It started when our grandson played a junior golf tournament near us and my husband and I followed him for nine holes. He’d hit a long straight drive, turn to us with a smile and a thumbs up, which we’d return. The next hole he’d hit an errant drive and say something like, “My drive missed the fairway. No hope for my second shot.”
And my mind started to play the mental game. “Uh-oh,” I thought. “I wonder how he’ll recover from a shot he doesn’t like? I hope he doesn’t defeat himself with his self-talk.”
So, to help him with sports psychology, I’d try brilliant quotes from the game of golf (a game of which I know very little). “It’s not how far, it’s how many.”
He’d say, “Oh, Susu, distance is good.”
I realized then that, weirdly maybe, I cared less about the distance of the ball and more about whether or not his thoughts would distance him from the truths that might help his mental game. (Not only do I not know golf, and even though I teach life’s mental game, I am mostly its student. No matter. I stepped up to help him improve it anyway.) I mean, he could say, after a bogey, double bogey or triple bogey: “I’m 11 years old. I’ve had only two weeks of formal golf training and here I am competing. I parred two holes.” He could have focused on the positive instead of “My short game is killing me.”
I watched him on the fairway pick an iron out of his bag, stroll to the ball, eye the pin on the green, walk back to the bag, shake his head and shrug as in “don’t know” and choose another club. I wanted to say, “Use the club that fits your game. On your scorecard, no one will know what club you used.”
He said, “I want a birdie.” I said, “Birdie or bogey, I want you to feel great about yourself when you finish this round.”
He said, “Oh, Susu.”
The next day I watched the Wimbledon tennis final and noticed again that my mind focused on how Novak Djokovic and Nick Kyrgios recovered from “bad” shots more than I focused on their winners and aces. I watched their body language, their faces, whether they nervously twirled their rackets, if they slumped or pranced as they walked past the umpire’s chair. I believe, it became clear, that a player can defeat himself/herself with self-talk. Or the mental game can help us win.
Sports experts write books about the mental game: “The Inner Game of Tennis” by Tim Galway, “Golf is Not a Game of Perfect” by Bob Rotella and others highlight the game we play inside our heads.
And how do we play the mental game of life? How do we work inside our heads when we don’t feel up to par? We have books for that, too: “Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow” by Elizabeth Lesser, “The Fruitful Darkness” by Joan Halifax, “Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better: Wise Advice for Leaning into the Unknown” by Pema Chodron.
We might learn instructions from books, but we don’t learn to play life’s games until we experience an opponent who metaphorically smashes overheads straight at us or until we know that life’s course has hazards and traps. So today, with politicians volleying back and forth, with nations competing, perhaps our self-talk could lead us to skillful action if, instead of saying, “No hope. Game over,” we could say, “What’s my next best shot here?”