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Is 'perfection' ruining you game?
Dr Karl Morris

Unrealistic expectations – be it to do with
ball-striking or scoring – can cause considerable
stress and anxiety. In extreme cases the
game you once loved becomes pure torture!
The key is to recognise what you can and
cannot realistically expect to control, and set
your goals accordingly.

The dictionary definition of perfection is: ‘A personal standard, attitude, or philosophy that demands perfection and rejects anything less.’ It is an interesting thought to consider that all mental strengths taken to an extreme are likely to become a liability and I think that perfectionism sits defiantly in that category. To have elements in your personality that are perfectionistic can be a terrific quality. Certain professions lend themselves to the need to be perfectionistic.

For example, I would like to think that if you were going to build a bridge across a river that had thousands of people travelling over it every day then a strong element of perfectionism and eye for detail would be a good thing in its design and construction.

The legendary Ben Hogan
was portrayed as being a perfectionist but in his book Five Lessons he stated that he became a great golfer when he learned to control his perfectionism: ‘No golfer can always be at the peak of his game,’ wrote Hogan. ‘The key element is not to expect perfection but to expect mistakes.’
If you are an accountant then I would suggest that helping somebody to file a tax return would reward a degree of perfectionism when it comes to recording all of the necessary figures. If you have been prescribed life-saving medication, and you have to take it every day, then being perfectionistic about doing that would, in the long run, be a pretty good thing.

Over the years though, when it comes to the game of golf, I have seen far too many talented players who have failed to realise their potential because of their desire for perfection – the way they apply this to their golf can be devastating.

To such a degree that the game that they once loved becomes an absolute torture.

They see it as a game that demands perfection and rejects anything else. (These are the golfers who always look so miserable on the course – they play the game fir fun and yet shackle themselves with such unrealistic expectations they never enjoy it!) The great American mind coach Dr Bob Rotella wrote a book several years ago called Golf is Not a Game of Perfect (if you haven’t read it, you should) and I would agree with him adding just one caveat: I would say that aspects of golf are not perfect and if you try to be perfect in all parts then you are heading for a disaster. But I do believe certain parts of your golf can be close to perfect most of the time.

The real skill, the real success will come when you identify those elements of the game you can be perfectionistic about and those you cannot. There are certain aspects of golf in which you can apply an instinct for perfection; in others you have to cut yourself a little slack (and when you do you will begin to play a game that you will truly enjoy being part of). The problem with perfectionism in golf is that, taken to an extreme in the wrong areas, it can make you very miserable indeed.

You are only just satisfied if you absolutely nail one just where you aimed. (Just satisfied!) So your best leaves you just about satisfied and well anything less is totally unacceptable. I do think that the way that we have practiced over the years as we have already discussed breeds a fertile ground for inappropriate perfectionism. To stand on a range blasting 5 irons from a flat lie to an open field will fuel perfectionism because you get an unrealistic perspective on the game. It is too easy and creates false expectation.

You think that you are better than you are. If we look at any given shot in golf then we have the opportunity to see the whole of the game in one micro moment. As we do in one, we will do in all. I honestly believe that the way you see someone approach a single shot at golf will tell you an awful lot about the sum of that person as a whole.

When you consider any single golf shot in the game you have a few constants and a few variables. The constants are that your ball will always be at point A and you desire the ball to go to point B. This dynamic starts on the 1st tee and ends with the final putt on the 18th hole.

From point A to point B there will be a distance to consider and a direction to consider in how to move from one point to another. There will be a decision as to the tool that you are going to use for the task that confronts you.

As you step in to the shot you will send commands to your body to move the club. The club will generate some speed and some force, the two will meet each other and then they will separate. The club could be travelling in excess of a 100mph and if the face is open or closed by even a fraction of a degree then the ball will not travel to point B.

If you are lucky it will be to either C or D but in some extreme cases it could be G and H! A tiny mis-application of force to that golf ball can send the thing miles of line.

The obvious point that I am making here is that the odds on you hitting the ball exactly as you want to do are miniscule. Golf is a game of missing and failing but what you do before you let the ball and club meet each other should have an element of perfectionism in it because you do have control over what you do.

My experience in the game is that most golfers are horribly un-perfectionistic about what they do before the shot and then horrendously too perfectionistic about the shot itself.

To regain the balance on this is to get yourself in a state of mind that allows you to be the best that you can be.

I would want you to be perfectionistic in gathering what I would call quality information. To be able to say that you have given a particular shot 100%, you need to be able to say that you inputted quality information into your on-board computer. This doesn’t mean taking forever over a shot but it does mean having the discipline to do what all of the great players do.

It might feel to you that I am stating something of the obvious but it never ceases to amaze me, even with top level players when they talk to me about poor outcomes on the course, that with a bit of investigation clearly reveal a sloppy decision making process. Once you have gathered your quality information on the lie, the distance, the pin position, the wind, the terrain you can then make an informed choice of shot based on where your game currently is.

Let me repeat that: ‘where your game currently is’.

I recently heard a top class player talk about his game in terms of A, B, C and D. His A game obviously was when everything was firing at 100%. He felt totally in control of his golf ball. His B game was still good but not at his peak. C game was a bit of a struggle. A poor ball striking day. D game was when he was really unaware of his game. Ball striking very poor.

It was interesting to hear him say that he had won tournaments with his C and his D game but he said the key was to make decisions based on the level of his current game.

If you are out on the course and you are struggling with your D game then make sure that your decision making reflects that in a conservative strategy. You will be amazed at how good it will feel to put a score together when you are less than at your best. This is the essence of good mental skills.

This I would want you to be perfectionistic about.

Yet when club meets the ball and there is an inevitable response and the ball goes somewhere then you need to back off and let your perfectionism sit well in the background.

Be very perfectionistic in the moments leading up to your swing but be realistic in the moments after.

If you have done the first part then you have done your bit. That’s all you can do. Realise that and move on.

By all means be perfectionistic about your preparation, be perfectionistic about your clubs, have them all checked for exact specification that is perfectly suited to you, this is more of an exact science that you can and perhaps should be perfectionistic about. Be perfectionistic about your nutrition, make sure you do take on fluid and fuel at regular and consistent times but do not be perfectionistic about when that ball and club meet each other. It is too volatile a relationship to put perfectionistic ideals on, not unlike a marriage and maybe the fact that we have all been given unrealistic expectations of what a marriage should be like causes so many distressed and unhappy people.

Just to finalise this section on perfectionism the last word should come from someone who was one of the greatest golfers of all time but also was perceived to be a perfectionist, the legendary Ben Hogan. Hogan was portrayed as being a perfectionist but in his book the Five Lessons he stated that he became a great golfer when he learned to control his perfectionism and I quote: “No golfer can always be at the peak of his game, the key element is not to expect perfection but to expect mistakes.”

The great man summed it up perfectly and if you consider that your perfectionism may have been the key component of your mental game that is holding you back then you could perhaps consider this particular idea and go to work not on stopping your perfectionistic tendency but to know which part of the game you should be perfectionistic about and which parts of the game it is futile to do so.

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine

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