I HAD a fascinating conversation a few years ago with a professional called Kim Larssen who teaches near Pebble Beach. Kim is no ordinary coach and his life experiences are something special. He is a Vietnam war veteran and some of the things that he saw as a teenager made me shudder.
To see a number of close friends killed right in front of him must have created painful memories that the rest of us cannot comprehend. When I asked him how long he had been in Vietnam his reply told it all: “I have been in Vietnam for the past 30 years.”
Time had healed many things but it hadn’t erased the power of these painful memories. We had a long conversation over a great Chinese meal in San Francisco about golf and the way that we all approach the game.
One of the things that was a puzzle to Kim after his life experiences was the amount of fear that people have on a course.
Hearing people talk about being scared of a putt or chip was something that, to this man, seemed somewhat strange.
Reflecting now it did get me thinking of all the strange things that we all get scared of in life that are actually not going to bring any real harm.
I am no different – I could list a whole host of things from opening tee shots to public speeches that shouldn’t be an issue but are.
Certainly from my experience working with players over the years it could well be said that the real problem is not so much slices or shanks but the fear that we all bring to the course.
Fear breeds tension and tension has a huge negative impact on our swing in terms of rhythm and balance. Swings that work just fine on the range go to pieces on the course. So what can we begin to do about it?
With these concepts in mind it was great to read a terrific book called ‘Nerve’ by Taylor Clark. He explains in a terrifically engaging style that it is not so much the fear that is the problem but our reaction to it. In a nutshell, the way that our brain is designed, fear is a natural survival mechanism that is hard-wired into us from millennia ago to help us stay alive.
The problem with the amygdala part of the brain is that it still tags what it perceives as threatening situations even if in reality that situation will not kill us. A small almond section of our brain called the amygdala has a job to warn us about potential dangerous situations and, in the days when we roamed around in caves, the amygdala would tag a certain experience such as a particular predator and make sure that we avoided that situation in the future in order to survive.
The problem with this inherently useful part of our brain is that it is now a lot out of date in most situations as our everyday life does not have to contend with sabre-toothed tigers intent on having us for lunch.
The problem with the amygdala is that it still tags what it perceives as threatening situations even if in reality that situation will not kill us.
So that pitch over a bunker will not harm us but it will get tagged as a threat to our sense of self and the amygdala goes into full swing and gets us all worked up ready to either run away of fight it – and neither response is particularly useful to a soft lob over a trap!
The brain is creating an inappropriate response but rest assured your brain and mine will keep giving that response.
Clark makes a number of valid suggestions on how to deal with our fears based on recent neuroscientic research. They give us a roadmap of how to deal with these fears that have such a negative impact on our game.
It is well worth reading the book but here are my three favourites:
As ridiculously simple as it seems when we get fearful our breathing changes and exacerbates the problem. Focus on deep diaphragmatic breaths to calm the amygdala down and ‘re-set’ its reaction.
Train, Practise and Prepare
Put yourself under pressure in practice. Do not just hit balls. This will not cure your fears. Exposure to pressure creates immunisation. This is an absolute priority.
Redirect your Focus
Instead of focusing on the situation, focus on your process. I have talked about this time and time again over the years but your routine is your life raft under pressure. Get one, work on it and trust it.