When I celebrated my 54th birthday, I mused this as being my “perfect score” year. Later that week, The Golf Channel aired “59”, a show comprised of interviews of players who shot a 59 in a PGA or LPGA Tournament. There have only been seven players ever to accomplish this perfect feat. You’ve tasted that moment when all was going amazingly well and you were in the zone, you turned off your conscious efforts and went with the flow. Most zones last about as long as a blink truth be told! But the “perfect score seven” experienced the zone for almost an entire round of golf. What did they do differently and how might we learn to play our best golf more often? I share with you a chapter from my book Mentored by the King, as Arnold Palmer certainly became familiar with this illusive space called “the zone”.
Lesson 25: Getting Into the Zone
Let’s face it. When we’re on the golf course, it’s so easy to have our thoughts race between what has happened on past outings and what might occur going forward. These distracted or disjointed thoughts can take us on an emotional roller coaster and cause a loss of focus regarding what we want to accomplish.
Too many of us live a frantic and frenzied life. Our “margins” are narrow. We are reactionary in nature. We may dream, but we rarely plan and execute. We’re constantly responding to other people’s needs and demands. I have a friend who says he refuses to live off someone else’s “out box,” meaning just because it’s a priority for them, it doesn’t mean it has to be a priority for him. That may sound a little cynical, plus it’s easier said than done.
Beware of Escalating
As humans, we are prone to escalate rapidly in our emotions, connecting the feelings of one moment to the next, rather than isolating incidents. For example, if you’re a father and you’ve just had a heated discussion with your teenage son, odds are your next conversation with your wife is unlikely to be the sweetest you’ve ever had. A wife who has had a rough day with toddlers is more likely to be short-tempered with her husband. Soon the whole house is upset and on edge. Have you ever noticed this pattern leading you from one problem to the next? It’s like the guy who was trying to repair a slow drip under his sink. He grew so irritated at his inability to loosen the fitting that he took his wrench and smashed the PVC pipe to the main water line. Within two minutes, his entire kitchen was flooded. Bad move!
We often hear people gripe and groan. “I just can’t catch a break!” they say. But are they paying attention to see their breaks, or are they so blinded by woe that they’re looking in the opposite direction? If you look for trouble, trouble will always find you. It’s simply the law of attraction.
The golf course is really no different. In fact, I’ve always thought the game of golf is a great metaphor for life. There’s a natural tendency to react negatively when we hit a poor shot?—??when that’s all it really is, just one poor shot! Our response often causes us to go into “fight or flight” mode without any awareness it’s even happening. Granted, it’s only natural to get caught up thinking about the outcome of our score, but impatience and irritation are always detrimental to the game, causing us to “force” shots.
Balancing Aggression with Patience
I’m often asked who in the sport of golf today best exemplifies an approach similar to Arnold Palmer’s “go for broke” style of play. Phil Mickelson, in my estimation, is the modern-day disciple of this approach. He’s always taken charge on the course and been a highly focused player. There is intensity, but there’s also something else: patience! Patience learned through failure! But, you might say, wouldn’t a tendency toward aggressiveness contradict a penchant for patience? Not necessarily.
The key to finding your ideal “performance state” is by first calming down.
I often tell my students that the key to finding their ideal “performance state” is by first calming down so that they can eventually speed up. You’ll note that I didn’t say slow down; I said calm down. I borrow this insightful line of wisdom from life success mentor and coach Bob Proctor. He says, “You don’t have to slow down, you must calm down. Because when you calm down, it will often allow you to speed up getting that which you want.”
You don’t have to slow down, you must calm down. Because when you calm down, it will often allow you to speed up getting that which you want.
~ Life success mentor Bob Proctor
For over fifty years, Arnold Palmer has followed the same routine before striking a shot in practice or in play. Prior to walking into his address position, he takes a massively deep breath through his nose, filling his entire chest cavity, and then calmly releases it through his mouth. If you’re listening attentively, as I have done for thousands of his shots, the exhale sounds very much like a soft version of an old-time train engine releasing its steam. (Puff, puff, puff, puff, pufffffffffff). I don’t know if Arnie is even aware of this mannerism. The more important the shot, the more pronounced his breathing exercise becomes.
The next time you’re watching a telecast of professional golf, take a moment to observe the behaviors outside of the actual swings. Study the players’ body language and behavior. What do the majority of them do when they’re preparing to hit that key shot? How do they look when they’re walking around the cup preparing to make that winning putt? That’s right, they usually appear calm and serene.
I liken the habits of Tiger Woods to those of a big cat circling its next meal. Tiger’s walk is smooth and flowing. His eyes are wide open, bright and alert. If we had a heart monitor on him, I believe we would discover that his heartbeat is slowing through deep rhythmic breathing and quieting thoughts.
Getting Into the Zone
There is a difference between just waiting for something to happen and the habit of deliberately practicing patience. Patience is not waiting for something good to happen; that’s just what I call wishful laziness. I like what professional golfer Johnny Miller said: “Serenity [in golf] is knowing that your worst shot is still pretty good.” Again, Johnny’s not suggesting it’s okay to settle for second best; he’s affirming the importance of self-confidence and the effectiveness of a calm and cool approach to the game.
Serenity [in golf] is knowing that your worst shot is still pretty good. ~ Golfer Johnny Miller
It’s possible to possess Palmer’s aggressive approach to winning and remain calm in mind and approach. There’s a lot of talk about athletes getting into “the zone.” From my years of working with professional athletes, the typical star explains the zone like this: I am relaxed and tension free. Time seems to stop and decisions come quickly and easily. I see things fall into place moments before it actually happens. I am fearless and aggressive. I am calm and having fun creating what I want with no thought about how?—??I just do it.
Not surprisingly, research has confirmed these anecdotal reports. Roland A. Carlstedt, a clinical sports psychologist with Capella University in New York City, led a study designed to examine the internal thoughts of athletes during critical moments of competition. The findings?
Winning athletes possessed [a] hypnotic ability, but were not neurotic. They showed great skill in repressing negative thoughts and keeping their attention on the job at hand?—??a left-brain activity.
Those who crumbled also had the hypnotic ability, but their negative thoughts took over, especially at the most critical moments?—??a right-brain activity.
The ability to stop the transfer of intrusive thoughts?—??from the right brain to the left brain?—??is a crucial part of staying focused through crucial moments of competition.2
Taking time out of your life to calm down will actually help you speed up in getting what you really want. As silly as it might sound, I would encourage you to make the pursuit of quieting your mind a focal point of your life. How?
Meditation and prayer help us to calm our spirit and focus on the most important things. “Successful [people] will employ the latest and best-tested methods in production, distribution, and administration,” Norman Vincent Peale wrote, “and many are discovering that one of the greatest of all efficiency methods is prayer power.” I couldn’t agree more.
I’m currently using a fascinating software program called HeartMath, initially designed by heart surgeons to help trauma victims develop control of their emotions through biofeedback and techniques in breathing and thinking. I have successfully used HeartMath in training golfers to understand the ideal performance state and how to shift into that state of coherence we call “the zone” through playing interactive video games with biofeedback. This incredible technology is helping many of my players reduce stress and develop a keen awareness of the mind and the body.
How golfers feel emotionally will greatly affect their actions and results. They might have perfect technique but think themselves into poor results. With practice, the disciplines learned through HeartMath allow golfers to control their emotions instead of the emotions controlling them.
Getting On Track
Momentum is a powerful force. It’s an energy that’s usually triggered by a series of small victories. If you’re currently stuck in a rut or feel as though you’re meandering without purpose or direction, here is the very best thing you can do: Look for an easy and simple success. If you’re unhappy at work, prepare that résumé. If you want to reconnect with an old friend, write that letter. If you’re estranged from a loved one, make the phone call. If you feel unorganized at home, clean out a closet. Looking for a new adventure? Sign up for that class. In other words, pick the low-hanging fruit. All too often, we allow a pursuit of perfection to become the enemy of good. Don’t let what you can’t do stop you from doing what you can do.