Controlling first tee nerves
Even Ernie gets nervous - the difference is how to use nerves

Coping with 1st tee nerves

By Premium Golf's contributing sports psychologist, Nick Hastings

Let me paint a familiar picture. We're preparing for a big tournament. We're reasonably happy with the amount of practice we've done. The swing feels ok and even the weather has turned out nice. We've got a good night's sleep last night so there's no reason in the world why that first tee should be a problem. No reason at all.

If only that were true.

The shoes go on, clubs on the trolley as we take the short walk to the first tee. For some reason, our previous feeling of calm feels like it's been squeezed through a sluice gate, and in its place comes a wave of utter nausea - prickly and bubbling under the surface of our stomachs like a kettle waiting to boil. Our hands, previously still, become volcanically charged and start shaking uncontrollably. Our hearts begin to pound a little and we return to that horrible 'first date' feeling where the abject terror of making a fool out of ourselves is relived in graphic detail.

And then we have to walk on the tee. Suddenly the trees, normally inconsequential, are descending over the fairway like giant lacrosse racquets ready to scoop our ball up and render it unplayable. The bunkers seem enormous, the green grass a mere moustache around them, no more than a few yards wide. 'Hell', we think, 'Why on earth do I play this wretched game?'

It's going to be another one of 'those days'.

This is a story that is recounted to me by players all over the country - no matter how good or bad, everyone has a tale of paralysing nerves and their potential to destroy their golfing enjoyment.

Nerves are essential for peak performance


There is reason why everyone gets nervous and it is this - nerves are essential for peak performance . Amateur golfers are adept at remembering the occasions where nerves have paralysed them, but they seldom recall occasions where they simply couldn't be bothered, where they felt like there was no incentive to play. These are occasions where we are not nervous enough, and they are just as damaging as being too nervous.

The key is to find that zone between being too nervous and not nervous enough - this is called the Individual Zone of Optimal Functioning (IZOF). Let's now look at three ways you can move towards this optimal state of mind.

The physical

On a physical level, many of you may well use breathing techniques of some description to reduce your nerves that little bit. 90% of my clients when I ask them what they do simply say 'well I just breathe deeply'. The problem with this is that it doesn't really give your body any clarity about what the aim of the breathing is. It's vague and ambiguous - something that both brain and body respond badly too. Instead try this: focus all your attention onto breathing through your heart . Almost feel it beating in your chest (you may want to place a hand there too to help you with this). With each deep breath, focus on slowing your heart down until you can actually feel this happening in your body. As you get better and better at this, you'll actually be able to slow your heart quite considerably* - back towards its normal beat. You are now in a much better state to hit a good golf shot.

You can repeat this exercise with any area of your body that becomes especially prone to nerves. I get lots of my clients to focus and on their fingers and hands - which shake as they grip the club. With each breath, focus very strongly on your hands and slow them down. Almost feel as though you're slowing the blood flow a little. This is especially valuable for putting - where a shaky hand will certainly not help you hole many putts. You might try 10 seconds of breathing through your heart, 10 seconds breathing through your hands. You'll be amazed at how much more in control you feel.

The mental

On a mental level, there are two ways of helping to overcome excessive nerves. First of all - ask yourself this question - why do you play golf? Most players talk about enjoyment, challenge, exercise, competitiveness and company. Far fewer golfers talk about winning or results as their primary motivation. Unfortunately, what happens when we get nervous is that we tend to move far more into a results based motivation - we become heavily focused on the result of the shot instead of the process of hitting it. Bear in mind that you cannot literally control where a golf ball will go. You can only influence it. Motivating yourself by results only will only make you more nervous, tense and uncomfortable. I often hear clients say early on - 'Yes but it matters Nick'. But does it really matter? In the grand scheme of things? Here lies the key. If you want to be less nervous, learn to care that little bit less. Motivate yourself by challenge, not results. Develop a sound pre-shot routine and stick to it. Get aggressive in your targeting. At the end of the day, the best players in the world are the ones that relish the challenge of each individual shot and are not afraid to lose. Enjoyment then results - not the other way round. I suggest you try the same thing.

The role of practice

Finally let me talk about practice. Do you think Ernie Els was nervous when he teed off in his first Open Championship? Of course he was. Do you think he was nervous when he teed up in 2004? Of course he was. But last time round he wasn't as nervous as he had been in years gone by. Why? Because he was used to it. Most amateurs get terribly nervous because they are simply not used to playing under pressurised conditions. Asking someone to hit a drive under high pressure who's only learned to hit a driver on the range (low pressure) is a bit like asking someone who's grown up in a quiet village to sleep next door to an airport! It's just not going to happen. The answer - simulate pressure in your practice. I recently worked with a chief executive who was preparing for a major speech. He had floundered in the past because of how nervous he got. I asked him how he practiced and he said he'd just recited the speech on his own in front of the mirror a few times. Is this the same environment as it would be in front of 500 delegates? I don't think so! The only change I made was to have him practice in under pressure - in front of his wife - which at first made him extremely nervous, and then to a group of 100 students, which terrified him. But he got used to it - he got used to the nerves and started using them to his advantage. He never struggled again. So if you want to be less nervous on the 1 st tee, it's essential that you create nerves in practice and learn to deal with them in advance. Otherwise you're nowhere. Play with someone on the putting green for £10 a putt. That's pressure. Go on the far corner of the range nearest the trouble and practice with 30 brand new golf balls. That's pressure! It might sound counter-intuitive, but if you really want to handle 1 st tee nerves, this is the way to go about it.

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