Psychological Flexibility

Imagine that you are watching yourself playing in a tournament. You are at home in front of the television and the image of you is on the screen. You watch as you birdie three out of the first five holes for a great start. Hole by hole you are playing superbly, hitting fairway after fairway, sticking approach shots close to pins, and either sinking or narrowly missing putts. On the rare couple of occasions that you missed greens, you expertly chipped to within a foot to save par. Seventeen is a monster, a 500-yard par four with water all along the right up to the green and a tight fairway. You see yourself stripe a driver straight up the middle leaving you with 204 yards to the pin. As you watch, you can feel some nerves because you know how challenging this shot is. Your approach is flawless, the swing is smooth, athletic, the sound crisp, and the ball flight pure. The ten-foot birdie putt is speedy with a significant right to left break. You watch yourself put a silky-smooth stroke on it and track the ball with you eyes as it arcs gracefully towards the hole falling on its last revolution into the cup. This is an impeccable story in your mind. Not just the putt but the entire round you are playing. With just the par five 18th to play and complete your perfectly played round, this is so cool to watch. Suddenly—a thought, “what if I screw this up” then an image, not the one on the screen, a blocked drive into a penalty area, then a wayward approach, and a missed three-footer.  Suddenly, you do not want to watch anymore. You wish you could just skip ahead and be told that it ended well. Then you would be willing to rewind and watch, But the idea that you might see yourself make a mess of the last hole is unacceptable and not desirable at all. In your mind this is a terrible thing. But wait, you are yet to hit the tee shot.

How many of you can relate to this? Why does this happen? Amid a dream story we almost always come back to a tragedy. Four and a half hours of positive thoughts and optimistic thinking interrupted abruptly, seemingly out of nowhere by scary, dark, incredibly negative visions. Does it mean that there is something wrong with you? That is the motivation to work with me that many of the golfers have. They know and believe that they have the skills and abilities to be great golfers, but these thoughts are holding them back. If they can just rid themselves of the negative, doubtful dialogue running through their minds, then they will play great.

Bullshit, I say to that. My aim when I work with golfers is not to help them eliminate negative thoughts, emotions, and feelings. I am not going to teach them to “fake it until they make it.” Nor am I going to encourage them to “think like a winner” and the last thing I would ever do is it try to teach them to “get in the zone”. My primary objective in helping a golfer play to their potential consistently is to achieve psychological flexibility.

Psychological flexibility is a term attributed to psychologist Steve Hayes which refers to a state of mind in which one remains focused and committed to what can be controlled to produce the desired results despite the presence of unwanted, uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, and emotions. In other words, learning to figure out and do what works while freaking out rather than to stop the freaking out.

Having negative thoughts even seemingly irrational, fearful ones is not a signal of abnormality. Every thought, feeling, reaction, and perspective makes perfect sense—when you consider your personal history. In golf and life, we create a set of rules to guide us. These rules tell us what is right, wrong, good, bad, valuable, and worthless. As our self-identity becomes fixed to narrower and narrower constructs such as an elite golfer theses rules solidify and govern our behavior. You consider yourself to be an elite golfer and as such you should almost never miss a three-foot putt. That is an example of a rule. How did you arrive at that rule? Through your personal experiences and history, you were exposed to messages programing you to view three-foot putts as easy and to miss them, especially in competition, is just plain bad. Further, because the part of your brain that functions to filter information reasonably and reject irrational ideas, the frontal cortex, doesn’t begin to develop until you are about 13 and is not fully functioning until around 25, you had very little ability to decide for yourself what rules make sense. So, you were bombarded in subtle and not so subtle ways by culture, society, and media most of all into this rigid idea that you need to see a sport psychologist because you’ve gotten anxious and missed some short putts. You think, it is not supposed to be like this, I should not get so nervous and miss putts, that is not what an elite golfer does, there must be something wrong with me.

I do not fix people. That is not what I am about. Feeling anxious about missing three-foot putts is not a sign of abnormality, it makes complete sense. Given your personal history and experiences, how could you not logically feel anxious about missing them? If anything, telling me, with the personal history you have, that you never feel anxious about missing short putts in tournaments would be abnormal.

Anxiety is not the problem nor the reason you are missing those putts, inflexibility is.

What you are doing when you get anxious is not helping you make those putts—namely, spending energy on getting rid of the anxiety. What you need is a tool—a workable option, something that you can commit your actions to, that will give you a chance.

Try this:

Imagine that you broke the index finger on your right-hand and you could not bend it at all. Describe what adjustments and modifications you would consider, to make a 10-foot putt. Go into detail with exactly what you might try. Did any of those ideas include unbreaking your finger? Now replace the broken finger with extreme worry and repeat the exercise.

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