Stoicism comes from the Ancient Greeks and Romans. It is a philosophy that doesn’t attempt to explore the 'how' and 'why' we are here, but rather how to lead a fulfilling and happy life. One of the key teachings is the concept of reacting and dealing with obstacles with equanimity (being calm and composed) instead of unhelpful emotions such as anger and frustration. It is also key to focusing on process rather than outcomes or performance, a key to junior golfer wanting to play their best. This article explores the how stoicism and junior golf go hand in hand.
The Roman Stoics also focused on actions rather than words. Particularly, what actions are required in the present moment when faced with difficulty. Shortly after winning The Players Championship in 2019, Rory Mcllroy attributed much of his successful comeback to four books including two books that include the principals of stoicism, written by Ryan Holiday, "The Obstacle is the Way" and "The Ego is the Enemy". His recent book, "Stillness is the Key" even includes a chapter on what we can learn from Tiger Woods and his comeback.
Being an effective junior golfer is a course of action often fraught with stress, distraction, self-doubt and outside noise. Let’s see how the Stoics can help in that regard.
First a very quick look at three of the most important Stoic philosophers whose lessons we will hopefully get some inspiration and guidance from, to keep in mind on the golf journey and life in general.
Epictetus, Aurelius and Seneca
Epictetus was born nearly 2,000 years ago in Hierapolis (present-day Pamukkale in Turkey) as a slave in a wealthy household. His owner allowed him to pursue liberal studies and it is how Epictetus discovered Stoic philosophy. Epictetus obtained his freedom shortly after Emperor Nero’s death and started teaching philosophy in Rome for nearly 25 years until Emperor Domitian banished all philosophers in Rome. Epictetus fled to Nicopolis in Greece where he founded a philosophy school and taught there until his death in 135 AD. His instructions can be found in the book The Art of Living.
Marcus Aurelius, Emperor of the Roman Empire from 161 to 180 AD, is regarded as the last of the “Five Good Emperors” who governed by absolute power under the guidance of wisdom and virtue. Marcus Aurelius embraced the teachings of Stoicism and his book, Meditations, is one of the most important books on Stoicism. Stoic scholars regard it as perhaps the only document of its kind ever made. It is the private thoughts of the world’s most powerful man giving advice to himself on how to make good on the responsibilities and obligations of his positions.
Seneca was born about 2000 years ago in Spain and raised in Rome. He was the son of Seneca the Elder who was a Roman writer. Seneca was a successful businessman and politician. He was also a tutor and advisor to Emperor Nero who ultimately gave the suicide order to Seneca in 65AD , thinking he was part of a conspiracy to overthrow him. Seneca was introduced to Stoicism early in his life and through his writings shaped how the world was introduced to Stoicism in more modern times.
Stoicism and Junior Golf - Lessons for Junior Golfers and Parents
Some Things Are In Our Control, Others Are Not
Some things are in our control, while others are not. We control our opinion, choice, desire, aversion, and in a word, everything of our own doing. We don’t control our body, property, reputation, position, and in a word, everything not of our own doing. Even more, the things in our control are by nature free, unhindered, and unobstructed, while those not in our control are weak, slavish, can be hindered and are not of our own.
Epictetus, Enchiridion 1.1-2
As a golfer what are you not in control of?
A few things come to mind. The conditions of the course, a bad break, a good bounce, bad sportsmanship by your playing partner, the sun in your eyes, your score, where you place, how it affects your ranking, what your parents are going to say ………
How you react to any of the above is pretty much all you are in control of.
It’s a tall order and will take practice, but to get to a point of calm personal progress, externals that cannot be changed must be accepted for what they are, and put outside the sphere of personal control. Serenity comes from within the sphere of personal control. How we feel, react and move on. When a golfer can truly leave a bad shot behind him and approach the next with fresh, calm intention he is on his way to being a real competitor.
That is why a pre-shot routine is of incredible importance. It triggers the body and mind to focus on what’s next. Executing a pre-shot routine is well within the golfer’s sphere of personal control. Almost as important is a good post shot routine that helps get a junior golfer out the automatic reaction mode. In his book "Your Short Game Solution", James Sieckmann deals with the fact that how you react after a shot is key to being bale to reach your potential as a golfer. Sieckmann describes there as being to outcomes after you hit a golf ball, one that makes you happy, and one that does not. Good shots should be internalized bad shots should be objectified.
Your thoughts are also within your sphere of personal control. A mind racing with thoughts about the things outside of the sphere must be hushed. Find a trigger to banish panic. A common one is a simple breathing exercise – completely achievable walking up the fairway: just count breathes - in (one), out (two) and focus on this till you get to (ten) then start again. Most professional golfers can be seen taking a few deep breaths during their pre-shot routines.
Entering a tournament round as prepared and practiced as possible helps put the focus on the process and not the outcome. Play a practice round, study the yardage book, have a plan of attack. Panic is enemy number one on the golf course, and as Seneca says: The unprepared are panic-stricken by the smallest things.
Focus On The Present Moment
The simple breathing exercise above forces you to focus on the present moment, the breath in, the breath out …..
Marcus Aurelius ruled Rome during a very turbulent time and was a great military leader protecting the Empire from invasions on all fronts. His coping strategy was always to stick close to the present moment and the duties at hand.
At every moment keep a sturdy mind on the task at hand, as a Roman and human being, doing it with strict and simple dignity, affection, freedom and justice – giving yourself a break from all other considerations. You can do this if you approach each task as if it is your last, giving up every distraction, emotional subversion of reason, and all drama, vanity, and complaint over your fair share. You can see how mastery over a few things makes it possible to live an abundant life.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 2.5
On the golf course, all you have is the next shot to be played where it lies. Give it your whole attention. This means, with a clear head get the distance, consider outside factors such as wind and slope. Know where the penalty areas are. Choose the correct club with confidence and proceed with your pre-shot routine. These are your duties at hand. How the ball flies off the club face, its trajectory, where it ultimately lands – that is outside the present moment and your sphere of personal control. Be 100% present and focus on the process rather than the outcome.
The outcome of a battle is never known upfront. History has shown some miraculous upsets by underdogs and triumphs snatched from the jaws of defeat. Playing a golf tournament can be approached like a military campaign Marcus Aurelius style – do what needs to be done, with what you’ve got in the present moment.
The Obstacle Is The Way
The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 5.20
There are many obstacles in golf and life to achieving our goals – physical, mental, emotional and imagined. Stoicism regards these obstacles as learning opportunities and the path through them to be embraced, prepared for and creatively explored because when you do that, you unlock the magic of the path.
If the obstacle is that you’re not strong enough to drive the ball the distance you want, or carry your bag for 18 holes without fatigue setting in – your way forward is through having a regularly scheduled workout or committing to a Junior Golf physical fitness regime.
If the obstacle is that you lose mental focus during a tournament round either due to fatigue or not being able to move on from a bad hole or shot – your way forward is to make sure you have adequate and appropriate nutrition during the round, begin a practice of meditation which will develop the skill to quiet the mind, and find some triggers to help your mental game, like our Mental Golf Advice and Quiz.
If the obstacle is that your parents stress you out when they caddy for you – your way forward is to transition to being your own caddy.
If you are a parent caddie who gets too caught up in your junior golfer’s game, progress, position on junior score board rankings , tournament wins and losses – you may inadvertently be an obstacle to your child’s and your own happiness. Take our Caddie Course for Parents and Quiz and learn more.
Be Tolerant Of Others
This note is largely directed towards parents of junior golfers, particularly those that may fall into the above paragraph on being obstacles in the way.
Be tolerant of others and strict with yourself.
Stoicism is a personal philosophy that sets out how to act and react to circumstances and events. People, including your junior golfer, are going to be unpredictable. They’re going to disappoint you, hit the ball into the woods, take five shots out of a bunker …..
That is outside of your sphere of control. Let them be. And let them be with grace and humanity. You know very well they are not struggling out there on purpose!
Marcus Aurelius is indeed full of useful information for the junior golf parent. Walking around the course with a few of his sound-bites designed to flash up on to your phone screen every few minutes could make the round a lot happier for all involved.
As junior golfers and parents of junior golfers we spend an inordinate amount of time in nature. This is wonderfully in line with Stoicism as Seneca states in On Tranquility of Mind, 17.8:
We should take wandering, outdoor walks, so that the mind might be nourished and refreshed by the open air and deep breathing.
We also spend an inordinate amount of time tallying up the good and the bad (or at least the perceived good and bad). How many greens in regulation, putts, penalties, strokes gained and lost. Rankings go up and down on the Junior Golf Scoreboard. Letters are sent to coaches. Responses trickle in. Thousands of dollars are spent on travel, equipment, and consultants. We chase the good, avoid the bad - forgetting they are both, as the Stoics remind us, out of our control.
It truly is almost impossible for us to do what the Stoic Philosophy most wants us to do – cultivate indifference. This doesn’t mean not caring about the outcome of a tournament (or college interview or rules query), but accepting it, and being good with it, either way. Stoicism and junior golf can be wonderfully complementary and can teach juniors as much about life as helping with their golf game.
Nobody said it would be easy. But it is what it is.