Don’t sabotage yourself.
December 7, 2021 by Steve Andrews in Opinion with comments
Most players play better when there’s nothing on the line but struggle when the pressure is on. What’s strange, though, is that, for many players, the shots that are the most psychologically difficult can be the simplest ones to execute.
Often, mental pressure is not coming from the challenge of the shot but from expectations (whether those of the player or an imagined audience). There are usually very low psychological stakes when you step up to a 90-foot putt. No one expects you to make it, so if it goes in, you’re a hero. Miss and everyone shrugs. But if you throw it inside the circle from 430 feet, the 22-footer to cash a birdie can carry a ton of pressure.
The internal dialogue can be relentless. You should make it, right? Everyone has already counted it as a birdie. They congratulated me on the walk to the basket but now that 22 feet looks like 60. I can’t airball this, right? Don’t miss a gimme, you’ll look like an idiot. I can’t believe I just put that right into the cage.
There are a lot of players who seem to turn on when the shot is difficult but miss shots that should be easy for their skill level. Sometimes, players don’t bring the same focus to easy shots they bring to tough ones. They can’t get “up” for a placement shot the way they can for a risky roller or a sky anny over danger. This is natural but leads to uneven performance and frustration. Even if players can bring all their focus to difficult shots, risky plays do not have a consistent rate of success.
Many high-risk players are good enough to get into the lead but rarely find themselves staying there. That’s because risky play can also be a form of self-sabotage that is used – often subconsciously – to reduce pressure. Many high-risk players get hot in the first round of a tournament but then make bad choices and blow up for two or three holes. Once they do, they often find themselves playing much better when they are safely out of the lead and playing from behind. “You are a good player with a two-stroke lead, don’t mess this up” is much less comfortable than “you are four back, let it rip.”
This tendency can make course management difficult. In my experience, many players who regularly play high-risk golf resist applying course management. Some say it feels less fun, others that it just won’t work for them. I think this can cover up a nagging sense that giving themselves more shots they should make would be much harder psychologically. Their game is based on trying the impossible and scrambling, which helps to create a comfort zone of intentional chaos. It’s hard to screw up the plan when there isn’t one.
Simon Lizotte pays very little cost for his high-risk game. In fact, it’s one of the things everyone (including me) loves about him. If he goes to a tournament and throws sky-rollers on wooded par 3s, drives 420-foot island greens with putters, and comes in 22nd, no one will even comment on it. In fact, his best risky shots may wind up on SportsCenter. Instead, if he played smart, managed his game well, but missed three 25-footers after laying up, we would all be discussing what was wrong with Simon and wondering why he can’t close. Even if he finished fifth.
Look at the shots on the final hole of the 2021 world championship. If James Conrad missed his 247-foot upshot 50 feet long and took a double bogey, no one would have criticized him. He is a hero for going for the win. That doesn’t make Conrad’s shot any less amazing, of course, but it does mean the psychological pressure was relatively low. Now look at Paige Pierce. She laid up on the 90th hole of the tournament to give herself a very makeable upshot. Yes, it is a much easier shot, but the psychological pressure on that shot – having played safe to get a shot she should throw well every time to win the World Championship – was enormous. It was the right play, but missing that upshot brought all kinds of criticism: harsher, perhaps, than if she had made the incredibly risky decision to go for it from back in the fairway and gone OB.
Many aggressive players will haphazardly try “course management” and then abandon it. For example, looking at a tough approach to an island green they will announce they are “playing safe” to the landing zone, throw a Harp into the rough, take bogey anyway, and then announce on the next tee that playing safe was the wrong choice and they are never doing that again. Obviously, it is frustrating to give up a chance for birdie in favor of a “safe” par and then screw it up. But there’s a good chance that player has not spent much time practicing his upshots and didn’t approach the safe upshot with the same amount of focus they would have brought to trying to hit the island.
I think a lot of “fearless” aggressive golf is about players avoiding the pressure to have to do what they should be able to do. But the benefit of course management is even higher for players who have dynamic games with a lot of upside. If you are good enough to get near the lead of your division, course management can help you stay there. But how can a high-risk player add course management to their game?
Change Your Self-Image
There are a lot of players who define themselves as aggressive players. Many are players who will talk about how far or well they throw it but shrug that they “just can’t putt.” It is fine to be an aggressive player but stop letting that definition dominate your game. It’s lazy. If you have some great advantage – a power forehand, or a huge backhand – then you can build your game around it. But don’t stop there. See yourself as a complete player. Don’t settle for just being the person who throws crazy lines when you can also be the person who shoots low scores.
Embrace the Work
To be a complete player, you need to do the work. That may mean working on your upshots and putting. If you have good length, then you will see a lot more of these shots and they will be crucial to making your distance mean something. Too many players with good weapons don’t do the basic work to make sure that those advantages will result in lower scores.
True confidence, the kind that holds up under pressure, comes from turning your weaknesses into strengths. Work on basic shots, recovery shots, making sure you can get up and down when you hit an early tree. Work on throwing to precise distances and throwing simple hyzers. If you are a player who can’t focus or “get up” for basic shots, then make those basic shots more challenging in practice. Make yourself focus on hitting the pole or landing within three feet of your target. If your ceiling is boundless, build a stronger floor.
The one thing no one wants to see is the longest thrower in their club on the putting green. So that’s where you should be.
Everyone Loves a Showoff
I once followed John Daly around the course at a golf tournament in California. The gallery all cheered whenever he pulled out his driver, especially when we all knew he should hit 2-iron. There was a point where he seemed much more interested in thrilling us with his club selection than hitting the shots he needed to score. It was a ton of fun, we were thrilled, we loved him, and he missed the cut.
There are lots of players who want to show off. They want to throw high-risk shots and tight lines to get approval from their playing partners. But here’s the thing. Most everyone loves a showoff – especially your opponents. They cheer you for throwing the impossible line because, while you may make it occasionally, in the long run it’s going to cost you lots of strokes. Every club has a player who never plays to their potential because of bad choices: their competitors are very grateful.
Make a Plan
If you are a player who self-sabotages with risky play, who often thinks “aw hell, I’m playing great, I’m going for it” and then takes a triple, then you need a plan. Make the decision to throw risky lines before the round begins. Think through the shots you will throw and why you might change to a riskier option. If you have already decided “if I am ahead or tied for the lead on 17 I will throw safe, if I am one or two back I will go for it” then it will be easier to stick to your plan when you get to the tee. What you don’t want to do is get to the tee of 17 in the lead and then do your risk calculations amid your whirling emotions.
Externalize the Advice
It is hard to weigh your options inside your own head. When a group of us were headed out to the Glass Blown Open in 2017, we were laughing about how we wished that we had a version of the Microsoft Office assistant “Clippy” who would pop up and give us advice. “It looks like you are thinking about throwing an understable Sheriff over water into a 40-mph headwind,” Clippy would chirp. “Would you like some help finding your Harp and directions to the closest landing zone?”
But the truth is, I used that thought for the next three days. Whenever I was undecided, I thought about what a disc golf Clippy would advise. It made it easier to think through the safe options when I could imagine them coming from an annoying animated figure. It also made that advice external to my own ego. I could choose to do what Clippy suggested or else tell him to shut up. Finishing my rounds, I often reported to my friends that “Clippy was real proud of me today.” I was out of my depth playing the GBO in the Intermediate division after only playing for about a year, but the last day I won my card and shot 82 points above my rating in an A-tier. Everyone can use a caddy, even if it is just an imaginary paper clip.
Accept the Risk of Failure
Many good players fear being exposed as not good enough. For high-risk players, it often feels better to blow themselves up rather than to fail. But self-sabotage is just quitting while still looking like you are trying. The challenge is to be brave enough to really try, even though you might fail.
Be okay with messing up the safe shot when it is the right shot to throw. You may punch out and still blow up on a hole. That’s fine. Paige Pierce did the right thing on the last hole of the 2021 World Championships. It didn’t work out. She is still great. Every round, every hole, every throw is not a referendum on your skill as a player or value as a person. Great players throw gross shots; smart plans blow up.
Course management is about putting yourself in position to throw the shots you throw the best. It is about reducing risk and maximizing the chance of a successful shot. But it depends on you making those smart choices and practicing enough that you can make those shots reliably. It also depends on you being able to withstand the increasing pressure of a good performance and endure the expectations that you can make those good decisions pay off.