Stop trying so hard and start playing better

CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND - FEBRUARY 24: Bradley Iles from New Zealand shows his disapointment at a bad shot on the second day of the New Zealand PGA Championship held at the Clearwater Golf Club, February 24, 2006 in Christchurch, New Zealand. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

This column appeared this week in Junior Golf News published by the Canadian Junior Golf Association, but the core message is also applicable to all golfers.

Here’s some hard-nosed advice for bringing your competition to its knees during this competitive golf season:

Don’t try so hard.

If you’re reading this column, I’m pretty sure that you have worked your tail off: You’ve likely put in the hours hitting balls through the winter and you worked with your coach; perhaps you’ve gone south. You probably go to a gym or work out at home.

You are a competitive junior golfer—and a heck of a good player—because you’ve done your work. This give-110-percent-until-it-hurts approach has provided you with opportunities to contend in tournaments. Maybe you’re even thinking about a college scholarship or taking a shot at turning professional.

Well, here’s the hard reality—that noble work ethic could also derail your dreams. That desire to give everything can cause you to underachieve, particularly in tournaments.

As a performance coach, I see it over and over again in many of my clients. They try, try, try. No one outworks them.

Part of my job is to get them not to try so hard. When they do, they have more energy down the stretch, they have more fun, they play better and they give themselves more chances to win. It’s ironic. It goes against our no-pain-no-gain conditioning.

I sum up my approach this way:

Try softer. (I borrowed it from comedian and actor Lily Tomlin.)

What’s it mean? Before we get to that, let’s take a look at why trying doesn’t work, particularly on the course and especially in tournaments.

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

Actually, that is the problem. Too much trying.

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 the improvement to get the results you want. When golfers try hard, they often feel like they are perennially taking one-step forward and two steps back.

And if things are not going right, you will search for the solutions. You become emotionally invested and it’s easy to become angry and frustrated. The reality is that the harder you try, the more tense, anxious and frustrated you become. Misses get worse and you get in your own way. This invariably leads to a spiral of awful golf.

Try softer says keep striving and working. But here’s the crucial difference: rather than judge yourself harshly, just observe what you are doing— almost like you were watching someone else. Let go of your expectations and judgments of what’s a good score.

Does this mean that if you don’t play well, you should just ‘give up’ or ‘accept mediocrity’?’

I’m saying the opposite. Great athletes achieve at a high level because they trust in their preparation and the work that they’ve put in, and they let their talent and skill go to work. They play with freedom. Great golfers do their best with what they have that day. They do not try to control their swing or fix it when shots start to miss. If it doesn’t work out that day, they’ll figure it out later.

Great athletes have an air of superiority and ease about them. It’s like they are saying, ‘I got this.’ No need to fuss or try hard. Players like Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler and Jason Day exude this aura of confidence even when they are not feeling so confident.

So, this season, try softer—and walk with a swagger that tells everyone you are so good that you’ll beat them without even trying.

To inquire about coaching with Tim O’Connor, contact him at or 519.835.5939. Check out his Swing Thoughts podcast on iTunes.


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!