All through my youth, I was pushed to be a winner. In my family, winning was everything. I had an older brother who hated to lose. I remember him punching me if I missed a pass in football.
Growing up I constantly heard about great coaches like Vince Lombardi and his many expressions on winning and losing. It is and always has been an American passion to be first in everything we do.
I grew up hearing quotes like, “Winning isn’t everything, it is the only thing.” Or, “Show me a good loser and I will show you a loser.”
But I questioned the value of these statements and never tried to instill them in my students.
I choose a sport to make my living. Like everyone else, I win some and I lose some. In fact, the greatest compliment my staff used to give me was when I came off the golf course. They always said they didn’t know if I won or lost. The reason was simple — I just enjoyed a round of golf and a friendly competition with my friends.
When I watch events like the New York City or Boston marathons, I recognize an attitude I like, that 99 percent of the runners know they can’t win, but they are just running to do their best.
In teaching sports I don’t lecture about winning. I’ve always taught to allow people to play the sport well enough to enjoy it the rest of their lives. Some want to see how good they can get, and I encourage them to fulfill their desires, but I do not obsess over winning and losing.
If we’re talking about working hard in life or sports and doing our best, that’s another story. I believe in doing your best in everything that you, and that’s enough for me.
In my 60 years of teaching golf, many parents have dropped their children off with me for golf instruction and many times I’ve rolled my eyes as they explain how talented their kids are and that they’re “naturals.”
When I watch these children, they usually have zero interest in hitting a golf ball, and for the most part are not talented.
So I spend most of my time trying to make children enjoy the sport. I know that if I can do that, they will practice and play and that will lead to improvement. I know if I bore them with rules and “swing thoughts,” they’ll will be turned off forever.
I like to see a measure of improvement, which is one of the greatest motivators, so I encourage my students to keep score. As they get better, I like to have small wagers that don’t hurt anyone and provide immediate gratification.
As a boy, I was not a terrific athlete. I was not good enough to make the three main sports teams in my school in those days — football, basketball and baseball. I ran cross country, played soccer and golf. Obviously, I fell in love with golf and every spare minute I had, I would run out to a golf course and hit the ball.
People often said to me, “You must have done a lot of practicing when you were young.” When I was asked this question, the first thing that would always pop in my head was that I didn’t remember calling what I did “practice.” I did what I wanted to do, I was having my most fun trying to hit a little ball into a hole.
This is the attitude that made me quickly improve. I became an excellent golfer and a winner throughout my teenage years. I did it without being a member of a golf club and only playing a few months a year. I never had the benefit of professional golf instruction, and while this improvement was happening, I always had a job and attended school.
I turned professional in my 20s and expected my game to start improving. Instead, it was getting worse. I didn’t know what was happening. I had everything I was supposed to have to bring me success, a golf course to play, winters in Florida and golf professionals to help me improve my game. I finally realized that the sport had become my job, and as I pushed for improvement, I stopped enjoying the game.
It was no longer fun trying to hit a ball to a target because now I was a professional and supposed to hit the ball to the target. As an amateur, I was praised for shooting a 68, but as a professional, I was expected to shoot 68. When I didn’t, I was a failure. I hated failure, and the more I hated it, the harder I would try. The more pressure I put on myself to perform, the worse I played.
When you put pressure on yourself, your muscles get tighter. That’s also true of your brain, causing you to have trouble clearly keeping the creativity of the shot and target in your mind. Because of this, your failures get more plentiful. Slowly but surely, failure becomes a habit.
Fortunately for me, I applied hard work and dedication to my job, family and friends. Regardless of what I was taught as child, I am now telling you something different. If you’re doing your best, you’ll have your share of wins, but you cannot force it.
All good players learn fast by playing with the right mindset of a few basic thoughts and the enjoyment of hitting a good shot. I always associate quick improvement with the kid shooting baskets in the backyard. That kid is having fun trying to make all kinds of shots. He never gets mad or curses or throws the ball down in disgust. Interestingly, he never leaves the court unless he makes the last shot.