By Dr. Bob Neff, Mental Trainer®
We recently had a young golfer who shot a personal best 70 from the tips on a very challenging golf course. He clearly found his performance “Zone,” but a nagging question remained: “Can I do it again in my tournament tomorrow!?” It’s the most common issue players have, and the biggest reason they seek out help from our Mental Trainers®. They play well in practice but underperform in tournaments. Why does that happen, and what can players do to prevent it? The answer is simple, but not necessarily easy. Learn to control the importance.
Many athletes are initially surprised because they assume importance is unchangeable. Would anyone argue that the Masters or Wimbledon were not important!? So where does “importance” come from? We intuitively know that if a lot of people are watching, there is a lot of money at stake, or a big goal depends on the outcome, the event is probably really important. But is the importance the same for all competitors (past champions vs talented young non-winners)? What about for the people watching (fans vs non-fans)? As you can see, importance is not universal – it can be changed!
So back to our young golfer – he has been told that making varsity and qualifying for AJGA events are 2 “important” steps to getting the attention of colleges. However, every time he thinks about his HS varsity tryout or an AJGA qualifier, he feels high stress, anxiety and pressure. Unfortunately, those negative emotions will likely reduce his performance. So, while specific events are certainly important, it’s critical our player learn to temporarily MINIMIZE the importance in his mind prior to and during competition.
Fortunately, minimizing is a mental skill that can be learned. Actually, it’s become one of the most important skills used by our professional and Olympic clients. Imagine having one shot at winning an Olympic gold medal – you HAVE to know how to control your thoughts and allow only helpful ones to stay in your head. This is because thoughts affect emotions which then affect performance. If your “self-talk” is that this event is the last one of your career and the biggest one of your life, your best won’t likely come out. You’ll be anxious, fearful and paralyzed! However, if you instead tell yourself that it’s just another event no different from any other, you’re much more likely to calm down (no perceived threat) and your chances for success dramatically increase! It take some practice, and there are other skills that combine to help, but minimizing is not only possible, it’s necessary! Minimizing is one of about 10 self-talk skills that you can learn to use prior to and during competition. Just like you practice physically, you can really benefit from mental practice when preparing for a tournament. So to answer the title of this article, “Yes you can!”
To become exceptional, you have to train in exceptional ways to build exceptional skills. It doesn’t happen any other way.
Dr. Bob Neff is a Certified Mental Trainer® and former professional athlete. He is the Chairman of Dallas-based Mental Training, Inc. (MTI), a ClubCorp National Strategic Partner. Dr. Bob is also listed on the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Sport Psychology Registry, and is the official Mental Trainer® for the N. Texas PGA.