John tees up his ball on the 18th hole, a par 5. With his length, if he just hits a solid drive in the fairway, he can get to the green in two and be putting for eagle. Internally, he really wants it, the three-putt bogey on the last hole really stung and he is now one over. An eagle here and all will be well he reasons, yet he is soundly aware of the danger of pressing and trying too hard so as he steps up to the ball he silently reminds himself to swing smooth, swing easy, and don’t press. The last thing he remembers before hitting the ball is the feeling of a smooth takeaway and then BAM, the ball explodes right and then takes a hard left arc, hooking into the trees twenty yards from the short fairway grass leaving no shot at the green. “Dammit” he screams, “I told myself not to swing hard and what do I do? I swing hard”.
Variations of this story are told to me time and time again when I sit down and talk with golfers. You know that trying too hard doesn’t work so why then in times when you want to play your best do you do the thing that doesn’t work? Before you attempt to answer it let me share my take on it.
You have a mind and a body as represented by my very basic diagram. Think of two parts of the mind, the conscious and the sub or unconscious. The conscious mind as you can see is quite small compared with the unconscious. Yet the conscious mind is very active in our daily activities. All the phenomena we take in through our senses (sights, sounds, tastes, smells, feels) enters directly into our conscious minds, when we are asleep, an unconscious state, we are unaware of them. Further, we process these phenomena, make sense of them and respond to them. As you are reading this, your eyes take in colors and shapes that you interpret as words and sentences carrying some type of meaning and information. If I were to ask you a question, your conscious mind would generate a response. Often, the conscious mind is considered the captain of the ship.
But-to insightfully understand why it is you try too hard to make a shot when you even remind yourself not to, we need to consider the processes of the subconscious mind. We carry our beliefs, values, and habits in the subconscious mind along with a vast reservoir that is our personal history. This contains all that we have ever experienced both directly and vicariously in our lives. It is like the ultimate hard drive, it stores everything. What surfaces from this history is a thing called the ego. Commonly the ego is described as one’s sense of self or identity. It is the story of who we are. When you introduce yourself, you may say “hello, I am Kevin and I am a Sport Psychologist”. For most, the ego is a source of great pride and comfort. But there is a dark side to its existence. The subconscious mind speaks to us in the form of thoughts, images, and stories.
The ego can be thought of as a very demanding and critical boss. Imagine you showed up for your first day of work as a professional putter. Upon arriving this gentleman greets you, “GOOD MORNING, I’M MR. EGO, I AM YOUR BOSS.” He proceeds to take a golf ball from his pocket place it four feet from a hole, hands you a putter and says, “YOUR JOB IS TO MAKE THIS PUTT EVERY TIME YOU ATTEMPT IT”. To clarify your understanding of the task you ask, “every time?” “YES, YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO BE A GREAT PUTTER, THAT’S WHAT I EXPECT” he replies and he steps off you the side but close enough that you can feel his presence and folds his arms across his chests. You begin to feel nervous and go through your normal routine, studying the putt, taking a couple of rehearsal strokes, and then hitting the putt. It just misses. “HOW CAN YOU MISS THAT PUTT?” Mr. Ego screams, “WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU, DO YOU HAVE MENTAL PROBLEMS?” Shaking, your respond “I’m sorry, I didn’t miss it on purpose.” “THAT DOESN’T MATTER, YOU HAVE TO MAKE THAT PUTT” counters Ego. Trying to reason with him you explain “I did my full routine and process.” “THAT’S NOT ENOUGH” Ego commands. “Other than doing that, what else can I do” you ask. “TRY HARDER” it screams.
You continue attempting putts all the while feeling the presence of Ego standing in judgment a few feet away. While you are successful in making most, you can feel his disappointment every time you miss another putt and he continues to criticize you harshly after each one. After a stretch of ten made putts in a row, you look up to see if Ego had noticed. Thinking that you have impressed Ego enough to satisfy him you ask, “that wasn’t too bad was it?” “NOT BAD, NOW SINK TEN MORE IN A ROW” Ego demands.
You go home after work and your roommate asks you how the job was. “I hate my boss. He is unreasonable, over demanding, judgmental, overly critical, and places these unrealistic expectations on me. This is not fun, even if I manage to make a bunch of putts, it doesn’t seem like enough. Just the thought of hitting another four-foot putt makes me cringe” you reply.
The forces that cause you to try harder to the degree that it reduces rather than increases your chances of playing to your potential are out of your control. You cannot purge the ego from your mind any more than you can erase the personal history you have accumulated. Whether you like it or not, the ego is and will be a lifelong companion. Now before you reach for the pint of ice cream or six pack of beer and go sulking away about your doomed existence, there is another option. A force that you can tap into that has the potential to alter your life in powerful ways. I’ll discuss that in the next blog.
Take a few moments to recall times when your ego spoke to you while playing golf. Write down as many of the most common, no matter how harsh, thoughts it generated. reflect on the effect these thoughts had on you at the time. Keep this assignment, we will use it for a later exercise.