Few sports guarantee that athletes will face nearly identical situations, time and time again, like golf. The golf tee ensures an identical lie on every hole and the golfer can study his opponent, the course, well in advance. From that point of view, it can seem that each player on the tour possesses every shot needed to win. The US Open consistently features such tight fairways, thick rough, and slick greens that us laymen can’t imagine ever scoring under par. But there’s no doubt that every competitor has the ability to make birdies if he hits his best shots. The trouble is consistency. They’re under immense pressure. A wrong shot could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, not to mention fame and endorsements. And yet, somehow, a select few seem to rise to the occasion time and again, proving that all are not equal. I frequently find myself envying their position. Not only for the fame and fortune, but the routine nature of the task at hand. But what is it that makes my situation so different?
Jason Day is currently the number one golfer in the world. Seventeen years ago, his father, his biggest fan and biggest critic, passed away. Alvin Day was an alcoholic, physically punishing Day for his mistakes and his death led Day, himself, to turn to drinking. But his mother understood his potential and spent everything the family had, including his sisters’ college tuitions, to attend the prestigious Hill International School. Here, Day could hone his skills. Arriving at school, stripped of the distractions that plagued him in the past, Day focused on golf and was soon a leading Junior player. He consistently scoring in the low 70’s, leading to tournament championships and recognition. But his admiration for the game’s greatest player, Tiger Woods, kept him wanting more. How could Woods shoot in the low and mid 60’s so consistently? Being at a dedicated sports academy wouldn’t be enough. Day committed himself, waking up at 5am daily to practice and hitting the range at night after the other students headed to their dorms. In a letter to his younger self he points to these mornings and the dreams that lived inside him as the inspiration that brought him to the “top of the mountain”. When good wasn’t good enough, he dug deeper.
What strikes me most about Jason Day’s story is my own reaction to it. I frequently see successful athletes as robotic, perfecting a skill to such an incredible state that they can succeed above all others. The fight that they face on a weekly basis appears far more predictable than the daily grind that I face, needing to deal with my both my skills and the tasks at hand as well as the relationships and structure that can make the job so undefinable. But really, these conversations with myself are an excuse. To be convinced that Day consistently battles a predictable challenge is to never have been under pressure. To never have considered the life of a professional athlete. The pressure of remaining on tour, of winning a match, tournament, or major. The fact that the weather can alter every expectation, from day to day or hole to hole. The sudden onset of vertigo in the middle of a round. It’s all part of the fight. But the hours at the driving range, on the putting green, and in the sand put those pressures into Day’s control. They create a shield against external nonsense. Pressure does little to affect a solid bedrock. Practice doesn’t allow him to overcome the complexities of being a golfer, it makes those complexities irrelevant. And I’m forced to think, are my circumstances so different?
I certainly dreamed of being a professional athlete as a kid, and growing into a professional something-else surely has its disappointments. But I’ve learned to take what I can from the athlete. I’ve spent time on the job, practicing the skills that are most likely to be used in high pressure situations. It’s precisely at those moments that my conscious mind needs to focus on the real problem. Debugging or querying are steps I’m familiar with but when I’m with a customer, and every mistake means cancelled contract, I can’t be hesitant. I can foresee and prepare. Put in my 5am putting green sessions, making sure every club in the bag is ready. While there’s a million things we all do at our jobs, there are situations that return time and again. For most, because we’re not playing in front of millions or signing autographs, it feels unnecessary. But getting the reps in, before it matters, can silence the noise, eliminate hesitation, and direct our focus.
“We won the Super Bowl in January of 1995, beat the Chargers. We had the parade the next day, had the meeting where we all went to the facility to say goodbye to everyone. So then there’s the next day, the first day of the offseason and everybody is gone. I go down to the training facility, just to check it out — I was single and didn’t have anything else to do and went out of habit, really. There was nobody, just the night watchman, not even a guard. He let me in and I go out and look at the field in the back, and I see a guy on the far side running routes. I’m like, I think that’s Jerry Rice. Oh my gosh — it is! And he was doing this on his own, the day when everybody else in the whole world was gone or celebrating. And there was Jerry Rice running routes alone. To me, anyone who wants to know why Jerry Rice was so good. There you go.” –Steve Young
Jerry Rice – Super Bowl XXIX: 10 Receptions, 149 yards, 3 TD
5am is a lonely hour. So is the top.