Brain, Motor Learning

How to Deal with Nerves on the Golf Course

Dealing with nerves during pressure situations is something most golfers have to learn to deal with. So what are the best strategies to give yourself better opportunities to perform under pressure?

I’m lucky enough to receive emails all the time from golfers and coaches who are taking a new look at learning and performance after going through some of the Golf Science Lab podcasts and education. And I wanted to share with you a story that stood out.

It’s a story that some of you might relate with. A PGA head professional getting back into tournament golf after years off and having to learn to deal with the mental side of the game.

“So I struggle with nerves. Played at a decently high level in the past but lots of past scar tissue… I play tournament golf in our PGA section and battle nerves that physically affect me. Shaky hands mainly.”

I know I’ve seen this myself. Maybe not in a tournament but when you’re playing with buddies and some money is on the line down the last few holes. If you relate. Let’s talk about this with our case study today Paul Regali.

“Since I learned about your website I haven’t had time to apply all the things that have been written but day by day I am reading the articles and listening to the podcasts.”

So how do you get better at playing under pressure? You put yourself in that environment more so you can find what works for you and that’s exactly what Paul’s done.

I’ve been playing money games during ‘practice’ to help me figure out how best to overcome the nerve issue. When I just play a ‘casual’ round there’s no nerves and performance is pretty good.

I’ve seen progress because of playing these money games because it’s close to tournament golf type setting for me. When the stakes get high the nerves kick in.

My question is: in your opinion is this a good avenue to keep going down? I’m definitely more comfortable in tourneys since I’ve been playing money games.

My answer to this. ABSOLUTELY keep doing this. In a past podcast with Dr Adam Nicholls we talked about stress and how we can reframe it to see the positive.

What I encourage athletes and golfers to do is, focus on the challenge side of stress. “What can I gain from situations?” One thing I’ll say to students is, when thinking about something on your head, start the sentence with “This is an opportunity for me _____________ “

“This is an opportunity for me to put into practice what I have been working on the training ground.”

“This is an opportunity for me to improve my handicap.”

Stress can be good and bad, but it all depends on how you interpret it, and how you manage it.

Here’s the rest of the story from Paul and what he’s been learning.

I grew up playing competitive golf starting in the 6th grade. Played the Oregon Junior golf circuit during the summers, and the club I played at had a great junior program so we always had others to play with. One of them went on to earn their PGA Tour card. I was fortunate enough to play college golf at the University of Oregon. I traveled all four years and my last two years I either played 1 or 2 man. I competed against Tiger, Notah Begay, Furyk, Mickelson, Charlie Wi, Jason Gore, Todd Dempsey, Chris Riley, etc. During this time I always battled nerves, specifically on the first hole of a tournament. It was the standard stuff, shaky hands, butterflies in the stomach.

Also during this time I experienced the chip and putting yips. I have never enjoyed those feelings as it changes how I physically move. Once graduating from college I turned pro worked at a course for 2 years before getting the opportunity to go into the sales side of the golf business. I sold equipment to golf courses in the NW for the next 12 years. Over this time I got married and we started a family so my golf and competing became less and less. Fast forward to 2012 and this is the year I entered back into the golf business on the PGA Club Pro side of the business and have been there to date. The last four seasons I have gotten back into practicing, playing both casual and competitive golf.

When I first re-entered this realm my game was very rusty but more interesting my nerves were a disaster. Here is a key component I believe of partly why: With my history of being a good player, when people hear you played college golf at a D1 school they automatically chalk you up as a great golfer, even before seeing you play. Same holds true if you say you are a ‘pro’. People automatically peg you as a scratch or better. My game was no were NEAR scratch golf level. I was covered in rust and it showed.

Over the last two seasons I have knocked enough rust off the game to venture out and enter tournaments around our section. Nerves are still a huge challenge for me as I battle the yips with the putter and on occasion with pitch shots as well. I used a long putter to combat my putting issues initially but the last 2 years was able to play/compete using a standard length putter.

The last 2 ‘off seasons’ I started playing in money games with a group of members who are scratch or better. I have learned a lot during this time as the matches are as close to a tournament round as I can simulate to practice dealing with nerves. The money isn’t an amount that causes financial hardship but it’s enough for me to get some butterflies coming down the stretch (which is exactly what I need in order to apply various things I’m learning on dealing with stress on the course). The set up is ideal because you have to play well to win (same as a tournament) and you the nerves will pop up if I am playing well (same as a tournament).

What have I learned/applied? What I have noticed is several things:
1. My mind defaults to the negative between shots and standing over shots. Knowing this I am working on correcting my self talk both on course and off course.

2.Committing to a specific routine for putting has helped me. And I mean very, very specific, and not straying from the routine EVER, this includes when I practice putting. Which I do with only ONE ball.

3. There is a fine line I must walk with expectations and importance. The line is right in between not caring one bit if I ever play golf again and caring so much it affects my life.

4. I have changed my practice habits. No longer do I pound balls on the range. When I practice it is typically on course by myself. Never do I hit the same shot twice. E.G. I may hit 4 drives off the 8th tee, but each drive I hit has a different shot shape goal.

5. I have learned that we play a game that mentally sets you up for a beat down. In golf you ‘lose’ way more than you ‘win’ and if not careful this can wear on a person.

Just a great story and awesome to hear the impact of these critical learning and performance mindsets and skills we’ve been talking about here at the Golf Science Lab. I asked what resources he recommended most and below are the two at the top of his list.

The QuickStart guide to motor learning has been fantastic for me to drill down into more specific practice habits. Get that here

The podcast with Debbie Crews was very good. Listen to that here

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Founder and chief curator of the Golf Science Lab. Documenting what's going on in the world of research and beyond that can help you play your best golf on the golf course (when it counts). Join the movement of researched based coaching over trusting beliefs and what worked for one person a few decades ago. Follow on Twitter