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(An abbreviated version of this article appears on my other website, samjarmangolf.com.)

T-CUP – Thinking Correctly Under Pressure, is an acronym brought to prominence by England rugby coach Sir Clive Woodward during the successful 2003 World Cup campaign.

Players, coaches and psychologists in all sports have spent thousands of hours trying to devise ways to ensure players think the right thought at the right moment.

To try to eliminate negative thinking, or to change it when such thinking does arise.

To visualise success. 

To engender a feeling of confidence.

Thinking the right thought will lead to the right feeling which will lead to the right action or behaviour.

Or so the theory goes.

Two Misunderstandings About Thinking

There are a couple of problems with this approach.

The first is that there is no causal relationship between a thought and where your golf ball ends up, whether the ball goes in the net or through the posts.

If there were, sport would be solved. There would be no challenge. Just think about what you want to do, and hey presto, that’s what happens.

Is that how it works in your experience?

Have you ever visualised an outcome which then didn’t transpire as you anticipated?

If that’s the case, the relationship between thought and outcome is at best a correlation. It isn’t causal.

The second problem is that thought is capricious.

If you have read either of my books about the mental side of golf, you might be aware that I don’t believe it is possible for a human being to control what thoughts come along and when.

Or when they disappear.

Where Do Thoughts Come From?

But please, don’t take my beliefs at face value. Experiment for yourself.

Sit down for 2 minutes and try to completely clear your mind. Think of nothing for 120 seconds.

How did you get on?

In my experience thoughts come and go. They appear in awareness, then disappear. There is no recipe or 5-step plan for creating a thought.

Try to write down or explain in words the process you go through when you are visualising something. Don’t write down what you do, explain how you do it.

Don’t feel bad if you can’t.

Neuroscience has no definitive explanation for the origins or source of thinking either. It can map the neural correlates of thought – the electro-magnetic and chemical changes in the brain. But it can’t say whether what is being observed is the cause, or the effect of thinking.

Can You Work on the Mental Game?

So, if we cannot control our thinking, and ‘thinking correctly under pressure’ doesn’t necessarily lead to the outcome we want anyway, is there any point in working on the mental side of the game?

It seems to me that it depends on what you mean by ‘working’.

If that means devising techniques and strategies to try to control and manipulate your thinking as it arises, (which is what most coaches and psychologists recommend) then the answer is no.

But if by working, you mean exploring the nature of your experience and the nature of thought. Examining the beliefs you have about sport, about life and about yourself, then that seems to me to be a highly worthwhile endeavour.

Indeed, that is a large part of what we do in our coach and player mentoring programs.

Why Do Thoughts Arise?

Although thought is random – any thought can appear at any moment – the type of thinking that typically arises in a situation will be influenced by your worldview, and your beliefs about what is true about yourself in that moment.

Let’s examine a commonly held belief to see how it can affect thinking and behaviour.

You weren’t born with this belief, but due to social and cultural conditioning, by the time you are 3 or 4 years old, like most children, you are wholly convinced that a large, bearded man in a red suit driving a sleigh is responsible for the presents that arrive at Christmas time.

A major component of this belief is that Santa’s generosity will depend on whether you have been bad or good during the preceding weeks and months.

This belief can last for many years.

In this example, let’s imagine you have sent your list to Lapland, and you are eagerly anticipating what might be in store on Christmas morning.

It’s the beginning of December. You have been out at school all day and are very hungry. You walk into the kitchen to see a freshly baked tray of mince pies sat on the worktop.

They smell amazing and closer inspection reveals that they have only been out of the oven for a few minutes.

You notice that there are an odd number of pies, and that with a bit of careful manoeuvring, you could take one out the middle of the row and rearrange the remainder, making it appear that nothing was amiss.

In any case, you are fairly confident the maker of the pies wouldn’t mind you having a little sample.

You reach out and are just about to pick one up, when the thought arrives in your awareness.

What if Santa Claus is watching!?

He wouldn’t be impressed with you helping yourself!

A feeling of anxiety wells up in your stomach. The pie smells so good.

But is it worth sacrificing all the presents you are anticipating on the big day for a couple of mouthfuls of soft, fruity yumminess?

You put the pie back on the tray and walk away from the kitchen. But the tempting thoughts keep coming back to you.

It’s only one little mince pie. Surely Santa wouldn’t really mind?

An Expectation is a Belief

Many athletes and coaches experience a pattern of similar worries and dilemmas when it comes to their sport, and situations where thinking correctly under pressure appears to be important.

For example, many golfers feel more anxious over a 3-foot putt than they do over a 20 footer, because they have a belief that they should make a high percentage of their short putts.

I know a number of rugby goal kickers who are more relaxed with a shot from the touchline than for one in front of the sticks.

Many amateur golfers believe their shots fly much further than they actually do. When they splash a ball in the pond short of the green, was the thought that caused them to pull a 7 iron from the bag the problem, or their belief that a 7 iron flies 165 yards, when actually it only goes 150?

Many coaches and psychologists would look to address the symptoms. The thinking and the insecure feelings. I believe it’s far more beneficial to address the cause of the insecurity – the belief itself.

To explore the expectation (belief) itself to see if it make sense. If it doesn’t, the anxious thinking we have subsides.

If we didn’t have the belief in Father Christmas, we wouldn’t have the dilemma over the mince pie (although we might still have some doubts depending what other beliefs we hold about morals and ethics.)

Reinforcing or attempting to change our underlying beliefs is one of the main reasons why we practice or train.

The body and the mind are conditioned by experience. If you do something a lot, generally speaking you get better at it.

Professional golfers practice until they can hit the ball solidly a high percentage of the time.

Then they spend time on a launch monitor so they know with a high degree of accuracy how far each club in their bag will carry.

When faced with a shot over water, the thinking that arises in the mind of a pro golfer will be very different from the amateur golfer who rarely hits the ball out the middle of the club, and doesn’t really know how far it will carry when she does make solid contact.

Understanding Behaviour

Sometimes, the way people behave can be baffling when we don’t understand their worldview, their beliefs.

For example, if a coach believes that his well-being is dependent on results, what is his thinking and behaviour likely to be during the final ten minutes of a match his team are losing?

If a player believes that getting selected for the big game is essential to her confidence and self-esteem, is she more or less likely to be honest about the injury she is carrying when the coach asks about her fitness before the selection meeting?

In both cases, is it going to be more helpful to analyse and second guess the thinking and the decisions that arise in the moment?

Or to explore and help them to understand the beliefs which give rise to the thinking and behaviour?

By asking, ‘what would that person need to believe in order to think and behave in that way’ we can often shed light on the theories and concepts people have about themselves and the world

Beliefs that they themselves may not be cognitively aware of.

Thinking Correctly Under Pressure

To my mind TCUP – thinking correctly under pressure, is more likely to happen if we have spent time logically examining our beliefs, so we don’t think incorrectly under pressure.

This to me seems more reasonable than analysing and creating strategies to cope with or mitigate the thinking that arises from those beliefs.

Perhaps the process is subtractive, not additive?

When an athlete or coach is struggling the main reason is because they have a belief that isn’t true.

A primary function of the intellect, the logical mind, is not to control thought, but to use reason to liberate us from the beliefs which are obscuring true nature and preventing us from reaching our potential.

The fewer untrue beliefs or expectations we hold, the less insecure thinking will arise.

By examining your beliefs and expectations about sport and about yourself, you can gradually strip away those which aren’t serving or helping you to enjoy the game and play to your potential.

If you would like some help with that process, or would like to discuss these ideas further, please get in touch.

If you have any questions or comments about thinking under pressure, or anything else on the site, please use the ‘Arrange a Conversation’ link on the main menu to get in touch.

We’d love to hear from you!

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