Hitting the Middle of the Fairway

Playing Life’s Course One Hole at a Time

By William D. Parham, Ph.D., ABPP

Any day is a great day for golf, a client once told me. I must admit that I have always found his assertion to be true. I do not play as often as I would like, but experience little difficulty tapping back into the joy of letting go of life’s minor nuisances, as well as more exigent realities, and surrendering to the need to be in the “here and now flow” of each moment as I play each of the 18 holes. Of all the sports I enjoy, golf is at the top of the list. Golf provides a relaxing way to get frustrated and, at the same time, a level of frustration baiting my return to feeling calm. Golf is a puzzle without an answer. Golf is not a game to be won. It can only be played!

The aim in golf is to complete18 holes with the least number of strokes with a club. A key challenge lies in avoiding six traps or obstacles along the way. There are five visual traps, including water, sand, rough (high grass), out of bounds, and the beauty of the course. The sixth obstacle is mental, arguably the most vexing. Staying emotionally centered, letting go of performance fears, and consistently striking the ball in the “sweet spot” demands singular focus of golfers wherein they allow themselves to trust their preparation so that they can surrender to the process.

Landing in traps or obstacles positions golfers to add strokes to their game that, consequentially, places them at risk to miss out on their best round. Importantly, traps and obstacles on a course can surface vulnerabilities and parts of ourselves that we want to keep private. The good news is that there are self-protective options to minimize intrapersonal and interpersonal exposure. How people respond mentally and emotionally to the hole-by-hole challenges that arise on a golf course influences the psychological rewards earned at the end of each round.

It makes sense, then, why some novice golfers prepare to hit the golf ball down the fairway by repeatedly declaring silently to themselves, “I don’t want to hit the ball in the sand trap (rough, water, or out of bounds), I don’t want to hit the ball in the sand trap (rough, water, or out of bounds”! Interestingly, this strategy of avoiding traps results often in a high percentage a golf balls ending up precisely where the golfer hoped they would not! You see, a key to avoiding those places you do not want to go is to repeatedly declare to yourself, in a quiet and resolute voice, where you do want to go. Repeatedly declaring to yourself, “I will hit the ball in the middle of the fairway, I will hit the ball in the middle of the fairway” results vary often in achieving the hoped-for outcome. Further, when the ball lands in the middle of the fairway the golfer has, at that moment, avoided the traps and obstacles to which he/she could have fallen prey. In short, playing to not lose is not a sustainable strategy. Playing to win by aiming for what you want to accomplish and remaining steadfast and focused myopically is a much better strategy to employ.

In many respects, life is akin to golf. It is not a game that can be won, only played. Along life’s course there are traps and obstacles positioned to distract us from achieving our goals. Some traps and obstacles manifest at various points along the developmental continuum from childhood through end of life. Present-day obstacles, for example, include our duo-pandemics of COVID-19 and racism; feeling stretched to the margins of our emotional bandwidths; difficult-to-reconcile economic turmoil; strained familial, peer, and collegial relationships; and loss of lives, livelihoods, protections, and certainty. Additional obstacles to be aware of include resurgence of Darwinian-based beliefs about natural selection and survival of the fittest; aggressive voter suppression campaigns that trigger recollections of the 1940s "literacy tests," administered in the southern states to successfully squash Black voters, and spun tales claiming falsely and rancorously that legitimate social protests are “riots” ignited by “anarchists” that need to be quashed militarily. Here-we-go-again racist birther conspiracy campaigns, and COVID-19 parties and “stress test” gatherings by younger generation fueled by faulty beliefs in their invincibility, represent additional traps and obstacles placed in our path.

Truth be told, traps or obstacles in life are ever present. Some can be avoided, while others cannot. And, like golf, how persons respond to life’s traps and obstacles they encounter importantly influences the prize at the end of their journey. Consistent with the approach to managing golf course performance mentioned above, a key to avoiding most developmental traps and obstacles as well as current public health and socio-political traps is to declare what we want to do. Repeatedly proclaiming to ourselves, in a quiet and resolute voice, “I will hit the ball in the middle of the fairway, I will hit the ball in the middle of the fairway” represents a vocal template that applies to two of our pressing and troubling obstacles.

For example, relative to the coronavirus, decide what actions define your daily middle-of-the-fairway hit. Select a phase, rhyme, mantra, motto, locution, tagline or jingle and repeatedly declare silently to yourself, multiple times a day, the words that will frame the targeted outcome you want to achieve. Vocalizing and visualizing intentions help to maintain myopic and deliberative focus. The following phrases, mantras, or taglines are offered for consideration:

1. “Today, I will mask up to keep the spread down!”

2. “Today, I will embrace the space!”

3. “Today, I am reminded that social distancing is not the same as being anti-social!”

4. “Today, I will not back down about speaking up as I advocate for COVID-19 safety!”

5. “Today, I will think more of thee and less of me!”

6. “Today, I will resist the urge to contribute to the surge!”

Relative to the pandemic of racism and social protests of systemic inequities, decide what defines your middle-of-the-fairway hit. The following phrases, mantras, or taglines are offered for consideration:

1. “Today, in spaces I will occupy, I will call out injustice and inequity when I see it!”

2. “Today, I will speak loudly about the appalling silence and indifference to social injustice and inequities!”

3. “Today, I will really listen to the story of at least one other person’s lived experiences of social injustice!”

4. “Today, I will show fidelity to facts, not fiction, fable, or fantasy!”

5. “Today, I will remind myself of the importance of voting and actually vote when the time comes!”

As the 2020-21 academic year begins, invitations to succeed in this brave new world are everywhere and visible to those who choose to declare what they want to do and see themselves accomplishing the goals they envision. There is no question that myriad distractions will lure our attention away from the very specific foci (e.g., work, school, parenting, physical and mental health regimens, exercise and fitness routines, and faith-based practices) that fill the 24/7 spaces of our lives. However, whether we are walking the lush green fairways of the golf course or traversing life’s sometimes troubled seas, what remains forever in our control is staying emotionally centered, letting go of performance fears, and consistently setting our targets daily on hitting the sweet spots of success wherein we allow ourselves to trust our preparation so that we can surrender to the process all but ensuring our best outing of the day. Until next time …