By Charles Blanchard
jinx Choke. Pressure. fold. These are all bad words, bad karma, hidden demons. Some would say that there is no such thing as mental pressure. They would argue, can you touch it? Can you measure it? To me, that’s like saying there is no such thing as depression, since you can’t put it under a microscope and look at it. Know anybody who seems depressed? It’s real. In playing sports for 74 years, starting as a kid, I know that pressure is real. As a psychologist, I have watched grown men cry as they sit on my couch and talk about feeling like a failure and choking under pressure. I can tell you that every determined achiever has his or her demons to conquer.
Did our 2012 Ryder Cup team choke at Medina? Did they cave in to the Euro demons two years later? Did Phil Mickelson choke in the 2006 Open? Hard to say. Tension, of which Phil may not have been fully conscious, clouded his decision-making when it counted the most on the final hole. A demon? His intense need to prove himself to Americans and win our national championship may have jacked his nerves. Now, the US Open is his demon. These are cruel twists of fate on the big stage of pro sports. And snatching defeat from the jaws of victory can be cruel indeed. It’s the call “wide right” heard by NFL kicker Scott Norwood. It’s the sound of splash heard by Greg Norman whose demon was Augusta National. It had been the cellophane cover over the hole to the US Ryder Cuppers.
Unless you try – really try – to become excellent in your particular chosen endeavor, whether it’s golf or sales or playing the violin, you probably have not had to deal with the demons of success. If you have the intense desire to win, the drive to succeed, the need to achieve and rise above, then there will be demons. Achievers risk more than slackers. The demons don’t care much about underachievers, those ne’er-do wells who don’t bother living life with passion and purpose. There’s the irony: if you lay your soul on the line in whatever you do, you subject yourself to the chance of failure. Whether it’s failure by being beaten, or failure by bad luck, or failure by choking, it still hurts pretty bad. Like depression.
As golfers, our demons lie deeply buried in our inner psyche, and we tend to mask or compensate in strange ways, hiding our insecurity. A perfect example of one golf demon may be one’s tendency to miss a short putt when a lot is on the line. The “Four-footer Demon” may stay asleep for an entire round – maybe two rounds – and then the ugly obnoxious creature can be started awake like a mad dog while you’re standing over a short putt on the 18th green. When that nasty, slimy demon calls to you from deep within your brain, “better not miss this one,” a low level panic attack sets in. Pro players and hacks alike have noticed the voice. Near the end of his career Sam Snead claimed it got so bad he could barely take the putter back.
One strategy is to recognize and mentally confront every significant fear we have; then select three to examine and face. People tend to make more out of worry than it’s worth. Write down and remember the acronym FEAR – it’s False Evidence Appearing Real. Demons often evaporate. If you start thinking of the awful consequences of messing up, you may become an emotional noodle.
dr Charlie Blanchard is a licensed psychologist specializing in sports and leadership. Contact him at [email protected]