“I’ve known a great many troubles in my life, most of which have never actually happened.” – Mark Twain
Mark Twain is likely one of the most quotable men in American Literature and he, not surprisingly given the self-deprecating nature of a good many of the quotes attributable to him, played a bit of golf in his leisure time. Being a golfer (at least a dedicated one) often requires you to have a good sense of irony, not to mention a healthy sense of humor and the ability to laugh at oneself. We can hit a great shot, hit the pin, and have the ball carom back into a bunker or lake (remember Tiger at the Masters?). At the same time, we’ve all received the benefit of the members’ bounce; that horrible shot everyone hits at one time or another that strikes a branch, a cart path, or a sprinkler head and kicks back into play, onto the green, and even occasionally into the hole (by law the last one only happens to people that have played the game for less than one month). We strive to improve, yet are reluctant to change, bringing to mind Einstein’s oft-quoted definition of insanity. We stand upon the 1st tees of the world, palms sweating, collars tightening, and heart-rates rising, while visions of wayward shots and the accompanying dis-approving looks from all who stand nearby dance wildly through our heads. We worry and hurry through our rounds, cursing and throwing our clubs, sometimes even into a nearby lake, then swear off the game for good (for the third time this month), only to sneak back later that night in hopes of retrieving the offending articles. Any of this sound familiar? I know, I know, it’s just a game we say, yet at times it feels like an emotional roller-coaster, careening out of control while leaving our outlook on life itself in a state of flux from shot to shot. And though on the surface this tragic-comedy appears the result of how we play, it is in truth a reflection of what is playing out in the theater of our minds.
Being in our own heads too much is very often one of the biggest problems with golfers at just about every level. We stand upon the tee, nervously peering down a fairway wider than a football field, yet see nothing but the bunkers, the water, the deep rough, or the trees ominously lining each side. We’ve already mentally signed the scorecard for that 68 we’re going to shoot after starting with a birdie on the first, or we’re so pre-occupied with a 4-putt double-bogey that we’ve made two more doubles before we wake up from the self-imposed purgatorial trance we’re in. And all this foreshadowing and rumination is neatly sandwiched in between a fair amount of self-flagellation for every errant shot or blame for the hands of the Golf Gods for their intervention in every less than perfect bounce or break. It’s a habitual ritual that each of us plays out to one degree or another each time we play and one that has a very direct impact upon how we score and interact with those we are with while we are out there. And in the end, it is this ritual way of being that often invisibly anchors us and our game to a certain level of play and it is a big part of what needs to change in order to get to that elusive next level.
So while there is often a realization amongst golfers in general that they are their own worst enemy, there is very little in the way of a generally recognized road map for helping you to find your way out of your own head once you’ve taken that fork in the road. We make our way around the course enacting this series of almost unconscious, but well-rehearsed routines that are so habitual that they clear the mental space necessary for us to engage in all the aforementioned foreshadowing, ruination, and other detrimental behavior. Sure, we’ve all heard about how we’re supposed to stay in the present, but connecting the dots from that generally recognized principle to a series of steps that you can actually take to do just that is something much less obvious and not the kind of advice you’ll likely receive from your garden variety golf instructor. So in the interest of not being garden variety, I’d like to give you a few things to try the next time you find yourself seemingly mired in the swamps of your own head. The key is change, and by forcing yourself to do that consciously, you can disrupt the patterns of action and thought that ultimately result in you doing the same thing over and over again.
- Step #1. Try being an extrovert. Or an introvert if you’re already the outgoing type. We each have our social comfort zones and personality types that we inhabit both on and off the golf course and how we interact with others is often one elaborate habitual routine that we’ve been engaged in for so long that we are unaware we are even doing it. To get present we need to disrupt those well-rehearsed routines by being different. Introverts need to actually talk to their playing partners and make a point of remembering their names if it’s your first round together. Already outgoing? Time to shut up already. Your playing partners have already heard the story (many times) about how you knocked it stiff in a two-club wind on #18 last summer to take down the 5-time Club Champion, so listen to theirs stories for once, or take a look around, absorbing the scenic beauty of the course as if you were playing it for the first time.
- Step #2. Stop sleep-walking. Or sleep-driving if that be the case. Offer to be the scorekeeper, if you aren’t normally, and challenge yourself to remember each and every shot of all your playing partners. And at the end of the hole you, rather than asking them what the took, say something like “Nice par Jim!” And if the self-appointed scorecard Czar in your group won’t give it up? Then keep your own. It’ll be useful in the next exercise, and isn’t a bad thing to have anyway in the case the bets don’t quite add up the way you thought they should when settling up in the 19th hole afterwards.
- Step #3. Track your attention. This is another good reason to be the scorekeeper and is a little mindful awareness practice borrowed from the world of Zen Buddhism. Place 2 columns on your scorecard. One titled past and the other titled future. Without judgment, just make a little mental note during the play of each hole when your mind wanders to something in the future (like that 68 you’re going to shoot) or something in the past (like that stupid little 3-footer you missed for birdie 4 holes ago) and not them on the card at the end of the hole. This practice of non-judgmental awareness can really aid in the breaking of bad habits as well as the formation of new ones without you actually making the effort to change, but rather by making you aware of just how often these little habits of thought occur.
Now while I know that this is just a beginning, change needs to start somewhere, and making these three little mental disciplines a part of your new routine can be the start of developing a new you. A new you that might not only surprise your playing partners with a difference in demeanor, but with a different golf game as well. Being different requires you to be in the moment, essentially forcing you to stay in the present rather than your own head.
You may not ultimately decide that the new you is for you, but forcing the old you to go away, even if it is only for a little while might be all you need to do to learn the process of staying in the here and now, rather than robbing yourself of the enjoyment of the game or ruining a perfectly good round by living in your head the entire time. After all, while golf is a great game, if we can’t learn to appreciate everything it has to teach us, we can easily turn what could be the greatest game into Twain’s proverbial “Good walk spoiled”. Let me know what you think,