In this picture here, a 19-year old Sergio Garcia celebrates having won the prestigious low amateur honors at the 1999 Masters. Later that summer, he had a famous battle down the stretch with Tiger Woods at the PGA Championship at Medinah. At the time, many people felt as though Sergio and Tiger would be a rivalry on the order of Jack and Arnie. Writing from this vantage point, we know that prediction not to have panned out, as Tiger went on to win 12 more majors, and Sergio went 74 starts in a major before finally breaking through this April at the Masters. In the intervening 18 years, Sergio experienced some incredible heart breaks featuring some uncanny luck of his competitors, all of it driving some brutally scathing self talk.
As I wrote in this blog in 2012 after he shot a dreadful 76 dropping him out of contention in the Masters, Sergio was asked what he lacked to win a major tournament, and he replied a dispirited: “Everything.” In 2013, he was asked again what the problem was, and he stated, somewhat more desperately: “I’m not good enough,” he continued. “I had my chances and opportunities and I wasted them. I have no more options. I wasted my options. … Tell me something I can do.”
This year, when his tournament-winning birdie putt dropped on the first playoff hole, Sergio ended his long drought. I’m sure I was not alone in the sport cognition world to wonder what had changed in order to bring this about, since, given his history of bad luck and scalding self talk, this victory would have to entail miraculous alteration in his cognitive approach to the game. And, in fact, I was right. Speaking after his victory about his ups and downs at the Masters, Sergio revealed that somehow since his disaster in 2012, he acquired the skill of Radical Acceptance:
“When I came here in ’99 as an amateur, I felt like this course was going to give me at least one major. I’m not going to lie: that thought changed a little bit through the years because I started feeling uncomfortable on the course. But, I kind of came in peace with it the last three or four years and I accepted what Augusta gives and takes. And because of that, I’m able to stand here today.”
When people talk about the most important traits of successful athletes, they often don’t mention the ability to accept reality as one of them, because we often think it is so important for athletes to have outsized egos, as if the ability to succeed depends upon the ability to dwarf reality’s hold on us. And while I think dreaming big is a key element to success, it is important to separate out dreams from reality, because as the Buddhists will tell us: a sure fire way to suffer is to be at odds with reality. The problem, from a cognitive point of view is that, too often, people confuse accepting reality with approving of it, as if one were being something of a patsy to accept reality. We see this in our clinical practice when it comes to trauma or other negative life events: “If I accept it, I must be saying it’s OK,” without noticing that the inability to accept the event cements it as one that will not be overcome. While a great deal could be said, and has been, about acceptance, here are some aspects of it I want to mention which elevate it from mere spiritual or psychological flimflammery, to a truly transformative power in your sport life and in your life as a whole.
1. The first step is to notice non-acceptance. The first aspect of reality refusal you need to attune yourself to is that you are engaging it in. In the sport context, this often involves some form of a tantrum: throwing a club or racquet, yelling at an ref or opponent, or just yelling in general, or thinking in your head that you’re the most unlucky person who ever walked the earth. While some of these actions seem hyperbolic, every athlete engages in them to some extent. The successful ones notice it and do everything to move quickly from reality refusal to reality acceptance.
2. Refusal to accept reality keeps you stuck. If you continue to be in a state of disbelief about something, you will never see your way clear to the answer because your disbelief blinds you to potential solutions. When you throw a club, a racquet, or argue with the ref or God, you are mired in the moment that has already past rather than seeing your way to potential solutions in the present. Plus, you can also see that there is some entitlement in disbelieving reality, as if you don’t deserve negative things to happen to you. As he even acknowledges, Sergio had a big plate of entitlement, winning 1999 low amateur honors, and coming from brilliant Spanish golf lineage: Severiano Ballesteros, and Jose Maria Olazabal (the winner in 1999) both multiple Masters’ winners. He expected good fortune to rain down upon him.
3. The best opportunity to change your reality begins the moment you accept it. This fact is the reverse of corollary #2. Accepting reality is an extremely liberating cognitive move, even if the reality that requires accepting is painful. It is far different to be in an accepting posture no matter how much your face stings, rather than in a tantrum about how the very thing that is happening isn’t or shouldn’t be happening.
Now, you would think that golfers have more opportunity that other athletes to practice acceptance given that the “rub of the green” is built into the sport, the random, unfair, even bizarre things that happen on the course over which we have little or no control. Dwelling on them in disbelief just gets in the way, inhibiting success in the next shot. But, as Sergio’s press conference makes clear, you can be in an 18-year long fight against reality and not know it. Once Sergio accepted some basic realities, his reality changed, and with it, his entire life.
*The term, Radical Acceptance, as used here is borrowed from Marsha Linehan and her system of Dialectical Behavior Therapy, as laid out in her “Cognitive Behavior Therapy for Borderline Personality Disorder,” (Guilford Press, 1993), and the accompanying skills manual, “DBT Skills Training: Handouts and Worksheets,” (Guilford Press, 2015). Readers will note that Linehan has borrowed heavily from the Buddhist position on acceptance, but, as far as I know, the term “radical acceptance,” is her coinage, adding the notion that acceptance must be full, entire, and all the way to the roots. It can’t be faked, or half-hearted. I encourage you to investigate the wisdom entailed in her “reality acceptance” skills, of which skills #2 and #3 here are only two.