Over the past few years, I have been fortunate enough to caddy several events on the PGA and Nationwide Tours. Obviously, the stakes are different depending on the level of play, but during pressure moments, I have witnessed some athletes increase muscle tension, take shorter breaths and engage in counterproductive over-thinking. Due to our mind-body connection, the type of thoughts we have can directly affect our physiology. The moment itself provides enough pressure, but we unfortunately add to it through our thinking.
During pressure moments, we all can become very “needy”: “I need this putt” or “I need this match.” Across all sports, athletes and coaches alike add useless pressure through these types of thoughts and statements: “We need this goal” or “We need to win.” But thinking “I need to play well” places the worst type of pressure possible on an athlete.
The “needing” mindset handicaps thoughts, places unrealistic expectations on athletes and adds undue pressure. Cutting some slack in our thoughts will help our performance. Thus, it’s important to recognize the difference between wants and needs. Notice the difference between statements like “I need to play well” vs. “I want to play well” or “I need this goal” vs. “I would like a big inning.” Or try this statement, which can apply to any athlete: “I want to play well.”
Another effective tactic during pressure moments is to use the word “just.” It allows some freedom to complete the task, because it is not cast in absolutes such as “needing.” Try these thoughts: “Just play,” “Just put a good swing on it” or “Just stay aggressive.”
When pressure mounts, it is crucial to allow yourself room to think effectively, and using the word “just” provides a clear goal. Remember, “needing” statements put undue pressure on you. Try using better phrases and words such as “want” and “just.”
Dr. Rob Bell is an assistant professor at Ball State University and a certified sport psychology consultant with The Association of Applied Sport Psychology. He also works as a caddy on professional golf tours. His first book, Mental Toughness Training for Golf, was published in 2010. A prolific writer, Dr. Bell has been published in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, Journal of Athletic Insight, Journal of Sport Behavior and Encyclopedia of Sports. He writes extensively on the mental game—for, among others, Runner’s World, The New York Times and STACK magazine—and he has been a presenter for numerous teams, schools and organizations. Dr. Bell earned his B.A. in psychology from Shepherd University; his M.Ed. in kinesiology, with a specialty in sport psychology, from Temple University; and his Ph.D. in sport psychology from the University of Tennessee.