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A Future of Possibilities

Updated: Aug 25, 2017

By Alex Nicolson PGA (first published in Golf Monthly 2014)

Past failures can come back to haunt you unless you start thinking about possibilities instead of probabilities.

To those directly involved, living through major stock market crashes, such as those in 1929 and 2008, each day would have seemed unpredictable and chaotic. However, looking at the financial charts over a much longer time span, the behaviour of the markets seems much less random. In fact, it reveals many repeating patterns.

There are two commonly accepted explanations for these patterns. Firstly, human psychology doesn’t change – the motivations of fear and greed drive behaviour. Secondly, the only thing data analysts can use to predict the future is past events. When humans use the past to predict the future, it’s not surprising that events can sometimes become self-fulfilling prophecies.

There are many times in golf when, despite the huge range of possibilities, we seem to recreate the past. A certain score we can’t seem to beat, a driving hole that regularly wrecks our card, a run of missed putts or getting stuck on the same handicap, maybe even for years.

The common assumption when this happens is that the root cause must be something technical in the swing or putting stroke that is causing a run of bad form. However, consider the possibility that it is our expectations that are holding us back.

Quest for confidence

In the golf enjoyment survey we ran with Golf Monthly, we found out that 59 per cent of respondents experienced some level of fear or anxiety on the majority of their shots – lack of confidence was commonly cited as a contributing factor.

Confidence is like your brain’s assessment of probability. It searches for evidence from recent shots, rounds and practice sessions to predict what’s likely to happen next. This can be fun if you’re on an Ian Poulter-like birdie roll, but not so helpful if your recent efforts have been less successful. While some golfers can develop a very ‘selective’ memory, only recalling the good shots, it’s hard to con your brain completely.

If you face a pitch shot and your brain serves up memories of recent duffed efforts, it’s easy for your attention to be drawn to what you don’t want, and away from what you do. So the problem is this: if your game is founded on a need for confidence, and confidence is based on your perception of past events, you can see how easy it would be for historic mistakes to repeat themselves.

Vicious circles

I recently started coaching a golfer who was going through a bad spell with pitch shots. If he duffed the first one he faced in a round, more seemed destined to follow. Moreover, his low confidence in this area had shrunk his ambition. Because recent events showed him he was bad at pitching, he thought it was likely the next one would also be bad, so he set his sights no higher than getting it “somewhere on the green”. Such a vague command gave his instincts little to go on. Combine this with the accompanying tension in his hands and arms, and the result was an uncommitted action and, unsurprisingly, another bad shot.

Beating the odds

Before looking at his set-up and swing, I wanted to give my pupil’s instincts the benefit of the doubt. I asked him to entertain the possibility that he could hole one of the 30-yarders he was hitting – “What would it look like if it landed in the hole?” He smiled suspiciously, but before playing the next shot, he stopped and looked at it again, this time with much more intent and for longer. His practice swings seemed injected with more purpose.

Amazingly, on his fourth shot he actually did it, he slam-dunked it. The odds against that happening were enormous, but simply sowing the seed of the ‘possibility’ switched on his senses and his body responded. It wasn’t a fluke, as the missed shots all landed close to the pin.

Swap Probability for Possibility

Exchanging probability for possibility in your game could free you up to play your most enjoyable golf. All you have to do before each shot is ask yourself the question, “What would it look like if it worked?”

Firstly, by thinking in terms of possibility it’s easier to dump the baggage of expectation and anxiety. Secondly, the act of imagining how the ball would travel to get from A to B provides exactly the kind of data your brain needs to feed your instincts. Lastly, when your attention is ‘out there’ creating a shot in your mind, it’s not interfering with your instincts or sabotaging the process with negative thoughts.

Possibility frees you from the burden of expectation, so if the shot doesn’t come off as imagined, the pangs of disappointment are curiously softened. As a result, you are in a better frame of mind to notice what happened and learn from it. You are better off regardless of the shot’s outcome.

Possible shots are not fantasy shots, like a 370-yard drive. They are realistic but in an inspiring form – one that holds your attention. A putt or chip going in from 40ft is a possibility for anyone. If you imagine it going in at perfect pace, there’s no downside.

Try it out the next time you play with two balls, one ball treated normally, and the other based on possibility. See what happens, the result might make you feel a bit more bullish.

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