Athletes in all the major sports face the same challenge to stay ahead of their competition. While it’s rare that a sport evolves as quickly as poker has, professional golfers recently went through something similar when Tiger Woods took the golf world by storm in the late 1990s. As he swept through the professional ranks, he brought a new set of rules that forced other professional golfers to take fitness and the mental game more seriously. Prior to Tiger’s emergence in golf, only a few of his peers looked at fitness as essential to their game. Many players were out of shape, and so golf wasn’t always looked at as a real sport. Tiger also had a level of focus, determination, and confidence that further separated him from his competition. The combination of his physical and mental prowess forced other players on tour to follow his lead in order to remain competitive.
Tiger forever changed the way professionals approached the game. Now, nearly every golfer on the PGA Tour (and other major professional tours) has a physical trainer and a sport psychologist or mental game coach. It’s become the new standard. As a successful amateur golfer in the late 1990s, I had aspirations to become a professional. There was only one big problem; I kept choking under pressure in national tournaments. One month after Tiger won his first major title, I choked trying to qualify for my first major. Shortly after completing my freshman year at Skidmore College, where I won two tournaments, I played in the first stage of qualifying for the US Open in 1997.
Over the 18-hole qualifier, I played some of the best golf of my life except on the greens. My putting was horrendous. I three-putted four times and missed several putts from short range. I shot an even par 71, and missed getting into a playoff by one shot. It was tough coming so close, only to have my nerves get the better of me; but I wasn’t going to let it stop me. I kept practicing hard, and then one day later that summer, I was describing my struggles to a friend when his eyes lit up. He knew immediately that I needed to read a book that he had just finished. He ran to the locker room and returned a few minutes later with his copy of Golf Is Not a Game of Perfect, by Dr. Bob Rotella.
Since I knew the problem was in my head, not my swing, the book instantly resonated with me and I immediately put it into action, along with other advice I found on sport psychology. It helped, and my game continued to improve steadily over the next three years—except in big tournaments. Even though I earned All-American honors three times and won nine tournaments in college, what I learned from sport psychology didn’t prevent me from choking under intense pressure. My dreams of professional golf weren’t entirely destroyed; I just had to figure out a solution to this problem. Since what was available in sport psychology at the time didn’t work for me, I decided to go find my own answers. I knew I wasn’t ready to play professional golf; but if I could figure out a solution, then I could play professionally and have another career option. I suspected that conventional sport psychology was lacking an understanding of the cause of mental game problems. The traditional wisdom in golf was much as it is now in poker. I was given techniques to increase focus, increase confidence, and reduce anxiety, but I didn’t learn why I choked in the first place. At the time, I believed the reason was because of personal issues that I or other golfers faced, so I enrolled in Northeastern University for a master’s degree in counseling.
Yet, what I discovered over the next 10 years is this: While personal issues certainly affect performance, mental game problems can happen for far more simple reasons; for example, hating to make mistakes, having high expectations, and having a poor work ethic. Following my degree and 3,200 hours of supervised practice to become licensed in traditional therapy, I took what I learned and started working with golfers as a mental game coach. Over the next two and a half years, I coached more than 300, including top-ranked juniors, casual players, and professionals on the PGA Tour, Nationwide Tour, and LPGA Tour.
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