Managing anxiety – chasing the butterflies away

You may be making your way to that microphone, that exam hall or the first tee in a golf tournament – you begin to notice how much you are feeling the ‘butterflies’. The hands are shaking, your stomach is churning and your mind seems to be awash with mental noise. In any situation that you are expected to perform you will experience some nerves, or anxiety. The footballer Erling Haaland for example, on a number of occasions, has spoken of how nervous he is before a match winning penalty or a game stating its like ‘an exam every single weekend’. For golfers this might be taken further in terms of 18 individuals challenges or ‘exams’ within one round. As the legendary golfer Bobby Jones reflected there is a huge difference between ‘plain golf and tournament golf’. He suggested the first is the ‘most delightful of games, an enjoyable, companionable past time’. Tournament golf though could be ‘thrilling, heartbreaking, terribly hard work’ that could also be ‘fiercely punishing’ at times. Emotionally then, golfers, like any elite sports person or professional, must be able to process emotion, in particular the butterflies or anxieties they face through competition.

We know that anxiety is a threat based emotion. In some sporting situations, this threat may be physical like in horse racing or contact sports. Within golf though, it is more of a social threat, centring around the potential of negative judgement or feeling embarrassed at an outcome. The worry here may be around how those we care about might judge us, or how we might judge ourselves. Sometimes we may even get anxious about potentially feeling another emotion in the future like shame. For professional athletes and golfers too, anxiety might come from the insecurity of their work. A failure to perform well may impact earnings, which in turn undermines personal or family wellbeing. It is also worth noting anxiety can manifest itself in different ways. For example, in terms of thinking, we may have repeated worrying thoughts, either about what might go wrong, what others will say about us, or what we might look like/say. Similarly our behaviours might speed up whether in walking, talking or how we swing a golf club. Anxiety can also lead to other emotions like anger or a sense of hopelessness. Although there are commonalties in terms of the expression of anxiety, it varies between people and situations. 

For many golfers, and others too as they play sport, anxiety reducing techniques may involve controlling your breathing, evaluating muscle tension or mindful based techniques to help us create more calming thoughts. These are all useful, but I also think it is helpful to flatten the curve of anxiety ‘behind the ball’ – we reduce the feeling of anxiety in advance of a tournament starting. We know two of the big drivers behind anxiety is people a) become hyper self conscious and b) start to get wrapped up in future fears rather than present concerns. In terms of the first driver then we need to find ways to de-centre, or become less self conscious. A useful technique here is the ‘good friend’ exercise e.g. a pre tournament goal of being considerate or helpful to someone else. This consideration has a lovely double benefit of making us less self obsessed and ensuring care for another. In terms of getting pulled towards future worries, we may begin to catastrophize by turning a psychological ‘molehill into a mountain’. A helpful way to confront such worst case thinking is the FEAR acronym:

F – what are the facts of the situation just now?

E – is there any evidence to support your main fear?

A – are there any potential alternative outcomes to your big fear? 

R – what resources do you have to manage this fear?

Confronting, or disputing, our anxieties or fears helps ‘shrink’ the problem for us. For we may never chase away the butterflies completely, but it is helpful to be less preoccupied by them. 

Worth a read:

Butler, G. (2016). Overcoming social anxiety and shyness. Robinson: London.

Leary, M. R. & Kowalski, R. M. (1995). Social Anxiety. The Guildford Press: London.

Kenny, D. T. (2005) A Systematic Review of Treatments for Music Performance Anxiety, Anxiety, Stress, & Coping, 18:3, 183-208, DOI: 10.1080/10615800500167258