Dr. Bee Epstein-Shepherd coaches Pacific Grove golfer Chad Vivolo on his mental game.
Dr. Bee Epstein-Shepherd coaches Pacific Grove golfer Chad Vivolo on his mental game. (Noah Rolland)
IT'S BEEN A STRESSFUL WEEK at work, and you are looking forward to a relaxing day at the golf course in the warm sun, having a good time with your friends. Sounds good so far. But playing the game, especially if you are competing, can create stress that easily compounds itself.

Since 1995, I have been a mental skills coach to golfers of all skill levels ranging from a Masters Champion to young junior golfers. For all golfers (over the age of about 10) stress levels skyrocket at certain points in the round. For some it's prior to teeing off or when facing a water hazard; for others, it's chipping or facing a three-foot putt.

In every situation, what follows is a poor shot. The desire to hit a good shot, focusing on mechanics or score, fear of embarrassment, or even the memory of a bad shot at a crucial time, can all create a mild "fight or flight," or stress response.

This causes tension in muscles, and tense muscles produce errant shots. One errant shot leads to another. As stress builds, your game deteriorates, as you've probably noticed.

A poor tee shot makes you wonder if your swing might be off today. It doesn't get any better as you make your way to the green, and you wonder if your putting is off also. Yes, it is. Is there something wrong with your game? Not really, but there is something wrong with your thoughts.

Your first response to your tee shot set you up for what could be a stressful day at the course. Your worry thought sent your body into that mild fight or flight response. Your muscles tensed. Most golfers are not even aware of the slight increase in tension because tension is so persistent that it feels normal. To play well, it is essential to be able to let go of tension before each shot, especially before putting.

THE YIPS

Yips, the involuntary jerk or even paralysis when putting, is probably the most severe stress response on the golf course. Many professionals, including Bernhard Langer and Tom Watson, suffered from yips for years. The treatment usually includes trying different putters, grips or strokes. Each change can help temporarily.

Several years ago, the Mayo Clinic studied the yips as either neurological dysfunction or performance anxiety. But the underlying cause of yips is rarely acknowledged. The inability to control involuntary muscle movements is often a direct result of a very old, forgotten stressful event that has compounded overtime. Rather than simple performance anxiety, yips are more like a phobia.

Using hypnosis, I help my clients discover the root cause or origin of yips or other issues. Then it is relatively fast and easy to eliminate the problem.

The techniques used to manage stress on the golf course(thereby freeing up the swing and improving your game) are similar to techniques used to reduce stress when faced with any situation in which performance counts.

HOW TO REDUCE YOUR STRESS

· Focus on enjoying the game. Remember, you play to relax and let go of life's concerns.

· Concentrate on good shots rather than criticizing or feeling dissatisfaction with what occurred. Dissatisfaction and self-criticism lead to frustration.

· Think about what you want, not what you fear. For example, before you putt, imagine the sound of the ball in the hole, not the fear of missing the ball. (To let go of stress in other areas of life, send your mind to a successful outcome rather than fear of what might happen.)

· If your game or swing really has gone south, see a professional. Don't rely on helpful hints from your friends.

Most important, learn stress reducing techniques that relax your muscles before you swing or putt. I teach my clients a breathing technique that measurably relaxes muscles. I have taught touring pros and other serious golfers how to put themselves into a light hypnotic waking trance before they swing. The hypnotic state automatically relaxes the body. You can learn self-hypnotic techniques to take to the golf course and these same relaxation techniques apply to any situation in which you have performance pressure, thereby giving you more control over your stressors and your life — and more fun on the golf course.

Visit Bee Epstein-Shepherd, Ph.D. on the web at DrBee.com .

Learn more about the Monterey Bay area at MontereyBayAdventures.com.