The Games Are Not Neutral, Part 2

I'm going to wait until next week to dive deeply into my experiences with the round Jerry and I played last Friday. Today, leading in to that conversation, I want to follow up on the issue I raised two weeks ago, that the sports we choose to engage in are not neutral to how we perceive our growth as athletes and people.

In my piece from two weeks ago, I offered parallel hypothetical situations in tennis and golf--a sequence of eleven shots, five of them excellent and six of them poor--and noted how the outcomes could be completely different. You could win your service game in tennis with that sequence. On a par five in golf, that sequence nets you a sextuple bogey. It's fair to say the rules of one of the games is relatively forgiving and the other completely the opposite.

And let's face it: you'd be very likely to come out of those respective sequences with very different feelings about what just occurred.

It's worth asking: how differently should you feel?

I wish the answer were cut-and-dried. My first inclination was to say, No, it shouldn't feel different, but as I delve deeply into it, the question seems more complicated. For the purposes of our project, the question hinges on another question, not obviously related: what do we mean by improvement?

Consider: I currently am practicing my golf swing and tennis serves quite a lot, and I noticed that I had a very different relationship to how I performed in the two different arenas. When practicing my tennis serve, I'm pleased when a serve goes in. I allow the misses to fall by the wayside. Sometimes, depending on my goals (when I'm practicing for power, say), I even welcome them. In golf, on the other hand, I noticed that I wasn't judging myself by my successes, I was judging myself by my failures.

Now, from the perspective of scoring golf, that kind of makes sense. If I'm playing a round, each of those "bad" shots counts toward my score. If my goal is to get "better" at golf from a scoring perspective, then it makes sense to focus on consistency of shots and on working to improve my worst shots.

But that's a pretty narrow view of improvement, and it fails to take into account that practice doesn't really work that way. "Failure" is how we learn. What did I do that produced the result I didn't want? What did I do that produced the result I did? Can I repeat it? We get better by learning from "failure." That's the way practice works.

By judging myself on my bad shots rather than my good ones, all too often I was failing to notice the very real improvement at the top end of my ability. I could hit one really good drive and six weak ones and all I'd be thinking was, "That's six holes I'd be starting from the rough." But that thinking is a problem. Instead, I should be noticing about the good one that I couldn't hit one that good until recently. My scoring in a round might be improving only a very little, but I'm improving. The practice is bearing fruit. So I need to be conscious that I'm not letting the structure of the game keep me from noticing just how effective the work really is.

Indeed, if I look at my game as a whole, what do I see? Well, my worst shots are as bad as they ever were, but they occur far less frequently. My medium-quality shots are much improved--they're underpowered but they go straight, which almost never used to happen. And my best shots are hugely improved. They're rare, but every once in a while I hit a shot and say, Yes. That is what I am capable of.

What's interesting is that, notwithstanding everything I just said, and despite the mental and emotional preparation, described in last week's piece, that I did ahead of our round on Friday, I did not have fun playing Friday's round. Somewhat to my surprise, I learned that there are still other issues I need to address before I have fun playing golf.

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