Tuesday Tips: When Good Rounds Go Bad — Overcoming Mental Meltdowns

Don't let one bad shot become two.

Photo: Photo: Brittany Dickerson – DGPT.

In a previous article, I stressed the importance of being able to sense when you were losing your competitive composure and stopping mental meltdowns before they start. I argued that your mind was just another piece of equipment that needed managing, just like your disc selection. That’s true, but it is much easier to say it than to do it. Last week, we discussed working on a preshot routine that would allow you to play your best. But what happens when it isn’t working? How can stop your mind from sabotaging you?

The Struggle is Real

It is important to understand that getting angry or frustrated is a natural response to stress and disappointment. It isn’t a personality flaw or weakness — it is an understandable reaction to competition and the frustrations that are part of a game like disc golf. Anger is not an illogical response to spending weeks preparing for a tournament just to hit first tree off the first tee, kick OB, and take a triple bogey. Feeling anxious when you are doing something difficult in front of strangers is understandable.

But you need to control your response to this stress for at least two key reasons. First, a meltdown will only cause you to play worse, ruin your score, and make you more miserable. Secondly, and even more importantly, you have a responsibility to make sure that your emotions do not ruin someone else’s day. Golf etiquette is there to reinforce the idea that you simply do not have the right to allow your actions to hurt the play of others, and they have the same duty to you.

So, while a tantrum may be understandable, it isn’t the best option. So, what do you do when, despite all your best efforts, you find your game sliding out of control?

How to Move On From Mistakes

You can feel very alone on a disc golf course. Every hole starts with you on the teepad. Everything that happens after that point is up to you. There are no teammates to help you out or to blame. In many sports, you can just get beat – your opponent was bigger, faster, better. In golf, the person who put you in this bad spot is you. Not shooting your rating is not being worse than your competitors; it’s being worse than yourself. You can probably make all the shots you miss during a round; you may have even made them all in your practice round. When you are sitting there trying to figure out how you four-putted from forty feet, the anguish you feel is because golf is usually a game of don’t, not can’t.

The best advice is to forget your bad shots and don’t let them bother you. Sure, that sounds great, but how? Just as you have a preshot routine to play your best, you need a postshot routine to process disappointing throws and keep them from building to a meltdown.

If you have thrown a bad shot:

React: Give yourself a moment to feel disappointed. It sucked. Acknowledge it but don’t dwell on it.

Analyze: Was it a bad decision, bad mechanics, or bad luck? Did you pick the wrong disc, the wrong line, or did you just throw it poorly? If it was the wrong disc or shot selection, acknowledge the mistake without attacking yourself. “I am throwing it good, I need putter instead of mid” is okay; “you suck, you dumb idiot, why are you so bad, you knew it was putter, why are you always so stupid, you just gave this away” is not. Be honest, but end on a positive note: “Okay, that was too weak; on your next long putt really get your legs into it and commit.” You can criticize the decision or the shot, not your talent, personality, or intelligence. Focus on how you can do better in the future; not on your regret about the past.

If it was bad mechanics, then give yourself a small postshot rehearsal swing that emphasizes the correction you need. You see pros do this all the time, a quick imaginary throw after a mistake that confirms “yes, I will commit to full extension on my putt” or whatever correction is necessary. Tell yourself that you know what you did, you have fixed it, and can move forward. Obviously, do not let this activity distract your fellow players.

Accept: Remind yourself that everyone misses a few throws in a round and this was one of yours. Realize that a bad throw does not mean that the next shot will be bad, and sometimes bad throws just happen. Break any backwards-looking thought pattern and focus on the future as soon as possible. Take a deep breath, get a drink of water, force yourself to smile, and move your attention to the world around you to ground yourself in the present moment.

You don’t need to pretend that you aren’t upset when you got a bad result or made a mistake. The key is to find a way to move forward and minimize the damage. There will be lots of time for a postmortem after the round.

Be Your Own Caddy

A crucial part of making a postshot routine work is controlling your self-talk. One of the easiest ways to sabotage your round is to get stuck in a spiral of negative comments about your own ability. You are stuck with you for the rest of the round, so you need to be your own caddy. Use your self-talk to build up your confidence and get you to look to the next shot. You need to talk to yourself the way you would coach someone else’s kid who is having a tough day and trying their best.

This is very hard for many players. We are often hypercritical and say things to ourselves we would never say to another person. If many of us talked to someone else the way we talk to ourselves, we would get punched. And we would deserve it. This can be an awful habit that is easy to fall into and hard to climb out of. You need to be as polite to yourself as you are to the other players on your card.

This is much easier said than done; self-criticism and dwelling on bad shots is the biggest mental challenge in my disc golf game. Your game is of little interest to your cardmates, so you need to find a way to handle your stress in a way that doesn’t turn your playing partners into your therapists. When I started playing golf tournaments, my dad told me: “Don’t complain about bad shots to your playing partners; half of them don’t care and the other half wish you’d done worse.”

Master the Feedback Loop

But sometimes you need more than a pep talk. Your body and mind affect each other – physical stress can produce a racing mind filled with fear; fear can trigger a rapid heartbeat and a loss of coordination. In athletic competition, both your mental and physical systems are getting stressed and can overwhelm you. But addressing one side of the equation can affect the other. If you can calm your thoughts, your body will follow; if you can calm your body, your mind will quiet.

For most players, it is easier to quiet the body. That process starts with mastering your breathing. One of the first stress responses is shallow, rapid breathing; this signals your body to move into fight or flight mode, which is absolutely where you don’t want to be facing a water carry or a must-make putt. One of the best ways to get back into a good place is box breathing, a relaxation technique used by Navy SEALS. Inhale through your nose for four seconds, hold for four seconds, exhale for four seconds, and hold your exhale for four seconds. Then repeat. This will quickly take your body out of the red zone and your mind will follow. If four seconds is too long, then try it for two seconds until you are comfortable with the process.

Next, try controlling your speed – not just of your throw, but of every movement on the course. Everyone plays best at different speeds: Ricky Wysocki seems to move at a flash around the course no matter how he is playing, but be aware when you are speeding up. Wanting to get a shot over with or get to your disc quickly can be a sign of anxiety. Force yourself to walk slower, to take time to choose your shot, to take time to breathe. Don’t play slowly – which can also be a loss of your natural rhythm – but play at a measured, peaceful pace. This is not only good advice when you are playing badly. Sometimes, playing well can overstimulate you and cause you to go too quickly. Rushing during a heater can also produce mistakes. Moving down the fairway at a smooth pace, making sure that you aren’t rushing, is a good way to stay present in your game and be able to focus on the next shot.

There is No Reset

In sports that are divided into sets and matches, like tennis, you can play incredibly poorly for a stretch and still win. In a tennis match, you can hit 24 straight serves into the net, lose the first set 6-0, and come back to win the next three sets. Playing awful tennis for the first set doesn’t hurt your score any worse than losing that set in an incredibly tight tiebreaker. But in golf, the mistakes of the first three holes can weigh down your entire tournament. Playing badly for the first 25 minutes can mean spending the next 9 hours – or three days – stewing with the fact you blew up your chance for things to go the way you wanted. This is a recipe for a meltdown.

Really going off the rails can produce a mental crisis. Sometimes you can’t move on and the mistakes keep coming. When this happens, many players feel out of control. Players pout, get angry, or drag themselves around the course like someone is forcing them to play against their will. On tilt, they score worse and worse, almost seeming to miss shots on purpose to punish themselves for earlier mistakes. When it starts getting this ugly, you need to take a deep breath and face the question: are you going to quit? Really ask the question and make yourself answer it. If you are in such a bad place that you are miserable and going to ruin the day for everyone, and you cannot get your composure back, then walk in (though you will have to accept the consequences of a DNF or an 888.1

I am not suggesting you disqualify yourself, but making the purposeful decision to stay out there can give you back a sense of control. You are in charge; even though the round is not going to go the way you had hoped, you can still make sure the next few hours are fun and useful. Set new goals to work on if beating your rating or winning the tournament seems to be off the table. Give yourself a reset and consider the holes from here on out a new round. Commit to going through your preshot routine, throwing good shots, making all your inside the circle putts, or even just being a good cardmate. Enjoy the freedom of a competition round without pressure. You can’t erase those two (or four) double bogeys, but you can keep them from dominating your day.

If you can focus on what you can control rather than what you cannot, you can still enjoy the round. And, quite often, something else happens – you find yourself back in the tournament. Accepting that you may not get the finish you want but that you are going to do your best on every shot regardless of the final score may free you to play your best disc golf ever. There’s a lesson there – that’s how we should play every round.

  1. DNF stands for “Did Not Finish,” an 888 is a designation for quitting a round without notifying the Tournament Director and it can hurt your rating and require other actions depending on the TD. 

  1. Steve Andrews
    Steve Andrews

    Steve Andrews is a college professor and disc golfer in Bloomington, Indiana. He came to disc golf from traditional golf and, even though he is 50 and playing on bad knees, managed to reach 950 rated through course management and playing smart. He is sponsored by Skybreed Discs.

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