Perfectionism: How Math can Help You Between the Ears

What is perfectionism? Webster’s defines perfectionism as “a disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable”. You won’t accept anything that isn’t completely perfect in your view. Your expectations are extremely high. Any mistake frustrates you. You can tell when your game is off and you won’t be satisfied until it’s good. You’re upset if you make a bad swing even if the shot ends up good.

Some things a perfectionist might say:

“I should be much more consistent than I am”

“I like for things to be done exactly right”

“I don’t like playing tournaments unless my swing is correct”

“I’m not leaving the range til I hit one more good one”

“I won’t hit the shot until I make a perfect practice swing”

So is being a perfectionist bad for your game? Well first we have to figure out if the concept of perfection can even exist in a golf environment.

Jared Tendler in his book The Mental Game of Poker (yes it's primarily a poker book, but at the recommendation of my swing instructor and semi-business partner Robert Linville I read it and it is easily one of the best mental game books I've ever read) says that everybody’s game takes the shape of a bell curve. At the far right skinny part of the curve is your A game. The middle section, the biggest section, is your B game. And the far left skinny tail is your C game. Every player has a bell curve, no matter their skill level. Every player hits some shots that are below average, most shots average, and some shots above average. If you are a 30-handicapper you follow this curve. If you are a top-5 player in the world you follow this curve.

So what does this have to do with perfection? Why is the notion of perfectionism an important topic to be discussing in the first place? What's wrong with being perfectionistic? It has to do with expectations, and how negative emotions can arise from expectations not being met.

Let's say you plot 100 drives on a graph. They would follow this same curve of some bad, most average, and some really good. You find yourself on a tee shot that you feel has plagued you over recent times playing it. You step up on the tee and you think thoughts like "I always hit this one bad." "I hate the way those trees are right there." "This doesn't fit my shot shape." So you psych yourself out of hitting a good drive before ever even giving yourself a chance to prove yourself wrong. Why do you think this way? If you looked at it logically you would snap yourself out of this thought. Because you would look at your graph of 100 tee shots and see that most of the time you hit an average tee shot. It's actually very rare for you to hit an awful one. And you can even remind yourself that it's rare for you to hit a perfect one.

If you looked at it logically you would snap yourself out of this thought.

Or let's take a different example. You are on a wide-open hole that is by all definitions an easy tee shot. So you make a swing and you hit it into the trees 3 yards offline. You are fuming as you walk off the tee. "How could I possibly hit such a terrible drive on such an easy hole??" This is when you would, as Tendler says, inject logic into the situation. You would remind yourself of the variance in golf, and the inevitability of hitting some very poor shots. It isn't very often, but there will be bad ones. This adjustment of expectations allows you to accept a bad one with little emotion attached to it and move on.

This logical thinking in the midst of an emotional, high pressure situation can help you level out your expectations and make a more free swing. And it can help you react better to bad shots and accept them and move on. Because knowing you'll be ok with the result of the shot before you even hit it is the best way to hit the shot as good as possible. And this isn't just an in-the-moment tourniquet. With this thinking, over time you will shift your curve to the right by hitting more and more good drives.

Don't be a slave to your emotions. Look at situations logically. And then shift your bell curve between tournaments.

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