Stop fearing failure on the golf course, sports psychologist says

Bhrett McCabe
Dr. Bhrett McCabe says failure on the golf course can be productive, if you learn from it.
By Mark Aumann

Series: Golf Buzz

Published: Thursday, January 22, 2015 | 5:53 p.m.

Golfers need to "break the fishbowl" to end the fear of failure and persevere, said a prominent sports psychologist Thursday at the PGA Merchandise Show.

Birmingham-based Dr. Bhrett McCabe, a performance and sports psychologist speaking on the topic of "How your practice may actually be causing you to get worse, not better," said challenging golfers -- particularly younger ones who aren't used to failure -- how to deal with adversity is the best way to build How to Win Awareness.

McCabe used the analogy of the fishbowl to show how golfers limit themselves because of their fear of failure.

"If you buy a goldfish, it's never going to grow bigger than the size of the fishbowl," McCabe said. "Your human mind is the same way. If all you think is inside a limited space, that's all you'll ever do. We have to break the the fishbowl.

"When players come to work with us, we have a challenge. We have to assess them, find out where they are. Do they truly believe that they can overcome their success and failure? Do we believe they can persevere?"

More: Russ Ortiz's passions include golf, giving back to the community

It's what separates players with similar skill sets but different mental toughness.

"We've all seen it," McCabe said. "The kid hits it like a rock star on the range and should never struggle, and yet they shoot 5-over par. It makes no sense. Why? They don't always know how to deal with the adversity."

As a sports psychologist, it's McCabe's job to remove the mental limitations that are keeping good players from performing to their potential.

"How do we break them out of their fishbowls? We get them out of their comfort zones," McCabe said. "I want them to learn to trust their tools under various conditions, and learn how to deal with adversity and persevere."

McCabe played baseball at Louisiana State for legendary coach Skip Bertman. Recently, McCabe had a chance to sit down with his former coach and pick his brain about this very issue.

"What's the biggest factor you see in the success of your players?" McCabe asked Bertman. "He said, 'I've been coaching for 25 years and the No. 1 factor is what I call 'HWA.' It's How to Win Awareness.

"Think about that. Every player out there is a talented player. They can move a golf ball around the course. There's not much separation between Tour players. But it's the players that know how to win when it matters."

So how do you measure HWA in golf?

"It's when a golfer looks at a shot and they adapt their skill set to the shot that's at hand, rather than trying to prove they can hit the shot," McCabe said. "When a player plays for validation -- that they should hit that shot -- you're telling yourself that if you don't, it's because of an inherent flaw in you. And a player that plays for validation is always weak."

Many times, single-sport athletes don't learn how to fail. And when they find themselves in a stressful situation, they don't know how to handle the pressure effectively.

"What I find is, the players start telling me, 'I thought I was going to play well this week," McCabe said. "With all the work I've done, I should have played well.' And I hear that unbelievably bad word -- should. 

"Why did you think you had a great week of practice, that you should have played well? What happens is, players are playing for their optimum experience. They've created in their minds that every round of golf that they play has to be ideal to be successful."

And McCabe said that creates unattainable expectations.

"Expectations are through the roof," McCabe said. "What they don't understand is that great performances arise from average performances. They don't arise from other great performances. The hardest round (after a great round) is the next one, because their expectations are up."

So many books on the subject deal with athletes "being in the zone," something that McCabe doesn't ascribe to.

"Why? Because it happens five percent of the time," McCabe said. "So I'm going to invest my time and energy in training my athletes how to get into the top five percent. I believe they're going to get there naturally -- by doing the other 95 percent efficiently."