The Other 90 Percent

Sean Foley: A golfer's best defense against tension

June 10, 2021

Professional golfers are meticulous about how they treat their bodies. That’s a good thing— being physically fit, eating right and staying hydrated are crucial if athletes are to perform at their peak. However, far too many golfers at every level essentially ignore the life force of humanity. We’re talking, of course, about breathing.

Breathing is our best defense against the roller coaster of emotions this game wants to take you on. You don’t have to take my word for it. It is backed up by science.

When you focus on your breathing—say, breathe in on a three-count, hold it for one, then breathe out for five—you saturate your red blood cells with oxygen. When this happens, the primal part of your hardware is tricked into believing that everything is calm and under control. When your breathing hastens, and you don’t have enough oxygen in your red blood cells, your brain begins to detect a threat. This activates your sympathetic nervous system, which regulates your “fight or flight” response.

Let’s apply this to an example on the golf course. Say a player is struggling with his driver. Perhaps he has some internal trauma of having once had the lead down the stretch only to hit driver into the water and lose the tournament. (Every player, and every person, has internal trauma). That memory is stored in the brain, whether the player realizes it or not. Now he steps onto the first tee, a long par 4 that calls for driver, but he sees trouble on both sides of the fairway. He might tell himself that he’s thinking about the basketball game the night before, but his subconscious is revisiting that traumatic memory. Here we go again. If he ignores his breathing, it will begin to speed up, and the sympathetic nervous system will take over.

When the brain detects a threat, there is fear. Though the player might not realize it, his body is now in an agitated state. He will tense up. His hands might begin to sweat. This makes it much harder to make a free swing through the ball. How can a player hit a driver 50 yards right and then, on the next shot, hit it right at his target? That isn’t physical—it’s not even conscious! If playing great golf was as easy as tapping into the right mind-set or attitude, we would all be able to do it. There has been so much written about the “mental side” of the game, and we can all read and comprehend this information. You might come to the golf course with great thoughts in your head about staying in the moment, worrying about the process and focusing on the things you are grateful for. But when you step up to the ball and things start to move quickly, all that stuff goes out the window, and your head goes blank. You just want to get the shot over with, to see where it went. Not long ago, one of my students on the PGA Tour was upset because all the things we had worked on seemed to disappear the moment he got on the course. I asked him if he could remember breathing at all—even once!—during the round, and his face went blank. This isn’t about psychology; it’s about physiology.

Luckily, we are not powerless when it comes to controlling our subconscious. We have the breath. If you were to measure a PGA Tour player strolling down the fairway, he would probably register around 16 breaths per minute. But to achieve focused, diaphragmatic breathing—the kind that convinces your brain that everything is OK— you would probably be around six or seven breaths per minute. I tell each one of my students to focus on his or her breathing, and virtually all of them tell me what a tremendous help it is.

One more thing: Slowing down your breathing will not make you lethargic or swing slower. If you watch videos of Usain Bolt, he can be running 25 miles an hour, and yet his jaw is bouncing up and down, completely devoid of tension. He is in control of his breath, and he’s still running faster than any human likely ever has.

The time between shots is the most important period in golf. This is when you have time to focus on your breathing and get control of your physiological response. If you wait until you’re over the ball, it’s too late. —WITH DANIEL RAPAPORT