Piparo. If you missed part one you can read it here.
Here’s why it’s so important to take the appropriate actions immediately when fear, stress, and anxiety infect your performance. First, remember stress is an instinctive, unconscious, and primitive response to threat and fear that, as mentioned above, triggers the fight-or-flight reflex. This powerful reflex helped our earliest human ancestors survive their hostile environment by releasing neuro-chemicals, called hormones, into their bloodstream that helped them detect danger quickly and to respond to it swiftly, powerfully, and instinctively by activating their survival response mechanisms and switching off all internal mental and physical processes not necessary for survival. Because our nervous system has not evolved since the time of cave men and women, it reacts to all threats, fears, and uncertainty as if we were being chased by a saber tooth tigers.
The pupils in our eyes dilate to increase our peripheral vision so we can see danger better, keeping our eyes in constant motion. Unfortunately for golfers, increased peripheral vision and constant eye movement make it difficult to keep our eyes on the ball. This makes it difficult to strike the ball solidly and could be the reason that Mahan chunked his chip shot. The stress reaction also tenses muscles or makes them jittery. This interferes with the fine motor control necessary to chip well. The fight-or-flight reflex also disconnects our thought control center from our emotional control center and from our memory centers for non-survival intellectual and physical skills. Our thoughts can run a mile-a-minute, interfering with our ability to focus. We may become angry, frustrated, sad, depressed, and experience feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and rage in severe situations. Our problem solving abilities and creativity are compromised. None of these reactions are conducive to good performance in golf or any other achievement activity.
You may never be standing just off the 17th green in a Ryder Cup, knowing you have to pull off a miracle to extend the match, but you will experience similar pressure when playing golf many times because your performance is just as important to you as it was for Hunter Mahan and most times the outcome of any individual shot cannot be predicted. So here are some things that Hunter could have done and that you can do to help you perform your best, regardless of how intense the pressure to succeed.
First, close your eyes. This helps constrict your pupils, reducing the information your brain has to process. That helps you focus your eyes on the ball. While your eyes are closed take several very slow, very deep breaths. This stops the fight-or-flight reflex and also removes many of the stress hormones that create tension and jitteriness in your muscles, interferes with thought and emotional control, and memory. Your physical skills will improve, as will your ability to focus your thoughts on the task at hand, control of your emotions, and enhance your problem solving abilities and creativity needed in adverse situations. Smile. The simple act of smiling releases hormones into the body that stabilize your nervous system and counter the effects of the stress hormones already released into your body. You don’t have to feel happy to smile. You just have to do it. Smiling has the same effect whether or not you have a reason to. Finally, remind yourself about your immediate task at hand, not about the consequences of failing or succeeding, or how you have to do it. Your body already knows what it has to do. In Hunter Mahan’s case, his task was to pick out a target on the green to land the ball, focus his eyes on the ball, and swing. He couldn’t control whether or not the ball would roll into the hole. That was out of his control. He just had to let his expectations and fears go. This routine will work in any situation on or off the golf course. Just like your golf swing you have to trust it and practice it sufficiently until it works to perfection each time you need it. I hope you never have to experience the humiliation that Hunter Mahan undoubtedly experienced at the Celtic Manor Resort that early October morning with the whole world watching. Now you know what you can do to prevent it.