Article #7 - How Emotions Help and Hurt the Golfer (Part2)


In my last column I discussed how creating powerful, positive emotions when playing well will improve your golf memory.  Drawing upon these memories in later competitions will increase the likelihood of you hitting similar great shots.  But I also mentioned that powerful, negative emotions equally affect our memory, and this can be a real problem in golf. It is those types of emotions and memories I’ll be discussing today.

When was the last time you got angry, frustrated, or full of disappointment on the golf course?  What was happening? Why were you so miserable?  How did these powerful, unpleasant emotions creep into your round?  They not only robbed you of the enjoyment you were experiencing on the course; they also drastically increased the likelihood these bad events or bad shots will stick in your mind and come back to haunt your play in the future.

Too many golfers get way too angry and upset on the golf course when things don’t go the way they planned.  What kind of thoughts and feelings go through the golfer who just missed a three foot putt needed to get into a playoff?  What goes on inside the woman who is having her career best round, but then blows-up on the final hole?  Or the guy who yanks his approach shot into the water on the 18th hole of a tournament, falling way down the leader board?

Most golfers would have an emotional meltdown of some sort after any one of these events.  Their anger and frustration may be evident to others as they slam a club into the ground, yell profanities at themselves, or simply withdraw and refuse to speak to anyone.  Other golfers will hold their feelings inside, giving themselves a mental tongue lashing, calling themselves all sorts of terrible names and insulting the very core of their existence.  Either way, these golfers are experiencing a high degree of negative emotional arousal.  And this intense arousal will only hurt the golfer in the long run. 

Mark Twain is reported to have said, “The inability to forget is infinitely more devastating than the inability to remember.”  This quote is so apropos to golfers!  When you experience one of these disappointing moments in golf and you allow yourself to become overly angry or frustrated, the high level of emotion ingrains the memory of the event deeply into your mind.  These deeply ingrained memories will surface again, very clearly, when you are faced with a similar situation. These memories will dramatically increase the likelihood of another poor shot. The inability to forget (or let go of) these memories is indeed devastating to the golfer.

Some golfers tell me they play better when they are angry.  “Great” I tell them, “go ahead and get as angry as you want.”  But the truth is that the vast majority of time excessive anger is detrimental.  It ruins the enjoyment of the day, it impacts on your ability to focus on the next shot, it’s a downer for your playing partners, and it definitely makes the bad shot more vivid and more powerful in your memory.  Do any of these things sound like they would help you to play better?

Okay, so it’s important not to get overly angry when you make a bad shot.  It’s easier said than done, especially if you’ve had difficulty with excessive anger and frustration for a long time.  So, how do you maintain proper emotional control?  There are two keys I’ll mention here (in other articles I’ll discuss many additional techniques for maintaining composure).  The first key is the idea of “learning, then letting go”.  The second key is taking personal responsibility for your emotions.

When bad shots occur, in the vast majority of cases, there is a psychological reason for the mistake.  I was out on the course doing a nine hole consult with an amateur golfer. He was really utilizing the mental skills we had been working on and had a career best score going when we came to the par three eighth hole, with water left and front.  He went through his full preshot routine, knew what club he would hit, and picked out a small, precise target at which to aim.  He hit the ball and splashed it into the water on the left.  Disappointment!  Anger!  Frustration!

I asked him what happened on the shot.  He simply stated, “I pulled it.”  That wasn’t what I was asking for.  I saw that had pulled the shot!  I asked him to think about WHY he pull occurred.  When we reviewed his process of making the shot, this golfer realized that as he was getting ready to swing, he doubted his alignment, thinking he was aimed just a little too far to the right.  Rather than restarting his routine, he swung anyway and overcompensated for the misalignment, and ended up making his ball look like Moby Dick.

When we discussed what had just happened, I explained he had his choice of how to react to this mistake.  He could get angry and frustrated which would likely affect his next shot and the next hole.  The anger would also ingrain the memory of this poor shot and increase the odds he’d hit a similar shot in the future when a great round was on the line.

His other choice was to make an immediate and strong commitment to learn from this mistake, right here and now, and to utilize this learning to make him a better golfer for this round, for this week, for the rest of the year.  He chose this second option and ingrained in his mind the importance of being fully committed and comfortable over the ball before allowing himself to swing.  He wasn’t happy about putting the ball in the water, but he was pleased with how he managed to utilize this situation as a learning experience.  This golfer then went to the edge of the hazard to take his drop.  He went through his full routine, envisioned the shot, and believed he could chip it in the hole.  He wasn’t rattled or caught up in dwelling on what had happened on his last shot.  He hit the ball; it landed on the green, curled down the slope and dropped into the cup!  He went on to complete the best nine hole score of his life!  He made the commitment to learn from the bad shot, and then let go of his anger and frustration so he could then focus on the task at hand.

The second key to emotional control is taking full, personal responsibility for your emotions.  The reality in golf is that most of our powerful, negative emotions aren’t directly caused by what has happened (pulling a shot into the water), but instead are caused by the way we choose to think about what has happened.  Dunking a ball into the lake is never a good experience; indeed it’s disappointing, it’s unfortunate.  However, the excessive anger and frustration only come when you tell yourself things such as “This is a tragedy! This is horrendous!  You’re a frigging idiot to have hit a shot like that!  You suck!  You’re a waste of skin!”  It is these labels and exaggerations that infuriate you.  The anger also stems in part by your insistence that what has just happened, have not happened in the first place. 

So take the personal responsibility to monitor what you say to yourself, how you choose to think about what is happening, and how you think about what has happened.  When a mistake occurs, think about it realistically and rationally.  Don’t apply ridiculous and inaccurate labels to yourself.  Don’t demand in your head that what has just occurred should never have happened. You can’t change the reality of what has just taken place. Commit to becoming a better golfer right now by learning from the mistake you just made.  Take responsibility for your emotional response.  By thinking properly on the golf course you’ll stop those bad shots from sticking in your memory and coming back to bite you at a later date. 

Maintaining emotional control is essential in golf.  It’s also a pretty darned important skill in life in general.  Improve your golf…. improve your life!

Kevin J. Roby, Ph.D., MGCP

Las Vegas Sport Psychology
5037 Portraits Place
Las Vegas, NV 89149