The weight of expectations can be crippling to a golfer. It can destroy our confidence, enjoyment, and performance on the course. I have help for all of you though!
Golf doesn't have to be about the fear of failure or any of those other negative thoughts that hold us back from playing our best. Recently, I had a few experiences which shed some major light on this topic and I hope hearing my story will help all of you and your games.
A Lingering Fear
For years I played golf scared. No matter how well I was playing, in the back of my head, I always wondered when the next mistake was going to occur. When it showed up (it always does) it would send me into a panic. My heart would start racing, my palms would clam up, and I couldn't think straight.
I know all of you can sympathize with this on some level. This is what golf can do to us no matter what level we are playing at. The game has a way of playing with our emotions and expectations.
A lot of it is wrapped up in our results. Most golfers are always looking to shoot their personal best or break 80, 90, or 100. As we get closer to the milestone, negative thoughts appear that are entirely wrapped up in the potential outcome.
Obsessed With Results and Not The Process
For the past several years I have been playing competitively again. The New York Metro region has a great series of tournaments with very difficult fields. Generally, I try to play somewhere between five to eight qualifiers a year that lead to bigger events.
When you tee off you can't help but feel like the noose is already around your neck. Generally, it takes a round of somewhere between +1 to +4 to claim a qualifying spot. Focusing on your results and where you stand in relation to the cut number is always in the back of your head, and it's very difficult not to think about it.
For the most part, I did not have much success at these tournaments the first three years. I would make mistakes early in the round, and although I was able to grind out a respectable score, I was never really "in the mix." The minute it seemed that making the cut was a real possibility, a horrible mistake would occur and it was excruciating to me. My mind was completely obsessed with the number I had to shoot, and it prevented me from the actual process of executing.
But each failure gave me more experience. I started to feel more and more comfortable under the pressure.
Recently all of the failures and experience paid off. In my first two qualifiers of the year, I shot a 71 and 73 and gained entry into three big events.
In each instance, I knew exactly where I stood in relation to the cut number. I faced difficult holes coming down the stretch where in the past I had blown up and ruined my chances. Something interesting happened though - I didn't feel nervous and I was able to hit the shots I needed to.
Thinking back on everything it became very clear what had changed. I was completely accepting of both outcomes. I knew I was going to be OK either way, and the fear of failing was not dominating my thoughts. In a way, I had gone through this process with other parts of my game in normal rounds, but feeling it under the most pressure was probably one of the biggest epiphanies I've ever had on a golf course.
Since then I have played other rounds in tournaments where I missed a cut by as little as one stroke, but it didn't bother me at all. I knew I had gone through my process on the course, given myself a chance, and it simply didn't work out that day.
I certainly haven't solved golf forever, but I think there is something all of you can take away from this.
What Can You Learn From This?
I know my story doesn't exactly relate to all of you. But many of you are chasing other personal milestones in this game, and the pressure of expectations can be a big burden to carry.
My goal for all of you who read my articles is to first and foremost enjoy this game in your pursuit of better golf. That can come in many forms. For me, it's competing and pushing myself to perform in tournament situations. For you, it could be to break 100 several times this year or win a few Nassau matches against your buddies on Sunday morning.
Either way, all golfers have to face up to the expectations of their results because this game gives us a very concrete measuring stick at the end of our round. It took me the better part of 25 years to realize this, but the true power in golf comes when you let go of all of that.
In relation to our lives, and who we are as people, golf is just a grain of sand on a large beach. It really doesn't matter much in the grand scheme of things (despite it feeling that way in the moment).
So I would tell all of you two things:
- If you want to achieve your goals, you need to put yourself in position, fail, and learn what that feels like. Don't feel discouraged, it is part of the process!
- The only way you are going to ultimately breakthrough is when you learn to accept both outcomes - the ones that make you feel good, and the ones that make you feel bad.
As always, things like this are easier said than done. You can't just decide one day that you are going to do all of this and expect to see instant results. It's more of a general outlook on the game. For many golfers changing these top-level philosophies on the game can completely change things. I hope it does for you.