Drunk on the pursuit of perfection: How golfers poison their minds and stunt their growth as players

Last week, I was working on the range at GPC National with one of our Elite Academy players and Dennis Hillman, the Director of Instruction at GPC. The player, who was growing increasingly frustrated by the results of the shots he was hitting, shared with Dennis and I that he was getting upset because he wasn’t hitting the ball perfectly every time. Now, the easy response would have been to say, “no one hits it perfectly every time,” to try and immediately soothe the discomfort of the player, However, Dennis said something different that struck me as profound. He said to the student, “I get it. That feeling that comes from hitting the perfect golf shot is intoxicating. I know, I’ve chased it many times myself.”

Dennis’ response struck me as profound for two reasons: The first reason was his ability to join with the student. As great coaches so often do, Dennis was able to empathize with the student, meeting them where they were at rather than try and fix something. Empathy from a coach is a wonderful way to create a clearing for learning and Dennis is masterful at it. The second reason was Dennis’ use of the word “intoxicating”. As a firm believer in the power of words, I looked up its definition. Although we often associate the word “intoxicating” with the euphoric effects of alcohol, or some other drug or ethereal experience, the original meaning of the word actually means “to poison”. Unbeknownst to the student, it was this meaning of the word that Dennis intended with his comment. 

In theory, the pursuit of perfection in itself is not a problem. One could argue it is necessary to achieve greatness. In fact, the sports science literature refers to elite athletes as having “productive perfectionism” in that they have very high standards, but importantly, they know they will make mistakes, and with a growth mindset, view those mistakes as opportunities to learn. The problem comes, as with our Elite Academy player discussed above, when the pursuit of perfection becomes counterproductive. In this case, the athlete fears and resents mistakes and doesn’t see them as opportunities to learn, rather, they see them as indicators of failure. When we pursue perfection in this way, we poison our minds with the limiting thoughts like “unless I’m perfect, I’m not good enough”. This type of fixed mindset will no doubt stunt your growth as a player and set you up for a life-time of disappointment and frustration. 

Remember, the object of the game of golf is to get the ball in the hole in as few strokes as possible. It doesn’t say it needs to be pretty. As Ben Hogan famously said, “This is a game of misses. The guy who misses the best is going to win.” 

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