Ever wonder why some parts of the golf course attract a disproportionate number of golf balls?
Bunkers, patches of deep rough and water hazards all seem to buck the laws of physics by distorting gravity.
Round upon round, ball after ball ends up exactly where we don’t want it to go. It’s almost as if the ball knows we don’t want it to go there, and chooses that destination out of spite. And although we know this isn’t true, the ball still ends up in trouble far more often than we’d expect by chance.
So what’s going on?
Perhaps we should look to an unusual example for the answer.
No, not Mr Naughty.
James Naughtie (pronounced NOCH-tie) is an experienced radio presenter who, in 2010, got some unwelcome attention. When trailing a guest on BBC Radio’s flagship Today program, he accidentally swapped the first letter of the guest’s surname and his title. A simple mistake, it none-the-less made the front pages of the tabloid press.
It was unfortunate for Mr Naughtie the guest in question was The Right Honourable Jeremy Hunt, the Culture Secretary. It’s easy to work out what he said, something he was obviously trying not to say.
You can find the clip online – after a brief pause, Mr Naughtie apologised before moving forward as professionally as possible. The incident’s notoriety was assured by Mr Naughtie’s struggle to suppress a nervous giggle as the reality of the situation dawned on him.
So why did an experienced presenter make such a basic mistake? Was it just an unfortunate accident?
I don’t think so.
I’m not suggesting a veteran news anchor deliberately uttered an on-air expletive, but I think he unwittingly contributed to the situation.
I think he made the same mistake many golfers make on the course. It doesn’t even feel like a mistake when you’re making it. It comes down to a tiny piece of self-talk, an innocuous sentence that causes so much frustration and embarrassment.
“Don’t do ____”
Don’t put the ball in the water, don’t hit it in the bunker, don’t imply that Jeremy Hunt is the Hulture Secretary.
The problem is our brains run on positive instructions, and struggle to process a negative one. When our self talk features a negative, our brains tend to ignore it.
“Don’t hit it in the water” becomes “Hit it in the water”.
Remember when we were children? What was your first reaction when you were told “Don’t do x”? X became the most attractive thing in the world, didn’t it? The chance of x then happening increased exponentially as a result.
The same thing happens when novice skiers come across an obstacle like a tree – “Don’t hit the tree” often becomes “Owwwww I hit a !@**@!**!@ tree”.
If only somebody had told Andrew Marr.
As the BBC’s Political Editor, he was asked to discuss his colleague’s slip later that day. Unfortunately Mr Marr wasn’t aware of the problem with negative instruction, and made exactly the same mistake. He stated that he wouldn’t repeat Mr Naughtie’s exact words, before inadvertently doing just that. As he said “it’s very hard to talk about it and not do it”
It’s very difficult to not do something – so why even try?
So what should we do?
We need to watch our self-talk.
We give ourself negative instructions – “don’t mess it up”, “don’t embarrass yourself”- as a matter of course. We need to identify these instructions and re-frame them, turning them into positives. Replace “don’t hit it in the water” with “nice and easy to the fat of the green”, for example. And it’s an ongoing battle. I’ve been aware of this for some time, and on occasion I still give myself negative instructions. Changing this might seem like a lot of work, but it’s undoubtedly worth it.
Or you could ignore this advice. And continue to contribute to your own failures, in an ongoing act of self-sabotage.
Just don’t think of this post as an invaluable piece of advice.
What do you think? Has this post landed right by the pin, or has it bounced into a bunker? If you’ve found yourself nodding in agreement, why not sign up for my newsletter and get my eBook “Why Almost All of Your Golf Practice Is a Waste of Time…And How To Fix It” absolutely free. And you’ll get my blog posts delivered directly to your inbox once a week, too. Subscribe now!