Learning to play golf taught me a lot more than how to play golf

February 1, 2023

This summer, I took up golf. My husband and son are avid golfers, so I decided it was time for me to give it a try. It was a surprise to me how quickly I fell in love with the game; and so, my summer was filled with more rounds of golf than I had ever imagined, including golfing in Nova Scotia and the Rockies. Along the way, I realized that many of the habits and mindsets that are key to success in golf are the same as those in life.

1. “Play the long game”

Learning to play golf is both exhilarating and frustrating: the thrill of driving the ball far down the fairway in a beautiful arc formation, immediately followed by the anguish of winding up, smacking the ball, and having it roll just three inches. Having a long-term mindset is extremely helpful in these situations, as it enables you to ride through the set-backs, maintain focus, and do the work that is necessary for long term success.

During my first several weeks, countless times I was an inch or two away from my first birdie, only to miss the hole and have the elusive birdie escape me again. But I did not let it bother me; my perspective was that I was playing the long game: I was focused not on how I scored on any particular hole or even any given round. I was focused on improving my game for the long term. I spent time with a coach, invested hours at the driving range, and practised putting in our backyard. I was squarely focused on the goal of being a better golfer and what mattered was that I was steadily improving, recognizing that improvement needed to be judged over multiple rounds. And so, when a putt missed the cup by a few inches or I hit a shot in the trees, I reminded myself that I was “playing the long game” and success would happen if I kept doing the right work.

Similarly, in life, it helps to think about playing the long game. What does this mean? It means recognizing that there is no straight line to success: there will be setbacks and detours along the way, but just keep going. Get determined, not discouraged. Do the work today to get the results you would like to see tomorrow. Playing the long game means prioritizing things that will yield the long-term results that you seek: putting in the hard work, having the discipline to take care of your health, prioritizing the most important relationships in your life, and investing in your own personal growth and development.

2. “Don’t be afraid to lose a ball”

On every golf course, there are inevitably shots that need to be taken over water or other hazards. When I started playing golf, I did not even attempt those shots. But as I came to realize that if I was going to play the game and get better, I could not be afraid to lose a ball. I then started hitting over the water and other roughs; yes, I lost a fair number of balls, but I also surprised myself at the shots that flew over the water and landed nicely on the other side.

I did not want to lose a ball: I did everything I could to avoid a lost ball including visualizing my stroke and the ball pathway, and taking my time to hit the ball properly. But if it went into the water with a big splash, that was okay. I was down one ball but up a lesson and I had given it my best shot.

In life, if you are going for ambitious goals, you are going to fall down along the way. Don’t be afraid to fail, or you will never take the big swings. Prepare yourself as best as you can, work hard, and believe in yourself. Celebrate your successes when you obtain the outcome you seek, but if it does not work out, take the lesson and move on. It is better to fail than to never try.

3. “Surround yourself with people from whom you learn”

I am quite fortunate in that it is not hard to find people who are better golfers than me. In fact, pretty well every other person on the golf course on any given day is better than me. I view this as a tremendous benefit as I am always surrounded by people from whom I can learn. I enjoy watching how my golf-mates tee up their ball and how they line up their putts, and then I absorb these habits into my own game. I often ask questions about what had been most effective in improving their game, and how they think about different shots. By playing with better golfers, I become a better golfer.

There is a famous expression that, “You are the average of the five people with whom you spend the most time.”. I believe that the most effective way to improve is to surround yourself with people who are better than you. Want to learn more about a specific topic? Spend time with people who are experts on that topic. Want to be a better leader? Spend time with the best leaders you know. Want to be a faster cyclist? Train with people who are faster than you. You rise to the level of those who surround you.

4. “Tough shots are learning opportunities”

When I started golfing, if my ball landed in a sand trap or tall grass, I would simply move my ball to a better surface and hit from there. I then realized that I was missing wonderful learning opportunities. How would I learn to hit out of a sand trap without practicing hundreds of times? Naturally, there would be times when it would take multiple hits to get the ball out of the trap, but that is how I would learn. This mindset dramatically changed the way I viewed tough shots: suddenly they became challenges from which I could learn, rather than unfortunate circumstances that I tried to avoid or struggle through.

Viewing tough problems or situations as learning opportunities is a very helpful mental approach. This mindset enables one to embrace the situation, tackle it head-on with authenticity, creativity, and best effort. Need to have a tough conversation with a colleague or partner? Need to deal with a difficult client situation? Need to find a way to solve a unique financial challenge? All are tough, for sure. But all are also opportunities to learn how to best approach the situation and come out of it wiser and better prepared to face a similar situation in the future.

5. “Enjoy each hole”

In July, my husband son and I took a trip to Nova Scotia to enjoy the wonderful golf at Cabot Links. During the first several holes of a round on the Cabot Cliffs course, I was having a tough game, not playing the way I had played the last two days: every shot off the tee had dribbled along the ground, I had missed three-inch puts, and my ball seemed to have a radar for the water. I just wasn’t playing the way I was used to playing. As my emotions turned to frustration, I looked to my left and saw the gentle waves of the Atlantic Ocean, felt the warm sunshine on my face, and considered the joy of being there with my husband and son. I realized I was incredibly fortunate to be there, in that moment, and my frustration turned to gratitude as I realized I wanted to enjoy every step.

In life, there are good days and bad days, but try to find joy in every day. Each moment, each interaction will only happen once. By seeking the delight and wonder in each instant, by reflecting on gratitude every day, the journey of life is much more fulfilling and energizing. And while we can work hard towards our goals and be disciplined in our daily actions in order to get to a desired future state, the only thing we are guaranteed is this moment.

As the summer golfing season wraps up, and as colder days and colored leaves mark the inevitable changing of the seasons, I reflect on the lessons learnt playing golf and will carry these lessons throughout the year:

· Play the long game.

· Don’t be afraid to lose a ball.

· Surround yourself with people from whom you learn.

· Tough shots are learning opportunities.

· Enjoy each hole.

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