You probably don’t realise it, but your own breath is one of the most powerful tools that you have on the golf course, and learning how to use it will help you to play your best ever golf.
The key benefit of learning to control your breathing is that it enables you to quickly take control of your own body.
All of us feel pressure at some point during a round of golf. Maybe you’re facing a tough shot over water, or a challenging putt that you need to make to win the match. Perhaps you made a mess of the last hole, or it could be that you’re on target for your best ever score.
There are various ways to control your mental processes that will help you to keep your focus, as we discuss in this section, but pressure is an inevitable (and fun) part of the game.
Whether you like it or not, your body will respond to pressure in undesirable ways. It’s a natural self-preservation response. Pressure is perceived, on a subconscious level, as an environmental change, and thus as a potential threat. Your heart rate and blood pressure will rise, and adrenaline will flow through your system. A little adrenaline can be a good thing, it helps you focus, and it’s a natural result of entering a competitive environment and being ready to be challenged. Too much adrenaline, however, will stop you thinking clearly and disrupt the signals from your brain to your body. Even though there is no physical threat, your fight-or-flight response is activated.
This response can be highly detrimental to your game, especially when it’s extreme. Fear, insecurity, nervousness, apprehension… all of these things trigger a physiological response that leads to shortness of breath, tension and tightness that prevents you from performing optimally on the golf course.
This is where the term “to choke” comes from, and it’s quite literal. The history of world sports is littered with examples of athletes who suddenly can’t perform at a critical moment. The fight-or-flight mechanism – raised heart rate, blood pressure, and adrenaline lead to shortness of breath. The athlete literally begins to choke.
For a golfer, making what feels like their usual swing leads to unpredictable results – their body doesn’t seem to respond properly to the normal impulses that they’ve ingrained. What feels like a perfectly good swing results in a poor strike. Everything seems to fall apart, and panic sets in, making the problem far worse.
How to Breathe
The solution, thankfully, is a fairly simple one. Breathe.
By taking deep, controlled breaths, you can quickly return to a higher level of performance. By deliberately reversing the symptom – the shortness of breath – you will automatically calm your body, taking control back from the fight-or-flight response, lowering your heart rate and blood pressure, reducing the adrenal rush.
Breathe deep into your abdomen, what’s known as “diaphragmatic breathing” or “belly breathing”. This deep breathing is marked by an expansion of your abdomen rather than your chest – using your diaphragm to breathe makes your belly protrude. When you fill your lungs, you will feel like your belly is fully expanded.
Breathe slowly, inhaling deep into your abdomen as you count to four, hold the breath for another four seconds, exhale as you count four again, then rest for four seconds before repeating.
You will take control of your body back, and you will also boost the oxygen levels in your blood. This will give you more energy and a higher level of focus, enabling you to perform at your best, even under extreme pressure.
Breathe the Ball Into Flight
By integrating abdominal breathing into your pre-shot routine, you can dramatically improve your performance – your body and mind will be better prepared for every shot, and your scores will tumble.
We recommend using the following technique as part of your pre-shot routine for every shot, it’s a fantastic process that you can use to help you play better golf for the rest of your life:
- Visualise the shot, just as we describe in The Perfect Pre-Shot Routine.
- As you stand behind the ball, preparing to make your shot, seeing it, inhale slowly and deeply, using your diaphragm as described above.
- Now couple your intention with your outward breath. If you want to play a high, soft fade – a shot you perceive as a slower moving ball flight as it hangs in the air – then your exhaling breath should be long and slow. Track your eyes along the imagined flight of the ball at the same speed as your breath.
- If you wish to play a punchy long iron into the breeze, then your exhaling breath should reflect the higher speed and penetration of the ball flight – it will be sharper and shorter, like blowing out a candle. Once again, track the imagined ball flight with your eyes as it darts through the air at exactly the same time as you exhale.
- Imagine that you are blowing the ball through the air.
This technique is extremely powerful. Not only does it remove any tension you may be feeling, but it also increases your performance level by giving your brain and body an oxygen hit shortly before you make your shot.
Best of all, it’s a very effective way to let your visualisation take hold in your subconscious (“The Player”). Your awareness is pulled back into the present. It forms a direct link between your imagination, your eyes, and your body, reinforcing your intention, creating a physical realisation, making it “real”. And your brain is calmed into a state that makes your visualisation very potent, preparing your subconscious to perform the required shot.
It prepares you for success at every level.