The Games Are Not Neutral, Part 1

If the real goal of the practices we've been describing is to improve not just our golf (or tennis or whatever) games but our lives--if the goal is to make ourselves better people--we need to be aware of the way the games themselves can foist upon us certain narratives about ourselves and our capabilities, and that these narratives can help or hinder our growth.

Consider the following scenarios:

Imagine you are playing a tennis match. It's your serve. You start the game with a powerful ace: 15-love. Next, you produce an egregious double-fault--your first serve is so long your opponent has to duck to get out of the way, and your second serve bounces on your own side of the net: 15-all. Now you blast another ace: 30-15. And then another double-fault, a carbon-copy of the first: 30-all. You hit your next serve so powerfully you can see it red-shift as it travels away from you. Ace: 40-30. Your next first serve improbably bounces off the top of the frame, goes straight up, and hits you on the top of the head. Even more improbably, your second serve does the same thing. Another double-fault. Now serving at deuce, you put so much spin on the ball that it visibly distorts as it spins away from your frustrated opponent. Another ace: ad-in. Finally, you send an untouchable serve down the T for a final ace, leaving your opponent in tears and giving you the game.

During this game, you struck the ball eleven times. Five of those shots were excellent, six were very poor, but because of the structure of the sport and its scoring, you won the game. Those bad shots can disappear into the ether. They no longer matter at all.

Now imagine that you're playing golf. You're on a 500-yard par five. Your drive is lovely, straight down the middle of the fairway, about 230 yards. With 270 yards left to the hole, you grab your trusty fairway hybrid, but you top the ball so badly that it skitters about fifteen yards down the fairway before stopping. 255 yards left to the hole. You swing your hybrid again, this time hitting it well. The ball travels about 180 yards into the middle of the fairway, leaving you with 75 yards to the hole. You grab your pitching wedge, take what feels like a careful swing, but hit it so fat the divot travels further than the ball. Your next swing produces the same result. On your third attempt, you finally hit the ball well, putting it within fifteen feet of the pin. On your putt, some strange magic befalls you, and you mishit your putt so badly that the ball whistles past the hole and keeps going, all the way across and then off the green and into the deep rough. Your first chip shot sails over the green, landing in the rough on the other side. Your next one travels about six inches, embedding so deeply into the rough that it seems almost impossible that you'll get it out. But you make a lovely chip, relative to the lie, and leave yourself a twelve-foot putt, which you mercifully make for a sextuple-bogey eleven.

On this hole, you struck the ball eleven times. Five of those shots were good, sometimes very good, and six were poor. Here, there's no escaping your errant shots. Each and every shot counts toward your final score. You're stuck with the indignity of a sextuple bogey.

Notice how different the emotional tenors of these two situations are apt to be. In each instance, you hit five good and six bad shots. On the tennis court, you might walk away from that service game feeling pretty good about yourself. Maybe you're breathing a sigh of relief and calling yourself lucky. Either way, you won the game, and are one step closer to winning the match. On the golf course, you're likely to be feeling pretty bad. Sextuple bogey. Your playing partners don't even want to make eye contact after a hole like that.

Again, despite exactly the same ratio of success to failure, you're likely to be engaging in two very different narratives about your ability, maybe even about yourself as a person. One of those narratives is likely to help you stay in flow. The other is likely to drive you out of flow. Our goal is personal growth. So how do we deal with this kind of thing?

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