Relax? Focus? Inner Golf

Are We Sure About What We Want When We Say Relax?

In a stab from the past, I watched an episode of Northern Exposure last night, and Timothy Gallwey’s The Inner Game of Golf was referenced as a way of overcoming anxiety and distraction while trying to master such a difficult game. We divvy up our sermons on relaxation between the body and the mind, as though the two were separate. Certainly, the mind is a major culprit, and all excellence originates there. One observer correctly suggests that sticking with the current shot, and only the current shot, is among the most difficult things we attempt under the pressure of competition. The mind not only wants to consider the possibilities of “if I get two birdies in the next six holes, I’ll get a such and such”,” but it also wants to revel in the feel-good aspects of a positive outcome. All of this, while it’s trying to hit a shot nine holes removed from that outcome. When we fail, we hit the current shot “mindlessly.” But is it all about the desire to relax, or are we misusing the word?

Let’s try another one, like “focus.” That’s a more proactive sentiment. Instead of trying to attain an overall condition, to focus is to take at least partial control over the moment. Naturally, a host of mental demons are lined up around the block to foil our attempts to focus. Among the leading obstacles is the voice that says “The way you’re playing today? Of course you’re going to mess this shot up.” The same voice also likes some variation of “Just think of all the screwing up you could do over the back nine,” adding that the chances of birdies on those same holes are statistically woeful.
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Focus and relaxation, wherever they belong, have two duties. First, the player has to construct the shot, which is the proactive part of creating a good outcome. Second is the difficult art of avoiding distraction, either by thoughts, or by the external. Many people recommend yoga, but does that really tune things out? Do we want to be in nirvana when there’s dirty work to be done, picking it up past our shoulder, and bringing it down in the correct trajectory? On the other hand, we spend jillions of dollars on learning what we should do, and paralyze ourselves with fear when we can’t. “Ray” the hypnotist suggests that emotions, such as the irrelevant ones we brought to the course with us, last around 90 seconds on average – just another demon to get in the way. I suppose that in many of our cases, our swing arcs, speed, and anomalies along the way reflect our lives off the course. If we play golf to discharge other emotional blockages, that’s fine for the psyche, but not too good for the score card.
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In our efforts to focus, relax, and avoid distraction, the question still comes back to “relax what,” and how much? Do we intend to send the golf ball hundreds of yards toward the green on an airborne Tibetan chant and a feeling of bliss? Are we going to reject, in all cases, hitting the shot hard when we feel that it’s necessary? For the pros, that’s part of the arsenal, to blast a ball to Omaha, or to feather it around the bunkers. Aggression is necessary, and big hitters don’t want to turn into cream puffs.

Now we have a choice between relax, avoid distraction, and tension in the right places, not just surrendering to being a wet noodle. Strength has to be in there somewhere. Wait a minute, isn’t that a lot like life? Can we allow a well-developed confidence to take care of relaxation because we don’t give in to anxiety? Can we learn to relax selectively before exerting our strength into a well-informed and focused shot? Easier said than done, but that’s what makes sense to me, an interactive game of golf between all of them.

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