Can you remember that game when, for a while, it all just came together on the course, maybe starting by feeling calm and confident as you walked out to the first tee? This was the experience of Jordan Spieth, who was leading from the first day of The Masters, right up until the inexplicable 12th hole on Sunday afternoon where it all went horribly wrong.
At 22, Spieth was in position to become the first player to win the tournament in back-to-back years since Tiger Woods in 2001-2 and the first ever to win consecutive titles while holding the lead after every round.
Instead, he took seven shots to complete the hole and never really recovered. Some reporters are calling it the most shocking example of choking in golf history as Spieth blew a five shot lead with nine holes to play, allowing Danny Willett to step in and claim the green jacket by a three-shot margin.
It is hard to put into words the feeling of being “in the zone” when everything’s going right, but for the majority of golfers what stands out is that their inner voice goes very quiet, mind and body are totally in synch and from this, everything just flows. Then of course self-interference begins to emerge again as the stress-response is activated in the nervous-system, coupled with the movement away from the present moment and the return of the internal dialogue; ‘Is this too good to be true? Please let it last a bit longer’. And then the zone is gone!
Golfers are not alone in facing this challenge.
There are many examples from other sports that require the same “in the zone” experience from the second serve in tennis, the penalty kick in football, the conversion kick in rugby or waiting for the starting-gun on the blocks of the 100m track. Yet, whatever the sport and whatever the situation an athlete finds themselves in, time and again experience shows that mastering the bio-chemistry which is controlled via the breathing process, is the simplest, most effective way to reach and retain the zone of relaxed concentration and produce a win.
Here’s what happens when you shallow-breathe:
You perceive a tense situation, say a bad lie after a hooked tee shot and immediately and unconsciously you start shallow breathing. Next, your chest will get a little tighter, less oxygen is fed to your brain, your nervous-system becomes flooded with adrenaline, your heart beats a bit quicker, your muscles tighten and this makes your whole body tense.
With a tense body you are likely to rush your next shot preparation and possibly shorten your back-swing or display any of a number of common swing faults, which will only increase your sense of anxiety or frustration. Taken to the extreme, the phenomena of ‘choking’, as the term implies, is a complete absence of breath where an athlete’s chi (energy) stops flowing, the stress-response is activated and effective movement/motion becomes almost impossible.
Now here’s what happens when you breathe deeply:
Changes in your body go something like this. You perceive a tense situation, say a bad lie after a hooked tee shot and immediately and unconsciously you start shallow breathing…but this time you stop and take conscious control of your breath.
Deep breathing sends more oxygen to your brain which then floods your nervous-system with endorphins, lowers your heart-rate, relaxes your muscles, increases your mind-body connection, raises your confidence levels, and creates the experience of relaxed concentration conducive to fluid motion.
I call it The Circle of Excellence.
You’ll see a lot of comments, articles and blogs on how Spieth’s mental game, his psychology and the mechanics of his swing broke down under the enormity of what he was facing (wining an historic two Masters championships back-to-back), but I’d like to suggest it was rather a breakdown of communication between his mind and body, brought about by changes in his bio-chemistry which are the root cause of his implosion.
Bio-chemical changes in Spieth’s brain and nervous-system,, triggered by shallow-breathing, accelerated by feelings of anxiety as his nervous-system became flooded with adrenaline, wreaked havoc with his equilibrium, destroyed his “zone” experience and rendered his body incapable of fluid motion.
In Spieth’s own words, “I didn’t take that extra deep breath and really focus on my line on 12,” he said. “Instead I went up and I just put a quick swing on it.”
Learn the art and science of Performance Breathing in my video course, ‘The Missing Link in Golf’s Mental Game’. Read more