The Key to Success is Trying to Fail

Shannon slaps her hand soundly on the side of her leg and lets out a loud sigh after her putt just misses. I have been following and watching her play for 15 holes on the challenging Stanford golf course. At one under for the first round and among the top ten on the scoreboard, you would think she would be a little more chill about missing a ten-foot birdie attempt. Not the case however, as this is at least the third under 15-foot birdie putt she has missed today.

Shannon’s ball striking has been sharp today as she has hit most greens in regulation. On the 16th hole she hits a wedge to about eight feet. The Stanford greens are tricky with a lot of subtle, yet significant slopes and this putt is no different. It is a right to left breaking putt. I watch Shannon go through her routine and it is obvious to me that she is grinding, taking a bit longer than usual and knowing her, probably telling herself that she “has to” make this putt. She strokes the putt, and ball tracks above the break but losses speed, veers left, narrowing missing the cup below the hole. Completely frustrated, Shannon storms off the green and heads for the next hole.

In the clubhouse after the round, Shannon is still angry. Even though she put up a solid score for the round, she just feels that her putting is horrible. Asked what adjustments she felt she needed, she replied that she just needed to focus harder on making them and that she would do that by putting for an hour before heading back to the hotel. “How many under 20-foot birdie putts did you miss today?” I asked. “Like eight” she replied. I counted five, but I did not say that because I wanted to go in a different direction with her. “How many did you miss on purpose?” I then asked. “None” she replies, with a confused, slightly amused look. “There’s your problem” I said. Shannon gave me a puzzled expression. “Before you go into what you are planning to do on the putting green, see if you can complete this challenge” I encourage.

I instruct Shannon to find a hole on the practice putting green that has a decent right to left slope. Then push a tee into the green, six inches from the edge of the cup on the high side. Next, lay an alignment stick down two feet past the hole perpendicular to the line of the putt. Finally, take three balls with her and putt from about 15 feet to the hole. The challenge, I explain to her is to see if she can miss three attempts in a row with the following requirements: 1) the putt has to roll between the cup and the tee, 2) it must travel at least to the hole, 3) it cannot roll past the alignment stick. Therefore, any attempt that comes up short, misses higher than six inches (right of the tee), travels more than two feet past the hole, misses on the low side, or goes in the hole do not count as missed attempts. Shannon nods that she understands and mutters this shouldn’t be too hard.

 I watch from just off the putting green far enough away so as not to let Shannon feel my presence there. Her first putt misses exactly the way the challenge calls for, on the high side at cup speed. Her second putt looks the same but tracks closer to the hole and rolls in. Then she hits one that misses on the low side. For the next ten or so putts, Shannon executes the appropriate miss only twice, not in a row, and makes five putts in the hole. Being a strong goal achiever, she is showing signs of frustration about not completing the task. For the next ten putts, Shannon manages to get to two in a row twice, only to make the third attempt each time. This continues for a while with Shannon executing the desired miss a few more times but still not getting to three in a row. Instead, she is making many of the putts. Interestingly, whenever she sinks a putt, she is visibly agitated and when she has a proper miss, pumped up.

After about 30 minutes she walks over to me and confides, “that is a hard drill.” I ask her what was so challenging about it and she replies that she kept making putts. “Did you make them on purpose” I ask. “No” she replies sheepishly, somehow knowing what I was getting at.

The ego mind cares only about results. When you have a chance to make birdie it goes crazy with desire. The subconscious mind then, fixates on the hole and forgets gravity and slope. I call this force the winds of want. Just as atmospheric winds affect the golf ball in the air, these winds affect direction as well. When Shannon faced those birdie attempts on the course and as she got wrapped up in making them, the winds of want picked up and although her conscious processes told her to play the break needed to make the putt, her subconscious had tunnel vision straight at the hole. As she stroked her putt on her intended line, the wanting winds, shut her putter face a degree or so, just enough towards the hole causing the ball to roll below the break and miss on the low side. Every birdie putt that Shannon failed to make, were missed on the low side. She did not adjust for the winds of want.

The positive miss drill, what I call the challenge I gave Shannon, is a compensation practice. It is designed for the contingency that the winds of want present themselves—and they will show up. What Shannon discovered, and every golfer I have ever shown that drill to is that it is nearly impossible to continue to experience positive misses without making putts occasionally and regularly. Most golfers end up making more than they miss. Think about it this way. Imagine I told you prior to a round that you would have ten birdie putts from 8-20 feet and that the only guarantee on each of those attempts would be a) they would get to the hole with cup speed and b) roll at least on or slightly above the break line. How would you feel about those odds?

Try this: Set up the positive miss drill and see if you can complete the challenge of missing three in a row.

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