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It happened in a span of less than two months. On May 31, tennis star Naomi Osaka withdrew from the 2021 French Open. On July 26, gymnast Simone Biles, perhaps the greatest champion her sport has ever known, pulled herself from team competition at the Summer Olympics. In each case, anxiety and pressure led to the stunning decisions – and in the aftermath of those front- and back-page headlines, whatever remained of the wall obscuring the mental-health issues of athletes had been obliterated.
There had been previous cracks, as witness the anxiety issues of baseball’s Steve Sax, tennis player Mardy Fish and Ricky Williams of the NFL. Those fissures became more substantial in recent years, as NBA pros DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love opened up about their struggles. Many other athletes followed suit, from the swimming legend Michael Phelps to Hayden Hurst (NFL), Skylar Diggins-Smith (WNBA) and Colin Wilson (NHL), among others.
Pro golfers, unsurprisingly, were not immune, and they started to share their stories, too. Andrew “Beef” Johnston and Lizette Salas talked openly of their difficulties. In the wake of Osaka’s travails, David Duval, Michelle Wie West, Bubba Watson and Nelly Korda discussed similar problems. “Some of the feelings that I had were, like, getting up in the morning knowing I had to get out of bed and just not being able to,” said PGA Tour up-and-comer Matthew Wolff, who took two months off after the Masters to deal with feelings of depression and anxiety. “I just want to stay in my bed and not be in front of everyone and not screw up in front of everyone.”
Touring pros may seem like uniquely talented, blissfully lucky individuals making big money to play a game they love, but it’s rarely that simple. “For pros there are numerous stressors – the spotlight, finances, travel, physical concerns and training – and they’re often unsupported, away from their family and friends,” said Emma Ferris, a New Zealand-based physiologist who has worked with Ladies European Tour and Futures Tour players. “All those points can accumulate and contribute to an overall anxiety state.”
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Performance expert Dr. Paul Schempp, director of the Sport Instruction Research Laboratory at the University of Georgia, remembers working with one visibly anxious pro who insisted he absolutely needed to make the cut that week. When asked why, the player said he was juggling seven mortgages. “That’s how what was an easy, fun game becomes crushing,” said Schempp. “Add in that golf is an individual sport – unlike basketball, there’s no one else to blame. Also, some really embarrassing things can happen out there on the course.”
Almost anyone who has ever picked up a club can relate. The scale may not be the same, but everyday golfers have mortgages, too. They also have spouses and parents and bosses and kids. Responsibilities. That’s before they even get to their own on-course expectations and goals.
“Stress in amateurs and professionals and juniors manifests the same way even if the cause of anxiety is slightly different,” said Pia Nilsson, cofounder of Vision54, which encompasses an Arizona golf school and a performance program. “The occurrence of it has increased a lot the last few years.”
Here’s the good news, golfers: It’s not all bad news, far from it. Schempp cites a Japanese study that showed golf was the country’s top sport for improving mental health, and he also notes that the game has helped injured military veterans recover psychologically. Many golfers enjoy the game without ever, or at least rarely, stressing about their play. (Lucky them.)
Plus, some level of anxiety on the course is in fact useful. A 2019 study out of Coastal Carolina University measured putting performance between three groups: one at a medium-to-high level of arousal, another a low-to-medium level, and a control group. The participants in the low-to-medium group outperformed both others. Conclusion: It helps to care, just not too much.
Maximizing your performance while making your time on the course fun and relaxing – or ensuring that it remains that way – comes down to understanding the different types of anxiety, what creates them, and how to cope.
There are two types of anxiety: cognitive and somatic. Cognitive anxiety plays out in the brain through reactions such as overthinking, worrying, fear and lack of focus. A player who chili-dips a pitch or tops a drive and then spends the next two holes explaining to everyone how he didn’t shift his weight properly may be offering valid swing analysis, but he’s also likely displaying his cognitive anxiety, attempting to deal with the fear and uncertainty that follows a bad shot and to convince himself it won’t happen again.
Somatic anxiety is more overtly physical. It’s the churning stomach, excessive sweating, racing heart, muscle tightness, and so on. When someone yips a 3-footer to lose a match or needs a par to break 80 and snap-hooks her drive out of bounds, that’s somatic anxiety at work.
The two anxieties aren’t mutually exclusive and can feed off each other, as an anxious state can lead to both mental unease and physical reactions. They also compound. One bad shot often causes players to worry more about the next one. Flub the day’s first bunker shot, and you’re likely to tighten up if you find the sand again.
A study presented back at the 2009 International Society of Biomechanics in Sports Conference aptly showed the physical impact of anxiety on putting. A six-camera, 3D motion-analysis system recorded volunteers as they putted. After an initial round of putts, the experimenters created anxiety by bringing in spectators and adding a competitive element. With the pressure now on, the subjects altered their tempo and collectively left the clubface more open at impact. “Golf is a mind-body sport,” Ferris said. “If you don’t consider that connection – the overall stress reaction – you won’t have success.”
Potential on-course triggers range from simple to subconscious, including everything from slow play and social media reactions to deeper fears, such as embarrassment, humiliation and loss of stature. If you’re the best player in your foursome but lose your game for a time, will your golf friends see you differently? Will they still like you?
You may not even feel particularly anxious or stressed, but if in fact you are on some deeper level, your body knows. “Anxiety triggers a primitive response, a fight-or-flight instinct to save ourselves,” said Ferris. “We react the same as if we’re being attacked. Muscles tense in an attempt to get out of danger.”
Such tensions tend to gather at trigger points such as the neck and lower back, which can restrict hip movement, impacting your swing and, potentially, even leading to injury. “Anxiety reactions shorten the tolerance of what you can endure,” Ferris noted. “If you’re already frustrated and anxious, you’ll be less capable of handling the frustration and anxiety that comes up during your round.”
There is hope, thankfully. “No one is immune to stress,” said Ferris, “but training yourself to respond is the key.”
A Person, Not a Number
You are not your golf score, or your golf handicap. Say it. Memorize it. Say it again. Make it a mantra.
“If you play golf and are told that your score is all that matters, it creates a lot of anxiety,” said Vision 54’s Nilsson. “The score is not who I am. The score is just the number of shots it took me today to get around the course. Learn to separate process and outcome, and to distinguish who I am from what I do.”
Making that distinction is the starting point for getting control of golf-induced anxiety. “Don’t think about your score during the round, because there’s nothing you can do about it,” said Schempp. “It’s very hard to make a birdie if you think, I need a birdie.” Instead, he suggests that players remain positive, visualize good outcomes and take stock of what else is happening around them.
“Talk about things other than golf. Appreciate the good things about golf beyond hitting shots,” Schempp said. “Notice the weather, appreciate and analyze the architecture. Feel good about being outside and getting exercise.”
While you’re soaking up the scene, don’t ignore your breathing. Stress and fear can cause shallow, upper-chest breathing, which delivers less oxygen to the blood and triggers that state of deeper physiological anxiety. “You have to disrupt the stress response,” said Ferris, who goes so far as to offer breathing courses on her website. “It’s a physical process that’s hijacking your mental state, and the only connection is how you breathe. Breathing properly can bring you back to your thinking brain and allow you to perform at your best.”
At the least Ferris recommends a long, slow exhale before each shot, to calm the nervous system. Think of Phil Mickelson taking all those long intentional breaths during his PGA Championship win last May. Even better, practice proper breathing, inhaling and exhaling in a “low and slow” pattern that comes at a steady pace from your core; you’re doing it correctly if your stomach and sides are expanding more than your chest when you inhale.
However you go about breathing, says renowned sports psychologist Dr. Bob Rotella, get it down pat before you tee it up.
“If your approach is right, proper breathing should be automatic,” said Rotella. “Sure, take a deep breath before shots, but other than that, you shouldn’t be thinking about your breathing.” The right approach, according to Rotella, includes keeping your rounds in perspective – it’s a game – and enjoying the rough patches. “If you think of certain shots as anxious or scary, they will be,” he said. “I use terms like ‘challenge,’ ‘opportunity,’ and ‘excitement.’ Butterflies in your stomach are a good, fun image as opposed to demons.”
Rotella also stresses the importance of a pre-shot routine. It doesn’t need to be elaborate (read: time-consuming), but it should always be the same. “In challenging moments, good players learn to go on autopilot,” he said. “They have a routine and a process they use in practice, so they just go into it and let the routine take over.”
Minimizing the real-life stress that may be hurting your golf (and your state of being) follows a similar path. If it isn’t already, make your life bigger than golf, and especially bigger than your score or handicap. Develop and/or emphasize other interests, and focus on your relationships. Make sure the ones you have are strong and pursue new ones. “Choose people carefully,” said Schempp. “Make sure their opinion of you is not based on how well you play.”
Schempp offers up the veteran pro Jesper Parnevik as a role model. Parnevik often traveled to PGA Tour events with his family. For the 2005 Masters, he was so involved in the process of wrangling the entire entourage – including his wife, four kids, all their homework, multiple nannies, several guests and his caddie, all of whom traveled on two separate planes – that he forgot his clubs. “That’s a guy,” said Schempp, “whose identity and self-worth are not based on a score or a trophy.”
Rotella sums it up even more succinctly: “Good players who enjoy the challenge know the shot doesn’t matter. It’s just a golf shot.”