How To Deal With Tension

How To Deal With Tension

I’ve no doubt most people reading this will be familiar with one of golf’s strangest sensations… that when you are playing well the game seems relatively easy, and when you are playing poorly you feel you will never hit a good shot again.

So, how do we explain the extraordinary swings of confidence the game sends our way? Essentially, tension. Tension begins through a build-up of thoughts… and just like an empty motorway suddenly filling up with cars, we grind to a halt pretty quickly.

As sports neuroscientists will tell us, when we begin to struggle with our game, there is an increase in brainwave frequency. As our mind gets busy, the clear and simple messages from brain to body – which had been flowing – start to get interfered with. Confusion leads to tightness, and those crucial technical elements like rhythm and sequencing evaporate.

But a tense mind is not just a busy mind; it is also a forgetful mind. Muscles themselves have no capacity for memory; they are reliant on receiving messages via the neural pathways we create. Once those pathways gum up, our body ‘forgets’ how it needs to move. There is a famous Tai Chi saying: ‘Tense muscles are weak muscles… and they forget.’ No wonder our confidence disappears so profoundly.

So, to beat tension we need to gain a better understanding of the conditions that cause that build-up of messages. And perhaps the most common of these is our perception of the game as incredibly difficult.

This is quite obvious when you think about it; triple the size of the hole and the tension drains out of that vital 4ft putt. Once you perceive a task as easy, your brain quietens down and your body relaxes.

Okay, we cannot suddenly rebrand golf as an easy game; but there are things we can do that reposition its challenge into a more friendly context:

  1. 1. Change par.

    In the early 1980s one of golf’s best ever scribes, Peter Dobereiner, wrote an article entitled ‘Par is the Demon that Haunts us All’. It reminded us that par is a 20th-century construct essentially designed to help spectators keep track of scores at pro events. Unfortunately, its implied definition of what we should be doing has terrorised golfers ever since. A tight 440-yard par 4 into the wind is enough to make anyone feel tense; make it a par 5 and it suddenly starts to feel like an opportunity. This is a tactic Tiger Woods’ first coach Rudy Duran used to great effect in creating a series of special par values for his young protégé. Five-year old Tiger never felt the need to overhit or feared failure because his own special par bought the holes within reach. Note it well; you can give par any value you like.

  1. 2. Send the ball down wide channels.

    We are often told to narrow our focus and target, on the principle that if you aim small, you miss small. If that’s working for you, then fine. But a tiny target can increase perceptions of difficulty, and create tension. If this is you, give yourself permission to widen your target. Hit into spaces between landmarks, rather than to a point. And on the greens, picture a putting ‘channel’ as wide as the hole itself rather than a single line. It’ll make the game feel easier.

  1. 3. Experiment with shaping the ball more. 
    A dead straight shot is intimidating to picture and so tough to achieve that even Jack Nicklaus labelled such a shot “a fluke”; in contrast, setting out to curve the shot is both easier and offers a much wider span of success. To help reframe golf as a friendlier challenge move away from ‘straight’, both in visualisation and execution.Unfortunately, it’s not just the perceived difficulty of the game that can create tension. We also see it crop up in various forms of peer pressure – teeing off in front of a crowd, playing with a much better player, even playing through the group ahead. 

    Ok, we are human; not wanting to look a fool or wanting to impress someone we respect is only natural. But if we go too far down the ‘What will people think of me?’ road, we are again asking for tension and poor performance. 

    Your best defence here is to commit to an attitude before you start. Are you going to place your attention on elements that will be helpful to your performance, or are you going to play a superficial game designed to impress others? Make sure it’s the former. It won’t completely block out those human tendencies, but it will help you dampen them down to the point where they won’t compromise your performance.

Dealing With Tension: Summing Up

  • Tension is ultimately a build-up of mental activity to the point the neural pathways from brain to body get gummed up. This is why the swing feels so stilted and awkward.
  • Tension is often created through the perception that golf is difficult. You can address this by reframing par, widening your target and shaping shots.
  • Committing to performance will help you deal with the tension created by superficial factors… for example teeing off in front of a crowd.

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