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Fill Your Mind With Moments of Gold

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Have you wondered how great athletes raise their game under pressure?

Case in point: Tiger Woods at this year’s Honda Classic Golf Tournament. It was the eighteenth hole and Tiger Woods knew he had to make an eagle to have any chance at winning this tournament. He hit his drive almost 320-yards and had a long iron into a green in which the pin was snuggled right next to a lake. If he hit his shot a little right of the target, his hopes would be splashed and dashed.

Before his shot, Tiger mentioned that he recalled his great shot in the 2000 Bell Canadian Open in which he hit a long iron from a fairway bunker that carried a lake and landed near the pin. This was a similar shot and he wanted a similar outcome. Tiger proceeded to hit one of his greatest shots, capping it with an eagle. Although Tiger finished second to Rory McIlroy, it showed how an all-time great raises his game under pressure.

To be at his best, Tiger used the principle of a golden nugget, which is recalling an image of your best shot, or event, from a previous tournament. This principle extends far beyond the fairways and has been used by great athletes from the beginnings of sport.

Take this example by Football Great Joe Montana. It was the last two minutes of the 1989 Super Bowl and the San Francisco 49′ers were five points down against the Cincinnati Bengals. They needed to march his almost ninety-yards to score. In the huddle, Joe told his teammates, “This is just like ‘81”.

Those words in the huddle allowed Joe and his teammates to recall a golden nugget. When they played the Dallas Cowboys in the 1981 NFC Championship game, the 49′ers needed to advance the ball down the entire field in the last minutes of play. With just a few clicks left on the clock, Joe threw the famous catch to Dwight Clark for the winning touchdown. Just like Tiger Woods, Joe used a golden image from the past to gain a favorable outcome in the present.

Why The Golden Nugget Principle works:

Images can create our reality. A literal, physical connection exists between our images and our actions. If you’re on the free-throw line and imagine the ball missing, you feel anxious. Anxiety causes your muscles to constrict and your movements to become stiffer. As a result, you will likely miss.

On the other hand, if you imagine yourself making the shot, you will feel calmer. A peaceful state of mind creates greater blood flow to your muscles, making your movements more fluid. With this mental state, you are much more likely to make the basket.

Our images are self-fulfilling. Visualizing a past success, enhances our ability to perform better under current pressure. Athletes who have the skill of recalling key successful moments, in vivid detail, have an enormous advantage against those who cannot. Here are a few suggestions to develop that skill and fill your mind with moments of gold:

  1. Keep a golden nugget book. After a game in which you had an amazing play or hit that fantastic shot, record it in your golden nugget book. This is just a small notebook. Keep this book in your locker or at home. Continually refresh your mind with gold throughout the day.
  2. Fill your routine with gold. Most sports have a pre-shot routine. Start your routine with a moment of gold. This golden image will direct your body and mind into the right direction, regardless of what has happened before in the day.
  3. Start with gold. At the start of each day, recall some of your greatest shots. Before heading out to the golf course, gridiron, or tennis court, remind yourself of some of your all-time greatest plays. This habit will give a big boost to your confidence.
  4. End with gold. The night before a game, imagine yourself hitting some of your all-time great shots, or making that great play. Take some of those golden oldies and place them into the present; into your current course or against the next day’s opponent. With such pleasant thoughts, will come pleasant dreams.

Centuries ago, the founder of modern philosophical thought, Rene Descartes, wrote that, “We have the capacity to think whatever we choose—and to have thoughts that are self-liberating and those that are self-defeating. This same principle applies to your mental game. You have a choice to recall all the times you failed and choked on the playing field, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy, or you can fill your mind with moments of gold and see your game enriched in tournament play.

About Dr. Gregg Steinberg

Dr. Gregg Steinberg is a professor of sport psychology at Austin Peay State University, near Nashville, Tennessee. Golf Digest Magazine ranked him as one of the world’s greatest sports psychologists. He has been the mental-game coach for many players in the NBA, NFL, and PGA tour. You can find him at

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