Golf Fear: What to do about it

Dr. Tom Kubistant, CSP
Recently, within one week, I had two of my golfers and three of my other athletes separately bring up a performance theme which has been plaguing each of them.  It is a theme which not only derails individual performances, but also sabotages ongoing progress.  It is a theme which is devious in its nebulous nature.  It is also a theme that when the athlete grabs a hold of it, can transform their improvement all the way to the next level.
The performance theme is fear.
Especially on a golf course, there is really very little to fear for our safety (unless I am over on the left fairway going through one of my bouts with the shanks!).  Although a very small degree of fear might enhance performance in that it stimulates motivation, it very quickly crosses a fine line where it increasingly inhibits efforts.
Most fears are personal.  Although you may physically feel the fear in your gut, fears are psychological and emotional.  We allow little fears to creep into the recesses of our minds.  These fears soon bind together until they start influencing entire motivations, thoughts, actions, and even sap the joy from golf.
Fears are devious.  They hold their power over us in that they operate just under the surface and behind the scenes.  Many years ago when I was a practicing psychotherapist, I learned that whenever I could not put a finger on what was going on with a client, I always asked myself this stock question, “What is she afraid of?”  I then asked myself the subsequent questions.  “What is he afraid of doing?  …of changing?…of losing? …of becoming?”   Once I thought about it, there was usually some combination of fears at the heart of the client’s problems and reluctances.  Only when we talked about fears were we able to make progress.
Way back in the dark ages of wooden racquets, I was a professional tennis player.  Back then, there were no such helpers as sport psychologists or mental coaches.  While I thought I was coping with all the pressures, at the root of them was fear.  It wasn’t until well after I retired that I realized that I had a fear of success which I allowed to hold me back.       You see, it was much easier for me to try hard, play gallantly, but lose the last set of a long match.  This self-sabotage was really more comfortable for my fragile psyche.  Here is the logic:  if I dug down and won that match, there would be more pressure of me to repeat the performance and win the next match.  And so on.  Deep down, I knew that I would eventually fail.  This inevitable failure would be more devastating to me.  It was much more comfortable for my ego to fail at lower levels than to extend myself and cope with the pain of inevitably higher level failures.
Of course, all of this makes perfect sense when I had the distance of time.  I used this awareness when I started helping athletes and performing artists.  I would have them talk about their fears. Many of them were initially reluctant to do so.  They were afraid of talking about their fears!  It is almost as if admitting that they had fears would weaken them or let an uncontrollable  “genie out of the bottle.”  However, they all learned that talking about and admitting their fears were the only ways to control them.
The ancient samurais had a wonderful saying which went, “Fear is only as deep as the mind allows.”  You can control and transform your fears.  Here’s how.
Over the years from working with literally thousands athletes, performing artists, and business people, I developed a proven formula to address and transform personal fears.  We’ll expand on it later, but it is simply revolves around you asking, and answering, these three little questions:
1. What am I REALLY afraid of?;
2. What is the absolute WORST thing that could happen if this fear came into reality?; and
3. “And THEN what?”
That’s it!  That’s the system.  It is as simple–and profound–as that.
Let’s go through each question in more detail.
1. “What am I REALLY afraid of?”  I am a great believer that if you can specifically define what you are really afraid of, you are halfway there to overcoming it.  Remember, fears hold their power over us in that they operate behind the scenes.  Bringing them out into the light empowers us to confront them.  Awareness, admission, and acceptance of or specific fears deflate them.
Ask yourself this first question repeatedly.  Your goal is to specifically define those fears which are holding you back and even governing you.  Indeed, there may be multiple fears.  The better you can differentiate each the better you will be able to address them.  Sometimes, the core fear may not appear for a while.  Some performers have even found value in writing or even drawing their fears.
Ask yourself these related questions.  What are you afraid of changing, losing, and even becoming?  You might be surprised just how many fears you possess and how tangled they have become.  Actually, the process of asking yourself these diagnosing questions is almost as valuable as the answers you discover.
Here is some help.  In my first book back in the early 1980s, Performing Your Best, I presented four general types of fears.  They are:  (1) the fears of failure and success; (2) the fears of risk, rejection, ridicule, embarrassment, and discovery as a fraud; (3) the fear of change; and (4) the fears of the unknown as well as the known.  Now, there may be some overlap between a couple of these, but one of these will be at the core.  Dissecting your fears is frequently like peeling away layers from an onion.  Use these four basic categories to help you identify and narrow down your specific fears.
It has been my experience that most athletes and performing artists at one time will experience the fears of failure and success.  These two fears are intrinsically linked.  Many times, the fear of failure is actually a smokescreen for the fear of success.  Whereas the fear of failure may apply to individual performances, the fear of success applies to one’s overall career.  Detail your different fears of failure and success.  This can be a great help
Your goal in this entire assessment process is to specifically define your personal and performance fears.  Pay attention to the specific words you use.  The more specifically you define each fear the better you can subsequently address it.  Remember, if you can specifically identify your fears you are really halfway there to overcoming them.
2. “What is the absolute WORST thing that could happen if this fear came into actuality?”  After you specifically define fears, the way to assert control is to ask yourself this question.  You see, attached to each fear is the apprehension of what might happen if this fear materialized.
Answer this question to each fear in as much detail as you did in defining it.  Really dramaticize and even catastrophize your responses.  Go ahead, blow them out of proportion!  Let your imagination run wild of what would happen and how your life would change if this fear came into being.  Such as, “If I choke coming down the stretch of this round, I will lose the tournament.  I will then lose the opportunities presented to me if I won.  I will never have these opportunities  ever again.  All the work I have done would have been useless.  I would become devastated.  I will let down all my loved ones, teachers, and friends.  I will be ashamed of myself.  My dog would even growl at me!  I would lose it all.  I would then become lost.  If I miss this last putt, I might as well quit the game.  My life, as I know it, will be over.”  Ugh!
The more you catastrophize the answers to this question, the more you will become aware of how absurd these responses truly are.  By blowing them out of proportion the more you will see just how silly this fear is.  You will then reassure yourself that these things won’t happen.  As Mark Twain penned, “I have known many problems in my life…, but most of them never occurred.”
It seems strange, but to be able to accept and control your fears, you first have to let your thoughts run wild out of control.
3. “And THEN what?” Huh?  This is the kicker.  You see, many of us catastrophize fears and leave it at that.  By asking and answering this final question you become aware that life always goes on.  No matter what you do, there will always…always…be future options and decisions.
Even if the worst things occur (which they won’t) you will still have alternatives…if you allow yourself to consider them.  Granted, you might be disappointed and even discouraged.  But life always goes on.  The answer to this question revolves around the fact that you will go on.
So you might say, “If my fear comes to reality and these horrendous things occur, I will be disappointed AND I will go on.  Life does not always unfold as dreamed or planned, and I will adapt.  I will play the hand I’m dealt.”  But wait a minute…this stuff won’t happen.  The best way to ensure those fears will never materialize is to do the things I can control and play to my strengths.  Relax, have fun with the game, and laugh at the absurdity of my fears.  Whew!  And then what?  Let’s go on to the next tee.
Ask and answer these three questions.  This process might take longer than you think.  After you have developed your answers actively confront your fears.  Without putting yourself down in the process (such as, “You such a scared wimp”), address them.  Keep on repeating your answers to the above questions.  Shrug your shoulders, say “What the heck,” and throw yourself into the next performance.  Even laughing at yourself is a way of confronting and then releasing your fears.  Indeed, it is an essential battle of who has control over you:  your fears or yourself.
As you learn how to control, channel, and transform your fears,
might become amazed at how much energy you were diverting to feeding those fears.  You will discover how quickly these fears dissipate.  You will also then free yourself up.  Playing within yourself, staying out of your way, and true confidence are all grounded in transforming your fears.  Indeed,  there is true personal power in being in control of your fears.
What are you afraid of?  What’s the worst thing that can happen?  And then what?  Stop cowering and answer these questions.  You will then become like the metaphorical swashbuckler who places his hands on his hips an laughs at his fears.  “Ha!  Bring ’em on!”


“Do you really want to listen to someone who actually makes sense about this crazy game? Tom Kubistant is almost a reclusive man, but golfers who find him are always rewarded by his complete system of the mental game, his practical applications, and his everyday wisdom. Tom has been a regular contributor to my radio show since 1997. I am continually surprised at how much he knows for every playing situation. He just makes so much sense. Doc is also one of the few in his profession who strictly maintains his professional ethics regarding confidentiality with his golfers. So he cannot say who he works with. But I can! I have seen him work with his golfers at tournaments and have even interviewed a couple of them for my show. He is their secret weapon”

Vince Mastracco – Host of the nationally syndicated radio program: “Golf Talk”

Dr. Tom Kubistant, sports psychologist has worked with world-class athletes since 1971. He is one of the most prolific writers and speakers on the mental game of golf on the planet. To take advantage of his decades of golf wizardry, visit Mind Links

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Author of “Performing Your Best, Links Golf, Mind Pump: The Psychology of Body Building, business and sales training audios, over 280 articles for magazines and now………Mind Links – The Psychology of Golf.


Copyright © 2008 Tom Kubistant