I don’t know if you happened to catch last year’s British Open. If you did, you saw one of the more pressured situations in professional sport: a several-hole playoff to determine the ‘Champion Golfer of the Year.’ While any tournament brings with a great deal of pressure along with it, the majors set themselves apart because they tend to define careers much more than regular tour wins. Thus, the pressure of a playoff is yet another level. As a player, you know you are that much closer to realizing this remarkable achievement, but you also know that victory, so tantalizingly close, can slip through your fingers in an instant.
What made this year’s three-man playoff between Zach Johnson, Louis Oosthuizen, and Mark Leishmann remarkable to me was how calm and at ease Zach Johnson appeared. While his competitors looked somewhat seasick, Zach looked as though he was out on a Sunday stroll with friends. In fact, he was chatting and chuckling with Louis Oosthuizen as they walked down the fairway of the first playoff hole. Noticed by the media, he was asked after the win what allowed him to seem so at peace. He stated that he had been reciting scriptures to himself “all day,” and in particular Psalms 24, verses 7-8: “Lift up O ye gates, and be ye lift up ye everlasting doors; and the king of Glory shall come in; Who is the King of Glory? The Lord, strong and mighty, mighty in battle.”
When Zach Johnson let the public in on that very private bit of cognitive work he was doing during this event, he reminded us of the importance of developing personal and private mantras for pressure-filled situations. He was also speaking to a scientific truth that many athletes need to know and tap into: mantras, like prayers, engage the parasympathetic nervous system, the one that calms us. In order to succeed in sport, we need both the part of us which keys us up with adrenaline (the sympathetic), and the part that calms us enough to perform our task with steady head, hands, and heart (the parasympathetic).
Thus, I encourage you: in conjunction with your coach, identify the most pressure-filled situations in your sport, and develop encouraging mantras you can say to yourself. When you do this, you will be participating in the “letting go” skill I have outlined earlier (“The Jesus Club,” August 25, 2012). This skill allows us to get out of our own way just at those moments when we might have the tendency to overcontrol and not perform well. Here are the basic elements of a mantra:
1) A mantra should be short. A mantra should be short enough to say to yourself in short transitions, quick moments, brief pauses when you are re-setting yourself to perform your skill. Golf is perfect because all golfers have a pre-shot routine. Such a time is a great time to engage a mantra. "Mighty in battle," is perfect.
2) You should believe your mantra. A mantra is not going to work to overcome anxiety if it’s something like, “you’re going to win,” or “no fear.” If you don’t believe those statements, they won’t calm your nerves.
3) Easy to remember. The last thing you want is a mantra that you can’t remember, or that is going to stress you out to try to remember.
4) Appropriate to the occasion. It is important to have several mantras for the various difficult moments in your sport. Some might be to help focus you right before you engage in a very tough skill, while others might be used to calm nerves in down time.
The well-chosen mantra can be just the thing to quell the self-doubt and help avoid a negative outcome brought on by a victory of nervy play over steadfast, grounded, competent execution. Develop one today and find yourself mighty in battle tomorrow.