By the time I was 12 years old, I more or less hated golf.
After consistently playing and practicing with my father for about 7 years, the game had become wrapped up in all kinds of emotional baggage. Whether it was my own instinctual realization that I was never going to be as good of a golfer as my father or something deeper concerning unrealistic and unrelenting expectations, I couldn’t play a round without melting down.
Looking back now, I can only imagine how difficult it must have been for my dad when that pre-teen hormonal soup brewing inside my little body erupted into an exploding fountain of recalcitrant 12-year-old anger. Truth be told, I was never going to be a very good golfer. I had some skill and could have put in the time to get better, but the passion wasn’t there.
My parents would have facilitated access to the game if I had made it a priority, but I didn’t. In the end, I got good enough to be a “bogey” golfer for most of my life. For those unfamiliar with the term, I can basically play well enough on a relatively normal course to hit 1-over-par across most holes. Every now and then I play a little bit better, other times, a little worse.
So why the mini-therapy session as a prelude to this week’s post? Well, in the spirit of the “It’s Just Pat” series I have been working on, I thought it worth offering something he said to me during this emotionally tumultuous time.
While out on the course one beautiful weekend, I couldn’t hit out of the sand and kept duffing my fairway irons. I’d ask for coaching tips before and after each shot but when my dad tried offering some quick fixes, I’d fire back with petulant responses. Looking back with a 44-year-old’s perspective versus that of an angry son, I can see his loving attempts to balance fatherly care with effective coaching cues and it makes my heart hurt a little.
As the situation reached its inevitable boiling point that day, my dad looked at me, took a breath, and said, “You know what, you should start playing with your friends instead of me. You need to play the course as it is and as you are, not as you want it to be. This game is supposed to be fun and you aren’t having any fun.”
I remember it catching me off guard and making me infinitely madder than anything else he had ever said. Instead of hearing the incredibly loving (or emotionally drained) attempt at saving our already frayed relationship, I selfishly believed that instead, he was simply saying he didn’t have “time” to play with me.
However, I also remember instinctively understanding exactly what he meant and feeling an immensely powerful sense of freedom after letting go of any expectations around how well I was playing.
I am not sure my father and I played another round of golf together until after I graduated from the Naval Academy. As After-School-Special-dramatic as that may sound, it was probably the greatest thing we could have done for each other.
In a moment of clarity on that somewhat mythical weekend morning at some random golf course in Southeastern Pennsylvania, my father offered me a golden nugget of advice that has grown into a cornerstone of my own coaching philosophy.
In telling me to “play the course as it is not as I want it to be,” he either expertly or unwittingly touched upon what I believe is a deeper, Jungian-like universality of sports psychology.
I fear that we all have a version of ourselves that we ferociously hold onto regardless of the reality staring back at us any given day. Perpetually entering into conflict with these two states of reality creates a never ending and somewhat elusive search for emotional eudaemonia through the often less rewarding hedonic pursuit of immediate pleasure.
I see it every day in the gym. Often an athlete will have an expectation of performing at a certain level in a workout. It doesn’t even matter if that expectation is negative or positive, the eventual disappointment-train has already left the station the second she allows expectation to creep into her thoughts.
Maybe it’s a heavy deadlift day or maybe it’s a simple medium length AMRAP of some gymnastics and light dumbbell movements. Regardless of the programmed workout, this athlete remembers a time when her shoulder didn’t hurt. When she was able to get more than 6 hours of sleep at night. When she didn’t have quite so much pressure on her from her family, her job, her aging parents, etc.
It’s been a tough week. It’s Thursday. She probably should have taken an extra rest day but she came to the gym because she knows that moving will make her feel better.
“I should be better at pull-ups by this point.”
“I used to use a heavier dumbbell on workouts like this.”
“70% of my one rep max deadlift?!! That feels like lifting a rhinoceros today. What the f&9k is wrong with me?!!”
News flash folks – there’s nothing wrong with you. You are acting like a petulant, recalcitrant, emotionally mixed up 12-year-old boy on the golf course who needs to remember that this shit is supposed to be fun and you aren’t having any fun.
So, play the course as it is, not as you want it to be.
Sometimes, you have to put your woods back in the bag and just play the irons.
Sometimes hitting from the tee box isn’t the right choice for you to enjoy your round that day.
Sometimes you should just stop after 9 holes and go have a nice lunch with your friends.
In the end, most times, scaling is the road to success and the only way we can start down that road is to let go of the versions of ourselves that we are holding onto with that air-choking death grip we have wrapped around our own metaphysical throats.
Take a breath. Smile. And remember, golf is just a game. The workout written on the board is just a workout.
Hang out with your friends. Move well. Have a little fun. And if you can’t figure out how to do that today, that’s cool. Go home, come back tomorrow. We’ll still be here waiting for you.
See you on the creek.