I am having trouble finishing out a round when I am in position for a good or great score. Recently I needed a par to break 80 for the first time and I made a double bogey. I will have no three-putts all round, then three-putt the final three holes. Is there any advice you have for the mental game?
Aaron A., San Francisco, Calif.
The fact that you keep repeating your failures at the end of the round shows what a good learner you are. You've actually taught yourself to collapse, and what you need to do is replace that bit of learning with learning that will allow you to finish the job. You need to do two things to develop a closer’s mentality: 1.) Learn to control your stress by correct breathing; and 2.) Hit into the picture.
How Good Are You at Breathing?
Oxygen rich air is the lifeblood of all activity, including your ability to focus. The cells that make up your body are like a network of tiny factories whose job it is to produce energy. Basically, you're in the import-export business: Oxygen is your standard import and carbon dioxide is your prime export. When business goes well, you're firing on all cylinders; when it goes poorly and the exports pile up, the problem reverberates throughout the whole company. The mechanism for keeping your oxygen/carbon dioxide exchange rates in balance is called breathing. And you would think because it's so important, we'd all be experts at it. Surprisingly, this is not always the case. Sometimes, just when you need it most -- like near the end of your round -- you don't breath very efficiently, which nullifies your ability to make pictures of the target. With no target in mind, you must rely on swing mechanics, which is not the way to break 80.
Under stress, many people breathe high in their upper chest, an inefficient technique that promotes a shallow inhale with rapid breaths. In the extreme, this causes hyperventilation, a dangerous condition where there is a poor exchange between carbon dioxide and oxygen. When you breathe too quickly under stress, you exhale too much carbon dioxide. This creates an oxygen/carbon dioxide imbalance that can cause a number of uncomfortable symptoms including sweating, nervousness, tingling of the extremities (hello, three-putt), dizziness, anxiety and even panic attacks. While you're struggling with your oxygen supply, it’s tough to focus on the target.
The Relaxation Technique
To trigger the mini-relaxation technique, you must breathe correctly, deep down in your abdominal cavity. Place your hand over your stomach, take a deep breath and watch your belly swell. Then take your hand away. Without releasing the air in your stomach, continue to fill your chest cavity with air. With both your abdominal and chest cavities filled with air, you are approaching your optimal volume -- the maximum number of cubic centimeters possible in a breath.
Now reverse the process. Starting with your chest cavity, exhale until your belly has forced out all its air. After just one breath, you will feel a wave of relaxation sweep over you. That is a mini-relaxation response and it keeps your mental screen liquid by staving off the flood of chemicals that comes from stress. Make this procedure part of your pre-shot routine.
But you are not done yet. Now that you have relaxed you have to focus on the target instead of the consequences -- and here's the key phrase you should repeat before every shot: Hit to the Picture. Make a picture of the target in your mind then hit into it. You’ll break 80 in no time, and please send me a note when you do.
Golf Magazine Top 100 Teacher TJ Tomasi, Ph.D., a Class A PGA professional, teaches at the Nantucket Golf Club in Massachusetts. You can learn more about TJ at www.tjtomasi.com