A golfer’s peak performance skills can help you too

file0001594686347Maybe you’re not into golf, but the lessons of being a peak performer can translate to success in numerous areas of our lives. I was introduced to golf at an early age and it has given me camaraderie, mental acuity and focus, friendships, a relaxing hobby and in the true tradition of stereotyping, yes, I’ve even cut business deals on the fairway (okay, more like the tee box, sometimes the green, or. . . who am I kidding, it’s usually the bunker or the rough, sometimes a parking lot or a housing development, but I digress).

What I’ve also found is that what can make you effective at one thing can improve your effectiveness at others.

After just finishing Imagine, by Jonah Lehrer (a book that will be featured in these blogs in a few weeks), I found many parallels between getting into an optimal emotional and mental state to be highly effective and being in the right mindset to play good golf. The psychological demands of golf, as in life, are paradoxical (Cohn xii), a player must be determined but not be obsessive, precise but not a perfectionist and intense but not overzealous (Cohn xii). It’s kind of like holding a bird in your hand — too loose and the bird gets away, too tight and you have squished bird.

Golfers must also be confident but humble, play with self-control but also with instinct, be focused but not fixated, and be relaxed but not aloof (Cohn xii). These are all traits that anyone can use to be successful. 

Much of Cohn’s book focuses on entering the ever-elusive state of mind known as “the zone.” That often talked about yet rarely captured magical moment where time stands still and you’re performing at your peak state. For a golfer to reach the levels of being a professional, they must be able to enter that state, then either stay there for five hours (good luck!), or turn it on and off every time they approach a shot. It is in between shots that players can fall out of the zone.

The downtime in golf presents a challenge to players, particularly those that are always evaluating and judging their performance (Cohn 2). The extra time between each shot gives you time to overthink it and really get upset if your last shot was terrible, or get overconfident if your last shot was outstanding. Every golfer has had the experience of hitting that monster drive off the tee, then duffing their second shot 15-feet through the rough and into the bunker. Just as in life, many of us have experienced a good set up for a business deal or an upcoming date with a potential intimate partner, only to “duff it on the second shot,” sending the business deal or the potential partner, running the other direction. Good golf and peak performance in any endeavor requires good mental and emotional control. 

Champions are not just people with excellent physical abilities, but they must also have desire, motivation, commitment, and a strong mental approach to their game (Cohn 3). While many of us can hit a decent shot in practice or with just our friends watching, it’s those that can master their mental state of mind who can do it in front of a gallery of a thousand spectators and a few million watching on TV.

Qualities of Peak Performance

  • When in the zone, you play one shot at a time (Cohn 8). This allows both the golfer and all of us to forget about the last shot, no matter how good or bad, and just focus on the task at hand. I know that once I start thinking about my score and how I may break 90 that day or even 80, the game starts heading south. Ironically, it also works that way in the board room. When I get too far ahead and start thinking how awesome it’s going to be when the deal closes, the deal begins to slip away! Focus on the task at hand until the task is done, then add up the score.
  • Self-confidence is the number one psychological quality that separates the champion from the rest of the field (Cohn 9). But which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Does confidence come from playing well, or does confidence help you play well? Turns out both. Self-confidence starts by having the ability to perform the task. In the case of golf, it’s the act of practicing all aspects of your game, over and over, until you’ve developed a high level of skill. The more skillful you are at any task, the more confident you will be when doing it “for real,” and that success will feed on itself and thus, every time you are successful, you’re even more confident of your skills the next time.
  • Don’t dwell on the past and don’t “overdwell” in the moment. The less you have to think about the better (Cohn 10). Amateur golfers try to have way too many swing thoughts in their head – professional golfers typically have one simple swing thought and they let their ability do the rest.  Then, they walk the shot they hit and start figuring out how to hit THAT shot, instead of dwelling on every thing that just went wrong. It’s not that they don’t think about whether something went wrong that needs correction, they just aren’t dwelling on the bad shot and beating themselves up over it – that can cause fear.

Fear can be one of the most debilitating emotions for all players (Cohn 14). When fear dominates your thoughts it can ruin your performance (Cohn 14-15). Allow me to quote one of my generations greatest actors, the late Patrick Swayze in his Bohdi role in the movie Point Break: Fear causes hesitation, and hesitation will cause your worst fears to come true.”

Ever been afraid to hit a shot because there is water or worse, a housing development, on the right side of the fairway and you worried about slicing your shot over there? How does that usually work out for you?  Right, you slice your shot right into the lake or someone’s pane glass window. Just remember though, you just told your brain to do that. Learning how to swing (literally in golf and metaphorically in life) without fear will result in more fairway landings.

Cohn, Patrick. The Mental Game of Golf: A Guide to Peak Performance. Lanham, MD: Taylor Trade Publishing, 1994. Print.

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