Adult learners often try to master skills sooner than is practical. If you lack patience or an inclination to experiment, you might put too much pressure on yourself. In order to succeed, ultimately, achievement in sports rests upon sound process, repetition, and readiness to fail – yes, FAIL. The reality is, unless you are willing to look silly, try new things, take risks and learn from what happens, you will not advance your skills or develop depth in your sport.
Try looking at your sport as an opportunity to find out what you’re made of. What happens to your insides when you come up against a tough situation? How are you going to nurture your ability to handle adversity unless you are willing to confront it, lean into it and gain new experience – outside your comfort zone?
If you are playing to look good, receive acknowledgment and are loaded with natural talent, then put this aside for now. Personal development will be sacrificed on the alter of the ego if how you measure up to the competition is your sole focus.
If you are a lifelong learner and crave challenge, read on. When you embrace difficulty rather than avoid it, address your weaknesses with consistent effort and build a bigger repertoire of muscle memory, agility and balance, then ultimately you will look good, but only as an after-effect of looking awful. Process is paramount. Failure is necessary pain, which earns you the requisite experience to attain mastery. Results come with time and patience and rarely show up on demand.
Sport, like life, is messy. Are you willing to go there? Excellence in sport requires discipline, dedication, passion, vision and an answer to the question, “Why?” Why do you choose to play, practice, compete? What motivates you?
Personally, I like challenge, creative problem-solving, feeling my body in fluid motion, exertion, and nature in all its expressions – although I tend not to play golf during thunderstorms or snowstorms. To advance, practice in adverse weather conditions, if your sport is outdoors. It accelerates your hardiness – builds resilience, endurance and dedication. Plus it’ll likely give you an edge over your competitors.
Golfers need to purposely hit their ball into the sand traps, try some ugly lies and get creative. Find out why that shot didn’t work and how you might improve. Develop new awareness, new motor skills and new attitudes so that you can get into and out of trouble without losing your cool.
Whether your sport is basketball, volleyball, swimming, ice skating, tennis, clay pigeon shooting, archery, soccer, lacrosse, football, pickle-ball or ping pong, you need to impose challenges and practice them. Imagine a high-stress situation – visualize it as realistically as possible. This will allow your nervous system to manage more difficult circumstances without freaking out. Since the nervous system cannot distinguish between a vividly imagined scene and reality, you benefit just as much from visual rehearsal as physical.
When I was swimming, I’d imagine a shark chasing me; I’d swim in the wake of a teammate and try to catch up by the end of the set. I’d also visualize that I was being pulled along each time my arm extended. This helped me create power with ease.
On the golf course, I now relish playing in wind, rain, humidity and cold. With the right planning, unnecessary discomfort is reduced, promoting better focus on the most important elements of the game: strategy and execution. Most golfers over-swing in the wind, trying to compensate. Wind will teach you to swing easier, pay attention to tempo, stay grounded and let go.
If you can’t figure out what’s happening when you repeatedly make mistakes, then ask a buddy, a trainer, coach or mentor to take a look and see what they can discover. Don’t beat yourself up or storm off. Don’t shrink from your mistakes, don’t succumb to embarrassment or self-judgment. Own your mistakes, or else they’ll own you. Mistakes highlight your growing edge. Hang out there and mine it for all it’s worth.
Mindfulness has at its core the principle of acceptance. If you can truly accept that you aren’t perfect and can’t control all the variables, then you can alleviate tons of resistance that perfectionists bring to their sport. You will save loads of energy by not fighting the invisible enemy – your belief that you need to be perfect. Nobody is. This notion of perfection is like a mirage in the desert – as soon as you approach your idealized destination, it recedes and you are no closer, despite all your hard work, struggle and suffering.
So why make yourself miserable by imposing impossible standards on your skill acquisition when you could humbly submit to the growth-inducing process of learning? You’ll discover and master not only your skills, but your mental fortitude. Find ways to challenge yourself and set yourself up for success as well. Both are important.
Tiger Woods learned to putt by starting close to the hole and working outward from there. If you only challenge yourself, you might destroy your confidence, so mix it up. And yet, let go of caring so much about what others think. Find out what happens when you experiment with something that feels radically new and unfamiliar. Remember the journey is the thing, not the destination.