What is competitive pressure?
Competitive pressure refers to the level of stress an athlete experiences before or during a competition.
In golf, players with difficulty managing pressure tend to choke in stressful conditions. In contrast, golfers who can master pressure are more consistent and shoot lower scores during competitive rounds.
What is the primary source of pressure?
You might be able to rattle off several sources of pressure, including the expectations of your coaches, teammates, parents, and media. Playing in big tournaments or competing against top-ranked golfers or rivals can also be stressful for some golfers.
However, pressure is an internal experience. In other words, pressure is mostly something we do to ourselves.
For example, your parents may talk to you about playing golf for a Division I college. In response, you may tell yourself, “If I don’t lower my score, I won’t be recruited by college coaches and will let down my parents.”
By taking on the expectations of others, you put undue pressure on yourself. Not only does that pressure affect you physically, but mentally as well.
Physiological Impact of Pressure
- Increased muscle tension – Tight muscles can alter your mechanics and interfere with the fluidity of your swing.
- Elevated heart rate – When your heart is pounding, your ability to focus and stay calm becomes exceedingly difficult.
- Shallow Breathing – When respiration becomes rapid, you will have difficulty concentrating and swinging the club freely.
- Difficulty with fine motor skills – Pressure can cause jitters and impact hand-eye coordination, interfering with your ability to execute your strategy for each shot.
- Loss of energy – When you experience increased pressure, your body’s stress response kicks in. A prolonged stress response leads to feelings of tiredness.
Mental Impact of Increased Pressure
Pressure has a significant negative impact on four mental factors of performance:
- Interrupted focus – When you are paying attention to your thoughts or what is happening in your body, you are not focusing on the task at hand.
- Inability to manage emotions – Pressure increases fear, anxiety, frustration, and anger. As pressure builds, negative emotions intensify.
- Unproductive thoughts – With overwhelming pressure come negative thoughts that take you out of your game, such as, “What if I miss this putt? If I bogey this hole, I will fall out of the Top-10.”
- Lower confidence – Overwhelming pressure causes you to question your skills or ability to compete against intense competition
Developing Mental Tools to Manage Pressure
While too much pressure causes performance to spiral downward, slight pressure can improve performance. The key to playing at your peak is not eliminating pressure but managing pressure.
Since you perceive pressure, you can also change the perception by learning specific mental strategies such as deep breathing, refocusing, thought-stopping, shifting your perspective, practicing under pressure, confidence building, and visualizing success while under pressure.
Twenty-year-old LPGA golfer Rose Zhang dominated college golf for two years, including winning the NCAA individual title in 2022 and 2023. Afterward, Zhang left Stanford University to join the LPGA Tour.
Zhang entered the pro ranks with much fanfare and hype. Zhang’s ability to manage pressure was crucial for winning her debut tournament as a professional at the 2023 Mizuho Americas Open.
ZHANG: “Everyone feels pressure depending on what their situation is. My pressure comes from the fact that I am pretty hard on myself.”
Pressure is a balancing act, and you are the one who is in charge of striking the optimal balance. Knowing your optimal range of pressure and how to stay within that range is crucial for your future success in golf.
Pick 1-2 mental strategies to manage pressure. Learn how these strategies work, and how and when to implement them, then set aside time during the week to work on those strategies.
Once you develop the mental tools to manage pressure, you will notice a significant improvement in your golf game.
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