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Golf's Damning Demands Versus Beneficial Beliefs

By admin - Posted on 19 August 2014

Small and sometimes subtle differences in the way a person thinks about a particular situation, or challenge, can have a significant impact not only on how that situation turns out, but also on the type of emotional response that is associated with that outcome. This is true in golf, as it is in much of life. Allow me explain what I mean, and let me give you some examples to clarify these subtle differences in ways of thinking.

In golf, you are always striving to improve your performance, to shoot a better score. You want to hit the fairway on your first tee shot. You hope to stick your approach shot close to the pin. You want to sink that birdie. This is true for all of us, right? And if we execute shots like the ones we desire, our scores will indeed improve, and we’ll be one big group of happy campers! But what happens when we don’t hit that first fairway, or nail that approach shot? What if you miss that easy birdie putt? These types of mistakes happen all of the time, even to top level professionals. So, how can you maximize the likelihood of having good shots, and how can you minimize the damaging effects of disappointing mistakes? The best way I know of to accomplish both of these goals is to consciously take control over the way you think. You want to decrease or eliminate your use of “damning demands,” and instead, regularly think in terms of what I call “beneficial beliefs.”

“I have to… I must… I need to… I’ve got to… I must not… I can’t… I shouldn’t ever...” These are common elements of the thoughts I call “damning demands”. And demands are exactly what these thoughts are. They are demands in your head about how you have to perform. Think about it. You’re standing on the tee, and you’re saying to yourself, “I have to hit this fairway.” The fact that you are telling yourself, you “have to” or you “must” or you “need to” hit this fairway is making a demand about your own performance. The same is true if you say to yourself, “I can’t afford to miss the fairway.” It’s a demand about the outcome of your shot, a demand about how you “should” or “shouldn’t” perform.

Perhaps after reading the above paragraph you’re wondering why I refer to this manner of thinking as being “damning demands.” What is so “damning” about wanting to have a good shot, a good outcome? How should I be thinking instead? Should I not care what happens? Should I tell myself it’s fine to miss the fairway, fine to miss the green, it’s fine to yank that birdie putt?

Before I suggest alternative ways of thinking, those “beneficial beliefs” I mentioned earlier, let me explain why the “demanding” way of thinking is detrimental.

First of all, when you think in terms of demands, even though these are your own thoughts, it’s like having someone standing in front of you, getting right in your face, and demanding that you do exactly as they say. Now, I don’t know about you personally, but for most people, having someone barking an order in their face is a pretty uncomfortable situation. A typical response might involve thoughts such as, “You can’t tell me what to do! You’ve got no right to boss me around! I’ll show you!” Associated emotional responses would often include anger, fear, resentment and anxiety.

Can you recall an actual situation when somebody was poking their finger in your chest, perhaps grabbing you by the collar, getting right up into your face, and telling you what you ‘have to” do, or what you “absolutely must avoid” doing at all costs? It wasn’t very comfortable, was it? Have you ever had a parent, a boss, or a coach approach you like that? And didn’t it cause you to feel tense, and perhaps, defiant?

The reality is that it is no different when we make demands of ourselves! On some level, when we engage in “demanding” thinking, we feel tense, anxious, and resentful. Not only are these types of feelings uncomfortable, they are highly detrimental to our ability to play our best golf. I’ll bet you can’t ever really recall a single time out on the course when you told yourself, “I really need to be more tense right now! I’ve got to increase that anxiety level! Let’s really jack up this level of resentment!” Internal demands about performance are “damning” in that they almost always produce emotional states that interfere with our ability to play our best golf. These types of demands can literally “send your game right to hell.”

The other major way that “damning demands” hurt you in golf is when your performance doesn’t reach the level of the demand. What kind of things do you say to yourself when you miss that tight fairway, your approach shot sails askance of the target, you leave the birdie putt short? I’ll bet you’re not very kind to yourself, and that what you say to yourself in your head is much more critical and damaging than anything you would ever say to a friend, or to a fellow competitor. “You idiot! You suck! What a wimp! Choker!”

And when you say such things to yourself, how does that make you feel? What type of emotional response typically results from such damning statements? For most of us, we become angry, perhaps filled with self-loathing. We’re likely to feel disgusted and dejected, and our confidence level plummets. Not very comfortable feelings, to say the least. Your level of tension and anxiety increases, and you become more and more concerned about your ability to hit quality shots. This fear makes it less likely that you will hit subsequent shots well, despite the demands in your head that you do so! It’s a vicious downward spiral; the internal demands cause tension and anxiety, which leads to less than optimal shot-making, which leads to resentment and anger and disgust, which despite the continued use of internal demands, leads to lowered confidence, more poor shot-making, and on and on and on. Downward, and downward, and downward. Your golf game goes to hell!

Sound pretty damning to me.

So, what types of thoughts can you use to motivate yourself, giving you the best chance of performing well? What types of thoughts will stop the damning downward spiral?

The solution to this problem is to think in terms of “beneficial beliefs.” To me, a beneficial belief is an expectation about what you are capable of, as opposed to being a demand about how you perform. Generally, these beneficial beliefs are confident and positive expectations about what you believe will happen, how you anticipate you will perform, yet there is no implicit demand that the performance be perfect!

Think of it this way: standing on the tee of a tight fairway, with very penal rough on both sides, you tell yourself, “I’ve absolutely got to hit this fairway.” As I mentioned before, it’s very much like having a coach, or parent, or whoever is on the tee with you, getting in your face, poking you in the chest, demanding of you that you hit this shot exactly as they say, and you damn-well better not screw it up!

Contrast the above with being on the same tee, facing that same tight fairway, and saying to yourself, “I know I can hit this fairway. I believe I’m going to send this shot to the middle of the short grass.” Rather than having someone poking you in the chest, it’s much more like having a good friend, or a supportive teammate with you, their arm around you shoulder, looking you straight in the eye and expressing nothing but confidence in you. They know what you are capable of, yet they make no demand about how you must perform. They’re not telling you what you have to do, and instead are affirming their belief in what you are capable of doing. They’ll still be a good friend, a supportive teammate, regardless of the outcome of the shot. They believe in your ability, they communicate this belief, but they stay away from making demands about how you “must” perform.

Doesn’t that scenario just sound more appealing, more relaxed, to you? And doesn’t the above scenario instill confidence in you?

That’s exactly how you want to think, how you want to talk to yourself, as you prepare for any type of shot. Your thoughts will begin with phrases such as, “I believe I can… I know I’m capable of… I expect I will… I anticipate that I’ll…” For example, in facing that tight fairway, you want to have thoughts such as, “I know I’m capable of hitting the short grass. I’ve done it thousands of times.” Or, “I anticipate this ball will go directly toward my target. I believe I can hit it precisely there.” Doesn’t that type of thinking just feel more relaxed to you? Doesn’t it help to boost your confidence? Doesn’t it help to rid you of tension and fear?

The other advantage of thinking this way is in the emotional response that occurs when the shot does not at all turn out the way you wanted. Yes, it’s still a disappointment, and yes, it’s unfortunate. But it no longer becomes (in your head, anyway) a catastrophe, a tragedy, a cause for self-hatred and disgust. The negative emotional response is significantly reduced. And as I mentioned in the article, “How Emotions Help and Hurt the Golfer” (part two), the toned-down negative response makes it less likely that this particular mistake will play out in your memory, over and over again, haunting you constantly when you have a similar shot to make in the future. You’ll be better able to maintain your composure, and better able to identify factors that may have contributed to the mistake. Once you have done this, you can immediately learn from the mistake, which in essence also immediately makes you a better golfer than before!

Envision facing a tough shot, and imagine trying out the two different ways of thinking about what you want to have happen. Do you want the feeling that “I damn-well better not screw this up,” or do you want the feeling, “I know I can hit this shot.” Do you want to feel the pressure of a demand about how you “must” perform, or do you want to feel the calming effect of expressed confidence in your own abilities? And what if the shot isn’t executed as planned? Do you want to risk those terrible negative emotions associated with the strict demands about how you “should have” performed, or do you want to give yourself the best chance of learning from a poor shot, and therefore immediately becoming a better golfer?

The difference between these two ways of thinking is indeed subtle at times, but the difference in how they impact on our performance and emotions can be huge. The vast majority of top athletes have learned to increase their use of “beneficial beliefs” and decrease their utilization of “damning demands.” It is a powerful mental strategy that helps to distinguish the absolute best athletes from those that are simply really good.

So pay attention to how you think out there in competition, to what you are saying to yourself. Make a concerted effort to decrease the “damning demands” and increase the “beneficial beliefs.” You’ll be more relaxed, less tense, free from fear, and your confidence will improve. You’ll be more composed and your enjoyment of your sport will increase. Your scores will improve. You’ll become a more competent competitor. By taking control of how you think, you’ll take better control over how you play. And that, my friends, certainly sounds like a formula for success to me!

Kevin J. Roby, Ph.D., MGCP
Golf Psychology Consultants
(702) 395-2170