In The Zone: The Interesting Reason Golfers Make Great Employees

Celebratory golfers

Celebratory golfers | Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

If you’ve spent time watching golf’s top professionals put on a show at The Masters, then you can clearly see how some of the big names in sports manage to get themselves “in the zone.” Despite crushing pressure, TV coverage, large crowds, and the money and fame at stake, guys like Jordan Spieth and Danny Willett somehow manage to calmly and confidently step out onto the fairway, and focus on their one, relatively simple task at hand: put the ball in the hole.

And they do it. They do it extremely well.

Now — imagine if you could take that confidence and focus, and apply it to other areas. Specifically, what if we could figure out how these professional golfers manage the stress and pressure of their sport, and teach it to office workers, cooks and chefs, drivers, and small business owners? People would be lined up down the block for a chance to get in on the secret sauce. Thanks to a new research paper, we now have an idea of what these elite golfers are doing, and how you can adapt their tactics as your own.

To get to the bottom of several elite golfers’ psychological and mental tactics, researchers from the School of Sport and Exercise Science at University of Lincoln in the U.K. took to the ground and spoke with 10 European golfers who were relatively fresh from big wins or performances on the links. When speaking to the golfers, researchers tried to figure out what sort of mindset the players had during the competition, and what they did to get there.

The paper, published in the journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise, found that the elite athletes in questions entered one of two types of “the zone” when on the fairways — and which state they were in was largely dependent upon how deep into the game they were.

“As flow is more likely to occur during peak performances, and for elite athletes, our objectives were to: (i) identify golfers who achieved exceptional performances (e.g., winning a professional tournament), and (ii) explore if and how they experienced flow within that performance,” the paper says.

These golfers reported that they experienced two different psychological states during their excellent performances. These states were described as: (i) “letting it happen” which corresponded with the definition and description of flow; and (ii) “making it happen” which was more effortful and intense, involved a heightened awareness of the situation, and therefore differed to flow. Both states occurred through different processes, and “letting it happen” was a relatively gradual build-up of confidence, whereas “making it happen” was a more sudden stepping-up of concentration and effort.

So, the golfers said that it came down to one of two psychological states: “letting it happen,” or “making it happen.” When trying to perform in clutch situations — be it at work, playing sports, or anything else — we’ve all entered into similar mindsets. Most of us probably even live our entire lives in one of these two states. We just don’t give it much thought.

What’s clear is that the recognition, adoption, and use of these psychological states has become something of a standard procedure for golfers performing at the highest level. What we can do, even for those of us who have only experienced golf by a viewing of Happy Gilmore, is use this mental trick to our advantage, and accomplish any goals we set our sights on.

As the golfers mentioned, we can get there through a gradual build-up of confidence — or, as we’ve discussed before, stringing together a series of small victories throughout the day. Using this method, you build confidence, momentum, and remain productive.

This is essentially what even non-sporty folks can take away from this study, and from the psychology of clutch athletes: Tackling big goals and overcoming huge obstacles is all about your frame of mind. Attack with confidence, and you’re increasing your odds of success. Also, notice how and when these athletes adopt different mindsets at different times of the game — switching from “letting” it happen, to “making ” it happen.

Give some thought to your own situation, be it taking your entire career into consideration, or just a single day at work. How can you allow these mental tactics work for you? Clearly, they pay off for some of the world’s top performers, and will probably go a long way to improving your performance as well.

Follow Sam on Facebook and Twitter @SliceOfGinger

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