Heart racing, sweaty palms and stomach clenched are all warning signs from your body that you’re under pressure. The problem is, when you’re trying to be calm and collected at the tee or on the putting green, your body is flooding with stress chemicals. For many golfers, anxiety can be debilitating to their performance and career. Today’s blog touches on how anxiety – both somatic and cognitive, impacts golf performance and in particular when putting, and what powerful tools you can use to help reset your body to calm.
Is golf a stressful game?
Golf shouldn’t be stressful, but that often depends at what level you play at, and what else is happening in your life. Depending on how you play, it can be a chance to get out with mates, get into nature, get some exercise and enjoy some fresh air. However, when it comes to competition time the pressure can pile up.
Is golf good for anxiety?
Anxiety in sport can be very normal, but it doesn’t mean that you should experience it at high levels. Anxiety is at the other end of the spectrum to excitement and a lot of the time it’s how you perceive the experience in front of you, that will dictate your body’s reaction to it.
A lot of success in golf comes down to your mental game and mindset. Of course you also need talent to get you to a high level, but how you think about your golf game can influence how you perform. In many ways, it’s similar to research done by Alia Crum. She looked at people’s perception of stress. What her research showed was your mindset, whether you thought stress was good or bad for you, can impact the chemicals your body and brain release.
In golf, this relates to cognitive anxiety. Research has shown that the top performing golfers have relaxation practices, attentional and emotional control. In other words, these top golfers have learned tools to help harness their body’s physiology and psychology.
Cognitive anxiety has a huge impact on sports performance. Our beliefs, self talk, doubt and fears all impact our cognitive anxiety. This then has a knock on effect to our body triggering a stress response as we perceive we are under threat or danger. This can then cause a somatic or body reaction.
As a Physiotherapist and Breathing coach, this is what I love to work on changing with athletes. Our body is powerful and adaptable. Most of the time we are unaware of the habits, our thoughts, our postures and body reactions until something goes wrong and we are forced to be aware. For athletes, and in particular golfers, if our body’s somatic anxiety system keeps getting triggered it can keep the body stuck in stress mode and without knowing it, its like your pushing replay on the same stress song in the body.
This has an influence over the stress muscles that can become tight, restrict pelvic movement and in particular for golf, impact force transfer through the lower limbs to the torso and arms. The main muscular culprits are your hip flexors, glutes and the accessory (back up breathing) muscles around your neck and shoulders. You might be strengthening these muscles and working on them in the gym, but if they are always being pretensioned and overactivated, this can keep the body in the alert phase and alter your breathing pattern. In golf, this is vital to change as it can impact not only your performance and anxiety, but also create back pain.
Keeping that low grade tension in the muscles, also means the body is wanting to consume more oxygen and will keep you breathing at a faster rate. This is important as it impacts your blood chemistry. If you are breathing too fast and too frequently, you will exhale too much carbon dioxide which can stimulate an anxiety spiral. An anxiety spiral can start with a small trigger of a cognitive or somatic trigger that starts a change in breathing.
The decrease in carbon dioxide in the blood can trigger symptoms of feeling unwell, nausea panic, sweaty palms, making you breathe faster and more frequently, pushing you down the anxiety spiral. The key as you will learn through this blog is to learn how your body reacts, understand why and then learn the tools to change that reaction so the body isn’t hijacked. You can learn more about controlling anxiety and the anxiety spiral on day 14 of my online breathing course – Transform 8 week course.
Understanding why your body is experiencing anxiety is the key. Is it an overactive stress response that is triggered with fear of failure? Is it your breathing pattern that gets hijacked when you start to get the first sensations of anxiety and shortness of breath? It may be that you have a physiological reason for having anxiety like low iron or maybe your breathing pattern has been stuck with a low carbon dioxide tolerance triggered when you increase your breathing rate.
EIther way, like any barrier to performing at your best, it’s about problem solving the why behind your body reacting the way it does. I wish it was a one size fits all model. But like breathing training, you need to understand your own physiology, triggers and behaviours that drive your body to react the way it does.
Anxiety in Sport
What if instead of seeing the sensations of anxiety as a bad thing, you observe how your body reacts, feels and start to recognise what your triggers are. You may care about how you perform. You may care about what others will think and say. You may care because you don’t like the feeling of failure. But what is important with performance anxiety is that you acknowledge that your body is reacting to being hijacked and there are things you can do to reset it.
How do you play stress-free golf?
The reality is, golf will never be a stress-free sport, especially when you realise you can use stress to improve performance and arousal. Mindfulness training is a great tool to help your brain be in the present moment and focus on what is currently happening to your body. Learning to control your thoughts and emotions reduces cognitive anxiety. There are great resources out there to experiment with such as Calm or Headspace.
Mindfulness for Golf
Mindfulness or meditation can improve your golf game by improving your sleep, concentration and reducing stress. It’s as simple as taking 10 minutes a day, to create brain changes that can cross over to game changes. One of the key elements of mindfulness is learning to breathe in a calm pattern. The more you practice these techniques, the easier it is to return to calm on the golf course.
How do you relax on a golf course?
It’s the simple things in life that add up, and breathing is one of the best ways you can override your body’s response to stress that creates the anxiety spiral. Changing the way you breathe taps into the somatic anxiety that you experience by working with your autonomic nervous system. Breathing is the only part of the autonomic loop that is both under conscious and unconscious control. It’s why learning to change your breathing pattern to a calm breathing pattern can override the body’s stress response and tell you that you are safe and reduce the feelings of anxiety.
When out on the course, one of the best things you can do is become aware of your breathing. It’s the simple act of observing your breathing that can help bring focus to the body and keep you in the moment. By observing your own pattern around the course you may also notice the breathing habits you have. This could be anything from sighing, to big inhales, to breath holding, to breathing fast.
Before you go to tee off, I recommend taking a long exhale out the mouth just once. That gets the body out of a fear breathing pattern and helps reset the diaphragm your main breathing muscle to neutral. You may not even be aware that you are holding your breath coming up to the tee.
Prepare for Golf off the Golf Course
Your breathing pattern before you play golf will influence whether you experience anxiety either on or off the course. While there are few things you can do to get your breathing pattern to help reduce anxiety, what you do off the course is also important. Getting enough sleep, eating well for your body, and reducing your alcohol content (I know I sound like the fun police) can make a huge difference to your nervous system and therefore how it will react to stress.
One of my biggest lessons from my time working as a Physiotherapist with players on the European and Challenge Golf Tour was, if you’re not happy in your home life, it will come out on the golf course. Our emotional state can be very hard to hide and if we are having relationship problems, feeling low, depressed, sad or lonely. When we are experiencing these feelings, your body language, breathing and even your attitude will transfer into your game. Talking to a therapist, family or friends is so important to help you work through the triggers and barriers which can be both emotional and psychological.
Pressure of Putting
Putting can make or break players careers. Research into putting has shown a link between high levels of perfectionism and anxiety with poor performance. Working on breath control, muscle relaxation and quiet eye training (more about that soon) can all help with reducing anxiety while putting.
Anxiety, Arousal and Visual Attention
Research into how anxiety, arousal and visual attention are linked has shown that people who are anxious have alterations in their gaze behaviour. This is extremely important for golfers and putting can be an area of training for golfers that struggle with.
Quiet Eye Training was developed in the 1980’s and was designed to help improve attentional control. In recent golf research, it was shown to improve performance and reduce the impact of anxious moments. In this research the golfers that had been trained with quiet eye control made 1.9 fewer putts per round. When you are playing at elite level, reducing your daily round by almost 2 shots can mean the difference between making the cut or making some good money.
A little bit of stress is brain-stretching
A mentor of mine told me years ago a little bit of stress is brain stretching. What he forgot to say, and I have definitely learned the hard way, is too much stress has consequences on the body and brain. When it comes to golf a little bit of anxiety can be ok. What you want to aim for is a balance between excitement and awareness which is where mindfulness and breathing are key players in using your anxiety for good on the golf course.
Training your body and mind off the golf course is key to reducing anxiety on the golf course, getting in the ideal performance zone and finding success. Use stress as your super power on the golf course and learn to control your cognitive and somatic anxiety with your breathing, mindfulness and eye training.