Michael's Monthly Column "Throwing My Loop"


     “I’m through with you,” he said flatly. 

     I couldn’t believe what I just heard.  I sank lower in the seat staring out the passenger side window.  Didn’t he know I felt badly enough?  The year was 1988, but in my mind, it seems like yesterday.  My partner and I had just finished playing in a best-ball tournament, and the unbelievably short putt I had missed just thirty minutes before had cost us one thousand dollars.  I was sick about it, but it didn’t seem serious enough to break up a ten-year partnership.  After all, he was my mentor, my coach, and my friend.  I had caddied for him when he was trying to qualify for the Senior Tour.  He had groomed me for years, and after all that work, we reached a place when we were both playing well, we were tough as partners.  We played together in countless tournaments, and now – just because I missed a little putt - he was going to throw all that away?
     “Look,” I said.  “I’m sorry, but I didn’t miss it intentionally.”
     “It wasn’t the putt,” he snapped.  “It’s you.”
     “Me?  What do you mean it’s me?”
     “It’s you.  When things go poorly, you quit inside.  You are not mentally tough.”

     His words stung me.  I thought he was being completely unfair.  We parted that day without saying another word, and I ranted and raved inside for hours, and after a night of restless tossing and turning, I woke up the next morning still so angry I was shaking, and one thought would not let me rest.  One thought that made me more angry than any thing he had said kept returning, and that thought was… “he’s right.”

     And that conversation - an unpleasant incident that’s still painful to recall - that event would come to help me as much as any lesson in my life.  His sharp criticism caused me to become aware of a failing in me, and also gave birth to a realization that even though I used the phrase on an almost daily basis, I had no real understanding of what the words meant.  It was true that I was not mentally tough, and that I did not know how to be.  So, I sat out to learn first what the words really meant, and then how to develop and apply that ability in my mind and life.  Almost twenty years later, I’m better at it and I’m still working on it, and will be when I die.  It’s been time well spent. 

                                           Keys To Developing Mental Strength 

(1.)    Practice and Prepare: That’s the first thing I learned.  There are many rules for success, but none of them work unless you do.  Perhaps we would serve ourselves better if we called it mental “strength” as opposed to “toughness.”  When we begin any task, whether it’s to speak to a group, make a sales call, or rope a steer, we hope and expect to do well.  In almost every case, our initial efforts are poor excuses for the polished professional we hoped to be and expected to show the world.  When we fail in these early attempts, we become embarrassed, we lose faith in ourselves, and often react with internal anger.  We somehow assume that we need to be “mentally tough,” and we think that means to berate our self – to get “tough” on our self inside.  Poor method.  People who do that have never really thought about what is required to be successful at a given task.

       Instead of hoping for easy success initially, and then punishing your self when it doesn’t come, admit to your self that chances are excellent first attempts will not go smoothly.  This is not negative thinking nor is it setting your self up for failure, but rather realistic and honest thinking.  Early on, you will be clumsy, nervous, and look like an amateur.  So be it.  Develop mental strength by repeating this line over and over…

“It is impossible to look good while you are getting better.”  

     Remember that repetition is the mother of skill.  The best in the world do not rest once they reach the mountaintop.  They hit golf balls off of it.  Or they sit up there and practice the piano for eight hours.  The best in the world work harder than anyone else, and if they have to do that, we must too.  If we would do a thing well, we must get instruction, we must perform perfect practice, and skill will not come quickly.  Skill takes sustained effort, and once we spend sufficient time, a new awareness comes.  Because we have worked so hard, we begin to feel that we deserve to do well, and confidence grows.  Some will tell you that you must have confidence to do well.  The truth is that when you do well, then you will have confidence.  Hard work brings that faith in your self. 

(2.)    Focus:  Try this little experiment.  Ask any novice, rookie or newcomer this question, “Where is your focus?”  Wait for the blank stare…because it’s coming.  They will look at you and say, “What?  My what?”  Chances are they have not thought about where their mind is or what thoughts they are thinking.  Develop your mental strength by fixing your internal crosshairs on your desired target.  Ask the high performer to learn how to focus.  When the high performer is asked, “Where is your focus?” the answers come quickly and clearly. 

The great speaker says, “My focus is on the message in my heart, not how I sound or how I come across, but on sharing my passion.”

The great salesman says, “My focus on my customer, not my product or making a sale, but on my customer’s needs.”

The great roper says, “My focus is on the base of the steer’s left horn.  It’s a spot about the size of a dime, and my rope will hit that dime…every time.”

Note that none of the above is about “wishing” or “hoping.”  Some critics of positive thinking say, “Simply repeating positive affirmations has no value.”  That is true.  Wishing and hoping won’t get it done.  Preparing, practicing, and focus will.

(3.)    Try, and fail, and try again:  Perhaps my greatest shortcoming was the belief that I could reach a place where I developed sufficient skill to prevent my ever making mistakes.  What a silly notion.  Develop your mental strength to the utmost by what you do after making a mistake.  When you fail, take gentle hold of your mind, and say, “That’s not like me.  My next effort will be smoother.” 

Of all the stories and accomplishments of Tiger Woods, one is my favorite. Tiger was leading the U.S. Open a couple of years back, and on the last day, he held a slim lead when play began.  On the first hole, Tiger missed a putt for par that you and I could make blindfolded.  The gallery became hushed and still.  On the second hole, he missed an even shorter putt, and now the crowd began to buzz and murmur that even the great Tiger Woods was feeling the pressure, and that he might very well fold like a house of cards.  Later - after he won - the interviewer asked Tiger what he was thinking after those two missed putts. 

His answer was pure mental strength.  Tiger said, “I thought… ‘Man, I’m playing great.  After I stop missing these short putts, I’ll win easily.”   

       Michael's latest release, Reflections Of A Cowboy, is currently available in audio book form. The two volume set consists of articles, essays and excerpts from radio performances about good people and good horses in the life of an Oklahoma cowboy. Approximately 8 hours in length. Reflections Of A Cowboy in printed form is scheduled for release in the summer of 2005. Order from Michael's website.

Michael heading for the great Sonny Gould

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