Fight or Flight
According to sport psychologist Patrick J. Cohn, PhD, athletes sometimes reach the zone of peak performance when they are defending their ego or pride. Their fight instinct operates at these times much as if they were in physical danger. This occurs not only in physical sports such as boxing and football but also in nonviolent games like golf. When you feel fear about missing a short putt to win a match, the increase in adrenaline, heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration function to prepare your body and mind for action to deal with threat, says Cohn, who works with golfers on the PGA, LPGA, Nike, and Asian tours. He continues.
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Since you are never in physical danger when you play golf, the anxiety you experience is triggered by a perception of threat to your self-esteem or ego. The increased adrenaline you experience when trying to avoid a car accident is very helpful to your safety. When you get scared over making a five-foot putt for par, excess tension only ruins a fluid stroke. The worry, fear, and tentativeness you feel about missing a putt is not an abnormal reaction in that situation, but if you do not learn to control your emotions in that situation, anxiety gets the best of you. Everyone has similar feelings when under stress, but what separates a person who chokes from the person who copes is how he deals with those feelings.
Fight or flight involving a little white golf ball? A mind-body preparing itself for battle against another golfer or against himself while standing over a four-foot putt? If that sounds ridiculous, it shows us the absurdity of our evolution as human beings, says psychologist and stress expert Robert S. Eliot, former director of the Institute of Stress Medicine International in Denver. Eliot notes that while we have become terrifically sophisticated and civilized in many areas, we still react much the same to threats as our Neanderthal ancestors did. According to Eliot,
We are still living in the bodies of our caveman ancestors in a world they never dreamed existed, and we will be for thousands of years to come. If they knew how we were using their adrenaline and endorphins, they’d be surprised. We have an arousal system designed to put us into physical activity under stress, but in our age we are invisibly trapped; all this energy gets turned inward, and the 30 or 40 little challenges we face every day are turned into physiological stress. In our society, we do not need to respond to physical threats as much, but we get psyched up in response to someone’s criticism, or a driver who cuts us off on the way home from work, or the report card our son brings home from school. At least in sports, there is a physical response to the threat of competition.
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