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Leading sports psychologists on the role golf can play in a crisis

April 20, 2020

Ben Wiseman

Dr. Bhrett McCabe is used to talking athletes down off the figurative ledge.

“Most of the issues the peak-performance coach usually deals with have to do with confidence, coming back from injuries and improving on-course or on-field decision-making. What McCabe’s clients—and all of us—face in this chaotic and uncertain time goes way beyond sports.

But McCabe and a collection of other top sports psychologists agree that the tools they use with clients to improve their golf games can be useful to us for handling real-world anxieties and bringing some lightness and enjoyment to everyday life.

Now’s not the time to be hard on yourself

“The first thing I say to any client, whether it’s an athlete or a ‘regular’ person, is that this is all normal, what we’re feeling right now,” says McCabe, who works with tour players like Billy Horschel and Graeme McDowell in addition to his work as the University of Alabama football team’s performance coach. “There’s no reason to feel negative or embarrassed about any part of this. With the athletes I work with, I separate it into the endurance phase and the emergence phase.

“There are tools to work on coping with the anxiety, and tools for organizing yourself to come out of it stronger, healthier and more prepared.”

Dr. Michael Lardon is a clinical psychiatrist and performance coach for dozens of tour players, Olympians and Fortune 500 CEOs. He says his goal is to help his clients learn how to separate the anxiety—which is natural in this situation—from paralyzing fear. “It comes when you live in the gap between now and the future, or now and the past,” says Lardon, who helped Phil Mickelson leading up to his victory at the 2013 Open Championship. “The same skills you need to learn to not wear yourself out over the double you just made or to deal with the pressure that comes when you need to make that putt on 18 are the ones we all need to work on during this time.”

Performance coach Dr. Kevin Chapman reminds his Olympian clients (as well as his “civilian” ones) about these ideas with a simple acronym he devised as the virus began to disrupt training, traveling and work life. “It’s F-I-G-H-T—which stands for Focus, Identify, Generate, Highlight and Teach,” says Chapman, who is the director of the Kentucky Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders and the performance coach for the Louisville City FC soccer team. “Focus on what you can control, because you can’t say how long this will last, who will get it, or what the government is going to do. You can exercise. You can connect. Identify when negative thoughts come in, because those fuel the fire. Generate alternative thoughts—which don’t have to be positive, but they have to be flexible—like this sucks, but I do get to spend time with my kids. Highlight adaptive behaviors, for example, using YouTube or FaceTime to work out with a coach. And Teach others, because we’re all in this together.”

What do those skills and tools look like in real life? They’re processes that help you focus more on what you can control, rather than external factors out of your control, rituals that make you more present and mindful of where you are right now, and activities that help you lose yourself—even if it’s for 20 minutes.

In other words, golf. However you can find it.

“You can still do things every day that you choose, that make you happier, better or healthier,” says Golf Digest 50 Best Teacher Pia Nilsson, who runs Vision54 at Talking Stick Golf Club in Scottsdale with fellow 50 Best Teacher Lynn Marriott. “When you do this, you get stronger at the muscle of focusing on what you can control. To play good golf on the course, no matter what your swing theory is, you need to be present and pay attention to what you do. For example, make ten swings today with a club in your living room or even a kitchen utensil and feel your grip pressure specifically through every swing. It’s simple, but most people can’t do it!”

An adjustment for your unstructured time

Lardon says that “changing tracks” mentally each day by shifting to a game or a hobby isn’t wasting time or procrastinating. It’s real, necessary medicine. “That saying ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’ is silly, but it’s true. You need to move around and stimulate yourself. Some people can still get out and play golf to get into a quieter mental space, but even if you’re limited to your living room or backyard, you can still create games that let you immerse yourself,” says Lardon. “It’s a call to be creative. From the time he was a little kid, Phil was out there in his yard, inventing all kinds of shots before he was even allowed to go to the real golf course. He was experimental because he had the freedom and imagination to be.

“Now, you have that freedom and imagination available to you. Get absorbed in whatever your current version of the game can be.”

Marriott says the unstructured time many of her and Nilsson’s clients now have is the first they’ve experienced as adults, and it can be both disorienting and liberating. “We send Ariya Jutanugarn practice plans every other week, but the last time, she didn’t want to talk about practice, because it just didn’t have any immediacy to it,” says Marriott. “She was so excited to tells about what she had learned from one of the companies she has a relationship with in Thailand. They came up with a device that can make fresh air in a patient’s room. One of the machines cost $100,000, and she decided to buy one and donate it to a place that needed it there.

“We’ve always coached players to try to find their ‘spirit of the game’ and understand the ‘then what’ beyond money and trophies. For a lot of them, they have no idea and need to explore. It’s an incredible thing to be able to reflect on a deeper purpose.”

McCabe went to each of his professional athlete clients and asked what they wanted to do with this enforced time off. He says some were determined to decompress and spend time they never had with their families, while others wanted to work on their skills. “Whatever they decided, it was important for me to help them remove the guilt about taking time off or to help anyway I could to organize improvement at a time that is pretty chaotic and uncertain,” says McCabe.

“In a lot of ways, for player it’s like dealing with an injury. You lose this thing that has been such a fundamental part of your day-to-day life, and you can lose your identity. For anybody, it’s a great time to re-invest attention in the things you love to do. With golf, it could be going through your equipment and working on your swing. Watching replays on television only goes so far. You need something to look forward to. Me and my golf buddies have been talking about our next golf trip—not specifically planning it, but just dreaming about what it will be one day.”

One drill to stay in the moment

“Mindfulness” can be a squishy concept for somebody who hasn’t done much mental training, but Chapman says even marginally improving this skill could have huge benefits not just for a tour player trying to make a putt, but for a parent trying to get through a day of homeschooling three kids while fielding a fleet of conferences call for work.

“It’s a simple three-point check I like to do twice a day,” says Chapman. “First, do some breathing—five seconds in, six seconds out, to get your heart and lungs synchronized. Then ask yourself, what am I thinking right now? How am I feeling in my body right now? Lastly, ask yourself how you can respond to the present moment. Set a reminder to do it on your phone.

“Process leads to outcome. Your tactics might have to change, but you can still focus on your process.”