What to Do If You KNOW You’re Going to Play Bad

It’s the night before a big tournament. This whole week has been a very difficult week of practice. You haven’t hit the ball very well and you’re not really sure where it’s going, not sure if it's going to go right or left, fade or draw. You feel weird over the ball and you just have zero confidence of where it’s going to go.


How could you possibly play well in this tournament? You can’t even hit a fairway at your home course, let alone at a tournament with people watching, your score being counted, and prizes at stake.


You have this intensely heavy feeling that you’re not going to play well tomorrow. You just know that it’s going to go bad. Do you try to figure out your swing tonight? Do you mess around with it in the morning in the pre-round warmup? Do you throw out the routine and just show up at the first tee? Do you even go so far as to withdraw?


You know you’re going to play bad. What do you do?

This is one of those scenarios that if you haven’t gone through it yet, then you probably will someday. It’s a scary feeling, and not one that is easy to get out of. When you’re in this position, the way out is very unclear.

The problem of knowing you’re going to play bad has a couple different facets. One, you have no confidence in your preparation. And two, you are worried about score. There's certainly more, but we'll address just these two facets. Let's start with confidence.


Having no confidence in your preparation is understandable. You tried to work on your game this week but it just never clicked. Or you weren’t even able to prepare this week. These are understandable frustrations. You were hoping to be prepared for this tournament, but you just couldn’t get there. So what do you do if this is the case? Instead of having confidence in the results of your past week of practice, you can have confidence in the fact that you practiced. Or if you weren’t able to practice at all, instead of mustering confidence out of thin air, then you need to lower your expectations. Let me explain both.

Lower Your Expectations


First let’s start with expectations, then we’ll get to having confidence in the fact that you practiced. Something you’ve likely heard me say before is your effort needs to match your expectations. But in this case it needs to be the opposite. Your expectations need to match your effort. What was your level of effort? In this case, it was zero. Whether that was controllable or not, it was zero. So then according to our formula, your expectations need to be zero.


Now, because you have some skill, your expectations don’t need to be truly zero. You have prepared some in the past, even if it wasn’t this past week. So if you are lacking confidence because you didn’t get to practice any this week, then you need to dramatically lower your expectations down to a realistic level based on your past preparation.


What does this lower expectation level look like? Well it means you won’t be surprised when you hit some bad shots, and you have a primary objective of enjoying yourself on the course. Because normally when you’re in this scenario you still expect yourself to play really well. I know this feeling, I’ve done it far too often. But this ends up backfiring because then you’re caught off guard when you hit bad shots, which leads to higher emotional responses, which leads to poor decision making, which leads to more bad shots. This is a spiral that if you don’t stop early gets harder and harder to get out of.


To keep the spiral from ever starting in the first place, you need to lower your expectations for the round because you know your preparation has been lacking or even nonexistent lately, and you need to mentally prepare yourself to accept whatever happens by setting a primary objective of simply having fun. So when bad shots happen, you were ready, and you can just laugh it off. Ideally you would be able to do this no matter how great your preparation has been. After all, golf is a game and it’s meant to be played.


So you go out to the course and you just play. Before every shot you can remind yourself "That's where I'd like this shot to go, but if it doesn't it's ok." Having this as an underlying feeling is going to be key to not getting caught off guard by bad shots and shaking them off and having a good time. And guess what, your scores will probably be better if you're moving on from bad shots and having a good time.

Where to Find Your Confidence


So we’ve got your lowered expectations covered in the event that your preparation has been very little or nonexistent. But what if you have practiced, yet your game still feels lousy. Well if you can’t have confidence in your current skill level, then you need to have confidence in something else. A truism that I subscribe to is this: you can get your confidence from two places, past results and preparation. So let’s start with past results.


Confidence in Past Results


Just because you aren’t swinging it well this past week doesn’t mean you’ve never swung it well. You’ve most likely had some decent shots at some point in the recent past. That means you have past results from which to pull confidence.


Or you may have even played a pretty solid round in the past month. Almost all of us have played some kind of good round that we can draw positives from in the past month. So you may not be hitting it well right now, but you have recently. And you can remind yourself that just like it takes a long time to make your swing way better, it also takes a long time to make your swing much worse. Your swing doesn’t change overnight. Or even that much in a month. So you can believe that you’re basically the same player that hit those good shots recently, or that shot that pretty solid score in the past month.


And this is the extreme. Usually we block out the positive things we’ve done and highlight the negative. You’ve more than likely had lots of good shots and several solid rounds recently. You’re just choosing to focus on this past week. Zoom out your perspective and allow yourself to focus on the good you’ve done recently, and gain your confidence from knowing that as a whole over the last month I can see that I’m capable of at the very least hitting some good shots. And then also manage your expectations and let yourself hit bad shots and laugh them off and just play the game.


Confidence in Preparation


Now if you have actually practiced this past week, even if it hasn’t been filled with great shots and has felt unproductive, you still practiced. This is not nothing. You worked hard on your game and hopefully worked hard in the right ways (link to off-season practice). Just like we zoomed out your perspective on your past results and saw that overall you’re a capable player, you can zoom out your perspective on your preparation too. Working on your game means working towards improvement. That means that some day in the future it will click and your hard work will show. It may not be this past week, or this tournament coming up, or even anytime in the next month. But it will. Good preparation always leads to good results. It’s impossible to predict when, but it will.


Good preparation always leads to good results.

You can have confidence in this. This is a good a source of confidence as any. Knowing that you’ve worked hard, and that your work will bear fruit someday, is in my own experience the best source of confidence. Because you can keep your head down and know that what you’re doing will work out. It makes it much easier to accept whatever happens in this tournament you’re about to play. It makes it much easier to accept the past week of lackluster ball striking. Because you know you’re working towards improvement.


So you’ve shifted your perspective and allowed yourself to lower your expectations, or found a new sense of confidence in the very fact that you’re preparing for your own future game. But the basic fact that you could ever even say that you know you’re going to play bad shows that you’re too focused on score. So let’s tackle that issue.

Too Focused on Score


The problem with being too focused on score is that you are caring primarily about the result, and not caring enough about what leads to that result. In this case, you feel like you know you’re not going to play well.


Let’s say for you not playing well would be shooting in the 80s. Yes, for a lot of you that would be a great score. But in this instance, 80s would be bad. You’re a good junior golfer trying to get onto a college golf team, so 80s is bad. So what I would ask you to do is tell me instead what would be a good score. Let’s say a 77 or lower. I would then ask you "Ok, what exactly makes up a 77? How do you shoot a 77?" You would likely describe to me how that would be 5 over on this course so like 6 or 7 bogeys, a birdie or two, and the rest pars. To that I would say "Ok, how do you make a bogey? How do you make a birdie? How bout a par?" You'd say "Well, for a par, a drive, a second shot onto the green, and two putts." And I'd say "Exactly."


I would get you to realize that a par, or a bogey, or a birdie, or a whole 77 is made up of individual shots. An 85 is made up of individual shots. A 138 is made up of individual shots. Focusing on the entire score is too much for you to handle at once. Worrying about what you'll shoot for the whole day is missing the trees for the forest. You're so focused on the big picture that you forget that there are individual situations that demand your full focus.


Worrying about what you'll shoot for the whole day is missing the trees for the forest. You're so focused on the big picture that you forget that there are individual situations that demand your full focus.

A Good Process Heals All Wounds


So how can you withdraw your focus from the whole score and focus on only the individual shots? A good process.


What does a good process look like? Another term for a good process could be a pre-shot routine. A good pre-shot routine serves the sole purpose of preparing you to the hit the next shot to the best of your ability. So going through a good process is head down focus, compared to thinking about result. What are you focusing on?


What a good process looks like


If the purpose of a good process is to prepare you to hit the next shot to the best of your ability, then it needs to have these basic features:

  1. Get the yardage - this includes using a rangefinder to get the yardage to the pin, uphill/downhill, lie, wind, temperature, how you feel

  2. Commit to a target - all of that will give you a final number to land on, and then you choose based on that number what a good strategic target will be

  3. Trust in your ability - now is when you transition from thinking about the target to trusting your body send the ball to your target. This can be a good time for a deep breath or some practice swings or a short mental thought or mantra such as "Let it go" or as I like to say before the shot "Pick a target, let it rip, accept the results"

  4. Let it go - now you're fully out of thinking mode and fully into just swinging mode. You're just letting the ball go to the target with a quiet mind. Like tossing a ball to someone. You don't think, you just see where you want it to go and you send it there

  5. Accept the results - when you've checked all of these boxes really well, it's easy to accept the result of the shot with no self-judgement because you know you did what you could control. So wherever it went you can move on, because you know you can do it again on the next one

I know, this seems like a lot. That's a lot of words to give to something that's only supposed to take 40 seconds max. But when you realize that each of those parts is really happening in just a few moments it's not that much to ask of yourself. And also this is something you need to practice and train. You can't just show up to a tournament and expect to do this perfectly. This, just like your swing or any part of your game, needs to be practiced.


There's literally no room in your brain to think about anything else.

When it comes to thinking about score, if you're focused on doing this routine well every time, there's literally no room in your brain to think about anything else. And letting go of everything else and just keeping your head down doing this process will allow the score to take care of itself.


Taking it to the Course


So you know what to do. How do you take what you know to the course? You practice it.


Every time you play, go through this process. Every time you hit range balls, go through this process. Every time you chip, putt, or do anything at the course, go through this process. Make it automatic. Having a good process on autopilot is going to go miles towards helping you have confidence even when you usually wouldn't, and thinking about score, past, future, other people, the conditions, or anything else.


Put a good process into action, and watch the scores come to you.

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