Influences

Information.

Is it incredible or is it terrifying?

They say we live in the information age. It’s everywhere; accessible to us in the gentle press of our thumbs on a phone screen, in the way we let our eyes scan the text of an article, in the news bulletin that interrupts the stream of music on our car radio.

It’s powerful, that’s for sure. Influential. It has the ability to shape our worldview; to dictate the way we treat, interact with and stand up to other people, to rationalise the reasoning behind every decision we make and every action we take.

Yet it’s controlled by us and not controlled by us in equal measure. It’s who we choose to follow on Twitter. It’s which news channel we choose to watch or which tv series we choose to binge watch on netflix. It’s the books we choose to read and the people we choose to surround ourselves with. It’s the readiness with which we accept what we are told.

That’s a lot of choices. But being aware that we can make those choices is just as important as making them. We can choose to be as limited or as diverse as we want.

And it goes for any topic, any industry, any aspect of life. I guess the danger of it is more apparent than ever before because of the 24/7 politics (I say politics but it’s really just a game of who can stir up the strongest feelings) presented to us at the moment. The reason I think it’s dangerous is because information that isn’t fact is presented as fact. Anyone can make themselves sound like an expert if they use language effectively, especially if they are in a position of influence. Of course we’re all going to have differing opinions on differing subjects, but again, knowing where those opinions come from is probably more important than what they actually are. We shouldn’t be able to differ in our versions of the facts.

The most important choice we can make, I think, is choosing where our influences come from. It’s like when I don’t write a blog for a little while. If I make myself read a book I’ve been meaning to read, or watch a video I’ve had saved on facebook, or catch up with a person I haven’t spoken to… suddenly I remember the person that I want to be. Or at the very least, the knowledge that I can do more than whatever I’m currently doing, or do it in a more effective way. It might have nothing to do with a blog. For some people it might be being more productive at work, or showing more gratitude to a partner, or remembering why you like helping people get the best out of themselves.

I think we all need those little reminders that getting comfortable right where we are isn’t really enough. Staying still often means going backwards, and taking ourselves to that place of growth might require slightly more effort than it should. But finding the people; the inspiration; whoever or whatever gets you there… it’s worth going out of your way to look for that. Trust me.

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Paradise Valley

If you could have everything you could possibly dream of, in terms of practice facilities/training equipment/coaching expertise/weather… do you think it would automatically lead to improvement?

It’s the idea of the grass always being greener on the other side. But when you get there, is it really? It’s greener where you water it…

I’ve had this blog lingering in my mind for a while without getting round to writing it. For one thing, I couldn’t think of a title for it. And then when I was in Arizona for a few days, I was lucky enough to stay in a place called Paradise Valley… ever think some things in life are more than just coincidence?

While I was at home in January and February, I got into the habit (for the most part) of getting up around 6. I knew it was cold and dark outside but once you’ve adjusted your mindset to accept that, you just get on with it. If you want the results, you put the work in… because if you don’t, someone else will. But when I was in Florida the last few weeks (and Paradise Valley), I found it harder to have that discipline. Most of the time I was out there it was between 20 and 30 degrees, and then there were a couple of days it dropped to 10… and suddenly my brain was telling me that was too cold to spend a full day practicing in. Yet 10 degrees in England is close to shorts weather. 10 degrees in Sweden will have you not able to get on the golf course because there are too many people out. It’s not always about your circumstances; it’s about your perception of those circumstances.

Something about poorer facilities or poorer conditions can create an added internal motivation, I think. It makes you get more out of your time, because otherwise why are you doing it? You’re not going to intentionally spend hours outside in freezing temperatures if you’re not doing something that can show measurable improvement. But that mindset can be harder to achieve when you’re somewhere more comfortable. Getting out to practice might be easy, but that is far from the only thing that counts.

Of course, having access to better facilities can make things easier. It’s why I spent the last month in the US. If someone has an area where they can hit shots from 40-100 yards to a good quality green, chances are they will be a better pitcher than someone who doesn’t have an area like that. Trying to build your confidence by holing hundreds of 3 footers is probably not going to go well if you’re on a hollotined bumpy surface running 7 on the stimp. But facilities and conditions aren’t everything. The more you’re challenged in practice, the more opportunities you have to learn. Being able to hit a perfectly flighted 7 iron from a perfectly flat lie on a perfectly manicured fairway is one thing, but being able to hold up that same 7 iron in a right to left wind when the ball is above your feet, that lands in the middle of the green and leaves you a 15 footer for birdie to the pin tucked away on the right hand side…. that’s another thing altogether. More people can do the first than the second. It’s not about where you practice, it’s about how you practice.

I think there’s a danger in having things readily available. It can lessen our drive to find improvements for ourselves, to challenge ourselves, to make ourselves uncomfortable. There was a discussion about this in a book called ‘The Gold Mine Effect’, and how it was reflected in Chelsea FC’s academy – the equivalent of a 5* hotel, yet failing to produce success. It was contrasted to the training methods of one of the world’s best sprint coaches, who refuses to invest in any high tech equipment or training facilities, choosing instead to separate the best by figuring out who’s willing to sacrifice the most for success. I’m sure there have been loads of studies and actual research done, but whatever that might show, I know it’s something I’ve noticed lately. Getting too comfortable can make you lose your edge.

Being somewhere like Paradise Valley sounds like the end goal. But once you get there, can you remember what the real end goal is? And what you have to do to get there?

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Flight Feels

I think I have a character flaw in that I seem to spend a portion of every plane journey lost somewhere deep in my phone’s camera roll. It wasn’t particularly intentional this time; I was looking for some inspirational quote (I have far too many saved) to set as my background. But I still ended up as I often do; pausing on screenshotted messages from someone who used to mean a lot, or smiling at the alcohol fuelled happiness that only the people in the pictures would understand, or admiring the views from some of the places I’ve been to.

I think it leans more towards nostalgia than emotion as we mature, but the last few years have definitely made me conscious of that ‘nothing lasts forever’ aspect to life. I don’t mean that to sound cynical, but I think it’s a reminder to appreciate what we have while we have it.

When I wrote that sentence, I had a nagging feeling I’d written something similar before… and I found it in the blog I wrote not long after the Curtis Cup:

“I’m not sure whether it’s cynicism or maturity to know that nothing last forever.”

It’s funny I guess how different circumstances can lead us to the same questions or conclusions. When I want to find a quote relevant to my current mood, I know I’ll find one back in my camera roll because I know I go through the same cycles. Circumstances change, but it’s interesting how often we come full circle.

But where the first blog was more about not being scared to chase adrenaline, this is somewhere between appreciation and letting go… and understanding that everyone has to experience that.

I could write a blog (or probably a book) about college, and letting go of that life, and I think there would be a lot of college graduates that resonate. But I think the quicker you become aware that things don’t last, the quicker you can appreciate them.

My last few months at uni I started walking slower and slower around campus. I’m never going to be a ‘name the birds and the trees and the flowers’ kind of person, but I did kind of wake up to my surroundings. The fact I could throw on a t-shirt and gym shorts, walk a couple of minutes in the early morning warmth to Starbucks, and just sit outside drinking my iced latte… it’s the simplest of things you miss. There can be more stress than I can explain with being a student-athlete, but in one sense you’re able to put the gritty struggles of ‘real life’ on hold.

I don’t pretend to have all this stuff figured out. I let myself feel things more deeply than I probably should and as much as I try to have good intentions, there are always things that we could have done differently. Sometimes two people can look at the same situation completely differently and both end up hurt. Sometimes people make promises they can’t keep; sometimes people change who you didn’t think ever would.

But it’s that bittersweet appreciation I’m trying to get at. Being aware that the way your life is, isn’t the way it’s always going to be. Some relationships might last for a long time. You might be in the same job for a long time. You might live in the same house for a long time. But as much as each phase of your life feels like your whole life, it’s just a part. You don’t necessarily have to close the book once the chapter is done (I guess the fact I spend plane journeys looking through my camera roll shows that I maybe should close the book sometimes); but there is always so much more than one chapter.

“Don’t live the same year 80 times and call it a life”.

Circumstances change, people move on. You’re allowed to do the same. Just make sure you recognise the good in those circumstances, and those people, while they are there.

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“Stay out of it”

My posts are usually golf related.. this one not so much.

There may well be people who will say golf is all I should write about, (if I have to write at all) and there will be more people who don’t really care at all. Stick to what you know, leave other people’s problems to other people, don’t upset anyone etc etc. In particular, leave politics to the politicians.

But the things going on in the world right now aren’t simply politics. This isn’t just America and one president, or the UK and one vote, or people millions of miles away who are never going to impact our lives anyway. To me at least – and judging by the ongoing protests as I’m writing this – this is real. This is about values.. compassion and empathy and humanity. And, running dangerously quietly in the background, truth. A single blog post, least of all mine, is never going to change the world, but there’s a difference between talking about values and actually living them. Maybe in another life I would be standing on the streets of New York, or volunteering in European refugee camps, or writing directly to politicians with the power to change things. Maybe that’s what someone braver would do. But writing this is better than nothing. Those values are the things I believe in, and if I’m going to write about things important to me, I would be a hypocrite to not write about this.

The last thing I want to do is preach, and I’m not going to change my opinion of people for choosing not to get involved in things they don’t think they can change. But you don’t have to go and march in the streets with a placard to embody your values. You make choices every single day that do that.. but being aware of what those choices are is incredibly important. Choosing to question whether the information being presented to you is what it says it is. Quietly, arguments are presented and ‘evidence’ given to validate bigger decisions that are made. And quietly, those arguments and evidence don’t always hold up.

The US travel ban has been enacted to “keep America safe”, but none of the perpetrators of deadly terrorist attacks in the US since 9/11 have come from any of the seven countries now barred from entry.

Syrian refugees have been banned indefinitely from entering the US.

Steve Jobs’ father was a Syrian refugee.

Everyone is entitled to an opinion, everyone has their own shadings of right and wrong.. but the information that those shadings are built on needs to be accurate. “Staying out of it” and leaving politics to the politicians, assumes accuracy without questioning it. And right now, things need to be questioned more than ever. Part of the reason I don’t talk about politics too much is because I know there’s a huge amount of stuff I don’t know. But I know the values I try to live by, and I know when something doesn’t fit in with them.

This might not have anything to do with golf, but there are values inherent in sport that are important here too. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from.. it matters what you choose to do.

 

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Becoming an Addict

January isn’t many people’s favourite month. The coziness of Christmas is over, but (for sportspeople anyway) the anticipation of a new season starting is still a little bit too far away. And trying to spend any time outside is a mental battle on par with saying no to chocolate when it’s already been placed in your hand. It’s funny because occasionally someone will make a comment about how much free time I must have now I’ve graduated, and I think about the way I actually spend my days and smile a little, but it’s only then that I suddenly realise that ‘mental battle’ isn’t actually one that I am obligated to have. There’s nobody making me get out of bed and do things. Of course it’s a little more complicated than that with people that have supported me, and general health etc but to an extent, I don’t actually have to answer to anyone with how I spend my days at this particular point in time. 

But if I was to do the things that sound appealing in theory, like not getting out of bed until midday, or lying in front of the fire binge watching house of cards or scandal or suits, or consuming my body weight in chocolate….. 99% of the time I try that there’ll be a nagging uncomfortableness in my brain that means I can’t quite enjoy it. 

But its not guilt. Feeling guilty for not practicing isn’t my motivation to go and practice, and nor should it be used as a tool for pushing kids to do more. If anyone thinks that’s what it’s about, they’ve got completely the wrong ideas about why people are in sport or anything else.

It’s time to stop assuming everything has to be negative. (There’s enough things to be justifiably worried about in the world right now without adding to them). I can be extremely cynical about a lot of things, and golf has given me plenty of low moments, some of which I’ve written about. But I don’t do that to be negative, or to seek validation, or to give any impressions of disillusionment with golf. It’s the most frustrating sport on the planet, yes. But I mention that only to try and provide a little bit of insight and a little bit of honesty. 

In truth, I love golf. And having the opportunity to do that for a living is one of the things that drives me. But I think I’ve always known that without quite being able to define why, or what it is about golf that gets me on the course in 0 degrees when I don’t have to be. I’ve always worked hard, which I probably owe in large part to my parents, and I know working hard is one of the biggest ingredients (or only ingredient, depending on which books you read) to achieving success. But this isn’t just about working hard. 

I’m addicted to the process of getting better. 

Golf has many intricacies and just as many critics, but it gives you the opportunity to get better in more ways than perhaps any other sport. It doesn’t matter how good you are, how many weaknesses you have or even how many strengths you have.. there’s always an area to improve. And not just as a golfer, as a person too. Somewhere along the line I became addicted to that; I fell in love with that. That’s my reason. And it’s a pretty powerful one. 

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Different levels, different devils 

Marginal gains. Or the big picture?Baby steps. Or a running jump?Microscopic analysis. Or let it happen?

I could finish this post right here and I think I’d have made my point. At least in my head anyway… because it’s all the same question really, objectively, but it’s one I can go round and round in circles with. This 3 and a half hour flight isn’t looking like it’s going to be long enough…
The obvious answer is you do both. Like most things, it’s a delicate balancing act between both sides. You break your ultimate goal down into smaller, more achievable targets and then sit back and enjoy the success when they all fall together. Maybe it is that simple and I’m just letting my brain get in the way of the process. Maybe.
But the more I think about it the more I think there is a reason to question it. I think it’s dangerous to make the assumption that getting to a certain level means you have, by default, learnt to take care of all of the basics. To a certain extent I love the theory of the (now infamous) one percents. But if you give all of your attention to those, you might lose sight of a huge gain somewhere else. There could be a ten percent improvement floating just beyond your peripheral vision, waiting to launch you forward into the heady heights of success you always wanted. But you’re so busy trying to improve you don’t see it. Like the pilots who didn’t notice the fuel gauge making warning sounds and flashes because they were preoccupied with a hazard light they’d never seen before. Or the surgeons who didn’t notice their patient was about to die from lack of oxygen because they were busy arguing about why she wasn’t responding in the standard way to a standard procedure.
From another angle: what if the one percents you’re gaining are actually one percents you’re losing from elsewhere? What if you commit so much to improving that you forget to do the things you were doing so well before? Finding your weaknesses and recognising your strengths. Being aware that they change. 

And then, maybe over analysis is your worst possible option. Just get on with it. Trust the process. Hard work pays off. Your time will come. Cliché after cliché. Patience is one of the most underrated virtues on the planet – not just in golf. It’s vital to success. But so are the values of questioning, and learning, and self-awareness. If you’re not where you want to be, surely you have to look at what it takes to get there. What you need to do differently. Is there a time-frame for the improvements you want to see? Should there be? How many external factors should you allow for?

Having the right people around you is quite possibly the answer to all of this. Like it is for most things. But for now, it’s a concept that intrigues me… and drives me crazy. And if I really think about it, I probably wouldn’t want it any other way.

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Plan as if your life depends on it, but don’t let your life depend on it…

Sound like a paradox? It is. Because golf, in itself, is one massive paradox. So is life really.

Ultimately golf is a game in which you can’t control the outcome, so we fall into that irresistible trap of trying to control everything we can to lessen the severity of the uncontrollable. And to me at least, I still believe that’s the right thing to do. I still believe that’s one of the reasons I’ll never want to cut the strings that connect golf to my heart and my mind, because there is always an area you can control better than you already do. There is always something you can do better than you currently do. And figuring out what those things are is what makes golf so compelling for those who want to get to the top, and possibly so difficult to understand for the outsiders – the ones who brush golf off as boring; who don’t want to watch the best players in the world and have to wait four or five or six hours for something to happen.

It’s rarely about what spectators or fans or onlookers get to see. Whatever the critics might think, golf can be exciting to watch for anyone. It’s exciting to watch Mickelson hit an outrageous flop shot from a lie you can barely see land like a feather onto a downslope and roll gently towards the hole. It’s exciting to watch Jason Day hole a 50 foot putt across innumerable slopes to make eagle on a 600 yard par 5. It’s exciting to watch someone try desperately to keep control of their nerves and shaking hands as they stand over a 3 footer for a Major win that they’ve holed ten thousand times in practice. But none of these things, for me at least, are what keeps me practicing. They aren’t the beating heart of the game or those who give their all to mastering it. Golf isn’t possible to master. But knowing that doesn’t change our commitment to trying to – and nor should it.

I’ve gone a little off track here to try and get to the essence of what I want to say. All of these areas that golf offers you to improve; all the fine margins of high performance, they lead you (or should lead you) to create plans for improvement. To identifying what those areas are and where your biggest gains might come from, and putting in motion steps to make them better. And then, as logic follows, you become a better player. You follow the natural and seemingly obvious progressions until you get to the top; get to where you want to go.

Simple yes? Straightforward yes? Justttt kiddinggggg….

Straightforward and simple are two words that just do not go with golf. In any sense. If there was a clear path to the top, a clear path to being the best – or the best you can be – everyone would do it. But they don’t and there isn’t. It goes for any sport and any walk of life – pretty much everyone wants to be successful, and pretty much everyone would be able to do that if it was a case of putting one foot in front of the other until you get there. But what people don’t realise, and what people don’t like, is when you have to go in a different direction. When you have to move sideways or backwards or simply stand still for a while to figure out why the path is blocked and what you’re going to do about it. That part is far from easy. But it’s the part where you find out who really wants it. It’s the part that separates people.

If you don’t make the plans to get to the top, you definitely won’t get there. You have to be meticulous and detailed and intelligent and dedicated and a million other things that people don’t know to even have a chance. But it guarantees absolutely nothing.

You have to plan as if your life depends on it. And then when reality smashes you in the face just when you thought you had it figured out, you have to make your life not depend on it. Find a new way. Find your own way. Let the challenges pave the way for you… and learn to trust that way as if it was what you had planned all along.

 

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