Keep It Simple; life lessons from elite golf.

Simon Hartley, Founder of Be World Class.

“Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated”. Confucius, circa 500BC.

I am fascinated to see how we humans manage to complicate our lives. The game of golf is a great example. I suspect that golf is one of the most over-complicated activities on planet Earth. I’ve worked with elite golfers and tour professionals for many years now. When I work with them, I am continually reminded of their extraordinary ability to take something that is innately fairly simple and create a monster. Of course, golf is not alone! I’m sure you’ve seen many other examples in both sport and business. However, golf provides an easy way to illustrate our human tendency to make life more difficult than it needs to be.

Now, before we continue I need to tell you that I do not play golf. It is a deliberate decision that I made for good reason. I work with golfers, to help them get their mental game right. As part of my role, I need to be able to ask ‘stupid’ questions. To do that, I need to be naïve. If I start to assume the answers, I can’t ask the ‘stupid’ (but often very valuable) questions. So, as a non-player, I have a pretty objective view of the game.

Let’s start with the basics. Over the years I have asked elite athletes to describe their job in the simplest possible terms. A few years ago I worked with a swimmer who was also struggling because his head was full to bursting point. At that point we realised that he had a very simple job; to swim two lengths of the pool as fast as he could… and that was all.

So, what is the job of a golfer? I’ve heard all sorts of answers over the years, which include “executing their swing perfectly”, to “making the cut”, to “winning the tournament”. To me, the job is much simpler.

As I see it, the job of the golfer is simply to get the little white ball, into the hole, in as few shots as possible…. and that’s it!

The job is not to beat the other players, or to shoot a specific score (i.e. make par or shoot a round of 68). That might sound slightly bizarre when you consider that these players get paid on results. However, beating other players or shooting a target score are both outside of a player’s control. If golfers start trying to do those jobs, they embark on an almost impossible task and find their mind cluttered with all sorts of questions and thoughts. Here are some examples that I’ve found.

What club should I hit?  Where should I aim?  How high should I tee up the ball?  How many practice swings should I take?  Should I retie my shoelace?  Should I take off my jacket?  How should the ball face on the tee?  What should I do in my pre-shot routine?  How long should it take?  Am I focused?  If not, should I step off?  Should I acknowledge my playing partner’s compliment?  Should I chat a bit as we walk down the fairway?  How much should I tell him?  Is he going to talk all day?  Perhaps I should walk more quickly…  Should I carry my bag on my right or left shoulder?  Should I check my hole location sheet?  Should I walk off the yardage from this sprinkler head?” Augh!!!

And what happens if things aren’t going well? This noisy mind can become almost unbearable.

What do I do if my ‘bad’ decision landed the ball in the woods and I have 170 yards left to the green with trees in-between? My opponent just hit the middle of the fairway and could go a shot up. What decision do I make next? I want to go for the green to keep in touch with my opponent, but maybe I don’t have the ability to hit the ball high enough. If I miss-hit this, I could get myself into even more trouble. The ball could hit a tree and reflect even farther into the woods, putting me in a tougher situation than I was in the first place. If I play it safe, I’ll go a shot down. If I continue to go for the green in one shot, this could result in a huge disaster on my scorecard. What do I do?” Help!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I have seen players tie themselves in knots, to the point where they almost become incapable of hitting the ball. After hitting a duff shot, some players will start to analyse their swing to the point where they’ve completely de-constructed it. They analyse to the point of paralysis. Other players will make so many “corrections” to the swing that they actually forget their original swing. It’s a bit like people that continually dye their hair different colours. After a while they forget their natural hair colour.

Is there a case for simply going back to basics and just hitting the ball? I’ll often suggest that players go back to feeling their swing, rather than thinking about the technique.

I’m not saying that planning and preparation goes out of the window, far from it. You may have read my recent article – How to Build Confidence Through Preparation. What I am saying is that decision making, planning and preparation should all be focused! Surely everything should contribute to helping get the little white ball into the little hole in as few shots as possible. When golfers apply this approach, many of the decisions become easier and the mental clutter starts to clear. Simply asking the question, “what do I need to do, in order to get the ball in the hole in as few shots as possible?” is a step forwards.

Of course, this mentality extends way beyond the golf course. Simplicity and clarity are incredibly powerful. When our job is simple, we are able to focus on delivering it. As a result, we become more effective, we are able to streamline our decision making, and ultimately perform much better.

How could you use this approach to help simplify and clarify what you do?

What’s your “Two Lengths of the Pool”?

Click the link below to hear Olympic athlete, Chris Cook, describe how finding his “Two Lengths” helped him become a double Commonwealth Champion and Olympic finalist.

… and feel free to download the free PDF sample chapter too.