by Alan Fowler
Is there anything more terrifyingly exciting than a golf tournament!? Standing on the first tee getting ready to embark on an every-stroke-counts adventure reminiscent of astronauts or pirates or astronaut pirates, yet without any of the actual danger. Speaking of danger, how can something as innocent as a sport create a level of nervousness and anxiety that rivals that of a seafaring pirate or a space exploring astronaut? I mean really, hitting it in the water isn’t exactly the same as flying through the cosmos with nowhere to pull over and stop for snacks, is it?
Human beings are beautifully equipped with survival mechanisms that have done us well for many many years. You’ve probably heard of the “Fight or Flight” mechanism, but you can actually add “Freeze” to that. We have an uncanny ability to trigger these innate survival mechanisms in times of distress, which means when faced with a stressful situation (such as first tee jitters) we will usually respond by Fighting, Flighting or Freezing. Tournament golf evokes these types of responses on a subdued level, alongside other emotional responses as well.
Nervousness is one of the most common emotional responses experienced on a golf course, and the reason why it happens is harder to explain than what actually happens. Nervousness affects everybody differently; shaky hands, rapid heartbeat, heavy arms, tight shoulders, shallow breathing, cold hands, rigid legs, twitchy movements and perhaps even some spells of lightheadedness or dizziness are all common sensations. If you’ve played tournament golf, you’ve likely experienced some or most of these sensations. I myself have never been so nervous, as the time prior to my first ever college tournament. I was so nervous that I became physically sick the night before. Funny enough, once I got through the first hole, much of the nervousness actually went away, probably because I had used up so much energy in the past 24 hours and there was just nothing left to give…which <probably> explains why I shot a very un-energetic 84.
Being nervous is not something you should be ashamed of. Nervous means you care, you really want to do well.”
But why does this happen, and is there any way we can use nervousness to our advantage or at least lessen the negative effects? The first step to playing with nerves is to understand that it’s ok to have them. Nervousness is a sign that you care, that you want to perform well, that you’re looking to validate all the hard work that goes into playing tournament golf. However, nervousness shares the same origins as shame, guilt, and embarrassment, the latter of which are raw forms of human emotion that can be harmful rather than helpful. Figuring out a way to stay on the helpful side of nervousness is an ever-evolving game. You have to be willing to assess how you’re feeling in the moment, as well as after the fact. It’s easier to process what has happened once a tournament round is over rather than while playing, but what we learn off the course can be put into action on the course.
We don’t need to wait until your next tournament to start making changes. Think back to various tournament situations in which you were nervous and think about how you felt (shaky hands, rapid heartbeat, fast movements, etc). Once you remember how you felt, try and then remember how these physical sensations affected your thinking, and thus how the nerves affected your actual play. Did your mind go sort of blank, just trying to ignore the situation (a “Flight” response); did you get really tense and just sort of “Freeze”; or did you use this nervous energy to try and focus even harder on the shot at hand…in other words, did you “Fight” back?
Being able to use nervousness as a positive form of energy during tournament golf is both a natural and a learned process. Players like Fred Couples, Lydia Ko and Colin Morikawa look as relaxed as an old pair of jeans when they play, but you can bet they are just as nervous as the next person. The analogy of the iceberg comes to mind, what we see above the surface is only a small part of what actually exists. Freddy, Lydia and Colin may be more naturally calm than many, but they still probably feel just as nervous as many other competitive golfers.
Then you have players like Tiger, Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth, all of whom play with as much intensity as an MLB closer or UFC fighter. Truth is, these intense players are nervous too, but they channel that nervousness into useful energy just as the more stoic players do, they just arrive at the result in a different way. We’ve all seen Jordan Spieth fidgeting his way around the golf course en-route to a major championship victory, and there are countless Tiger highlights of him fist pumping and club twirling his way around Augusta National’s back 9 as he claims another Green Jacket. The reason you can have such different personalities achieving similar success is because there are so many different ways of dealing with nervousness, and what works best for you isn’t the same for me or Tiger or Lydia or anyone else. The key is for you to start figuring out who you are now so that you can begin to apply what you learn. And to understand that knowing who you are (your personality, tendencies, strengths and weaknesses) is an ever-evolving process. Who you are as a person and player will be very different at age 15, 20, 25, and so on. Finding what works for you through the years will be a fun challenge, and the most exciting thing is that it can start today.
“Sometimes you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself.”
How about a quick personality check: Are you introverted or extroverted? Fiery or calm? Risk taking or risk averse? Do you generally walk/move slow or fast? (And does your swing tempo match your natural walking speed?) Are you quiet or talkative? Deliberate in your routine or do you get on with it? I'll answer for myself- I am introverted, fiery, risk averse (but am selective in taking certain risks based on how I feel or what the situation is), I move pretty quickly and I'm far from chatty. I also just now realized that I am often deliberate, which runs sort of counterintuitive to my natural pace…maybe I should try to speed up my decision making and execution 🤔. You’ll notice that there are other traits that make sense together, such as being introverted and quiet, but some that don’t necessarily gel, such as being passionate/fiery despite my otherwise shy personality. And that is perfectly ok, those unique idiosyncrasies are what make you, YOU.
“Be yourself, everyone else is taken.”
Now let’s talk about how you feel when you are nervous. I mentioned these earlier, but do any or all of the following occur: shaky hands, cold hands, heavy arms/legs, tight shoulders or back, rapid heartbeat, twitchy/fast movements, racing thoughts, blank thoughts, dizziness, lightdeadhess. If there is something else not listed here, go ahead and write it down, because recognizing these feelings is the first step to reducing or overcoming their effects.
Beyond recognizing the sensations (and realizing that they are perfectly normal responses to the situation) there are actually useful physical exercises that we can do to reduce the effects of nervousness. I always tended to get really tight when I was nervous, especially in the upper body. I learned a little bit too late that a good exercise to loosen me up is to do a big wide shoulder stretch by extending my arms outwards and back to expand my chest and shoulders. This simple stretch gives me much more freedom of movement, while improving my breathing as well. It is especially useful when standing on that gut wrenching first tee. For those who suffer a very tight grip when nervous, it is helpful to try and squeeze the grip as hard as you can, and then gradually release to then feel the club resting lightly in your hands. Do this a few times to re-enforce the feeling of a tight vs light grip. For those who have trouble with racing thoughts, it’s a good idea to talk to yourself to try and reign those thoughts in. You can do this by very quietly muttering, or just allow the dialogue to take place in your head. Jordan Spieth is a great example of someone who uses talking as a way to get his mind in the right place before hitting a shot. Jordan actually does it by talking through things with his caddy, but for you juniors who don’t have the luxury of a caddy all the time, you are more than welcome to talk through the shot with yourself.
Nervous Golf >> Fearful Golf
There are countless exercises that can be helpful, and there are countless more that you can invent yourself. Create your own good vibes with a new exercise, swing thought, mental image or whatever it may be that helps you to get comfortable when the pressure is on. It’s helpful to know that you can absolutely play good golf when you are nervous, but it is very difficult to play good golf when you are afraid.
Learn how to deal with nervousness by accepting that it is there, and realizing that the consequences are not as serious as they first appear. You’re going to hit bad shots, make mistakes, miss three footers and card triple bogeys, and that’s ok, so be it. As long as you learn from the mistakes with honest assessments, you are sure to keep improving.
The Best Time To Get Better Is Today
Just as in art, there is no such thing as perfection in golf, and that is perhaps what makes it so special. No matter the score or the result, there can always be better and there can always be worse. With this in mind, we can find ways to move forward and learn from each and every shot, round, or tournament.
What seemed impossible yesterday is manageable today and might even be second nature by tomorrow. Perhaps we’ve overcome the first tee jitters, now we have to learn to deal with 18th tee jitters, or maybe we’ve calmed our shaky hands, but our decision making is still lagging behind…the good news is that there is always something to improve upon, and you better believe we will.
Alan Fowler teaches out of Northcrest Driving Range and is based in Roswell. He is also part of the Louis Lloyd Golf crew.