Mental Toughness Spells Doom

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Trying to be “mentally tough” may be hazardous to your golfing health or any peak performance.

I recently queried a collection of more than one hundred coaches, sports psychologists, and athletes on what they define as “mental toughness” and what one should do to attain it. I received almost as many different variations on the definition, and less than one out of five of these “experts” could offer a method as to how to attain the state. Yet, all seemed to agree that becoming mentally tough is desirable to achieving golf success.  I disagree – at least to a point.

Why would I disagree with such an illustrious group?   First, if these “experts” couldn’t agree on what the term means, imagine the confusion in the mind of the golfing public? What is your idea of being mentally tough? Chances are, we like they, will have different perspectives with none of us being right or wrong. The term is just plain ambiguous.

I read and hear so much about how players or anyone for that matter should be mentally tough. It’s as if these pundits are turning the word into an action verb – something you should be doing. I believe that appearing mentally tough is an adjective that reflects the sum result of things that actually have nothing to do with the mental game, but rather the spiritual one. Mental toughness is not something you do, but a by-product of other forces at work.

The concept of “golf as a mental game” has really taken hold the past forty years. Feel players such as Ben Hogan or Jack Nicklaus have suddenly been redefined as “mental players” and an entire library and cadre of coaches have sprung up using them as prime examples. I maintain that the essence of these players’s “toughness” was embedded in their spirit, not their thoughts or strategy. Nicklaus, himself, even has shared with me that he agrees with my interpretation and not theirs. Nicklaus further confided that he thinks it is spiritual fortitude that was the basis for Tiger’s initial success as well as his own, and yes, that mental toughness is merely a by-product.

Toughness connotes a fight or struggle – a fear-based focus. I believe that true growth in golf and beyond occurs when your awareness is highest, you are open to quick and decisive adjustments, and one practices the art of allowing – and you fully love and embrace what you are doing.  Fighting, struggle, and toughness are the opposite of allowing and surrendering to the process. The nose-down, harder you try, fight, struggle, think, concentrate harder attitude prescribed by many in the sports psychology community actually sabotages peak performance. In fact, anyone who has ever performed “in the zone” will quickly remember that they weren’t trying or thinking much at all.

You play golf with “play” being the operative word. A cluttered mind full of mental game instruction interferes with letting our natural ability shine and execute golf shots.  A sound strategic approach to each season, tournament, game, hole, or shot is also crucial, but every swing and mental thought had to be validated first by your spirit. If you don’t ask for what you want, if you don’t believe in what you want, and you don’t take persistent inspired action to achieve it, all this so-called “mental toughness” in the world won’t matter. And you must be in a state of allowing to then be able to receive and enjoy what you want.

How do you develop your spiritual side – the feeling versus thinking side? First, you master the game’s little details one at a time in many little bites and not one big fast gulp. Then you develop a process of focus and appreciation on the task at hand, target focus, trust, and execution. You ask yourself empowering questions such as “What’s my strategy, what’s my target? How am I going to hit this shot?” You keep working this process through winning and losing, successful and unintended efforts, and engrain it at the habitual level. You believe, trust, stay aware, and surrender to your process.  Then you detach from the outcome.  All the while, there is nothing about fighting, struggle, or trying. You are simply doing and being. In this manner, you minimize doubt and fear, the two great golf destroyers. While others are in the mentally tough-fight mode, you are in the spiritually serene place of knowing and embracement, secure with your preparation and process, in which your spirit solidifies both your swings and decision-making, like the very best players down the stretch run.

Finally, you find things in the process and the game to be grateful about. This is where you convert from fear to a love-based action that puts all these aforementioned steps into high gear.

Mental toughness is the end result of faith, belief in yourself, your goal, and process, and an acute awareness and attention to the only thing you have any control over – the present with a underlying joy. When you attend to those factors, some may term you “mentally tough,” but it really is because you are spiritually strong and consistent. Discard those sayings, thoughts, and associations with mental toughness and search within for your spiritual strength upon which the physical and mental games are set.

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