The Philosophy of Golf: on the Stoics and Learning Not to Care about the End Result of Your Swing
By Suzy Evans, J.D., Ph.D.
Early Greek Stoics had an astonishingly wide range of philosophical ideas, but they’re most famous for their views on mental control. The basic idea is that we should only worry about things we can control.
The ultimate goal: a calm, tranquil mind. We can’t control certain events, as the Stoics tell us, we can only control how we choose to feel about them. It’s our mental state that matters.
At the heart of Stoicism is the notion that we’re responsible for how we feel. We can choose how we respond to good and bad breaks in life — and we can choose how we respond to good and bad breaks on the course.
This idea is so simple you might dismiss it. But, for the Stoics, it was extremely important. What we feel about a situation is under our control. We don’t have to feel angry or disappointed when people hurt or betray us, as one philosopher tells us, and we don’t have to feel angry or disappointed when we miss an easy three-foot putt.
But, the Stoics go further and say that destructive emotions such as anger and fear damages our reasoning and judgment. And study after study shows that this is true. When we’re angry or fearful, we don’t reason well which damages our judgment and leads us to make to bad decisions.
This can also be applied on the course because if you can achieve a tranquil mind, you will exercise good judgment and increase your chances of consistently hitting solid shots. A calm, tranquil mind. That’s the Stoic’s key to success.
But how, exactly, is this done? One way is to learn how to not worry about the end result of your swing. Consider Rory McIlroy’s performance at the 2014 British Open. After clinching the title, he told reporters that he focused on two words — “process” and “spot.”
“With my long shots,” he said, “I just wanted to stick to my process and stick to making good decisions, making good swings. The process of making a good swing, if I had any sort of little swing thoughts, just keeping that so I wasn’t thinking about the end result, basically.”
And the “spot” was all about putting. “I was just picking a spot on the green and trying to roll it over my spot,” he explained. “I wasn’t thinking about holing it. I wasn’t thinking about what it would mean or how many further clear it would get me. I just wanted to roll that ball over that spot. If that went in, then great. If it didn’t, then I’d try it the next hole.”
McIlory’s mental state that day represents Stoicism at its highest and finest level of play. He didn’t worry, or even think, about the end result of his swing. In other words, he learned not to care — and that’s the whole point of Stoicism, both on and off the course.
So, how can this be applied to golf? Well, here’s a helpful tip courtesy of the Stoics: The next time you feel angry or frustrated about how you’re playing, take steps to turn those emotions into their opposites. Force yourself to relax your muscles and slow your rate of breathing.
When you do this, your internal state will come to reflect your external state and your destructive emotions will quickly dissipate. Then, when you have achieved a tranquil mind, tee it high and let it fly!
Bottom line: by consistently practicing Stoic mental control techniques over a period of time, you will increase your chances of lowering your score and transforming how you perform on the course.
Suzy Evans, J.D., Ph.D.