Without a clear purpose, we will not flourish.
Scientists and sports psychologists alike, for years, have examined the minds and hearts of athletes, competitors, and just-for-the-love-of-play people to determine what makes them tick. Wires and electrodes monitor the brains of Olympic athletes to uncover areas in the brain that become lit up during simulation of a desired goal.
And yet, competition and the win, is sometimes just not enough. Sometimes there has to be a greater purpose than one’s own excellence. This weekend’s Ryder Cup was a perfect illustration of just that. Both the European and American teams were stocked with the most proficient golfers in the world; many would say their golf skill level, beyond excellence.
As a life-long golfer, I know that golf, for me, is at a minimum 80% in my mind and heart, and 20% tactical skill. I believe this to be the case for PGA golfers as well, or they wouldn’t miss 3-foot putts for birdies to win the hole. So what is going on in their minds as we painfully watched both Steve Stricker and Jim Furyk hover endlessly and analytically over near-gimme putts, only to, well - as the Brits might say – “screw up royally”?
I imagine they were thinking a stream of consciousness that went something like this:
“I gotta make this putt. I already lost the last hole, and this guy is really heating up. It breaks a little left to right, but not that much, and wait, I need to step back and take a second look. No, it looks like it breaks 2 inches to the left, and it is a little downhill so I need to be careful not to hit it too hard. My grip feels a little sticky; and when I look down at the ball now, I can see a little shadow. Better back up again a little and look at the hole from the other side. my caddy thinks it is going to move this way. OK, so from here it looks a little steeper than I thought and once I hit the ball it might take off. I’m addressing the ball and OK, nice and easy here, not too hard because remember, it breaks a little more than it seems. Better step back one more time, just to be sure.”
It was agonizing. For players and spectators alike. And we are way beyond second-guessing. We are speaking of absolute psychological and physiological paralysis. And the astounding thing is that it is all self-induced. Often we are extreme professionals – masters at messing with our own brains so much, that we affect all the body’s systems with a “shank,” a ball that we hit that goes screaming off at a right angle from our intended target, the most humiliating and disgraceful word in golf, to be sure.
The self-doubt that most of our USA team managed to procure was remarkable. Yet it isn’t just the golfers who get the psychological choking trophy, we ALL do this. It is part of who we are as a human species.
Make no mistake, the psychological pressure from the Europeans was equally as high, but they had a secret ingredient that overrides pure, unmitigated, gripping fear: they had a conscious, greater purpose, a greater motivation, a greater desire to win that transcended all the glory of a team trophy: they did it for Seve.
Seve Ballesteros, a beloved golfer worldwide, a former Ryder Cup captain, died earlier this year from a brain tumor.
The Europeans stated their purpose before their first teammate stepped foot on the tee. They maintained that mindful focus throughout the tournament. Each and every man had that purpose embedded in his brain, body, and heart. They never lost sight of their target, their goal. More importantly, they never lost heart.
After my initial disbelief at the enormous clutching that occurred, I thought about our US team as they demonstrated another psychological human phenomenon – something with which we are all wired: empathy and the inherent human need to both feel goodness and act in goodness. Apparently, the US team never lost sight of the greater purpose – honoring Seve.
The US team actually DID play with their hearts and did indeed set aside their own less-than-honorable purpose of “winning the cup”; they ceded the match not for a greater golf purpose, but for a greater HUMAN purpose.
The Europeans had a focused and honorable goal - to preserve the beautiful memory of a beloved man. Winning just to win is empty. Without the heart of legacy and purpose, we are not going to be as successful. Relying on my knowledge and experience with my lifelong study of human behavior, I watched the faces and micro-expressions of the US team, who also had respect and kindness for the deceased Seve.
And that’s when it occurred to me, that I needed to reframe this.
Phil Mickelson was the tipping point for me, when he had successfully made a tough birdie putt, and seconds later, European, Justin Rose sank an-over-the-woods-and-through-the-woods 40-foot putt.
Mickelson genuinely smiled. No killer instinct. No curse words. I thought: “What’s going on here?” Phil Mickelson’s face led me to reframe, and I arrived at a place where I absolutely felt buoyed; lifted, and it was in the observance of his face and body language, that I was able to restore any lapse of faith in the human spirit. Not even hard-nosed Tiger, a rare-exhibitor of human emotion, was immune to the energy of legacy, honor, and empathy at Medinah.
Pure empathy won the Ryder Cup, and so perhaps, both teams won. If Seve Ballesteros were American, I have no doubt that the US team would have won. What was our purpose? The Europeans had a far more relevant, honorable, and altruistic goal – to honor, celebrate and preserve the human spirit. Now that is worth our intense focus and passion.
Whenever we have clear purpose to honor what is embedded in our hearts, we will always take home the cup.