Do you battle golf performance anxiety? Here’s how to fix it

If you've ever felt pressure to play in front of others on the golf course, the spotlight effect could be the reason. Here's what it means

Feel anxiety while performing around other golfers? It might be from the Spotlight effect.

Getty Images

Welcome to Shaving Strokes, a new series in which we’re sharing improvements, learnings and takeaways from amateur golfers just like you — including some of the speed bumps and challenges they faced along the way.

As I was mindlessly scrolling through Instagram the other day, I came across something interesting that discussed the Spotlight Effect and how it can impact performance during a round of golf.

So like any ambitious journalist would do, I tracked down the man who posted the information (Jon Sherman), and inquired about lending some more details about the topic.

For those unfamiliar with the Spotlight Effect, it’s defined as “the psychological phenomenon by which people tend to believe they are being noticed more than they really are.”

OK, so basically every single golfer on the planet!

Here’s a prime example of the spotlight effect in all its glory, er, misery.

In today's Play Smart lesson, Performance Consultant Dr. Raymond Prior shares his reasons why golf anxiety can crush your scores
How anxiety negatively impacts your golf score, per a sports performance coach
By: Brendon R. Elliott, PGA Golf Professional , Nick Dimengo

My colleague, Dylan Dethier, is a very good golfer. Like, former-hopeful-pro-player kind of good golfer. And when he invited me to play with him last year after I first started at GOLF, I became anxious.

I instantly thought Dylan would be analyzing every one of my shots, rolling his eyes at the bad ones and remaining stoic for any good results. I just assumed he’d be judging my mid-handicap skillset, making me press or make overly-aggressive decisions to try and keep up with him.

It was all in my head.

Like any good playing partner, Dylan didn’t care about how I was playing. He didn’t tear me down after a chunk or a skulled wedge shot, or when I massively sliced a drive in an attempt to outdrive him.

A situation like this is all-too-common for plenty of golfers, and it’s causing golf-performance anxiety that negatively impacts scores.

So what can you do about it? I reached out to Sherman to get his thoughts and to provide some context about the Spotlight Effect — since he has a forthcoming book that dives into this topic, entitled The Foundations of Winning Golf: A Guide to Competition for Golfers of All Levels.

Take a look below to see how you can overcome this mental phenomenon and can start playing looser and more confidently.

Understanding what the Spotlight Effect is

It’s extremely common for golfers to worry about what other people think about their game. Competitive golf intensifies these feelings quite a bit. Whether you are trying to qualify for a club championship or playing in a local stroke play tournament, it is very normal to have the added pressure of worrying about what your friends and peers will think about your performance.

I can remember countless rounds where my ego started to suffer after a lousy start, thinking, “What is everyone going to think if I post a really high score?”

This is a real psychological phenomenon called the Spotlight Effect.

Researchers have found that we overestimate how much others notice our actions, behaviors, and appearance. The source is our egos relying too much on our own perspective and not considering other’s viewpoints.

In 2000, a group of researchers led by Thomas Gilovich coined the terms after experimenting with college students. A group of students wore a t-shirt with a large picture of Barry Manilow. Unfortunately for Barry, he was the subject because he was considered uncool and embarrassing amongst the students. The assumption was wearing the massive image of Manilow would bring attention to them quickly.

After leaving the room, the participants wearing the shirts were asked to estimate how many students noticed the shirt. It turned out there was a massive discrepancy between their estimates and reality. Those wearing the shirts estimated that 50 percent of the classroom would notice the shirt. When polled separately, only 25 percent of the class noticed the shirts.

golfer breaks golf club over his knee
The 1 mental mistake recreational golfers make way too often
By: Zephyr Melton

Follow-up studies confirm that no one is paying attention as much as you think, and even if they notice something, they forget about it quickly. Humans are programmed to be selfish, and we mostly think about ourselves. While you can never eliminate these thoughts, I have found peace in coming to terms with two truths.

First, nobody is paying attention like you think they are, and second, they don’t care as much as you think they do.

These fears are a classic case of cognitive bias, in which our minds create a subjective reality not based on rational thought. In other words, we concoct problems that don’t exist.

Ways to overcome this type of golf-performance anxiety

When these feelings inevitably arise on the course, you have to do your best to remind yourself that whatever fears you are experiencing are overblown. No one is sitting on their phones, hitting the refresh button on the leaderboard, or counting down the seconds until they find out your score. And even when they do find out how you played, their attention will shift to something else rather quickly.

Additionally, don’t scold yourself. Part of building a stronger mental game is accepting whatever thoughts enter your brain. We can’t control them. But taking further action and getting angry at yourself for even having the thought in the first place is not productive.

1. No one is safe from golf making us look like fools

Worrying about what others will think about your performance is normal when you compete — and it will happen to you if you put your game on the line. Whoever you are worried about feeling embarrassed in front of has had the same thing happen to them.

2. Be proud of yourself

If you face embarrassment, that means you took the brave step of putting yourself (and your golf game) out there. You are seeking out the highs, but lows will come, too.

Embarrassing moments are inevitable and a necessary learning experience. Accepting that it happens to everyone and moving past them is crucial for mental resilience.

3. Just remember, humans are naturally selfish

No one will remember what you did because, seconds later, their minds will be on to something else — likely their own worries and insecurities. Other golfers are mostly worried about their own game and are barely noticing what you’re doing!

The truth is that most people in your social circle want you to succeed and are rooting for you. I know what it feels like to think you are letting people down based on your performance, but they will not be disappointed if they are indeed your friends.

Taking pride in putting your game on the line is also helpful. It takes courage to play golf competitively, and the fears of failure and embarrassment can be crippling. That is why many don’t pursue it or shy away from it as much as possible. Be proud to have stepped “into the arena” because you have done something brave.

Most importantly, you need to be able to forgive yourself. In these situations, our instincts are to beat ourselves up and let the negativity persist. Those who can shrug their shoulders and laugh it off will have a better opportunity to build a stronger game. Remember, it’s just golf!

Jon Sherman is an Amazon best-selling author, and is set to release his second book, The Foundations of Winning Golf: A Guide to Competition for Golfers of All Levels, in the spring of 2024.

Game Golf KZN GPS Shot Tracker

GameGolf KZN is Golf’s Most Powerful & Accurate GPS Shot Tracker, designed to help you shoot lower scores. We track every shot, yardage and club hit, even giving you recommendations as you play. Our sensors allow for automatic shot detection to play with absolute confidence and freedom. GameGolf Membership Includes access to Smart Caddie (AI), GPS Rangefinder, Strokes Gained Analytics, Performance Dashboard, Benchmarks KZN system KZN Smart Hub Medallion, 14 Ultralight Smart Sensors  + Accessories. As part of your purchase of the KZN device, you will receive one year FREE Membership to the GameGolf Platform. The membership is renewed within the GameGolf app.
View Product

Nick Dimengo Editor

generic profile image Contributor