We’ve all felt anxiety on the first tee. Whether you’re in front of dozens of people, or just three friends, first-tee jitters happen to everyone.
Your heart starts pounding. Then your head gets hot, your stomach tightens, and your legs begin to shake. If the anxiety really takes over, negative thoughts flood your mind. You may suddenly wish you were anywhere but on the course.
The best players figure out how to control this energy and channel it in productive ways. But even the pros will admit that stress can negatively impact their performance. For amateurs, the stakes are lower, but that doesn’t mean there’s less anxiety.
Performance anxiety is a natural phenomenon that can be debilitating or empowering, depending on whether you have methods of utilizing the energy that comes with it.
When I say energy, what comes to mind? Maybe you think of adrenaline. This is one product of the activation of the sympathetic nervous system (stress response). Adrenaline is related to what I’ll call the physical aspect of energy. There’s also the emotional aspect of energy, which may include desire, fear, embarrassment, and optimism. Finally, there’s the mental or spiritual aspect of energy, which I’ll describe as internal self-talk (both conscious and unconscious).
In short, energy is the medium between mind and body, between the tangible and intangible aspects of life. The type of energy you cultivate will affect the way you respond to stress physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
There’s one more concept you should know before I introduce a few exercises that can help you manage anxiety. This is the concept of Water Up, Fire Down energy circulation. Basically, it’s an ancient energy principle about keeping your head cool and your belly warm (a fire in your belly), and you can achieve it through exercise, breathing, and meditation. It’s related to the function of the autonomic nervous system, which controls our fight or flight and rest and digest responses. By tapping into the power of this system, we can change our energy circulation and maximize our physical, emotional, and spiritual power.
Read Next: Is Golf Good Exercise?
How To Calm Your Nerves on the Golf Course
So, back to the golf course. Managing your stress starts before you get to the first tee. Here are five simple mind-body exercises that can help you turn anxious energy into power and play your best:
1. Body Tapping
Maybe you’ve seen players on the Tour tapping points on their chest, neck, shoulders, or face during a round. Unless you look closely, you might miss it because it looks like they might be scratching an itch or adjusting their shirt.
Tapping has become popular as a way to bring attention back to the present moment, release tension, and activate more positive self-talk. You don’t need to learn a specific sequence of movements to do it; simply tap wherever you feel tense, rhythmically and repeatedly, with your fists, palms, or fingertips.
Focus on the vibrations and sensations the tapping produces as a way to draw your attention back to yourself and the present moment and away from negative thoughts or emotions. When you exhale, open your mouth slightly and focus on releasing your tension and anxiety. It might take some practice, but tapping your chest and abdomen will be especially helpful if you want to relieve stress, breathe more deeply, and create Water Up, Fire Down energy circulation. Continue tapping until you feel clear and calm.
2. Intestinal Exercise
Have you heard of your ‘second brain’? Scientists have found that our intestines contain over 100 million nerve cells that work semi-independently from the central nervous system, which functions like a second brain for our nervous system.
It’s not just taking orders from the brain in our head; it’s often giving them. This means if your gut is unhappy, you’re more likely to feel anxious, distracted, and weak. You can prime your second brain for optimal performance by doing some simple abdominal exercises that I call “Intestinal Exercise.”
This form of abdominal self-massage can be performed in any posture, although I generally recommend keeping your back and neck straight. The essential movement involves repeatedly pulling your lower abdominal muscles in toward your back and then pushing them out.
Concentrate on the sensations in your lower abdomen as you pull in as deeply as possible and then push out gently until you can feel pressure against your abdominal wall. You may find your breathing coordinating with your movement, but you do not need to synchronize them deliberately.
Start with 50 repetitions, and gradually increase this number as you become comfortable with the exercise. You can fit them in on the way to the game and as you walk or ride to each hole, preparing yourself for the next shot.
3. 3-3-3 Breathing
I’m sure you’ve seen professional athletes intentionally use breathing to calm their nerves. Whether it’s a basketball player at the free throw line or an MMA fighter before the start of the first round, these athletes have been trained to manage anxiety by taking a deep breath.
But there’s more to stress management than just deep breathing. Try this 3-3-3 Breathing Technique to center your energy and transform anxiety into power:
- Inhale deeply through your nose in three segments.
- Hold your breath for three seconds.
- Then exhale through your mouth in three segments.
- Wait three seconds until you begin the sequence again.
Over time, your body and mind may be relaxing, and your breathing becomes deeper.
4. Energy Sensing Meditation
Here’s an idea that might help you—rather than trying to suppress your anxiety, focus on doing something useful with that extra energy. Before a round of golf, I like to practice a simple meditation technique using my hands.
It can help calm the mind and also awaken more feeling and control in your hands, which is obviously good for your game. Here’s how to do it: clap and shake your hands for a few seconds to stimulate your palms.
Then bring your hands up to chest height with your palms facing each other a couple of inches apart. Straighten your back, relax your shoulders, close your eyes, and give all your attention to the sensations in your palms.
Once you begin to relax, separate your palms as you inhale, then bring them closer as you exhale. Continue to focus on the sensations in and between your palms as you repeat this movement for a few minutes.
You may feel tingling, magnetism, pressure, warmth, or other sensations. These are feelings of the energy in your body. Don’t worry if you can’t feel anything in your hands at first. With a little practice and deeper relaxation of your mind and body, you’ll be able to feel the energy sensations whenever you want.
5. Longevity Walking
This, along with breathing, is probably the most useful tip of all: walk with purpose. Walking is an integral part of the game of golf, and each step you take can help to ground your energy.
Even if you’re riding in a cart, the walk to your ball can be a chance to calm your mind and energize your body. Walking correctly can help you feel stronger and healthier as you get older, and it provides various benefits beyond the golf course.
Here’s how to do Longevity Walking: Stand comfortably with your shoulders back and spine straight, pulling your chest away from your pelvis to make space. Lean your whole body forward slightly, about one degree, to put more of your weight on the balls of your feet.
As you walk, step lightly with the heel of your foot, then really press the ground with the ball of your foot, following through all the way to the tips of your big toes. Keep your feet parallel, and let your knees lightly brush against each other. Focus on the balls of your feet as you take each step. Let your arms swing naturally at your sides, and most importantly, smile!
I hope these five ancient practices help you to calm your nerves on the golf course. Try them before, during, or even after a round of golf to transform anxiety into energy. And remember, it’s not always about winning but how you feel while playing the game.
Ilchi Lee is a meditation expert, avid golfer, and New York Times, bestselling author. He founded the mind-body practice of Body & Brain Yoga and Brain Education. In his recent book, The 100-Year Golfer: 7 Arts for a Lifetime with the Game, he demonstrates how mind and body training can be a part of a life of golf and how to keep improving the game at any age.