Golf and Fear: The Art of Relaxing Under Pressure

Golf’s real lesson may be in overcoming fear — in learning the art of deep, internal relaxation in the face of pressure, because excessive tension in the arms translates to the “yips” when putting, and to an open clubface in the full swing, which promotes a slice.

Originally published 2004

It is astonishing just how much of role fear plays in the golf game. And that may be the best reason of all to play the game — because it teaches you to overcome that sensation — to control it, not by getting a tighter grip on it and choking it off, but by relaxing in spite of it. Your scores reflect the result. To the degree you’re succesful in that endeavor, your scores reflect what you’re capable of. To the degree you don’t, the results tend to be worse than your normal game.

Learning to Swing

The fear starts when you’re first learning to swing. You’re still trying to find out where the bottom of the club is, and you smack the ground a few times. When you do, your hands hurt. Your arm hurts. Everything hurts. So your shoulders tense up, your breath tightens, and the next few strokes are so high that if you don’t whiff the ball entirely, you top it for a magnificent two-inch drive.

Later, as your swing improves, you develop one of those incredible slices that goes halfway down the fairway, magically makes a right turn in mid-air, goes straight across the adjacent fairway, and lands in the one after that. That was my game for quite a while. Any shot could be the dreaded “two fairway slice”, a semi-playable “one fairway slice”, or a slight fade that somehow, miraculously, landed in the fairway I was aiming at.

Stupid game.

If I were consistently bad, I could quit. But every so often you hit one of those pure, beautiful shots that keep you coming back. So it was time to take some lessons.

Lessons on the Practice Tee

I was fortunate enough to find an extraordinarily talented teacher — Ed Tischler, who teaches in Hawaii and Santa Clara, California. (He’s also authored 17 books on the subject. See The big blessing for me is that he excells at teaching the inner game, as well as an athletic swing. Some lessons, in fact, were devoted almost entirely to the mental aspects of the game, as he shared what amounted to Zen philosophy of life.

Coming from a martial backgrounds, and having trained deeply in energy awareness with my martial arts Grandmaster (Dr. Tae Yun Kim), I liked that approach, so he spent more time philosophizing with me than he does with most, but that philosophy imbues his teaching, so you “get it” whether or not you’re talking about it.

One of the major benefits of taking lessons, in fact, was simply having someone stare at you as swing for an hour at a time, once a week or so — because the fear of looking bad in front of others is one that we all face. In one survey, in fact, people were less afraid of dying than they were of public speaking! That’s just how severe — and common — performance anxiety really is.

Now, the minute you tense up, your swing goes to pieces. And the ball goes along for the ride. It can wind up anywhere, depending on what kind of tension you’re carrying and how it affects your swing. It turns out that the only way to get consistent, repeatable swing, is to be totally relaxed and fluid.

Stupid game.

You can’t do better by trying harder. You can’t bear down, or attack the problem. No. That would be too easy. What you have to do is relax. And that’s hard to do — especially under pressure.

Even worse, you can’t be loose. And you certainly can’t be tight. There is a particularly difficult state of focused relaxation you need to maintain to get a consistent, repeatable swing.

But t’s difficult you relax when people are watching, until you get used to it. And that’s where lessons come in handy. It might take 8 or 10 lessons — eight or ten hours of having someone watch your every shot, but after a while you begin to get used to the fact that someone is watching, and that some of the swings they watch are going to be the ugly duckling’s uglier sister.

One of the great lessons I learned from Ed, in fact, was not trying to “correct” the next shot after the last one went bad. When I hit one badly, I generally tried to change what I thought I had done wrong.

That impulse is pretty much motivated by fear. We don’t want to make the same mistake again, so we try to avoid it. But trying to control the swing and change one part of it. But that desire for control causes tension, and your chances of making that one tiny change — and just enough of it — are pretty slim, so the results are predictable. Or, rather, unpredictable. God knows the shots certainly were.

What Ed taught me to do was to relax and focus on the feeling I was trying to achieve in the swing. It’s a difficult process. Half the battle was identifying the internal feeling he was trying to tell me about. I could hear what he was saying, but I literally was not aware of the bodily sensations that the words referrred to.

So much of the learning process was about, first, becoming aware of the sensations and, second, arriving at a common vocabulary that made it possible for us to talk about those sensations. Sometimes the awareness would come during the session. It would then generally require a few sessions at the practice range to consistently get the feeling we were looking for.

Other times, it would take a few sessions just to become aware enough of what my body was doing to understand what had been trying to tell me. As my awareness and understanding grew, I began to focus on the feeling I wanted during the swing.

Learning to Relax

I knew I was making progress when, sometimes at least, I knew where the ball was going before I looked up. I could feel how the swing was working, and where the club head was. That was when I started making real progress. I was developing a vocabulary of swing sensations that translated into ball flight — and learning to duplicate those sensations is the key to letting the ball go where you want it.

I say, “letting the ball go where you want it”, rather than “making it go”, because in a very real sense you have to allow the swing to happen, and allow the result to occur, rather than trying to force it. In fact, it is surprising just how effortless a good swing is — and how much farther the ball goes than when you’re really straining.

Stupid game.

I mean, in what other game do you get better results when you’re not trying so hard? You can’t push. You can’t strain. You can’t try harder. You have to give it a smooth, effortless, relaxed swing, and let physics do the work. Dang, that’s hard.

Obviously, the ability to relax under pressure is the key to the game of golf. When I began to recognize that fact — largely as a result of Ed’s tutelage — I began to see how much I had been needing to learn that lesson (and, perhaps, subconsciously trying to learn it) in other activities:

  • In martial arts, if you get tense while sparring, you burn up oxygen quickly. You have to relax to spar for long periods of time. (The same is true when you’re underwater, whether you’re surfing, scuba diving, or kayaking.)
  • In meditation practice, the ability to relax and “quiet the mind” is key. My martial arts Grandmaster (Dr. Tae Yun Kim) worked with me a lot on that. Golf helped me to understand and internalize those lessons.
  • A big part of my singing lessons was learning to relax the throat. Otherwise, the voice gets shrill. Of course, to relax the throat, you pretty much have to relax everything. You can’t be tense.
  • When stretching, one of Dr. Kim’s black belt instructors (Mark Amador) taught me to focus on relaxing all of the other parts of the body. Relaxing everything else reduced overall tension, and I actually began to make real progress stretching — if only because the general lack of tension made it possible to hold the stretch longer.
  • Public speaking is all about being relaxed — both with respect to how you appear, and how you perform. Public speaking was actually part of my job, at one point. But I had always been too tense to do it well. Dr. Kim taught me to relax in front of people. Gold helped me to acquire an even deeper inner calm.
  • Even simple activities like cleaning or paying bills tend to produce tension, in order to get it done faster. Learning to relax during those activities is to doing them more often and having fun in the process.

On reflection, it was amazing how many ways I had been exposed to the subject of relaxation, and how much I needed to acquire that skill. But now, finally, I was beginning to get it. I noticed that my meditations deepened. My interest in Yoga underwent a resurgence. (I like to do a few poses, then meditate a few minutes, do a few more poses, etc.) And my martial arts capabilities improved.

Taking It to the Course

Then, of course, I took my new improved swing to the golf course.

It was a 9-hole, par 3 course with a couple of par 4’s. And things were vastly better than the last time I had played it. I hit high, beautiful, arcing shots that made a beeline towards the green. They all tended to be short, but correcting that tendency is a matter of picking the right club and knowing how far it will go — a simple matter of learning, my tendencies and practicing to develop consistency.

But part of it was also fear!

When I looked at the far edge of the green, it looked like the end of the world. Beyond it was nothingness — other fairways I wasn’t supposed to be on, out-of-bounds areas, or even people! I was afraid of hitting beyond the green, so I consistently underclubbed. And when I chose the right club, I consistently underswung.

After a few holes, I began to notice the fear, and how it was affecting my swing. So I began to relax. The remainder of the day was terrific. I consistently struck the ball high, long, and pretty darn close to the green.

I went away pretty satisfied. But in the week before my next round, I began to notice a new fear — the fear that I would not be able to do that well again! I mean, what a fluke the previous week had been! Out of 9 holes, I popped up one tee shot, and the rest all went straight down the fairway. What are the odds that would happen again?

I expected it to happen some day, of course. After all, I planned to keep practicing and improving, so I was sure that the day would come when that result was a normal, everyday thing. But it could be a couple of years before I got there. What was going to happen in the meantime? I toyed with the idea of never playing that course again — mostly so that the people I played with might retain the delusion that I actually had some clue as to what I was doing.

Frankly, I wasn’t sure if I was going to play again the following week or not. But when I noticed that fear, I knew I had to. That was, without doubt, the product of Grandmaster/Dr. Kim’s martial arts training — when you identify a fear, you take it head on. You face it, challenge it, and overcome it. I didn’t know that I had really learning that lesson. Now I knew that I had.

So I played again. Only now I was facing two fears — the edge of the world beyond the green, and the fear that I wouldn’t live up to my previous performance.

Stupid game.

When you do well, you put even more pressure on yourself, instead of relaxing. What the heck?

But I played. Not great, but reasonably well. The first time, I went the entire round with the same ball (an old one — I had sliced so many into the woods that I expected to lose it). This time, I was confident enough to take out a new ball. It lasted for 6 holes before I lost it. Drat. That was a good ball, too. But I took out another good one and finished the round.

The interesting thing was how I lost it. It was due to a slice, of course, but that slice happened because I was underswinging so much.

Stupid game.

I had spent an hour at the range before I played, and I had been hooking everything in sight. Now I was pushing the ball to the right, and even slicing it now and then!

That was fear, of course.

Spending time at the range before a game is not only a great warmup, but it tells you which clubs you’re playing well and what kind of shots you’re hitting that day. So I went to the course knowing that I had a tendency to hook.

So I backed off on my swing. But I backed off so much that I wasn’t working the club head through the ball. So I blocked several to the right, and even sliced a couple.

Overcoming Fear

Fear is an amazing thing. For something that’s good at keeping us alive, it sure does get in the way a lot of the time. One of the truly nice things about golf is that it’s a great opportunity to work on overcoming fear. And you can do it outdoors, while taking a walk in the sunshine, amidst trees and large expanses of green grass.

Everthing around you, in fact, is conducive to relaxtion. Everyone even gets quiet and holds still while you swing. The only source of fear is internal. So you have to master yourself — to find that deep inner calm that holds you steady and makes you so unconcerned about the result of the shot that, even if one does go bad, it has absolutely no effect on the next one.

Yeah. Right. It’s grand. When you get it.

Stupid game.

Copyright © 2004-2017, TreeLight PenWorks

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