Golf isn't necessarily a good walk spoiled, as Mark Twain once said, but a good game of golf can be spoiled by poorly managed stress.
In a study of elite golfers faced with difficult shots that could make or break their careers, researchers found some simple strategies that allowed athletes to cope well -- and some consistent behaviors that caused the athletes to perform badly. The golfers were interviewed by the researchers and asked to describe a high-stress situation in which they had performed well and one in which they had performed badly.
All golfers felt performance stress, but their descriptions of times that they coped well showed that they followed their routine, blocked negative thoughts, performed breathing exercises, reappraised the situation and sought social support.
In situations in which the golfers performed badly, however, the interviews showed another consistent pattern of behavior: They rushed their shots, allowed negative thoughts to interrupt their concentration or changed their routine mid-game.
The strategies that worked could generally be described as gaining a sense of control over the situation, while the strategies that failed were associated with a sense of losing control, said Nick Holt at the University of Alberta in Canada, who conducted the study with Adam Nicholls at the University of Hull in the United Kingdom.
"The thing we've realized is that these guys have learned to do it through trial-and-error," Holt said of the athletes. "I don't think they are getting a lot of training."
Although this study involved only 18 high-level golfers, the coping strategies could help "even a recreational golfer standing on the first tee with a couple of people watching," Holt said.
Such strategies also could benefit non-athletes, Holt said. The most important thing, he said, is to try to stay in control of the stress -- rather than vice versa. From the interviews with the athletes, it was clear that in situations in which they fared poorly, the athletes often didn't try any coping strategies at all.
"If you can do that when faced with the stress at work, you'd probably cope pretty well," Holt said.