The perils of pressure—Part Two

In Monday’s post, I noted that a number of players melted down during the Ontario university golf championship. Today, I describe how it happens. 

October 25, 2017—To get a handle on how you can learn how to deal effectively with pressure, a good place to start is look at how golfers lose it in the first place.

It starts with thinking. As a round progresses, players are prone to think more about their score and speculate on what their teammates might think or say about them. They will often ruminate about the last three-putt or worry about the tough finishing hole.

It’s completely normal. Our brains are wired to focus on the future to keep us safe in situations we perceive as dangerous. Our primal brains don’t differentiate between the dangers of getting eaten by a sabre-tooth tiger or missing a downhill slider.

When we sense the stakes are high—such as winning or losing a championship— golfers often unconsciously associate it with danger. Our heart rate elevates, we sweat, and the blood flows away from our extremities (hands and feet) to our organs. Our physiology is preparing us to fight or flee.

(Tiger Woods is the best example of a modern championship golfer who responded in the opposite way: Tiger said that when he felt pressure, he became more focused, calmer and time would slow down for him.)

As the mind whirs and the body reacts, our emotions are heightened, especially fear, which leads to muscle tension—we’re ready for battle or to run like hell. But tension makes it nearly impossible to swing a golf club fluidly.

In normal circumstances, it’s easy to keep our emotions in check. But under pressure when we feel danger, our conscious ability to maintain order can be overwhelmed by our unconscious primal impulses.

And that’s when all hell can break loose. It’s like we’re we’re hijacked. We react rather than respond. Championship golfers feel fear and get upset, but they respond in ways that keep them calmer.

As I watched shots go astray and the shots pile up on the Sunday of the OUA championship, I could imagine how distressed players saw their dreams of joyous high fives with teammates fade away as their anger and frustration ran away with them.

In the scoring area afterwards, it was sad to look into the eyes of a young men and women who believed they let their teams down. I’ve been there in golf and in other sports; it’s disappointing to blow your own game, but thinking you sabotaged your team sears your soul.

But there is a gift in the pain. Our most difficult moments provide us with our greatest learning. As a friend says, “I never learned anything on a good day.”

Fortunately, the sadness subsides in time. If you can refrain from making nasty judgments about yourself, you can learn enormously from these disappointments. This is why it’s crucial that you don’t identify yourself with your score. Golf is what we do, not who we are.

Namely, if you want to improve, focus on your behaviour—what you do.

Friday: What you can do on and off the course to deal more effectively with pressure.

If you’re interested in learning more about how to manage your emotions, thinking and how to improve your performance on the golf course and life, I encourage you to contact me. I’m a performance coach and trained facilitator.

The first session is always complimentary. If it appears that we’re a fit, we can talk about a formal coaching arrangement. I also do workshops for groups and teams.

About Tim O'Connor

Tim O'Connor is a golf coach, an award-winning writer, and speaker. Tim takes a holistic approach, coaching golfers in the physical and mental aspects of golf. He co-hosts the Swing Thoughts podcast with Howard Glassman, and is the author of The Feeling of Greatness: The Moe Norman Story. He plays bass in CID—a Guelph punk band!


  1. Hey Tim, I’m enjoying your perspectives on the OUA Championships and the. As a coach at the same event, I had conversations with several of my players who asked about how other players were doing so they could decide what they needed to do. I politely reminded them that getting rid of their doubt and committing to their own shots is what they needed to do. What others were doing really is irrelevant but under the pressure of team competition, players can get fixated on the wrong things – whether it’s what other team members are doing, or their playing companions, or the confident driver that’s missing today from their repertoire. As coaches, it’s our role to provide the processes (during a very short season) for staying in the moment and trusting the skills that got them on team. Oh…and also that the point of the game is to get the ball in the hole in as few strokes as possible, regardless of what they look like. Cheers. Dave

  2. You are right on Tim. Keeping players interested in their next shot only is difficujt. Trying to relax them is akso difficult. Making sure they are enjoying the experience is important.