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Mental Toughness Training for Golfers: How to Conquer Pre-Game Jitters

The first tee shot can often make or break a round because it sets up your performance on the first hole, which can have a bearing on your attitude and score on the opening holes. Retief Goosen, who won the US Open, said that most good players get the first tee jitters and a good shot can settle you down quickly.

Goosen stated, "Well, you're always nervous on the first tee. Today with the way the wind was playing, you had to hit driver while the other three days I hit 2-iron off the tee. Those first tee nerves are always the hardest to get over, and it was nice to get off to a great tee shot and obviously making a birdie." Even the best players in the world get nervous, but they still can perform.

Players can experience two different types of jitters. The first is the friendly kind of butterflies characterized by excitement and anticipation. This is a good feeling of anticipation of the start of the round. You feel excited to play and ready to get going. The second kind of jitters is the type that makes you have a sinking feeling in the pit of your gut. Your mind races, heart rate accelerates, palms sweat, muscles tighten, blood pressure increases, and you get an uncomfortable feeling in your stomach. In addition, you worry about topping the first shot or hitting it in the woods.

Players of all levels experience pressure, even the pros when playing in the US Open. The pressure you feel to win a match is self-induced and can hurt or help your play depending on how you react to it. When Goosen was asked about the most pressure he felt trying to win the US Open, he replied that putting was the most difficult, but not unexpected. "When you stand over a putt you are nervous. You are shaking on the inside like any other player does, and Tiger does, too. It's just how you've learned to play under that sort of pressure, and in a way it sort of becomes natural in a way that you feel like I can only play my best golf when I'm really under pressure," Goosen said.

Now that's a different perspective about pressure-pressure is a natural part of sports and you need to feel it to play your best golf! How a player perceives the pressure determines if he will react well or poorly to it. Players who choke are afraid of the feelings that come with pressure, whereas golfers who win embrace the feelings that come with pressure. Pressure is only bad if you see it as harmful, but it can actually help you perform better if you use it to your advantage.

When you are under pressure, the physiological activation increases and you are in an excited state. Some of this is very positive as it can help you focus better when you need to. Champion golfers worry about not having enough intensity and focus to play their best. I know many golfers who can only get excited (and thus focused) when they are on the leader board or have a chance to win and if they are on the bottom of the field, they lose intensity and focus. Goosen states, "Sometimes when you're not under pressure, your focus is not there, and you might not make the putts. But when you're sort of under pressure, it's sort of a must thing; you must focus and you must make the putt, and that's what I feel when I stand over it."

One of your objectives when you begin to feel the pressure is to interpret it as a way of getting you focused and giving you the shot of adrenaline you need to perform well. Welcoming the nerves as a natural part of golf is how many pros deal with nerves when trying to win a golf tournament. Focusing too much on the uncomfortable feelings only heightens the tension. When you feel nervous, do not bring more attention to the knot in your stomach or a rapid heartbeat. Accept that your body is preparing you to perform your best in competition.

Dr. Patrick J. Cohn is a master mental game coach who works with athletes of all levels including amateur and professionals. Visit to gain access to over 500 exclusive mental game articles, audio programs, and interviews with athletes and coaches to enhance your athletic potential: or call 888-742-7225.

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