Sports Psychologists Are Wrong About This


I had a side-hill three-footer in a team match, in which a partner and I were playing two guys from our enemy club. I studied my little slider while one of the other guys failed to chip in. My putt was slick, but I felt confident. I could see the line as clearly as if it were painted on the grass.

When it was my turn, my partner—who had been in his pocket since hitting both his drive and his provisional drive out of bounds—suddenly spoke. “Take your time,” he said.

Now, there’s a golf injunction I hate. I had been doing little for the past fifteen minutes except waiting for other people to play themselves out of the hole. How much more time was I supposed to take? I ignored my partner and got comfortable over my ball. One long, last look at my target, and—he spoke again.

“Back of the cup,” he said. “Smooth stroke.”

He had me now. Was I missing something? I backed away and reexamined my line. Maybe the putt did break less than I’d been thinking. I picked a different blade of grass to aim for, and stroked the ball a little harder.

It dipped below the rim but didn’t fall.

The conventional wisdom among sports psychologists is that chat between partners should always be positive. The human brain can’t process negative instructions, they say. Tell a golfer to avoid that bunker over there and he’ll think of nothing but sand. Therefore, you say “Back of the cup,” not “Don’t jab it, you loser.”

I disagree. When a partner turns gravely supportive, I can’t help wondering what he’s worried about. Invariably, I come up with a list.

A better strategy, I think, is to confront golf anxieties squarely. Recently, some buddies and I tested this hypothesis. Our foursome was playing three other foursomes, and our pro, Fran, had a crucial putt.

“Hey, Fran,” I said. “Don’t screw up.”

He laughed. Then he drained it.

On the next hole, as I was teeing up my ball, Tony said, “Keep it out of the woods, for a change, O. K.?” Boom—straight up the middle. And long.

When your partner tells you to make a good swing, he is indirectly expressing his uneasiness about your ability to play golf; when your partner tells you not to screw up, he is using a joke to acknowledge the pressure you’re feeling and, in effect, forgiving you in advance for letting down the side, if that’s how things turn out.

On the final green, I was able to return the favor to Tony. “We need this one,” I said, “How about not blowing it?”

He took his time, made a smooth stroke, and nailed the back of the cup.

4 thoughts on “Sports Psychologists Are Wrong About This

  1. Completely agree.
    This is good enough for Golf Digest. If you expanded it I think you could use it in an upcoming issue.

  2. It’s not a matter of what is said, but how you interpret it. “Hit it down the middle” and “Hey, dumbass, not in the trees, okay?” can both be spun positively by our exquisitely complex brain. The real question is which is the more effective motivating statement for what kind of person? Does an alpha type respond to “down the middle” or “don’t be a loser”? Or beta types?

  3. I think it depends on the person. It seems like your a person to second guess yourself. Some people might already took the water or woods out of play only to think no hit it right, then boom it goes right into the woods or water. For me, if my last swing thought is of a bad shot i did before, i will reproduce it or do a double cross to not do it (ie. top a chip if i previously duffed one, or just duff one). I rather have someone tell me that i have done this before, making me remember a good shot.

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