Falling Into, and Getting Out of, Golf’s Deepest Trap

Before golf, my sport was beer-league softball. Our team was brutal, but we sure had fun. After every game, we’d gather in a semi-circle around the tailgate of Terry’s truck, have a beer or two, and decide who’d be the latest recipient of the coveted “trophy” ... a wooden leg adorned with baseball hose and a shoe, given to the player who made the worst play of the night.

I played with the aptly named “Blues” for six laugh-filled seasons until fate threw a curveball. Around my 50th birthday, I injured my throwing arm and had to hang up my glove. A few weeks later — perhaps because I was desperate for something active to do — I jumped at the chance to play golf in a charity tournament with a few of my teammates. Much to my surprise, I really enjoyed myself. Then and there, I decided to become a regular golfer.

But right from the very beginning, I couldn’t help but notice an obvious paradox — despite their pre-round enthusiasm, my buddies derived little enjoyment from actually playing golf.

Where Did the Joy Go?

No doubt, my pals cracked a smile whenever they rolled in a birdie, and they clearly enjoyed sharing jokes and chirping at each other as we walked down the fairway. But mostly, when it came time to execute a shot, their happy-go-lucky mood vanished as soon as they stood over the ball.

To be honest, the contrast took me by surprise. On the diamond, we laughed at our gaffs. Of course, you’d hear the occasional cuss after an error, but the bad mood would dissipate almost as soon as it appeared. I guess you could say we all knew how good we weren’t.

But on the golf course, the same guys would act as if a miss-hit carried dire consequences. They’d make a bad swing, describe the reason aloud, then routinely step to the side and rehearse a "correct" motion. On the putting green, they'd get so sour after missing a short putt you'd think they'd lost a chance to get a tour card. And these emotional storm clouds seemed to linger, and often get darker, as the round went on. At one point, I remember asking myself, "Why are they paying good money to get pissed-off at themselves?”

My Delusional Pledge

And so, full of righteousness, I decided to be different. With hindsight, I can see it was self-delusion, but at the time, I actually believed I’d have no problem establishing and maintaining a carefree, fun-filled approach to golf. After all, I was a successful performance coach. I’d worked with All-Stars in the NHL, and I’d been an executive coach to corporate leaders all over the globe. Frankly, I assumed I’d rise above the needless fears and foolish frustrations that regularly plagued my buddies on the links.

But like I said, it was self-delusion.

Once my game improved to the point where I could break 90 regularly, my focus slowly but surely shifted from playing golf for recreation to performing in a way that would produce a “good” score. In other words, my reason for being on the golf course was subtly but significantly changing — albeit unwittingly— from enjoying the experience of making a swing to making my swing a means to an end.

And continuing to improve my physical ability only made things worse. By the time I was skilled enough to break 80 occasionally, my expectations were so out-of-whack that my dominant on-course mood was frustration. Good shots left me feeling neutral because, after all, I should be able to make that shot. And the inevitable bad swings and missed putts left me sour at myself. To sum up, I’d say I was emotionally misaligned to what should’ve been my primary target — the joy at the heart of simply playing a game.

I mean ... what is with the game of golf?

Why do otherwise contented, successful, rational people invest most of their precious emotional energy into their worst moments on the golf course and put little or no energy into their best?

In my case, there really was no excuse. I was professionally trained to know better and do better. Yet, I still fell into the trap of allowing negative feelings to diminish my enjoyment and often derail my most promising rounds.

Frustration's Common Factors

I see three reasons for the error of my ways:

First, the nature of the mind. All of us are hard-wired to pay attention to negatives because it gave us an evolutionary advantage. The ability to notice when something looked or sounded out-of-place at the watering hole kept stone-age hunter-gatherers alive. But that ability can have the average golfer over-focused on mechanical flaws and under-invested in how good it feels to make a good swing.

Second, the nature of the game. To play any sport to the best of your ability, the subconscious mind must be center stage, and the conscious mind needs to take a back seat. But unlike many other sports, golf doesn’t allow us to react to a ball or an angry opponent, thereby automatically engaging the subconscious. In golf, we initiate the action. Not only that, but there’s a lot of time between shots, which equates to your thoughts moving to the forefront of your awareness. No wonder it’s difficult to get into “the zone” and stay there for 18 holes!

Third, mainstream golf psychology’s overemphasis on positive thinking. Look, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with positive thinking. What I’m saying is this — you can’t think your way out of a negative emotional state. As anyone anxious about public speaking will tell you, once fear or frustration really kicks in, no amount of positive self-talk will get rid of it. Something more is required, and believing your emotions are less important than your thoughts doesn’t lend itself to fixing the problem.

Going From Negative to Positive

Here’s the simple practice that helped me change my habitual on-course emotions from mostly negative to mostly positive — I made a commitment to feeling great when I made a great shot. (And here I’m talking about a great shot for me, not for Mr. McIlroy or his peers on the PGA Tour).

And the keyword here is feeling. I’m not talking about changing my thoughts by saying “great shot” to myself or even saying it aloud. I’m talking about an Ian Poulter at the Ryder Cup chest pump kind of feeling ... the kind of emotion that actually comes from such a genuine, heartfelt passion for the game that it imprints itself on your memory.

You have that passion ... or you wouldn’t be a fan of Practical Golf. Let yourself feel it where it matters most — on the golf course, immediately after you make a great swing or drain a great putt. Don’t respond to your best moments with a ho-hum attitude. Permit yourself to punctuate a great swing by letting yourself relish the accomplishment.

It’s definitely a better way for me to play the game, and it just might be a better way for you as well.

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