“I found something on the range”. A typical quote that you hear from time to time from players who have just shot great rounds in tournament golf.
Coaching at tournament sites or coaching players in the time leading up to tournaments can provide unique challenges for coaches; from dealing with pre-competition anxiety or working with a player who is convinced they need to be ‘patched up’.
In my experience, knowledge of the mental challenges that a player may be experiencing tends to (not surprisingly) be aligned to what experiences the coach themselves has had with tournament play. This is not necessarily a bad thing (depending on the coach’s experience) but what I’ve tried to do below is highlight some general factors from a psychological perspective that might help your coaching in pre-tournament situations.
Coach the situation
Why will a player come to see you close to competition? I’d be willing to bet that the majority of lessons arranged (with existing coach-player relationships) within a week leading up to a competition are by players looking for a fix of some kind due after poor recent performances.
The tendency in such moments might be to over-coach or get sucked in to the player’s dilemma whilst the situation calls for something completely different. A strong coach has an acute awareness of these situations and has an ability to remind the player of the longer journey, to show evidence of progress made to date, to listen well and to simplify and refine rather than introduce new ideas.
Take some time to think about your tendencies in these situations. Do you get drawn in to the player’s ‘problem’? At these times pay attention to the bigger-picture: What are the factors that may be impacting on the player? What do you need to filter to be effective?
Comedian and Counsellor
Away from technical expertise one of the main tools a coach has is his or her ability to communicate.
At tournament sites or close to tournaments in many ways a coach becomes much more like a counsellor or psychologist. How you relate to the player in these circumstances can directly influence how the player feels, which in turn can impact on performance.
The image I have of Butch Harmon working with players around tournament sites is one of jokes and laughter not heavy technical work. I’m not suggesting you need to turn into a comedian to be effective but a greater awareness of how your tone and words can impact on a player will be useful.
Being open to simply listen intently as a player talks through concerns may sometimes be most useful for the player at this time. Don’t under-estimate the impact this can have.
Also near competition it’s worth reminding the player how far they’ve come to get to this point. What specific progress have they made? The current tournament is always the next measurement post rather than a final exam. Playing ‘down’ the current tournament is nearly always helpful for golfers.
Always seek to gently adjust the player to the playing environment, from a technical mentality to a playing mentality. This may go against your natural instincts as a coach. Help the player adjust by providing tournament scenarios (“now you’re on the 6th tee”) while reminding them that they have some of the feelings associated with tournament play will help them play better and should be embraced rather than feared.
‘Giving’ a player confidence
The coach who could pass on confidence like a magic pill would command great power in the world of golf. Confidence or lack of is probably the most used explanation for if a player is playing well or poorly.
There is a great mystique about how confidence can come and go for players. “If only I could have had the confidence I had last week”. The idea that someone else can give or pass on confidence is a bit misleading but knowing a little more how a player obtains confidence is a useful tool for any coach.
Roughly speaking, confidence derives from a few factors: being prepared (and feeling like you are more prepared than others you are competing against), a track record of quality practice (and a perception that you’ve practiced better than peers); having the experience of beating a similar group of players that you’ll be competing against, use of competition specific imagery, running through scenarios that you may face within the competition; being able to use self-talk for reinforcement; and being able to perceive high arousal as helpful.
Obviously, the confidence ‘recipe’ is complex and will be different for each player but in general the following ‘rules’ should help coaches facilitate feelings of being confident in the players they are helping:
- The closer to tournaments the more simple instructions should be.
- Remind players to focus their efforts on controllable factors; praise and encourage a player to take pride in doing the simple things well.
- When reminding players of successes use fact-based evidence. Confidence doesn’t feed off half-truths or hopes.
- Take time to check in with player for understanding? How does the player understand what you’ve just said? Uncertainty is a confidence killer.
- Help the player adjust to a performance mind-set; use language that will remind a player to be target focused and playful rather than analytical.