Have you ever had one of those moments on the course where you’re feeling nervous, or under pressure? Of course you have—it’s golf! But, have you noticed what happens to your body when you feel this way? Though everyone has different responses to nerves or pressure, one common reaction is your body tensing up. And in golf, excess tension is not good! There is good news, though: a strategy called progressive relaxation can help you release that extra tension, relax your grip, and improve.
Before you can make any changes in your body or try to deal with the tension, you first need to notice it. Reading this, you might be thinking “Well, of course I’d notice if I were tense,” but sometimes tension is subtle. It’s not always a clenched jaw or shoulders up to your ears. Sometimes tension is having your grip 20% too tight and sends your shot into a bunker. You might not have noticed the tension before the shot, but, afterwards, you know something was off.
As a mental skills coach, I help athletes notice the tension earlier, ideally before they take a swing, and address it appropriately. When you’re on the course, take notice of your shoulders, your forearms, your hands, and even your jaw. Do what’s called a body scan and notice how much tension exists. Remember, some tension is good, otherwise you’d be loose like a noodle. It’s too much tension we want to tune into, where your grip is too tight and your swing becomes too rigid. Before you take a shot, scan your body mentally, taking notice of how much tension you’re experiencing. If you notice there is too much, you’ll then use progressive relaxation to release it.
Progressive relaxation is a tensing and then relaxing of different muscle groups. Full progressive relaxation can take 10-15 minutes because you start at your feet, working your way up to your face. You tense a muscle group for 5-7 seconds, relax for about the same amount of time, and then tense and relax that body part two more times before moving onto the next. This full progressive relaxation can be done at home, to allow you to learn to feel the difference between a tense muscle and a more relaxed muscle. However, progressive relaxation doesn’t always have to take this long. You can do abbreviated progressive relaxation, which might be just the upper body, tensing and releasing each part of the body once rather than three times. Or you can do just the part of your body where you have tension, for example, clenching your fists and relaxing them a few times before you take your club for your pre-shot routine.
Though complete progressive relaxation does take time, it’s a good way to begin. Consider doing progressive relaxation at night, before you go to bed. You’ll likely feel more relaxed and readier for sleep when you’re done. You can then shift to abbreviated progressive relaxation not only on the course but can also use it at work or at home when you notice you’re feeling stressed and tense. Remember that you’re creating tension within the muscle groups and then relaxing to release the tension. When you start to feel more comfortable with abbreviated or targeted progressive relaxation (where you’re relaxing only the muscle groups where you have tension), you can begin to use progressive relaxation on the course. Consider including progressive relaxation as part of your pre-shot routine, or only use when you experience tension.
Taking control of your grip tension is important to achieving appropriate technique and can help you reach your golfing goals. Progressive relaxation is a simple and effective skill that you can use, without anyone knowing that you’re doing anything to help improve your game. Because progressive relaxation is a skill, it should be practiced, and that can be done on and off the course, both in golf and in life.