In response to a hi-stress job, I spent quite a bit of time at the range last year pounding balls in order to not only improve, but to lower my anxiety levels. And it worked, but with a price paid. After hitting many balls, my anxiety did lower, but I developed golfer’s elbow as a result. And with this painful ailment, I was forced to take a complete respite from practice or playing–a break that continues to this day. The pain is subsiding, but this condition takes quite a long time to heal, and the hardest thing for a golfing addict is to lay off his or her addiction for any significant amount of time. But as a five-year-old once reminded me: Pain hurts. Every time I’d rush to return to hitting a bucket, pain would remind that I needed to find another way to reduce my anxiety around work. I’d ruled out anti-anxiety benzodiazepines since they were addictive and could lead to terrible withdrawal symptoms. I’d ruled out leaving the job since I needed the money and benefits. And I’d ruled out living with the anxiety since, like golfer’s elbow, it was too painful to do nothing about.
So I turned to something I’d trained in for years, but had let lapse of late: mindfulness meditation. Now sports psychologist Ben Kline, who is also the Program Director for the Shivas Irons Society, an organization that was formed in the mid-90s to bring a sense of spirituality back to golf, wrote his masters thesis on this very subject.
He called his research study The Anxious Golfer’s Experience of Mindfulness Meditation. And he found that such meditation, involving focusing one’s attention on the present moment, often using one’s own breath as an object of concentration, was effective in lowering a golfer’s anxiety levels on the course during play. He completed his findings in 2008, earning his masters while attending John F. Kennedy University in Northern California. I know Ben through my membership in the Shivas Irons Society, which, by the way, I recommend for those golfers interested in going to “Inner Game of Golf” levels with their sport. The results of his study shine light on the effects of meditation on anxiety levels and one’s golf game. Here are some of those results after his subjects were trained in mindfulness meditation and tested for changes in their games and general level of anxiety:
- Perceived calmness
- Reduced anxiety
- Improved concentration
- Process orientation
- Heightened enjoyment
- Enhanced performance.
In my own case, since golfer’s elbow prevented me from attempting full shots, I experimented with short game practice as I felt no pain from chips and short pitches around the green and with putts. My question was would I experience the same anxiety-reducing results as I did with full shots? That would help tell me what were the
essential ingredients within golf that were the key elements, at least from my own understanding. Thankfully, the answer was yes: Short game practice did help reduce my anxiety levels at work, and concurrently, improved my short game. What was similar to long game practice was the level of concentration, i.e. quality of meditation, I applied to that practice. As with the long game, I took time with each shot, focusing on a single dimple at the back of the ball, building my confidence as I experienced more solid contact and distance control day after day.
What this research on myself showed me was that improvement in playing was synonymous with the healing golf offered both on and off the course. For me, this was a profound revelation. Even just practicing on the putting green, using the same mindfulness meditation techniques, replenished my psyche, bringing deep relaxation.
It was the experience of being in the present, in the Now, an outcome Ben Kline had found with his subjects, that was one of the key elements derived from playing golf. Being present, is an integral part of playing golf. There are so many variables requiring your attention, you must remain present if you are to solve the puzzles of the sport. If you space out, you’re bound to screw up somewhere over the span of five hours or so. The game punishes
inattention and faulty decisions. It’s a matter of basic behavioral psychology. Do what the conditions and your learned skills require, and you will most often be rewarded. Take unwarranted risks, blared from the mouth of your ego, and you will more than likely be punished.
So it’s not so much the content of your practice, it’s the quality of the concentration of your practice. That will not only make you a calmer, more patient person, it will make you a better, happier golfer. This is the genius of golf: Without even attempting to do so, it improves us as human beings. If approached with awareness and mindfulness, it helps us attain our ultimate purpose: to enjoy every moment, which, by the way, were my mother’s dying words to my wife and I.
And what’s been your experience with anxiety, stress, pain, and golf?
I mentioned The Shivas Irons Society in this piece. They are looking to recharge their membership, and for 100 bucks a year they’ll include four issues of their very handsome journal, to keep for yourself or to give as a gift, filled with impressive writing and art about the game. Just go to SIS to find them on the web.
For further information, Ben Kline can be contacted at [email protected]
Thanks Stephen for the post, I just became a member!
Stephen Altschuler says
That’s great, Richard. Glad I could steer you in the Shivas Irons direction. Happy you liked the post.
Hi Stephen it always good to hear your take on life and golf in general. It seems to me that you can play and practice golf in two ways. Firstly to hit the ball as a stress reliever and not care where it goes or be obsessional with your practice and play intending to perfect the game and lower your handicap. The latter will inevitably create anxiety and frustration as in the words of Bob Rotella ‘ Golf is not a game of perfect’. This is difficult for all of us to accept no matter what ‘mindfulness’ strategy you employ to stay mentally relaxed and detached. Unfortunately golf is a game and a competitive game at that and it is only human nature that one will continue to strive for success. Only repeated success in any competive sport will lead to relaxation and true fulfilment. If not you are just kidding yourself.
Stephen Altschuler says
I do think there’s room for both perspectives in this game, Peter. The thing to avoid is obsession with either. Unless you’re a pro, playing for a living, keep it fun, even when you’re competing. Otherwise, like you say, it’s not worth the stress.
Thanks for commenting.
Paul Staley says
Enjoy your blog, one of the few–if not the only–golf blog I read regularly. (I have abandoned mine for the time being.)
I have had an interesting experience with meditation and golf. It’s definitely a two part story, a front and back nine as it were. After playing the sport somewhat indifferently as a kid, I resumed playing in earnest in the early 90’s. I had also been a sporadic meditator for most of my adult life, but started a more disciplined practice in 2006 as part of a general campaign to clean up my act.
Now you might assume that a daily practice of sitting and meditating would have paid immediate dividends in terms of my golf game. But you would be wrong. Instead of serenity I found just the opposite. A sharpened ability to check in on myself and observe my mental status meant that I was just that much better attuned to the crazy stuff pinging around in my head. Instead of being able to let those thoughts go, I found myself constantly tuning in to this warped inner version of my own Golf Channel.
And then one day I had an epiphany, which in retrospect feels so obvious. As I hovered over yet another shot I realized that the sounds around me–the chirping of birds, the sound of traffic, leaves rustling in the wind–were the exact same sounds that I was hearing every morning when I sat in our attic, watching my breath and meditating. I was calm then, why couldn’t I just plug into those sounds and be calm as I addressed an approach shot?
And it worked, and it has worked since, although like everything else in life, it is not flawless. The embellishment I have added of late is to listen to some favorite songs as I drive to my course and put one of the tunes on constant replay in my head as a way of instilling a sense of rhythm and lightness to my game. I have found this really helpful with my short game, where it is particularly helpful to distract myself from the exacting delicacy the shot requires.
Anyway, I believe you live in Marin, right? I’m in San Francisco. Let’s go play together. I think we’d have a lot to talk about.
“Why We Golf”
Stephen Altschuler says
A pleasure reading your comments, Paul, and thanks for choosing my blog to follow. Yes, I think we have much in common. I’ll contact you for a game, perhaps in Marin or Sonoma counties (after El Nino rains decrease). I like your approach to meditation. It’s a fluid approach which is vital for a Westerner who is more sensitive to emotional factors that meditation can stir up. Using the sounds around you can be effective objects of meditation, as you have discovered. And music too can accomplish this if you are so inspired. I use a koan, generated by a teacher I am inspired by. But, being very attuned to nature (I lived in a cabin for four years in the NH woods years ago) I also pay attention to the sounds and sights around me when I play. It’s calming and helps me to focus when it’s time to address the ball. As you say, it’s “a way of instilling a sense of rhythm and lightness to my game.”
Thanks for sharing your experiences and insights, Paul.