If an imprint resembling the grip of a golf club remains on your palm from your last competitive round, or your stomach twists into knotsin pressure situations, don’t fret. The tightening of the grip and an occasional wild swing are common symptoms of pressure. Simple planning and “performance cues”may be just the remedy you need.
“Once the nerves kick in your swing changes, your grip changes, your body language changes, your attitude towards each shot changes. At least for me it does,” says Alice Donaldson, the 2007 women’s champion at Glencairn Golf Club, a ClubLink facility in Halton Hills, Ontario. Donaldson calls herself a competitive person, even in recreational play with her husband and friends. Experience has helped her alleviate the jangled nerves that go along with competitive play.
“That’s one of the things I’ve overcome and only because I’m participating a lot more. It’s the only way to get past that nervous stage,” says Donaldson, who began playing golf seven years ago and almost immediately jumped into tournament play.
Warren Clunie has plenty of experience GOLF CANADA|JUNE 2008 47 ILLUSTRATION: JOEL CASTILLO after 25 years of playing golf. In that time he’s claimed four club championships, including the 2007 title at Cottonwood Golf and Country Club near Calgary. “I would say adrenalin is a key factor. It’s easy to hit an iron 10 yards farther than you might normally just because you’re a little bit pumped up,” says Clunie.“It’s very easy to let it get away from you.”
Judging by their respective successes, both Donaldson and Clunie have managed to handle such situations well. The ones who let their games get away from them are the ones who are distracted by things not relevant to the task, according to Dr. Dana Sinclair of Human Performance International in Toronto. Sinclair serves as performance psychologist for the RCGA’s national team program.
“They typically start to think about outcome, score, what they don’t want to do. When they’re calm and loose, they are thinking more about the relevant part of the task,” says Sinclair, adding that pressure affects people in different ways. “I would say it’s individually-based. Some people are fairly natural at being able to stay calm, loose and patient. Others aren’t, so they quickly start doing things they wouldn’t normally do.
” Sinclair suggests that competitive golfers take stock of their games and identify the situations in which they normally have trouble, whether it be on the tee, on the green or anywhere in between. With that assessment complete, she counsels players to identify one or two mental checks, or “performance cues,” as she calls them, to which they can
remain committed each time they face those troublesome situations.
“You have to determine what tends to go wrong in those situations and adjust your cues accordingly,” says Sinclair. “There are some situations in which, no matter what pressure you’re under, you’re going to do fine.Don’t waste your time thinking about those things because they come naturally. Maybe there’s only one shot, one club or one situation that you fall apart in. Pay attention to that one and don’t worry about the rest.”
For some golfers, the hot spot may be when they step up to the tee. The perceived pressure may cause the mechanics of the swing to change, causing a slice or hook that results in a hike into the woods and a difficult second shot.
“For some people the trouble comes when they have a driver in their hands,” says Sinclair. “They’re not so sure about it, but they know that as long as they hit through the ball and they’ve got a target picked out, they’re fine. In that case the performance cue is to think about the target.
“Some people have to think about hitting through the ball. Others have to think about just slowing down the takeaway. For still other golfers, it’s more feel related – just nice and smooth, easy and smooth. Whatever your cue is you have to think about it ahead of time.”
For both Clunie and Donaldson, putting has been an issue over the years. “That’s why I work so hard on the wedge game. If you chip it close enough, you don’t have to worry about putting,” laughs Clunie.
“I was missing putts that I normally wouldn’t miss,” adds Donaldson, who calls herself an average putter. “I think it’s
because my head wasn’t staying still. I was anxious to see where the ball was going. The grip was probably a lot tighter.
I wasn’t relaxed obviously.” In her case, Donaldson’s performance cues would be to keep her head still and loosen
up on the grip.
Clunie already has one mental note that he uses on the green. “One of the last things I do as I’m addressing a putt is to make sure I’ve got the end of the putter gripped underneath the heel of my hand. I guess it’s like locking it in,” he says, adding that it’s important to accept that something may go awry in order to deal with the problem and bounce back when it occurs. A one-putt isgreat, a two-putt is more common and a three-putt more common than all of us care to admit. It goes with the territory, he says.
“There’s a realization that you’re going to hit some good shots and you’re going to hit some bad shots. When you learn to accept those bad ones, that will help you when you’re under the gun,” he says.
Sinclair agrees, saying that performance cues are designed to maximize performance in trouble spots. “For some people putting is not going to be as good as other parts of their game. As long as you’re getting the most out of yourself in that area, you can’t ask for much more.
“If you’re accessing your skills, you’re going to be satisfied, whether they’re worldbeater skills or not,” she says of regularly checking your performance cues. “You’re trying to tell your body what to do,” says Sinclair. “If you’re focused on that, you’re
much more likely to execute.”