Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Weight of Perfection

I came across this quote today:

“And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.”
—John Steinbeck, East of Eden

It seems to me to be written for golf, but as we all know, golf is a reflection of life in so many ways and it merely fits with the truth of life..  Over the years, I've coached many perfectionists.  Perfectionists are attracted to golf, because is provides an endless challenge that is both captivating and frustrating at the same time.  Perfectionists excel at golf, because it is in their nature to overcome their own foibles and conquer the game.  Of course, we all know that golf isn't a game you can conquer and therein lies the rub.

As I've watched players who are admitted perfectionists, I notice one thing.  They excel at a young age.  They are driven to overcome challenges and will spend as much time practicing as is needed.  However, they will often reach the pinnacle of their ability before they exhaust their talent.  What I mean by that is, they quit developing as a golfer and get stuck.

Why do perfectionists get stuck?  Because they are trying to perfect that which isn't perfectible.  Creating golf shots, linking them together to play a hole and doing so versus weather, course conditions and competition takes a balance between being pliable and being perfect.  Here is an example of what I'm talking about.

I was at an LPGA event in New Rochelle at Wykagyl Country Club.  I was there to watch Jamie Hullett.  Jamie was playing in the group in front of Annika.  Annika won this event twice, but not in 2006.  On the day I was watching, she was putting on a clinic with her iron play.  Every shot landed within 5-10 feet of the hole.  You rarely see a player so dialed in, but it was fun to watch.  Until she came to the 18th hole.  Her ability to be perfect that day was what hurt her.  She hit three shots that all landed within 5 feet of the hole, but it is a steep approach and the pin was up front.  All three shots spun back and finished near where she had just hit from, 70 yards off the green.  I actually found an account of the moment here.  This is a great example of the balance that needs to be struck in golf.  You can be as perfect as you want, but that doesn't mean it will fit the situation at hand.

This still doesn't explain why perfectionists get stuck, but it's a start.  Here is one description of perfection from Mirriam-Webster:
the quality or state of being very accurate <audio recordings were reaching a level of perfection that earlier technicians had never dreamt possible>
Every one of these words is music to the ears of golfers.  These are the things we chase at every practice and hope to have in hand when we step on the course.  However, even the best players at the top of their games don't possess these things at all times, nor are they able to use them.  In a recent presentation to the nation's golf coaches, Sean Foley told us how beautiful Justin Rose's swing was when he hit into a net.  He said it was beautiful.  He said his swing on the range was also very nice.  Not quite as beautiful as into a net, but better than most.  He then said, Rose's swing on the course resembled neither, because he was generally flighting balls into the wind, knocking shots down, putting the ball back or forward to effect trajectory and distance, etc.  You get the point.  This is where the perfectionists get tripped up.  Instead of being fluid and pliable on the course, they rely upon exactitude and precision.

So what do you do with a perfectionist?  What happens when he or she hits that sticking point that stops progress?  Remember, these are players who will reach elite levels of play due to the tenacity they show for accuracy, precision and exactness.  Their methodology will seem The Way for them and your coaching will seem to discount everything they know.  If I want a perfectionist to become pliable, I'm introducing him to this (also from Mirriam-Webster):
capable of being readily changed <with such iffy weather, we had to keep our vacation schedule fairly pliable>
I can hear perfectionists hyper-ventilating just reading words like variable or fluctuating.  This goes against all they hold dear and protect against.  Take heart perfectionists, Dr. David Cook gave me a strategy that you can use, too.  Find something, anything to perfect in a round of golf, but don't make it your technique, your shot making or even your results.  Find something else.  Allow yourself to create your swing and match it to the situation for each shot.  Allow yourself to accept bad bounces, bad yardages and bad swings.  Know that your swing will be created for the situation at hand and that is a good thing.

When a perfectionist suffers an injury or illness and must do with what she can bring on any given day, she will often play some of her best golf.  The expectations lower and the pressure to be perfect falls away.  Then the magic can happen.  All the repetitions that player has put into practice will be there for her and with no energy for precision, she will find flow and use it to score.  This lesson is hard to grasp, but I've seen it play out often.

If you are a perfectionist, learn what skills you can use to play the game in a perfect way, such as course management, mindset or attitude.  Imagine if instead of working to hit perfect shots, you worked to have a perfect attitude on the course.  One of acceptance, lack of expectations and positivism might be a start.  Good luck perfectionists!  Some times I'm glad I'm a bit of a mess.

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