Self-Doubt and Consequences

Golf is 80% mental and the rest is in your head

While in California, I have been lucky enough to play golf nearly every second day. I love golf. I love playing golf, thinking about golf, watching golf, and talking golf with my friends. We normally plan and execute an incredible boys trip to the desert each year-ish, but with Covid, that’s been put on hold so I feel extra fortunate that I get to experience some tasty courses while my Winnipeg crew deals with the dead of winter.

Golf has been an interesting pastime for me over the last decade. Since I moved away from Hartford, CT in 2012, I’ve lived in two massive metropolitan cities (Toronto and New York) with no car and limited access to golf courses. Accordingly, I’ve played minimal golf, and only really get to enjoy the sport when I travel home to Winnipeg in the summer, or travel down to Palm Desert to visit my parents for a couple weeks during the winter.

I haven’t tracked my stats, but I’ve probably played less than 100 rounds in the last decade (for those of you who aren’t golfers, you likely just rolled your eyes) which means I’ve struggled with consistency, confidence and therefore results.

Today on the course, after shaking over the ball several times, I was reflecting on the round and tried to dissect what was going on between my ears before hitting a horrendous 7-iron shot into the water on the 17th hole. It’s hard to explain the yips to someone, but I shall try. The yips are physical spasms experienced by golfers who have some sort of mental block that prohibits them from making a proper swing through the ball. To hit a successful golf shot, you need to accelerate through the ball with the clubface square to the target, and because all of this happens in a split second, we rely on muscle memory to provide us with any sort of consistency. Hence, without playing much, you are more susceptible to losing that muscle memory, relying more on thinking (which is never good in golf) and in turn, hitting worse shots or experiencing the yips, like me.

If I take a step back, really all that is happening to create these “yips” is an extended and intensified version of self doubt. When standing over that 7-iron shot on the tee box of a par 3, a younger Mike Arnold would have said, ‘oh the wind is a bit from the left, aim a hair left and fire away’. Present Mike Arnold, however, was worried about the consequences: water on one side, houses on another, a bunker and water short, people watching, etc. Sure, I haven’t played much recently so I don’t have a lot of muscle memory to rely on or even positive golf experiences from which to draw, but I am fully capable of swinging the golf club, yet couldn’t do it.

It seems that thinking about potential consequences caused even more self doubt and therefore hesitation (in the form of a tentative swing). Those “consequences” were completely fabricated in my own mind and were more like scenarios rather than consequences. When hitting a golf ball, what’s the worst that really happens? When I should have been picturing a high tasty draw landing close to the pin, I was instead pre-occupied with these potential negative outcomes.

I think similar things can happen in life, particularly when we’re out of practice at something. You begin to doubt yourself, and the only outcomes you begin envisioning are the negative ones. “What happens if I screw up while leading this call? What if this person doesn’t like me? How will I be able to manage this team?”

It’s such a waste of energy to focus on the bad, when in reality, there are usually way more positive scenarios, and the negative outcomes are never as bad as you perceive. “People are going to think I’m dumb, or I’m no good” - this is never really the case. If you actually asked people, nobody cares (but me) if I hit it in the water or bunker, or chunk it ten yards. Same thing if you say the wrong word on a conference call - people forget about it 10 seconds later, but we have the capacity to build it up in our minds ahead of time as being something that might get us fired.

Most people are focused on themselves and not on you, so we should stop worrying so much about what others might think because that worrying is causing self doubt, which continues this nasty spiral. It’s our own energy that’s wasted on that exercise, never theirs.

So how do you overcome self-doubt? I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I know the key is to get to a place where you act freely, without the burden of potential consequences holding back your performance.

To attempt to get to that position, I’m going to attempt a simple, three-step method, the next time I experience the yips (aka Self Doubt) on the golf course, at work, or in relationships.

Step one is to realize, and truly convince myself that nobody cares. Step two is to think of the WORST possible outcome, realize it’s really not that bad, and then laugh about it. Step 3 is to picture myself crushing it, before pulling the trigger on a decision or a golf shot, or before getting on stage to perform or give a speech. These may not be the perfect steps to follow, but they’re specific, actionable and may just make me hit my next green in regulation.

Thanks for reading,

Mike

P.S. Here is an example of succeeding with a fearless shot on a much more difficult golf hole - I must have avoided self-doubt in order to hit this island green!