Sunday, October 15, 2017

You are what you think

Apart from learning humility, golf can be a great window into the human condition. Some aspects of the game are a metaphor for life, with lessons that are generalizable to the grander scheme of things. Even to the point of preventing and managing mental health problems.

So, one of the interesting behaviours I’ve observed on the golf course is the power of the manner in which golfers talk to themselves during a round. I’m not suggesting they’re hearing voices or chatting to a goblin walking along next to them. We all talk to ourselves, mostly unconsciously, and what we are saying to ourselves is a big driver of how we behave (excuse the pun but I had to put it down-so to speak).

The most common example of the power of our self-talk is when that little white round thing starts doing odd things such as only going a few yards, slicing into trees or heading left into that huge pond. Missing a short put will do it, as will fluffing a short chip shot immediately after nailing a 200 metre 3-wood to within 5 metres of the green.

After a couple of errors that ruin maybe 2 or 3 holes, the self-talk becomes very evident. In the worst case scenario, it can happen after one bad shot. Often it is verbalised straight out with angry comments about ability, the course, the stupid game itself, how the handicap has been slipping lately. Sometimes people go within themselves, quiet. The shoulders droop and gone is the sunny disposition and expectations of something extraordinary. There is a spiral downward from there as the feelings lead to worse golf and so on. What’s interesting that golfers will repeat this formula even though it clearly doesn’t work.

On rare occasions I meet someone who talks to their self in a different way when things are going awry. The internal message is that, ‘I’ll make the best of this round’, ‘I can recover from this’, ‘I’ll at least have a few good holes’, ‘I’ll use this opportunity to practice some things I haven’t tried before’. Somehow, they manage to find something to be optimistic about.

And so it is with life off the fairways. What we say to ourselves about our experiences and how we feel determines our behaviour. It can determine whether we give in to that temptation when we are trying to change a habit, how we react to someone else’s comment or behaviour, what we decide to worry about, whether we decide to give in or to keep on trying, for example.

There is a technique psychologists use in therapy that involves being aware of our thoughts and then challenging them in a very active way. In doing so, we force ourselves to think differently, to have an internal conversation about the value of changing the thought. There are also a number of techniques that can be used to change emotions (contact me at if you’d like to know more).

Many of you would have heard of the act of mindfulness. This is the starting point and involves recognising our self-defeating behaviour and the thoughts that give birth to it and then challenging self. Being self-aware is essential to changing behaviour that is not working for us. The changing of patterns that are self-defeating but which we repeat over and over again.

So, if you are interested in changing a behaviour that is not working for you then be mindful, challenge those thoughts and replace them with thoughts that are more productive.