Friday, February 25, 2011

Expectations - Belief or Anticipation?

Expectations can be thought of as either beliefs or anticipation.  Belief in yourself is powerful, while anticipation is weakening.  If you have expectations for yourself, you are walking a tight rope and it is important to understand their role in your development as a player.

First, expectations need to be personal.  As a golfer, you should have goals for yourself each season.  If you keep statistics, you might base your goals on those, such as increase the number of green hits or reduce the number of putts per round.  The next step is to use your practice time to support those goals.  Then when you step on the golf course, your game plan is also designed to help you hit more greens and put the ball in positions to make putts.  You begin the year with an expectation of improvement and then you work hard to make it happen.  In this case, expectations are powerful and useful.

However, in my experience, expectations are often not personal and usually not tied into the goals and actions of a player.  Instead, they are often conveyed by others, such as teachers, coaches, parents, fans and if we look at tour players, the media.  These folks have good things in mind for the player and base their expectations on promise or potential.  No harm is meant, but the measuring stick is no longer real but imaginary.  A friend of mine, Dr. John Eliot, told me once that the very definition of potential means you will never reach it.  It is the proverbial carrot on a stick.  The famous book, Don't Sweat the Small Stuff, advises us to "live in the present".  Dwelling on what is to come creates fear and stress.  Dr. Richard Carlson, the author, also gives simple advice, such as "one thing at a time."  It is impossible to tap into excellence as a golfer if you are focused on the results instead of the process.  That pertains to the shot in front of you, as well as your career.

Golf is a unique sport in that 120 people compete, but only one wins.  It is rare to truly dominate the field, so you have to understand and celebrate your own progress to greatness.  In most sports, the percentage of winners is a lot higher.  In football or tennis, 50% of the players win every time they play.  In track or swimming, 1 of 8 competitors win the race.  With the odds presented in golf, it is important to weigh the desire to win with the understanding of improvement.  It is crucial to set performance goals based on an individual's level of play and her goals for improvement.  Expectations are big things that are often overwhelming to a player, while performance goals that are both short and long term provide a plan for success.

The first time I broke 70 in competition was a spring break trip to Arizona when I was in college.  We were in the midst of a horrible winter in Iowa, so I hit some balls inside, but hadn't yet been outside to play.  I teed it up in the first round of the tournament in shorts and a polo, reveling in the sun and warmth and thrilled to be playing golf.  I had no expectations for myself, because I had nothing on which to base them.  I shot 68 with no effort.  What happened the next day?  A smooth 80 with a lot of effort.  Instead of feeling even more freedom with the knowledge of shooting a 68, I played with expectations of greatness.  I was tense.  I got angry when I hit a bad shot and I turned one mistake into a bad hole and a bad hole into a bad round.  My mindset on day one was one of appreciation for the weather and the chance to play the game I loved.  My mindset on day two was winning the tournament or results.

Are you appreciative of the great day you get to spend on the golf course?

Or does the game stress you out because you can't live up to your expectations?

A mindset of appreciation was freeing, while a mindset of expectations caused stressful reactions to every shot I hit.  This is an example of how expectations can ruin one round, but they have also ruined many a career.  Every time a player moves to a new level of competition, he needs to begin the process anew and set performance goals.  If you are winning your men's club events and decide to enter USGA qualifiers, the same level of play you are producing at home may produce very different results.  If your expectations are based on your past wins, you will be disappointed.  Instead, whenever you move up a level of play, it should be viewed as an opportunity to look closely at your game to see where it needs to improve and evolve to compete at the new level of competition.

We haven't even discussed the question of are your expectations valid.  This is another topic altogether and one that is almost humorous to someone who sees the work a high performance player puts into his game.  Most of us don't have the right to high expectations due to the fact that we don't practice enough, practice the most important skills or keep our minds and bodies sharp enough to really play the game.  That is another reason you should let go of the expectations you carry on the course.  When I see a 25 handicapper who plays once a week throw a club, I have to hold back the laughter.  That is a case of misplaced anger.  His real anger should be aimed at his lack of practice or the approach he is taking to the game.

If you use expectations as a basis of your belief in yourself and your abilities and then move on to plan for your future with goals and hard work, you are on the right track.  However, if your expectations are provided by others or if they aren't accompanied by a strong belief in yourself, you need to figure out how to replace that mindset with one of appreciation or growth.

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