Why Do We Choke – Part II

Recently I published a piece talking about the lovely art of choking in the midst of trying to accomplish something big on the golf course. If you missed the 1st article, you can find it here. We know it happens to all of us, whether that something big is needing to make par on the final hole for a personal best round or if it’s standing on the 72nd hole about to win your first U.S. Open needing only a bogey. It happens. The last article we touched on the topic but we didn’t dive deep enough into why it happens and what can be done to embrace those nerves and rise above it all, that’s exactly what we’re here for today. There have been many books and articles written on the topic so obviously it is something that almost everyone can relate to, while our stakes might not be as high as those on the various professional tours around the world it still is no less horrifying when the dreaded choke happens, so let’s try to point out some ways around it.

Before we can really dive into ways to stop it from happening we need to talk about why it happens. Why can a player shoot great for 71 holes then pick that final hole on the final day to let it all slip away? When you’re all alone why is it that everything seems to fall into place and you play your best round, why not when others are around? What about all those casual rounds with your buddies when you play great golf yet come club championship time you end up playing like an idiot and struggle to finish the round without having to buy more golf balls? I think there are several reasons for this happening:

• Lack of confidence
• Confidence is the best club in your bag, hands down.
• Trying too hard
• When the pressure is on it seems only natural to want to play your best, the thing is there is a difference between playing your best and trying your hardest. You don’t have to hit it exactly perfect, I think it was Ben Hogan who once said he only hits 2 or 3 perfect shots per round.
• Thinking of what NOT to do
• This one is classic, how many times have you stood up to a tee box with O.B. along the side of the hole that you never normally miss to anyway only to see yourself somehow decide to magically hook that shot straight O.B?
• Getting ahead of yourself
• One shot at a time sure seems like a corny cliché but man is it ever true?! I’ve witnessed many a round go south down the stretch simply by the golfer getting ahead of themselves and allowing them to start thinking about the number they’re going to shoot “if I keep this pace up”.
• Making the tournament/event bigger than it really is
• Think about it, it’s not a matter of life and death, it’s a game!

Golf is a game that is played on a five-inch course – the distance between your ears.  ~Bobby Jones

I’m about five inches from being an outstanding golfer.  That’s the distance my left ear is from my right.  ~Ben Crenshaw

There is no other sport that requires the mental fortitude that golf does. In almost every other sport out there you can get by with pure athleticism and talent, well in golf that part will only get you so far. There is much more to it and that is what makes golf a favorite activity for so many people around the world. Earl Woods was the greatest teacher that Tiger ever had, not because of his knowledge of his golf swing or his methods of teaching Tiger the perfect putting stroke. It was because of the psychological boot camp mentality that Earl used with Tiger growing up that has helped shape Tiger into the killer that he is when it comes to closing out tournaments. Today most top golfers have sports psychologist in their corner, these guys make a ton of cash to work with these players and get their minds to match their physical talents. Just because you’re not a star on the PGA Tour does not mean that these mental gurus cannot help you.

Dr. Bob Rotella is the best known of them all and has authored multiple books on the topic of the mental side of golf. In the article “My 10 Rules for How To Win Your Major” Rotella talks specifically about some of the things mentioned above and on the top of his list in that article is to believe you can win. If you don’t believe in yourself then who else will? It can be hard to have this kind of confidence in your game but you more than anyone know what you’re capable of so trust it and know deep down that you absolutely can do this. You practice your game on the range so that you can trust it on the course, next time you’re in the heat of a match include quick piece to your pre-shot routine where you see where you want the shot to go and when you absolutely know you’ll hit it exactly there then pull the trigger. Don’t see the water on the left and think “don’t hit it there”, see the middle of the fairway and know that’s exactly where you’re heading with this shot. While this is no guarantee that you’ll find the middle of the fairway every time, it’s certainly going to help you have better results when it matters most. Telling your mind what you want the body to do, then confidently stepping up and executing that will help you get your shots on target more than ever.

Trying too hard is another one that is mentioned above; this sort of seems odd if you just look at it from a higher level. But there is something you have to consider, trying your hardest is definitely something you have to do, but there is a difference. You want to try hard by sticking with your routine, staying focused on the shots, paying attention to your conditions, reading your putts thoroughly, all those things of course. But by trying too hard I mean trying to aim the ball to a perfect spot or trying to hit everything too perfect every time. You’re not real likely to hit it perfect every single time out there, but that’s ok, just focus on what you can control and trust your game. If you don’t hit your drive to the exact spot you were hoping for it doesn’t immediately mean double bogey, it just means you need to focus that much more on your next shot and pull it off, don’t beat yourself down if you aren’t hitting it on a string to your intended target, eventually that will wear on you and your entire game will suffer as a result.

We touched briefly on the point of focusing on what not to do, or more specifically where not to hit it. Think about it, you look from the tee and see O.B. and the last thing you tell yourself before starting your swing is “don’t go there” well our brains are amazing organs but that right there is just too much to process. By thinking “don’t go there” you’re in essence telling yourself that’s the focal point of your efforts thus resulting in that pull hook right off the map. In his book Your 15th Club Dr. Bob Rotella talks about the subconscious mind in comparison to your thoughts and feelings, the subconscious mind reads the exact example above and thinks that is what your body wants to put out for the results. The same can be said for helping overcome a certain swing fault that you’ve been struggling with, work on getting rid of it on the range then forget it, it’s gone and focus on where you’re hitting from now on. Your 15th Club is another one of Dr. Bob Rotella’s great books that I highly recommend. Just reading this book can get you thinking better thoughts and ultimately get you playing better golf under the gun.

Getting ahead of yourself happens all the time, why do you think that so many great players seem to fall off toward the end of a career round where it looks like shooting a 59 is a foregone conclusion? You simply cannot get ahead of what is going on because that will do nothing but distract you from what you’ve been doing so well to get to this place to begin with. I know it’s human nature to want to start letting your mind wander to how you’re going to tell your buddies what you shot or how much cash you’re about to take off your buddies but this is all a matter of just staying in the moment and continuing to focus all the way until that final putt drops on 18, there will be plenty of time to relive that round and believe me, you’ll be able to retell every single shot once it’s all said and done. So do yourself a favor and remain focused and take it one shot or one hole at a time.

Lastly let’s not make this thing bigger than it really is, OK? So it’s a big match play round against an arch rival from your club, the loser isn’t going to be taken out to the backyard and thrown before the firing squad are they? Its golf man, play it and enjoy it. Nothing good will come of you getting your nerves all out of whack by putting too much stock into an event, even if it’s something you’ve wanted to win your whole life. Again, there will be plenty of time afterwards to reflect on what it means to you to play well when it’s all over with. Working on all of the things I’ve mentioned above to help you prepare for this event will arm you with the right mental mindset to go in confidently and ready to dominate your competition.

The mind is an amazing thing; your mental strength can be as beneficial to you as the sweetest swing on the PGA Tour is to Tiger Woods. You on the other hand don’t swing like Tiger Woods but you can still get your game the best that you possibly can, from that point work on a some of these mental tips and even research it further, there are several books by some great sports psychologist out there to help you. A solid mental approach is crucial to being able to take your game to the highest point possible, no matter what that level might be.

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Jason Kunze
Jason is a busy husband and father of 2 daughters who are both just starting to take up the game that he has loved for years. Golf is his passion, when Jason is not playing golf and testing equipment he's hanging out with all his friends on the THP forum discussing every aspect of this great game.