Golf Tips - Practice the Pressure

By Dr. Bob Phillips, Golf Psychologist

Tiger Woods' Dad, in a book he wrote on teaching Tiger golf, describes using irritating and distracting situations to teach Tiger to block out everything except what is important for making the shot. This article talks about this process and how you, too, can learn to play well regardless of distractions.

In law school there is an old saying, "If you're drunk when you study, you better be drunk when you take the test". This means that the state of mind you are in when you study is the best state of mind for recalling the information you learned. In golf we might say, "If you practice without pressure, you better play without pressure". Of course you cannot play without pressure because pressure is one of the normal aspects of competitive golf. So how do you successfully bring pressure into practice without causing it to slow down or damage the practice itself?

The answer is to drill hard on the basics and then bring pressure into the practice session in a controlled and positive manner. Breaking the physical basics down into their basic moves and practicing these over and over allows the golfer to perform without having to consciously go over the basics or having to rethink each move before it is accomplished. What this does is create a larger chunk of behavior by combining several small basics into the one, larger, chunk called a putt or a wedge shot. This process begins with the simple and moves into more complicated shots. For instance you might begin with a short flat putt and then add distance and slope to the putt. After each session the golfer is asked to talk the instructor through the process of handling the shot and what was needed. The instructor gives positive and corrective feedback, focusing on the positive aspects of the practice and on positive expectation of change and increased success. Doing poorly and getting upset is not the kind of pressure we are talking about. Frustration and anger are not competitive pressures; they are self-generated and usually destructive pressures. These pressures are caused by a loss of appropriate focus and should not be allowed during practice or competition.

After the basics have been practiced, the pressure is increased by systematically adding "pressure" elements. These elements can be part of the shot, like increasing the difficulty, or by adding outside distractions, such as talking or asking the golfer to ignore distractions like golf balls being rolled across the golfer's putting line. While practice can be fun, preparing for competition has a serious side. In order to bring a sense of "pressure" into practice, the golfer must learn how to react to an entire gamut of pressure simulations. Giving the golfer only one chance to make a specific shot or putt is one example of practicing under pressure. Attaching a prize of desired reaction is also a way of bringing in the "pressure". Another way to increase practice pressure is to create games so that a scoring system is set up and the winners are acknowledged. All of these techniques simulate at least some of the pressure that will be encountered in competition. If you are basically training yourself, you can still bring these pressure situations into the practice by simply setting a time at which you will automatically assume that the next shot is the one. If you miss, you do not get a second chance. If you miss, you must pick up the ball and begin a different practice exercise. This "do or die" challenge adds to the pressure so the golfer, and his or her coach, can ascertain exactly how the golfer reacts. Does the golfer become too involved with the distraction or possible outcome? If they do shift their focus to irrelevant factors, they can be coached on how to hold their focus on what is important and how to let go of, or ignore, the rest. A golfer is always focusing, so the question becomes: is the golfer focusing on that which is most helpful in making the next shot? Other questions such as: "Is the golfer practiced enough so that he or she does not have to think their way through each piece of the action?" and, "Does increased pressure alter the golfer's ability to make his or her best shot?" are both being explored when practicing under pressure.

Make pressure a part of each practice. Make sure that you have mastered the physical aspects of each shot and that you are able to perform physically with great consistency. Then add pressure to the practice so you are more prepared to handle the pressure in competition. Make the feedback frequent and positive. To be even more specific, and to paraphrase what was said at the beginning of this article, "If you are under pressure when you play, you better be under pressure when you practice". If you make playing and practicing very different, your response to them will be very different. Are you a great practice golfer, but a poor player? Perhaps you need to turn up the pressure in the practice session. *


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