What happened to Tiger Wood’s mojo?
Theories abound. Is it his new swing? Could it be his pursuit of technical precision at the expense of his natural talent and innate feel for the game? Is it the emotional distractions related to his current romantic relationship or his past marital scandals? Could it simply be an aching, aged body that is finally giving out after four knee surgeries and one back procedure?
I propose the hypothesis that Tiger Wood’s precipitous fall is rooted in something more profound, more deep-seated, more subconscious. Rather than being purely physical or entirely psychological, I offer a mind-body connection to explain Tiger’s meltdown. This perspective not only illuminates the underpinnings of his downfall, but it also holds the key to his recovery.
Tiger Woods is inarguably one of the greatest golfers of all time, a fact almost irreconcilable with his performance over the past 12 months. Holding one of the worst records on the 2015 Tour, it’s hard to believe the same golfer who won 79 official PGA tournaments managed only one top-25 finish in 2014. With Tiger’s one missed cut and one withdrawal marking his start to 2015, the New Year has failed to bring an upturn of any kind. One of the themes over this year’s tour has been Tiger’s withdrawals due to injury. In February, Tiger withdrew from Torrey Pines citing back pain as the reason. At the Farmers Insurance Open he withdrew claiming his back pain was due to gluteal muscles that were “deactivated.” Though on the surface it may be easy to attribute these physical ailments to a worn down body, they may actually be an indication of Tiger’s psychological state. Referring to Tiger’s withdrawal at Torrey Pines, 1991 British Open champion Ian Baker-Finch was quoted on an Australian radio program: “It’s a fear. It’s not the yips. It’s not a spasm. It’s a fear.” He isn’t too off the mark.
Let’s consider Tiger Wood’s staggering decline in the world of golf from a trauma-based psychosomatic perspective. I imagine that you are asking yourself, how is an approach to addressing trauma applicable to Tiger Woods? “Trauma” can be defined as any event that leads to a state of extreme stress or overwhelm. For Tiger, the constant daily pressure that comes with being one of the most well-known golfers in the world, the emotional upheaval following the widely publicized scandal surrounding his infidelity, and the relentless scrutiny that comes with every poor performance, failure to make the cut, or withdrawal from a tournament, all constitute psychological traumas. These experiences represent stressful and overwhelming situations that Tiger is unable to escape from. The psychological toll they have on him is immense. Over time they have compounded on one another, continuing to build up inside of his body. Now, every time he is on the green, it triggers a negative feedback loop. It is this vicious cycle that is severely impairing his ability to perform.
Now, how can this theory also be the premise for his comeback? I believe that Tiger can emerge from this state of decline through an approach known as Somatic Experiencing (SE). SE is a specific approach to working with trauma that relies on the body’s instinctive capacity to heal as the means to regain a sense of inner balance and control over one’s life that is often lost in the aftermath of trauma. Using mind-body awareness combined with dynamic processing may help Tiger move through the debilitating symptoms he has been experiencing over the past year. This approach has the potential to not only help Tiger, but other top rated athletes who experience a decline in performance and hope to once again perform at the top of their game.
Every time Tiger is faced with an overly stressful or overwhelming emotional experience, it is considered a “mini trauma” to his system. These traumas are compounded over time and the bound energy triggered by each traumatic experience ends up being held and trapped inside his body. This bound energy is often observable in such physical cues as breathing high in the chest, clenched jaw, eyes narrowed, shoulders tense – cues you may have started to notice in Tiger over the past couple of years. Their impact is evident in the lack of fluidity, the hitches, and the hesitations that one can observe when Tiger is golfing.
The very place that used to be Tiger’s sanctuary — the golf course — has now become a trigger for a vicious cycle of fear, sympathetic arousal, distress, and an intrusion of negative thoughts and memories. Let’s take a closer look at how traumatic memory, which in Tiger’s case could be anything from public humiliations on and off the course to crushing tournament withdrawals, interacts with his present state on the golf course. A present state marked by fear and stress is experienced as negative bodily sensations, including such things as muscle tension, trembling, weakness, cold sweaty hands, increased blood pressure, and shallow breathing. These consciously felt somatic markers activate memories that are tied to these same negative feelings and bodily sensations. Due to their connection to old painful memories, they reinforce and exacerbate the present fearful state, causing the person to experience terror, pain, or shutdown. In response to a stressful state, the nervous system tries to mobilize a defensive response – our innate instinct to fight, freeze, or flee. Given the circumstances, especially those facing Tiger when he is in the midst of a tournament, this natural defensive response is not allowed to play out. Instead it is thwarted and suppressed.
Our body relies on the autonomic nervous system to regulate itself. This system is comprised of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS). The SNS is triggered when we are faced with a threat and is in charge of governing the body’s “fight or flight” response. The main function of the PSNS, on the other hand, is to initiate the “rest and digest” response and return the body to homeostasis. When our body’s innate capacity to restore inner regulation and balance is chronically suppressed, our system remains disorganized, unbalanced, and more energy is added to the undischarged activation. This is known as “retraumatization”. So imagine, for Tiger, this nasty cycle of activation and suppression continues to happen over and over in his daily life. As a result, his autonomic nervous system is “stuck” in a state of over-activation, unable to return to a balanced state. From this state of excess activation it is impossible for him to perform at his peak capacity or even get his body to do what he is asking it to do.
Trapped in this state of acute arousal, Tiger’s capacity to perform is impaired. The path that Tiger has persistently taken to address his decline is more practice and more training. Despite his efforts, this approach is not working for him. According to SE, this is not surprising. Ordinary physical movements and voluntary vigorous exercise will not have the same impact as working through and discharging the inhibited defensive response. Because the foundation of the trauma state is the chronic and maladaptive activation of the nervous system, the key to breaking out of this state is through re-regulating the system to a more balanced state. Fortunately, this is exactly what occurs in the re-working process of SE.
By turning to the body’s natural wisdom and capacity to heal itself, SE has the potential to help Tiger emerge from his current diminished state. The first step is creating a safe environment for Tiger, one that is away from the media and the public’s constant scrutiny. This is exactly the type of environment ensured by the privacy of a therapist’s office. The next step would be working with him to gently re-frame his interoceptive (body awareness) and emotional experience.
Removing the need to suppress his body’s natural responses and gradually become more familiar with his inner experience facilitates a release process that allows the natural re-balancing of the nervous system to occur. It is by guiding him through this process and drawing his awareness to the bodily sensations that accompany it that would allow his system to begin restoring normal function.
At the center of this process is bringing Tiger’s central nervous system into a more balanced place. This requires facilitating a state of safety and comfort. One of the approaches in SE known as “resourcing” aids in getting a person in touch with positive inner feelings of calm, safety, wellbeing, and optimism. It is from this place that a person can start moving towards re-stabilization and balance. Resourcing does not rely on abstract mental states but rather fully embodied experiences of positive inner feelings. Most individuals, especially those like Tiger who are in a state of chronic high stress, tend to focus their attention on negative interoceptive cues, also known as somatic markers. These cues include such things as elevated heart rate, strained breathing, tightness in the chest, dilated pupils, or perspiration. The purpose of these interoceptive cues is to help us make instinctive judgments about the environment around us. However, by focusing only on the negative cues, one’s automatic fear reactions increase. Therefore, the initial work with Tiger needs to focus on guiding him to notice positive inner sensations in his body as they arise. This is likely to be unfamiliar to the golfer whose press conferences highlight just how much attention is given to his physical pain and injuries as explanation for his poor performance. Helping Tiger bring his attention to positive, non-aversive somatic markers will bring both his autonomic nervous system and the subcortical emotional centers of his brain into a more relaxed, less fearful state. These positive somatic markers may include loose or relaxed muscle tone, slowed heart rate, deep even breathes, or yawning, Being able to do this on the green, when the pressure and stress is highest, would prove invaluable for a golfer who is becoming more infamous for his withdrawals than for his finishes.
The next step in SE is addressing Tiger’s unreleased, bound energy. Tiger is no longer actually responding to the present conditions but is stuck in an unresolved state of constant activation. This bound energy is the result of being unable to carryout the biological defensive response that arises in his body every time he is faced with a traumatic or stress-inducing situation. When I refer to a “defensive response” I am talking about the range of possible responses that all animals resort to when threatened or injured. Such responses include orienting, stiffening, bracing, freezing, fighting, collapsing, etc. They are all body-based reactions that the body automatically does to protect or defend itself from a perceived threat. In the wild, when an animal enters this type of state, it recovers spontaneously through yawning, shaking, trembling, and other involuntary movements that facilitate a release or discharge of the intense biological arousal (Levine, 2010. For humans, this process of “resetting” the nervous system is often thwarted. When we are unable to release the immense amount of energy activated by our body’s survival responses, it becomes trapped inside of us. The individual then remains stuck in a state of chronic arousal and dysregulation of the central nervous system.
Through guided exploration of the physical sensations, thoughts, images, and behaviors that arise from traumatic memories and associations, the physical tension that remains in Tiger’s body will gradually be released. By way of “titration”, Tiger would be encouraged to experience small amounts of the distress at a time, as opposed to all at once, so that he could gradually and piece-by-piece move through his experience. Tiger would also be guided through the movement between a regulated and dysregulated state. The goal of shifting from dysregulation (i.e. highly aroused with physical symptoms such as tension, increased heart rate, sweating, etc.) to regulation is to facilitate the resolution of the symptoms, both physical and mental, caused by the built up trauma stored in his body. The final step is facilitating “discharge”. Discharge would enable his body to return to a regulated state and may come in the form of tears, a warm sensation throughout the body, the ability to breath easily again, and other types of energy release that indicate that they nervous system is returning to baseline.
The media continues to question whether it is possible for Tiger to make a comeback and play the way he once did – with that iconic confidence, intensity, and flair. Considering it through a mind-body lens, it becomes not a question of possibility but rather how to effectively address the underlying issues. This is where Somatic Experiencing comes into play, offering an approach that effectively confronts the core issues instead of bypassing them. Through the process of SE, Tiger has the potential to not just return to baseline physically and psychologically, but to emerge even more resilient and capable of dominating on the course. By restoring his inherent capacity to self-regulate and releasing the bound energy in his system, Tiger would be freed from the debilitating effects of built-up trauma and once again capable of succeeding in the relentlessly demanding and highly stressful world of professional golf.
Kelly Mothner, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist who has been working in private practice in Hermosa Beach since 2012. She graduated summa cum laude from Dartmouth College with a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology. She went on to earn her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the California School of Professional Psychology at Alliant International University.
During her training as a clinical intern at the USC Counseling Center and the Southern California Counseling Center, she worked with a culturally diverse clientele providing short-term psychodynamic and cognitive behavioral therapy. She completed her pre and post-doctoral training at the Saturday Center for Psychotherapy where she received intense
psychodynamic based training. Currently in her work with adult individuals, adolescents, and couples, she draws on a unique combination of insight oriented psychodynamic therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and body-oriented approaches to psychotherapy. Kelly is committed to seeking out opportunities for continued personal and professional grow as a therapist.
After being introduced to SE by a colleague, she decided to pursue the three-year professional training program and is presently completing her second year. She hopes to continue to help her clients access the inherent wisdom of their bodies in order to overcome and emerge from the debilitating and life-zapping symptoms of trauma.
Levine P. A. (2010). In an Unspoken Voice: How The Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic