Mind Games: Why failure is the key to success


This piece comes from TG Top 50 Coach Karl Morris: Karl has worked with major winners including McDowell and Oosthuizen.

‘Lowering expectations is the first step to reassessing your relationship with failure’: A piece of why failure on the golf course is the key to success

Despite the very best efforts of golfers, coaches and equipment manufacturers, golf remains essentially a game of failure. Even Ben Hogan, by most accounts the finest ball-striker the game has known, described golf as ‘a game of misses’. Yet, there is the odd success sprinkled in there somewhere… but the seasoned player needs no reminding of how many ways there are to screw it up. 

But while we all know about failure, we are not all so savvy about the damage it can do to us. Continual disappointments can savage our confidence, cause us to lose our focus and even ruin our enjoyment of the game. That is why golfers, like no other sports players, need an effective coping mechanism to deal with the times it doesn’t go well. 

The first step here is grasping that what we regard as failure is directly linked to our expectations. We golfers are consistently exposed to situations that raise our expectations. We hit a series of shots on a flat, hazard-free, consequence-free range, find a nice rhythm and see an exciting potential in ourselves; we watch the golf on TV and observe a dreamland standard, golfers bombing pins and draining putts – never mind that we only ever see the best players in the world on their hottest weeks; and even on a day-to-day basis, a good round today makes us feel there is no reason at all why we should not be able to replicate our form tomorrow.

These facets and more continually raise our expectations… and when our expectations are raised, the opportunity to ‘fail’ is raised with them. Most often, failure is a failure to meet expectation. It stands to reason, then, that if you can go out on to the course armed with more realistic expectations, you will go a long way to banishing the negative effects of failure.

So what are more realistic expectations? Well  first, let’s look at the act of hitting a golf ball… moving the club around you through 13ft of air at great speed to hit a small ball, in the full knowledge that just a couple of degrees’ difference in the clubface angle could send it into the pond. Seen in this light, a successful shot seems much less of a guarantee.

Then there is the golfing environment, a dynamic and chaotic world of changing atmospheres, ground conditions, slopes and situations. Compare this to the consistent, controlled environments of running tracks, snooker tables, velodromes and the like and you start to see why a golf course is perhaps the last arena where its contestants should be expecting a certain level of performance.

Then, there is the way we are built. Humans are wired for adaptability, not repeatability, and that makes consistent movement against our nature. 

I say all this not to dent your confidence but in an attempt to demonstrate why, when it comes to expectation, we would do well to reign ourselves in. Lowering expectations doesn’t mean not trying your hardest, or assuming things will go wrong; it simply means heading out to the course full of confidence, but armed with the acceptance that in an unpredictable game, you might well have a period when things don’t go as you expected or hoped. I often tell the players I work with “Expect nothing, deal with everything.” Not a bad rule to play your golf by.

I once asked former Ryder Cup player and captain Mark James how he dealt with pressure on short putts.

“I expect to miss them,” he told me. “Then the pressure goes away.”

That doesn’t mean he’s not doing everything in his power to hole the putt; it simply means that if the putt misses, he’s in the best possible state to accept it. Failing isn’t the problem; it’s your interpretation of the failure that does the damage.

Lowering expectations is the first step to reassessing your relationship with failure. But you can also consider these two factors. They will both help you develop a healthier attitude to it. 

1. Watch out for ‘Should’

“I should have holed that”… “I should be beating this guy”… “This should be an easy par”… all examples of using a word that links directly to expectation. There are no “shoulds” in such a random, illogical and unfair game as golf, so remind yourself of that the next time you are tempted to use the word. 

2. Follow Jordan’s example. 

No not Pickford, or Spieth. Michael. The greatest basketball player in history once said: “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

Jordan regarded failure as an intrinsic part of success – and indeed, if you read biographies of any major sporting figure, you will see how a learned acceptance of failure played a key role in their development.

When you lose your fear of failure, you also lose your fear of winning… and that’s why an acceptance of failing is so important to your development as a golfer.

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