No matter the level of golf you play, you will come up against the challenge of nerves at some point. The fact that golf comes down to just ourselves and the ball means that it is all the more important that we understand how to deal with this challenge effectively.
Some players struggle with this more than others and hopefully, if you are reading this article, you are open to learning a few new ways that could help you to unlock the higher level of performance that can actually come from nerve-wracking situations.
To be honest with you, the topic of dealing with nerves is not only about situations where you are feeling so nervous you might be shaking, it can also be particularly beneficial to understand the smaller impacts of nerves on your game. Adding this skill to your game can give you a discernible advantage over your competitors as it is a vastly under-trained area of the game.
This article will talk you through some mindset changes and routine work that can help you during tournament rounds, and it will also give you an idea of how to intensify your practice and social play to better prepare you for the stressful situations you may come up against.
Embracing the nerves
One of the earlier lessons that helped me was to be more open to feeling nerves. Nerves are not a negative thing, they are just a sensation that you can choose to deal with in a positive or negative manner.
For a while I thought it would be easier to just not feel nerves, so I tried to ignore the feelings and hope that this worked…it did not.
Understanding that nerves could be used to my advantage gave me the motivation to learn more about this and begin to welcome those feelings as another challenge which could be successfully dealt with to gain an advantage over competitors.
When you find yourself in a situation that makes you feel nervous, your mind tends to become a little bit more extreme, either thinking about where you do not want to hit the ball, or perhaps thinking ahead to what you might win if you execute this shot correctly.
For me, a big part of embracing the nerves was to accept that it is okay to have those thoughts, they are natural but you need to make sure that you have dealt with them prior to hitting your shot. This immediately put me in a more relaxed mindset because I was allowing myself to accept the thoughts, instead of feeling alarmed when I had the thought and wondering how to get it out of my head.
The point of this is to make you more relaxed when you notice that you are feeling the nerves a bit. You are human so you will feel this way, there is no need to be worried about it because it is actually to be expected. This mindset will help you to normalise the feeling of nerves and create more comfort with this part of golf.
Concentrating on breathing is an effective way to bring your heart rate down and trigger your mind and body to feel as similar as possible to any other shot. You don’t have to learn any fancy breathing techniques, just slowing things down and taking a few deeper breaths should do the trick.
I like to incorporate a couple of deep breaths into my pre-shot routine as I stand behind the ball. This allows me to settle and feel as though I have finished my routine and can now move into my address position in a confident manner. It is also valuable simply for the fact that concentrating on breathing takes your mind away from too many swing thoughts.
Another good tip that I heard with regards to breathing was to take a sip of water either before you hit your shot, or if you are feeling angry or frustrated. After you take a sip of water, you tend to breathe out, so this helps to release a bit of tension from your body. Once I was aware of this physical reaction, I was able to use it more consciously, particularly in situations where things become a bit more tense.
Keeping to your routines
Sticking to a routine is an effective way to reduce the impact of uncontrollable factors on your approach to a golf shot. Each golf shot has a totally unique set of factors contributing to the overall challenge which you are faced with, but you are always in control of a set number of these factors.
The point of a pre-shot routine, or process, is to take control of these factors and use them to your advantage. If you are able to repeat your decision making process and pre-shot routine on each shot, then you are able to create an environment which you are more comfortable in than if these things are changing from shot-to-shot.
Decision making process
Your routine does not have to be so regimented that you need to practice it religiously and do things perfectly every time. If that is the case, your routine is probably a bit too intense!
A process can remain pretty simple and easy to stay on top of. Ideally it would start with how you decide upon the shot that you will play. To do this you can easily create a few questions to answer which will lead you to your most suited club and shot. Here is an example of a monologue I may have before I decide on my club and shot:
“How far is it to the pin? 163 yards. Are there any hazards or slopes to make sure I carry? Yes, there is a bunker which requires a 155 yard carry. What is the wind doing? Down-wind from 7 o’clock, playing 6 yards shorter as a result. Where do I want the ball to finish? I want to aim for 15 feet left and 165 yards total, taking the wind and bunker into account. What club suits a 159 yard (165 – 6 yards wind adjustment) shot? Solid 9-iron will guarantee covering the bunker, if the wind takes it a little further right then it just moves it closer to the hole.
This internal conversation barely takes 15 seconds to be honest and it allows me to feel prepared for the shot at hand. I have taken into account the external factors that alter the shot and then implanted my knowledge of my own game to come out with the most suitable shot for this situation.
It’s worth noting that there can be many more factors involved in other shots, like elevation change, steep slopes, ground firmness, lie angle, rough etc. but hopefully you get the point.
The pre-shot routine tends to be more of a physical set of motions which ensure that you are ready to play your shot. Most players will walk into the ball from directly behind, some take a practice swing behind the ball, some next to it, some not at all. There really isn’t a wrong way to do it, the point is that it is repeatable and you believe in the impact of it.
Then it comes down to how you like to get comfortable once you are addressing the ball; some players use a club waggle to stay loose, some need to check their alignment. You will know what your general habit is so have a think about that and be more aware of what it is that you do.
Finally, it is good to have some sort of motion trigger to get your swing started in order to avoid being too static and tensing up. This is where you see plenty of players using a forward press.
There are a couple of particularly valuable benefits to having a consistent pre-shot routine and process in place. One is that it can help you to lessen the impact of nerves because you are acting in the same way regardless of the stakes of the shot.
The other benefit which I like is that it makes it easier to learn from your mistakes. If you are chopping and changing what you do every three shots, then it is extremely difficult to diagnose where the problems are coming from. We always blame execution, but often the true source of a mistake is that we were not in the right mindset to hit a good shot.
By showing consistency with our processes we can more easily determine whether we made a poor swing, or whether we couldn’t quite get comfortable due to nerves or just not feeling confident about a certain shot. Then you can go and practice either the shot execution or the way you prepared yourself for the shot.
Remember the value of the shot (I.e. still counts for one!)
This is a smaller section, but it is just about giving yourself timely reminders that each shot counts for the same, so why would you attach more stress to one than another? Obviously we know that this will not entirely rid you of nerves, but it is a sort of mind trick to reduce the impact somewhat.
This can certainly help you with nerves, but it is also going to be valuable to you if you struggle with loss of concentration as it works for easier shots as well as more nerve-wracking ones.
So those are some recommendations relating to your mindset towards nerves and how to handle them during those particular situations, but I also want to provide some advice on how to use your practice or non-competitive golf to improve your ability to deal with nerves.
Pressure practice is essentially when you attempt to apply as much pressure onto yourself as possible, with the idea that this will prepare you more specifically for on-course situations. A lot of coaches will encourage this sort of practice because it gives you more valuable feedback than a “block practice” session where you just stand in your bay at the range and hit fifty balls from the exact same lie, with the exact same wind. How often will that happen to you on the course?
One good example of pressure practice is to do a ‘Par 18’ around the chipping area at your golf course. This game is played over nine ‘holes’, three easy, three moderate, three difficult. You choose as you go and you drop the ball into the lie to best simulate how you find your ball on the course. Your job is to try and get each ball up-and-down, which would equal eighteen strokes. Clearly that would be one hell of a result!
But it is a good game to keep a record of your scores and try to improve on your personal best. This game creates better focus on your chipping practice because you actually need to go and hit the putt afterwards, and I find it to be a genuinely accurate simulation for putting on the golf course as well.
One of my favorite pressure practice games for putting is called “Around the World” and consists of twelve different putts.
- You will place four lines of tees around the hole with each line having a 3, 6 and 10 foot putt. If you’re lucky then you can find a hole which allows you to incorporate different breaks into your putts.
- Now you can choose to either complete this drill with two or three balls, if you don’t have that much time it might be better to choose two balls…
- To play the game you must hole all of the balls consecutively at each station before moving on.
- Some people will do one line at a time, so start on a three footer, then move back until finishing that line.
- Others choose to do all of the three footers first, then move onto the six footers and so on.
- I would recommend doing one line at a time just to keep the variability of lengths at a maximum.
If you are looking for a pressure game for your long game sessions then I can recommend course simulation games, which can also be an effective way to work on your visualisation.
For these games you can either picture a golf course that you know and create the picture of that on the range, maybe placing fairways between distance markers and the like, or you can play a points based game. The course simulation is something that I do for each course that I am playing in the upcoming tournament, but that is more for my comfort level rather than pressure simulation. The benefit of the points based game is the consequence it attaches to your shots.
A points based game would be to choose a target and assign points for certain outcomes. For example, anything within five yards accuracy to the target is a birdie, five to ten yards is a par, ten to twenty is a bogey, and so on. But you can also add in that maybe the right hand side is a hazard, so only ten yards right would be a double bogey on that occasion.
The way that this game works for dealing with nerves is that you are faced with clear outcomes for your shots, but you need to be able to remove the impact of these outcomes on your swing. So when there is a hazard to the right, you should let that impact your decision making (ie. Aim further left) but not your physical swing. A valuable lesson to learn from this game is that you want to be making decisions that allow you to make aggressive, confident swings. This can often mean taking a conservative target because that gives you more freedom. Conservative targets, aggressive swings.
You may feel like you do not have the time, or will, to go about including pressure practice into your schedule. That is fine, in that case the best option is to have more pressurised social games between friends and family. Adding in a little wager or forfeit is a great way to test your composure when the pressure ramps up because you really don’t want to lose to your best mate.
Ask a lot of pros and they will tell you that they feel more nerves on the ten footer to take a fiver off their mate in the practice round, rather than the ten footer in the final round which is actually for thousands of pounds!
I find that having some consequence to your games with friends is one of the quickest ways to get feedback on how you are truly playing. There have been times, in the winter especially, where I won’t get on the course for maybe a week, but I have done a lot of range practice in that time. After nine holes on the course I feel like I have learned more than I did in that entire week of range practice. The truth of it is that there really isn’t an alternative for getting out on the golf course, and if you can add some pressure into the equation then you are onto a winner.
I would strongly encourage you to work on your ability to deal with nerves and important shots on the golf course. If you have never looked into this before then the beauty of it will be that your first gains should come easily. All that is required is to be more aware of what your patterns are and try to create a routine.
It is important to have patience with this though as improvements will not happen linearly. There will be times when you feel like it isn’t working out for you, this is when you need to incorporate that patience and stick with it. “Sticking with it” means that you do not chop and change too many aspects of your routine.
There are certainly variables which it is acceptable to change, but you need some core principles such as having an exact yardage you want to hit it, or particular spot to aim at, or three deep breaths before you walk into the ball etc. As you continue on with this development, the core principles will become more and more obvious, leaving you the ability to play around with other areas without losing focus of the goal at hand.
The area where I think you can have the most fun is within the social games that you play with friends and family. Instead of going out for a quick nine in the summer and not really engaging, put something on it and enjoy the friendly competition.