One of the most amazing people to me is Tiger Woods. He won again this weekend. It’s the tournament where he is the host. Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer also host PGA Tour stops as well.
Tiger Woods is amazing because of his mind. Most sports are played at a reactionary speed, meaning you practice for situations to arise and when they do you don’t really think, you just react. You’ve trained for this to happen. Golf is different. Its slow enough where there isn’t a reaction. So not only do you have to compete with different players, but you compete with your own head.
For instance, in the NY Times today Benedict Carey wrote an article called Why the Imp in Your Brain Gets Out. Its about how once you identify something you want to not think about you inevitable can’t stop it from entering your mind. Here is an excerpt:
The empirical evidence of this influence has been piling up in recent years, as Dr. Wegner documents in the new paper. In the lab,psychologists have people try to banish a thought from their minds — of a white bear, for example — and find that the thought keeps returning,about once a minute. Likewise, people trying not to think of a specific word continually blurt it out during rapid-fire word-association tests.
The same “ironic errors,” as Dr. Wegner calls them, are just easy to evoke in the real world. Golfers instructed to avoid a specific mistake, like overshooting, do it more often when under pressure, studies find.Soccer players told to shoot a penalty kick anywhere but at a certain spot of the net, like the lower right corner, look at that spot more often than any other.
If you’ve stood over a four foot putt to win a match you know the thoughts that go through your mind. The stress of this moment makes your mind race. Most of the time you just aren’t properly focused, which results in mistakes like a quickened stroke or a path that sends the ball to the left (a pull). But occasionally, it isn’t just a lack of focus that does you in, its because you are already thinking about missing. And once you start thinking about a miss, its all but guaranteed that will be the result.
Tiger Woods, however, rarely misses these chances for victory. He believes in his practice, his ability, and his preparation. He knows there is nothing more he could do to ensure success in this moment. And because of that, he doesn’t allow failure to creep into his mind. Its only focus, its only the ball falling into the cup.
Ultimately these are three extraordinary mental attributes that Tiger Woods possess. The first is his ability to envision success in the face of immense pressure. He isn’t competing with this own intrusive negative thoughts. The second is his regiment is so thorough that he is more prepared than anyone else, which makes him self assured in these moments. And the third is that he is so resilient that he can handle defeat, even though he gave it everything he has. Facing the fact that you simply aren’t good enough is crushing. Most people avoid this realization by building in excuses, such as not practicing for a month. This way, if you lose you can always say “I should have practiced during that month I took off, then I would have won.” This is a very different way of dealing with a loss than admitting you did everything you could and you still failed.
As you evaluate your own personal goals, consider what it takes to really achieve them. Then look yourself in the mirror and ask yourself what it means to be successful.
*The NY Times ran a follow on article by Nicholas Bakalar called A Creature of Bad Habit: Why Mistakes Are Repeated. He mentions many of the same themes I do, but he isn’t as sure about the answer as I am. You can’t be afraid to lose.