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Frustrated Golfer Syndrome: Causes and Cures

Golfers intolerant of imperfection drive themselves and others crazy.

The frustrations of golf are well known. Mark Twain is quoted (although falsely) as having said that golf is "a good walk spoiled." The sports writer Jim Murray said, "Golf is not a game, it's bondage. It was obviously devised by a man torn with guilt, eager to atone for his sins." Their humor notwithstanding, these quotes express an essential truth, namely, that golf is an emotional roller coaster for many, if not most, of the people that play it. This is especially true for men. Many men give up the game altogether and still more, myself included, play it and suffer in the process. And yet we long-suffering golfers return to the links every weekend hoping that this time it'll be different. We remember our few great shots, savor them, and keep playing the game in hopes of recapturing that experience, as a gambler returns to the tables chasing the memory of a winning streak, or a crackhead to the pipe looking for that magical buzz. Still, misery waits in the wings, poised like a thief in the night ready to steal our confidence and render a perfectly enjoyable activity into a nightmare.

OK, I guess I'm being a little melodramatic here. Some golfers tolerate failure better than others. And most even have—dare I say it—fun. But most amateur golfers will immediately recognize the torments I'm describing. I have been a practicing therapist for 30 years and have treated hundreds of people who punish themselves for all sorts of imaginary crimes and faults, but I rarely see the type of raw self-hatred and despair that can suddenly consume the average golfer whose crime may be no more grievous than missing a 4-foot putt. I call this the frustrated golfer syndrome.
If all non-human sound were to suddenly cease on a typical public course on a typical Saturday afternoon, and one's hearing were good enough, male voices shouting "F... me! "I suck ...!" "Take off your panties and putt it!" would punctuate the silence. And if one's vision were equally good, one would see faces contorted in rage, shoulders sagging in dejection, clubs furiously shoved back into the bag, stomping, thin and tight smiles desperately covering imploding self-esteem, heads hung low-all part of the choreography of failure on the golf course. Thus, the syndrome.

Golfers who hit a bad shot feel helpless. We had an intention but failed to execute it. The mental picture we had of our swing and its glorious outcome shatters at impact. We don't really know what happened. But because it's mysterious, we can't correct it and we can't be sure it won't happen again. The extreme example of this is the dreaded shank—a rogue hit off the hosel of the club that squirts away from the golfer dead right. It's embarrassing. The problem is that once you shank, you begin to imagine that another shank lies inside you, waiting to possess your body and make it do bizarre things. It's like being incontinent and not knowing when you might lose control in public.

But the feeling of helplessness isn't limited to extreme mis-hits like the shank—it's there whenever we don't realize our intentions, whenever our picture of what we want our bodies to do fails to materialize. We make up stories about it to gain an illusory sense of control: "I knew I was ‘off' at the top of the swing—I should have stepped away," or "I didn't feel right standing over that putt," or "I hurried up my swing ... I have to slow down," or "I held on and didn't release the club like I should have." All of these "shoulds" and self-observations may be correct, but they're usually either irrelevant or wrong. The fact remains that we usually don't know why we hit a bad shot.

The stories we tell ourselves may sound technical, physical, or even psychological. Invariably, though, these stories are superficial and are belied by an underlying view of who we are as people. These deeper conceptions are the stories we keep hidden, and yet they're the ones that account for our frustration and suffering. They include stories like "no matter how hard I work at this game, I can't master it—there's just something wrong with me that I'll never be able to correct," or "I hate myself when I can't do something right," or "I'm a failure," or "I'm not a man," or "I'm crap and unlovable," or "I'm doomed." You don't have to be a psychologist to know that these feelings and beliefs are common among golfers. Most of us intuitively know that we regularly mistake our golf shots with our selves. If our golf shots are poor, our self-esteem drops, even if for a moment, despite our conscious mantra "It's only a game." Our conscious minds know that this is how we should feel, but our unconscious minds don't buy it. It's hard to feel that it's "only a game" when we're in a bunker, trying to hit a high soft one onto the green, and instead skull the ball 50 yards into the woods. No, at that moment, the game has become a deadly one, one in which we've just revealed our shameful incompetence to an unforgiving world. The source of the anger so often seen (or heard) on the golf course is simple—rage is a normal human response to helplessness. It's a protest, a defiance, and an energizer. Since there's no one to direct it at, we direct it at ourselves. Since there's no one to hate, we hate ourselves.

What's the ultimate source of the helplessness, anger, depression, and self-hatred that appear in our minds on the golf course? One important source is our failure to live up to overly perfectionistic ideals. You can see an early prototype of this issue by watching a very young child struggle to master something, a physical challenge (catching and throwing a ball, perhaps), a developmental milestone (say, walking), or a social rule (like sharing). The child's intensity is palpable and the need to try it—and fail—on his or her own is powerful. And failure is inevitable. We've all seen children who cannot tolerate failing, who either retreat or throw tantrums. They encounter a physical and social world that they can't immediately control, that doesn't automatically bend to their wills and intentions, and they either tolerate that frustration long enough to learn and adapt or they fall apart in some way. Learning depends on the ability to tolerate failure.

Such an ability is importantly shaped by the response of the environment to the child's encounter with failure. If parents are too nervous and worried about the child's frustration, they may take over and convey a sense that they lack confidence in the child. If parents react with exaggerated displays of frustration, impatience, and anger, the child comes to feel that failure is unacceptable and so doesn't bother to even try. If the environment is generally supportive and encouraging, however, the child learns to tolerate failure and imperfection enough to learn and master the unfamiliar.

Some of us grow up so intolerant of failure, we won't try to learn anything new. Others will appear to take on challenges but do so in such a self-effacing, ambivalent, and timid way that they can excuse their failures by a lack of effort. Some are so ashamed of failure that they believe that they have to be perfect all the time to avoid even the scent of it. They maintain impossibly high expectations and view falling short as humiliating. And still others blame everybody and everything else for their failures in an attempt not to blame themselves. In the end, all these attempts to avoid facing our imperfection fail, and we end up blaming and hating ourselves.

We see all of these variations on the golf course: The guy who blames his game on a lack of warm-up, on the weather, an inability to practice, his bad back, or the condition of the course. The guy who becomes a goof-off, exaggerating his lack of concern almost clownishly. The guy who is sure that others in his foursome are watching and critically judging him when he makes a mistake. The guy who hunkers down, surrounded by despair and rage much like Pig-Pen of Peanuts was surrounded by a cloud of dirt. And of course the guy who swears at himself, throws a club, or slams it 10 inches into the ground after a bad shot. We've all seen these guys or have been these guys. They/we struggle with our omnipotent wish to be perfect, to have perfect bodies, perfect swings, perfect mental attitudes, and perfect scores. They/we want to realize our intentions effortlessly, bending reality to our wills. The problem is, reality usually doesn't cooperate. Our reactions to the inevitable discrepancy between our real and ideal selves determine how much we can both enjoy and develop our golf game.

The problem is that we're not sick, broken, wrong, or bad. And neither are our swings. What we are is needlessly ashamed of having a conflict. We can't change and develop our game if we hate ourselves when we fail, if we can't tolerate not knowing or falling short of our own expectations of perfections. Even though we all use them, the terms "good" and "bad" are irrelevant descriptors of a golf swing. A golf swing can be more or less effective, more or less efficient, more or less adapted to achieving our intentions. As golf guru Fred Shoemaker has argued, ultimately it's just a motion of the body, a club, a ball, an intention, and a target. None of these have moral connotations, none of them are intrinsically worthy or unworthy, none are good or bad. In a recent golf school I attended, Shoemaker asked a group of us to try to distinguish these simple neutral realities from the highly passionate meanings that we assign to our swings and their outcome. Once we were able to discern the strength of the self-critical and gloomy narratives so easily evoked by a "bad" shot, their strength weakened. We loosened the link between our shots or scores and our selves. It was only in this environment that we could look into what was getting in the way of our ability to make an efficient, powerful, and effective swing.

Because there is, indeed, a lot to learn about making a more effective swing. It involves balance, an awareness of the body's center of gravity, a feeling of connection to the club and an even deeper connection to a target, an accurate picture of the position of the club's shaft and head, a freedom from tension, and the unleashing of imagination. Each of these dimensions of an effective powerful swing can be explored and strengthened, but only if we stop judging ourselves. By explore, I mean developing an increasingly keen sense and awareness of these different dimensions of the swing. Shoemaker argues that the primary difference between a professional and an amateur golfer lies in the extraordinary awareness of the professional, an awareness of body, club, and target.

The cure to Frustrated Golfer Syndrome is to first become acquainted with the self-critical mind. Begin by asking yourself the question: What is the worst thing that can happen if I hit a "bad" shot? Then, try to catch hold of the thoughts and feelings that go through your mind when you actually hit one. Don't ask yourselves these questions to "get rid" of these thoughts, but, instead, to become aware of them—their content, their intensity, their attitude. It's not easy to do this. We don't want to linger there, to think too much about the sources and meanings of our frustration. We want to fix it. Instead, it's crucial to do the opposite. Don't fix it. Just become aware of it. Notice the differences in your thinking when you hit the ball solidly and when you don't. Become familiar with your inner world, with the stories that reside there about success and failure, and about the meanings you associate with each.

By all means, get instruction, read books and magazines, and watch videos of great golfers, but do so with a different attitude. Don't view a recommendation as "the answer" or as something to add to the list of "shoulds." Instead, go to the range and try out the "tip," or "fix," but do so with compassion and curiosity, letting yourself feel the differences between swinging in the new way and in the old way. Go back and forth between the old and the new. Feel the difference; don't just hit a few good shots using the instruction and then move on. Use your practice time as a laboratory, as a safe time to investigate your experience rather than to coerce your body into the "right" patterns.

Get a friend or instructor to watch you when you try something new. Tell them not to comment on anything else, but to simply be quiet and watch you while you go back and forth between the old and the new way of swinging. This is the place to use videotape if you have it. But don't let the observer comment on anything else you're doing and instruct them carefully that you do not care at this moment about the outcome of your shot, but only in the process. This is crucial. A keen observer, especially if he or she is a friend, will always want to say a lot when invited to critique your game. But if you're working on something in particular, tell that person to keep all these other thoughts to himself.

Try to set realistic expectations for your game over time. For example, if a professional golfer hits a drive into the woods, he's momentarily frustrated and then quickly moves on to consider his next shot. It's a freak occurrence. No use investing it with any meaning whatsoever. If a 16-handicapper does the same thing, however, he is likely to get frustrated and angry and stay that way for a while. His reaction borders on outrage, as if fate has dealt him an unfair hand or as if the bad shot reflects a moral failure of his own. And yet, unlike the pro, the amateur golfer almost always hits a ball into trouble. It's the unalterable, undeniable consequence of his real level of ability. I certainly believe that someone's game can dramatically improve quite suddenly, and I've certainly experienced a golf game that's very suddenly fallen apart. But the fact remains that there is a role for some simple reality-testing in the midst developing self-awareness: namely, that someone who is a 15 handicap is going to average 17 or 18 strokes above par in any given round and thus chunking, slicing, duck-hooking, blading, yanking, pushing—and, yes, even shanking—are going to be apt descriptors of some of your shots on most days you play. Think about this reality when you find yourself starting to lose it. Step back. Laugh at yourself. Share the laugh with a friend. Think about how ridiculous it is to hook your self-esteem to something as simple and ultimately meaningless as a golf swing.

Instead, consider the possibility that you could invest golf with other meanings, meanings that don't guarantee helplessness, anger, and self-condemnation. Perhaps you want to experience a feeling of athleticism, or learn again to "play" like you did as a kid. Perhaps you want to have the satisfaction of seeing yourself master a challenge and get better at a physical skill, or to enjoy the social life available in a foursome. Perhaps you want to experience the intensity and focus that comes with competition, and the satisfaction and pride that comes with victory, or enjoy the exercise, the beauty of the natural surrounding. Or perhaps you want to use golf to explore yourself, to understand more deeply how you think and feel when you succeed and when you fail. All these ambitions are healthy ones. None of them require the type of self-critical intolerance that afflicts the average golfer.

Bobby Jones once said, "Golf is a game that is played on a five-inch course—the distance between your ears." Understanding the stories we tell, the realities we distort, and the meanings we tack onto our golf games can help us play both games together, the one between our ears and the one in play on the course.

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