A poetic alternative to trying so hard


As the baseball season beckons and golf courses open in northern climes, I present you with a little poetry from the esteemed journal Mad Magazine.

            We marvel at the Shortstop’s art:     

            Just to see him swerve and lunge and dart!

            Of course, to some, it makes no sense

            Because the ball just cleared the fence;

            But in the field the Shortstop knows

            That he must put on fancy shows;

            How else can he make you and me

            Forget he’s batting .203?

Frank Jacobs, Mad For Better or Verse, 1968

As a young athlete and golfer, I always related to Jacob’s Shortstop because I saw a lot of him in myself. The earnest Shortstop is the first one on the diamond every day, he takes extra batting practice, he works hard … and he chronically underachieves.

Now as a coach I see him in many of my clients.

Most are working their tails off with that give-110-percent-til-it-hurts-no-pain-no-gain intensity preached in Nike and Gatorade commercials. They are trying, trying, trying.

The problem with trying so hard is that most athletes do not see progress equal to the amount of effort that they are putting in. In fact, they are often exhausted from working so hard.

Actually, that is the problem. Too much trying.

Their goals are high and they want it so much they tend to over do it. If coach says hitting 25 short putts in a row makes them a great short putter, they’ll attempt 50. Maybe 100.

It’s laudable. Repetition and deep practice are essential to skill development. However, there’s a balance to be struck between trying hard, and being in a state where you can learn, adapt and be present to what you are working on.

It’s subtle. With trying, there tends to be expectations that this hard work is going to pay off, if not now, very soon. You become outcome oriented, focused on the pace of our improvement to get the results you want. And if things are not going right, you search for the solutions. The tendency is be emotionally invested and it’s easy to become angry or frustrated.

Much of the time, you feel like you are perennially taking one-step forward and two steps back. It’s likely you start to harshly judge your natural abilities, your focus and even your dedication. Ironically, it’s wanting it so much that is part of the problem.

So here’s what I suggest to over-achievers—try softer.

I first heard that bon mots from comedian Lily Tomlin about 20 years ago and it’s always struck me as great wisdom. To me, try softer says keep striving, but take your foot off the pedal a bit. Enjoy the journey. Be awake to what is going on rather than projecting into the future how this work is going to pay off.

To bolster my point about the try-softer approach, I’m going to rely on another poet, Rainer Maria Rilke.

In writing to a friend—who I believe is a lot like most of my clients—Rilke asked him to “have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart.

“Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers.

“They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything.

“At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.”

I interpret this, conveniently, as try softer, as in keeping working but observe yourself without expectations or judgments. The progress that we make in life, in golf, comes inch by inch. The softer way allows us to notice the subtle answers and clues along the way.

The advertisers are not wrong. Winners have the courage to reach their goals because they work harder and they are tougher than most people. But the message can also be misinterpreted.

I believe that being tough is having the courage to try softer.

Besides, it’s more poetic.

Picture: www.thebluecollarsuccessgroup.com


About Tim O'Connor

Tim O'Connor is a golf coach, an award-winning writer, and speaker. Tim takes a holistic approach, coaching golfers in the physical and mental aspects of golf. He co-hosts the Swing Thoughts podcast with Howard Glassman, and is the author of The Feeling of Greatness: The Moe Norman Story. He plays bass in CID—a Guelph punk band!