Worldgolf Golf Tips

Peak Performance Psychology

Overcoming Anxiety in Competition

by Nick Rosa, Ph.D

Ring a bell near a dog and the dog may bark, wag its tail, roll over or pee on your newspaper. Present food to a dog and it will salivate. Ring a bell and immediately present food and, again, the dog will salivate. Repeat this a number of times for a few days and then ring the bell without presenting the food and the dog will salivate. Ring the bell on subsequent days and the dog will still salivate. Russian psychologist, Ivan Pavlov, was the first to demonstrate this phenomenon called "conditioning".

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As with Pavlov's dogs, human conditioning can take place via repeated associations. For example, an operating room nurse will feel tense and anxious when assisting an abusive surgeon. At some point she begins to have panic attacks in the operating room. She may not experience this negative state in the delivery room but step into the operating room and it's panic-time.

Or, conditioning can be instantaneous. Wham!!! A guy gets rear ended in a VW. Thereafter, when driving a VW, he automatically experiences a negative state filled with, say, apprehension, tension and anxiety. He's may be OK in a Honda or Ford but even thinking about being in the VW will give him the yips.

Like being rear ended, one powerful negative experience during competition can cause a golfer to, thereafter, experience a negative state in that context. (Consider the conditioning effect the 1997 Masters had on Gregg Norman in subsequent Masters.) Or, like the operating room example, a negative state can be conditioned over time. I believe that being excessively nervous or negative in competition is rooted in one or the other or both types of conditioning.

And, when it comes to conditioned responses, positive thinking may offer some help but what is needed for remediation is to do the kind of mental, "counterconditioning" exercises prescribed below:

    (1) Use the Visual Reversal technique to to sever the connection between the competitive golf context and your negative state. Choose three or four of the worst experiences you ever had during competition and do the easy to follow "Visual Reversal" exercise, working with one experience at a time. Then:

    (2) Define the positive state (feelings and mental set) that you would like to have during competition. You can define feelings and mental sets individually. For example, " I want to be relaxed, focused, and confident." However, even better for a seasoned golfer like yourself, you can, metaphorically, choose a peak performance state. For example, "I'd like to be back in a zone again." or "I'd like to feel the rhythm and mental set I had (on any hole, any front nine, back nine, whether it was during competition or leisurely golfing with friends or family). Then:

    (3) Follow the steps (a) - (c) in the mental exercises below. Doing these easy-to-follow counterconditioning exercises will enable you to experience your peak performance state during competition, thus enabling you to play consistently better golf:

      (a) From (2) above, identify an time when you were golfing and experienced being in a positive or peak performance state. Review the scenario a few times and choose a sliver of the scenario wherein you experienced your positive state most powerfully.

      Read the next step, then follow it with your eyes closed:

      (b) Imagine that you are back on the golf course at a precise moment, looking around and getting a sense of feel, touch and movement. As you do so you will notice that you begin to experience your peak performance state again. When this occurs take a deep breath and exhale slowly to the count of seven... Open your eyes for a fraction of a second and repeat. - Repeat step 3 (b) five times.

      Read the next step, then follow it with your eyes closed:

      (c) Take a deep breath and exhale to the count of seven; you should experience your peak performance state to some degree. Next imagine seeing yourself in a future competition experiencing your performance state and playing well and confidently. Notice how you look and move now that you are experiencing your peak performance state.

      Next, take another deep breath and exhale slowly to the count of seven and imagine you are actually on the golf course looking around, feeling the ground under your feet and the kinetics of your pre-shot routine, swing or stroke. Open your eyes for a fraction of a second and repeat. - Repeat 3 (c) five times.

Follow steps 3(a), (b) and (c) a few days or until you experience your peak performance state automatically and consistently during competition. However, as Dr. Bob Rotella wrote, "Golf is Not a Game of Perfect"and there will be times that you miss an easy two footer or skull a shot and begin to go into a negative state again. Not to worry, all you have to do trigger your performance state is to take a deep breath and exhale slowly to the count of seven.

I recommend that you do exercise (3), three or four times before your next competitive match. Thereafter, do the exercise at least once a week to strengthen your peak performance state, It will take you only ten to fifteen minutes each time to do the exercise and the rewards will be great. Finally, anytime you drain a difficult putt or make a great shot, immediately take a deep breath and exhale slowly to the count of seven. This is still another way to strengthen your peak performance state.

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