Are You Afraid to Fail?

“Success is on the far side of failure”

Thomas Watson’s well-known quotation is one of many that speak to the necessity and inevitability of failure.  And while we may apply these lessons to our work life, we are often unwilling to apply them to our golf.  In this lesson, I will discuss how fear keeps us from improving and how we can get into a more productive mindset.

This Lesson Is For You If:

You spend all your practice time working on the best part of your game

You often feel nervous or tense on the course

What Does Fear Look Like?

When I say that many golfers are afraid to fail, I’m describing a wide range of common behaviors.

It’s the golfer who spends all his practice time working on his strengths – hitting 7I, never 3I.  I’m talking about the golfer who won’t accept responsibility for his own results (“I’m working on something new” is their favorite refrain).  Fear is refusing to take a lesson because you might struggle with the change.

There’s also the basic anxiety that many golfers have all the time: “What if I play badly and people think I’m a hack?”

The Root Cause of Fear

In my view, two things drive this fearful mindset.  The first is our ego.  We all want to be perceived as capable, even by people we don’t even know.

The other factor is that, for most of us, golf is a rare treat.  If we play once a week that’s a win, and a mid-week range session is a special bonus.  With so few opportunities to do what we enjoy, we try to ensure that every time out is a “success.”

Getting Over Your Fear

I have two recommendations for getting over your fear of failure.

First, understand the Spotlight Effect.  The Spotlight Effect describes people’s tendency to think that they are being noticed far more than they really are.  You are the center of your own world, so it’s natural to think you’re the center of other people’s world…but you’re not.  In short: relax, no one cares about your game.

“You’ll worry less about what people think of you when you realize how seldom they do.”

The other thing you can do is accept the results of playing badly in advance.  Think about what’s actually going to happen if you shoot ten strokes worse than normal, hit all your tee shots into the woods, etc.  The answer: nothing significant.  Depending on your group, you may be the butt of some jokes, but nothing catastrophic is going to happen.  When you understand that there are no real stakes, you realize that failure isn’t worth being afraid of.

The Benefits of Being Fearless

When you put the fear of failure in your rear view mirror, there are nothing but positive consequences.

First, you’ll enjoy the game more.  When you remove tension, fear, and anxiety, there’s more room for gratitude, camaraderie, and fun.

Second, you’ll give yourself a chance to improve.  On the range, you’ll work on the things that need attention.  If you’re not concerned about how you look, you can focus on improvement and actually make progress.  You can take a few lessons, accept that you may play badly for a bit, but come out the other side a better player.

Finally, you’ll play with more freedom and hit better shots.  I would wager that there isn’t a single instructor anywhere who thinks that tension is a positive in the golf swing.  When you stop worrying about other people, you can step up with confidence, focus on the shot, and play to your full potential.

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Matt Saternus

Co-Founder, Editor In Chief at PluggedInGolf.com
Matt is a golf instructor, club fitter, and writer living in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. Matt's work has been published in Mulligan Magazine, Chicagoland Golf, South Florida Golf, and other golf media outlets. He's also been a featured speaker in the Online Golf Summit and is a member of Ultimate Golf Advantage's Faculty of Experts.

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4 Comments

  1. Hi Matt,
    great piece. You hit the make on this one.
    My is Fear is losing a $6.00 golf ball. What is yours?

  2. Alan Goudie

    Excellent,sensible advice.Other golfers are so concerned about their game they are not bothered about you unless you win the prize.

  3. Dan Shepherd

    Love this article, Matt. So many great points. We all play our best golf when we’re not suffering from paralysis from analysis. Practicing enough so that muscle memory takes over is key. Also, even with muscle memory, in tight moments (close match, key putt, etc.), even the best players can have their swings affected by increased heart rate. Practicing breathing through tough spots and being able to lower the heart rate is an invaluable addition to one’s game.

  4. I’m in the 85-92 range. Hurrying to hit the next shot was my enemy. By taking a few extra seconds to analyze, slow my breathing down, and maybe taking one extra club and swinging easier has saved me on average 4-5 strokes a round. There is no substitute for realistic positive thinking, regardless of your handicap. It’s the opposite of fear!

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