Poise: the ability to be ill at ease inconspicuously. Earl Wilson
“If You Can Keep Your Head….”
Like many sports-minded Americans, last month, I began Sunday TV viewing early to witness the final round of golf’s British Open. Since two Americans golfers were the leaders in this prestigious event, my interest was piqued. The leader going into the last day was a young Texan named Jordan Spieth, not yet 24 years old, but already holding several major titles, accolades, and acknowledgements.
Speith’s past success since turning pro at 20 was based heavily on his poise and his consistency. Yet on last Sunday, the wheels were clearly falling off. In the first 13 holes, he had blown a substantial advantage and had just made, arguably, the worst shot in his professional life while forfeiting the tournament lead.
The next five holes were incredible. Completely reversing his fortunes, Jordan played the next four holes in five under par and ended up winning the fabled event handily. What followed from Spieth was typical for him. He was gracious in the post- event interviews. He thanked his British hosts, was generous with his American playing partner, and grateful to his caddy for helping him stay focused
But this is where the unexpected happened during the post event interview that spawned this newsletter. When Spieth was asked how he was able to reverse his fortunes while in the midst of a potentially disastrous 13th hole, this 23 year old made a striking observation. He asserted (to characterize his remark) that he could not afford to see himself as a person who could not handle the pressure at key moments.. And he couldn’t allow his competitors to draw hope from his weakness at crucial times.
What struck me about Spieth’s narrative was the strength that it exhibited in times of stress. It called to mind Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “If” which includes the following stanza:
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more- you’ll be a Man, my son!
( I know this is male-centered, but I received no response when I wrote to Rudyard concerning this gender bias.)
Naturally, Spieth’s stance also took me back to my clinical point of view as demonstrated by the “snowman.” As my readers know from previous newsletters, I attribute the trajectory of our lives to our few “operative beliefs,” the key ideas we have about others and ourselves. So what, apparently, was Jordan’s “operative belief” about himself on the 13th hole?’ While most of us might have concluded “I’m blowing it. This is a train wreck I’m living.” Spieth seemed able to summon, “I can (and need) to handle this situation.” So Kipling and Spieth appear to be saying (and doing) the same thing.
While it is unlikely that any of us will become the object of national focus, stress, pressure, and anxiety are a part of all of our lives. How we handle those challenges in life-defining, critical situations is the difference. At times of stress and pressure, do we fold or persevere? I’m guessing that most of us have done both at one time or other. Which of those two past outcomes do we focus upon at the next key moment?
Give yourself a break (and a favor) and choose to fixate upon past victories over adversity and anxiety. They are available to you, if you look carefully. And if you can’t honestly think of any such past triumphs, simply choose to determine that this will be a life-altering change in course direction.
If a 23 year old can muster that strength, poise, and focus with millions watching, we can handle a difficult customer, cranky in-law, or hostile work associate. Trust yourself.
Our greatest against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another. William James