Pressure is a story you create for yourself

I’m speaking with Golf Performance Coach Tim O’Connor and today’s topic is pressure. That seems particularly appropriate to the current dilemma faced by Rory McIlroy. He’s one of the most talented golfers in the world, with many PGA Tour victories to his credit, including four majors. He has multiple top 10’s and even close calls but he hasn’t won a major now in nine years. To me, he’s obviously feeling the pressure. And if he tries to forget it, the media is always there to remind him of it. Obviously, he’s trying to overcome whatever it is that’s preventing him from winning.

And then there’s another kind of pressure that is more of the moment, as in anybody in contention during a tournament trying to win. Rory has had months to deal with the pressure on him while the other is purely situational. So Tim, do you differentiate between those two and how do you deal with them?

Tim O’Connor: Great question. Let’s start this way. Pressure is something that we create. It’s an internal experience. It isn’t something that comes upon us. And what I mean by that is that we create, in essence, a story. We create a context for something that says this is important. This is, you know, my identity is wrapped up in this. Can I prove that I’m a closer? Am I worthy of being a club champion or a major champion etc? Pressure is completely a self-created experience. So, when people talk about whether someone handles pressure very well, I actually would dispute that description.

I think that when players play really well, when they are in a tournament situation, they’re not feeling pressure. They may feel nerves. They may feel excited, but if they’re feeling pressure, that’s something that they put upon themselves in terms of, oh, I need to win this for my first tournament or I need to win this to be the first Canadian to win the Canadian Open. But you have a choice in that. You can accept the story and be aware that it’s just a story. But you also have to understand that it’s a self-created story in your head. And to deal with it, you can say, okay, I hear that. I hear that chirping in my mind saying that this is what this means, but I can also choose to let it go. The hard part is choosing. Does that make sense?

Totally. One word that kept popping into my mind as you were talking about pressure was stress. Is stress a current in the moment kind of thing, or is that a more of an ingrained thing when it comes to looking at trying to achieve one of these goals?

No, stress is like pressure. It’s an internal thing that we create. As a writer, if I feel a deadline coming up and it’s weighing on me, then I think I better not be late because the editor won’t hire me again. So, I rush the job and it’s not very good. You might think I don’t perform well under pressure, or I can’t handle the stress. But in essence, I created my own stress. And I also could have chosen not to listen to that story.

Stress is something we have to be aware of; it’s going on within us. Maybe we’re holding the club too tight or we’re swinging too fast. Part of dealing with it is recognizing that we’re feeling something different. But again, we created it, which means we have choices about whether we’re gonna fall into the story or not.

If Rory McIlroy, is feeling the stress of performing in a major, does he need to prove to the world that indeed he’s a historical figure in golf? If that is going through his head, he’s gonna create an environment where it’s gonna be difficult for him to concentrate in a relaxed way and swing with a degree of freedom and just have some focus rather than having all this stuff in the background buzzing away.

But isn’t legacy one of those things that top athletes think about? Beating someone’s record? Being the Greatest of All Time?

Sure, but again that’s a self-created thing. If Rory didn’t win the Masters and complete the Grand Slam, would his life be useless? Would his legacy be shot down in flames?

Well, obviously not, but what does he do? Does he try and tell himself a different story, that it doesn’t matter, or he doesn’t care?

Well, as I said before, he has to understand that it’s a story and that he can choose whether he’s gonna listen to it or not. If not, then he can just create another. You have to create your own context for what success is for you. And that shouldn’t hinge on an outcome because golf is so full of luck, for God’s sake. Yes, the more you knock on the door, the more you’re in contention, the more you give yourself an opportunity for that door to open and you could actually win. But what Rory needs to do is create a context so that he can operate and free wheel and have a degree of freedom and concentration that provides an environment where he can perform. But if it’s all about, I must do this or else, it’s very difficult to get out of his own head.

Here’s an example many of us can relate to. A lot of golfers put tons of pressure on themselves when they go into a qualifier for the Ontario Amateur or play their Club Championship. If they go into it thinking it’s all about shooting a low score, well, good luck with that because you don’t control score. You don’t control the weather or the divots in the fairway. You might wake up with a crick in your back and a stiff neck or whatever. But if you create an environment for yourself that success for you today would be that you’re able to stay committed to some part of your process or that you are going to maintain an intention of being a good partner, expressing gratitude or something, those are things that you can control. Then you come out of there and go like, yeah okay, I succeeded. And if I happen to shoot a low score, well, hey, that’s a wonderful bonus.

That makes sense to me, but I think one of the things we’re all caught up in is this idea that we have to achieve or win to succeed. It gnaws at us. And for professional golfers, I imagine they just have bigger dreams that gnaw at them too. It’s like you’re on a hamster wheel, just going round and round and round. And, asking yourself, how do I get off this? How do I get away from this feeling that I have to achieve? I have to win something. How do I break that cycle or that link?

Yeah. Well, my sense is that you have to focus on a different outcome. Think about happiness. It’s a total inside job but we offer it within a culture, including a golf culture, which tells us that that it’s results that matter and they determine your legacy and how people view you, and whether you’re going to be happy. The problem is, in this culture that we’re in, it tells us that what you achieve, what you wear, what car you drive is crucial to your happiness but most of that is just empty.

You could go out and shoot 67 and you feel damn good, but the next day you wake up and you’ve still got stuff going on in your life and that 67 is very short lived. If your life is governed by the credo that I’ll be happy when I win the Masters or I get my handicap down to 10, then you win the Masters and it’s like, okay great, but now I need to win it a second time. Now I gotta get my handicap down to eight. Like, where does it stop? So, that’s what I mean about creating a context for ourselves where we’re gonna experience a feeling of mastery, of wholeness, of freedom. By the way, I don’t generally like using the word happiness cause there’s a whole self-help industry about people working at trying to be happy all the time. And that sounds like a miserable thing to do.

So. Lets pivot back to that other kind of pressure I mentioned. That’s the “in the moment” pressure that players feel when they’re in contention. How do you deal with that?

Yeah sure. That’s really about awareness. And the only way you get awareness is through experience. So, what’ll often happen for people is they’ll get into an environment in which they’re unfamiliar and things start going on in their body. And they start having thoughts that they may not have had before but particularly feelings in their body. Suddenly, you’re hitting five irons 15 yards farther than you’ve ever hit them before. Everything is speeded up. We don’t have our sensitivity because we’re in this new environment we haven’t experienced before, and things are out of whack. Is that pressure? I say it’s excitement, excitement about trying to win. Remember Mito Pereira in the PGA Championship last year? He’s pretty much a rookie on the PGA Tour, maybe he’d won some Korn Ferry events but there he is on the 72nd hole with a chance to win a major championship. And that was the fastest swing I think I’ve ever seen. That was actually kind of bizarre and I think it was because he’d never experienced that before. So, the point is, if you haven’t experienced it, you often don’t even know what’s going on in your body.

You definitely have to go through this stuff so you can say to yourself, I’ve felt this before, and adjust to it. Everything that happens to us causes a reaction. Someone says something that pisses you off and you might say something you might regret later. But what we really wanna do in life is kind of press pause and think about what happened. And then we can go forward with a reasoned response. Responding is different than reacting. Responding is more coming from my full self, from being grounded, from being just a little bit more emotionally neutral.

Experience gives us that pause to be aware, to think about our situation and respond in the best way possible.

Tim O’Connor is a golf coach, an award-winning writer, and speaker. Tim takes a holistic approach, coaching golfers in the physical and mental aspects of golf. He co-hosts the Swing Thoughts podcast, and is the author of The Feeling of Greatness: The Moe Norman Story. He plays bass in CID — a Guelph punk band! You can read more of Tim’s thoughts on golf HERE.

Peter Mumford
Peter Mumford is the Editor of Fairways Magazine. He's played over 500 different courses in 21 countries and met some fascinating people along the way. He's also a long-suffering Toronto Maple Leafs fan.

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *