A slightly different mantra could make you more resilient

Ezine #10, June 14, 2017—I didn’t have the luxury of easing into my new role with the University of Guelph golf team. My first tournament as head coach was the Canadian University/College Championship two weeks ago.

Our five-member men’s team had a nice mix of veterans and young players, but only two had played in the national championship before. (Our women’s team didn’t qualify this year.)

I was looking for a way to help them cope with the nerves and have a little fun. So I borrowed a page from American snowboarder Shaun White and came up with a team mantra.

Before each of the four rounds, we gathered in a circle, piled our hands on top of each other’s and intoned in unison:

“I slightly don’t care.”

We laughed each time. But there was a serious message: give it your best, pay attention to process, but don’t fuss when bad breaks and poor shots inevitably happen.

Our mantra was a like a Zen koan. Of course, they all freaking cared. They wouldn’t be scratch players in a national championship if they didn’t.

But when you care too much, that’s when golf can become excruciatingly difficult and frustrating.

If you’re fixated with results—whether it’s winning a tournament, making a sale, doing well on an exam, etc.—you tend to be emotionally volatile, anxious and tense, all of which sabotage performance.

When we are emotionally invested, it’s hard to stay cool and roll with things. We tend to judge ourselves harshly and ruminate about our poor performance.

Saying ‘I slightly don’t care’ is another way of saying ‘I’m resilient,’ which is the ability to recover. For some, this comes somewhat naturally, but for many, it’s a skill that requires developing.

One of my favourite stories to illustrate this involves Brad Faxon, one of the best putters on the PGA Tour in the 80s and 90s. The story goes that Faxon was on a practice green at a tournament, whacking balls all over the place. Asked what he was doing, Faxon said: “I’m practicing not caring.”

Faxon is no different than every golfer. He wants putts to drop but he’s most effective when he plays as if we could care less. That’s when effortless performance happens.

The late Ben Kern, a former PGA Tour player and Canadian teaching legend, was a great putter. He said, “Once the ball leaves the putter face, it’s up to the gods and gravity.”

Shaun White raised the bar in snowboarding when he performed the first ever ‘Double McTwist 1260’ in the 2010 Olympics and won gold. It was an incredibly difficult maneuver: two inverted head-over-heels flips while spinning three-and-a-half times about 50 feet in the air. Click here to watch it.

Asked what he was thinking in that moment, White said: “At that point, you’re really not thinking. You’re just letting it happen. It’s a mixture of being completely focused, then slightly not caring.”

That’s one of the best descriptions of what athletes call the zone that I’ve ever read.

The guys on our Gryphons golf team enjoyed our mantra, and we repeated it to each other at Tangle Creek in Barrie, which sported tall fescue rough and was buffetted by high winds.

After a tough start, the guys played well to make the Top 10 cut after the third round. They ultimately finished ninth, which everyone was pleased about. I am very proud of them. Four of the five players are returning next year, so we have a lot of good things to build on.

Now we’re thinking of getting T-shirts made for the team. Their message?

“I slightly don’t care.”

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!