By Josh Woods ~
In the 1980 comedy Caddyshack, the pseudo-Buddhist ball golfer Ty Webb offered wisdom to his young, forward-thinking protege Danny Noonan.
“Danny, I’m going to give you a little advice,” Ty said. “There’s a force in the universe that makes things happen; all you have to do is get in touch with it. Stop thinking … find your center … let things happen … and be … the ball.”
Despite the silliness of this tip, the idea that regulating your thoughts and centering your attention can improve performance is remarkably popular. You can find it in books of pop psychology, in the meditation rooms at Google and Nike, in the hot yoga gyms of middle America, and in several disc golf books, blogs and websites.
Although the meditative approach to life goes by many names, the term “mindfulness” has dominated the self-help scene for more than a decade. Mindfulness is more than a buzzword. The concept can be traced back to ancient Buddhist texts and is now receiving attention from a wide array of spiritual leaders, teachers, artists, scholars, athletes and business people.
According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, mindfulness means to pay attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally. For sports psychologists, a similar concept—the self-regulation of attention—is a key to achieving peak performances in sports.
I recently attempted to apply mindfulness on the disc golf course. Struggling with a case of the yips, I made a conscious effort, over several rounds, to deemphasize and accept those failed 20-foot putts of the past, focus my attention on breathing, stop keeping score, and return to the present whenever my mind drifted somewhere else.
I’m sure this works for some players, but it didn’t work for me. And so, I tried harder, which, maddeningly, made it even more difficult to achieve anything resembling a peaceful, relaxed focus on the task at hand.
Eventually, I arrived at a simple conclusion: Maybe being present on the disc golf course isn’t such a good idea. There are, as it turns out, at least two reasons to question the mantra of staying in the moment.
Being Present May Be Impossible
Yoga instructors will surely disagree, but scientists believe that living in the past and future is unavoidable. Discussing his coauthored study on this topic in a press release, neuroscientist Marc Sommer said, “For a healthy person, it’s impossible to live in the moment. It’s a nice thing to say in terms of seizing the day and enjoying life, but our inner lives and experiences are much richer than that.”
All that brain power—our ability to mull over the past and future, daydream about dinner while eating breakfast—is not such a bad thing, said Sommer. “You need that continuity of thought. We are constantly keeping decisions in mind as we move through life, thinking about other things.”
Our thoughts about what is happening right now are not independent. They can’t be disconnected from past experiences and anticipation of future ones. Nor can they be easily compartmentalized in the here and now.
For disc golfers like me, who have a hard time staying in the moment, Sommer’s theory is reassuring. Our jumbles of ceaseless thoughts are normal and may not be harming our performances as much as we thought.
Being Present Can Lead to Strategic Mistakes
Practicing mindfulness may also make us less aware of what other players are doing, which could lead to tactical errors.
During my experiment with mindfulness, I found myself in a tight battle on the final hole of a PDGA-sanctioned league round. I thought I was trailing the leader by a stroke or two, but I really wasn’t sure of the scores.
“Don’t worry about the score,” I said to myself. “Just worry about the shot in front of you.”
I took a deep breath, exhaled slowly through my nose, cleared my mind, gazed calmly at the chains on a 40-foot putt downhill, and airmailed the shot into the woods beyond the basket.
As it turned out, I could have sealed the victory by laying up and taking a par. Instead, I went for the birdie, carded a bogey, and tied my arch nemesis.
If winning is the goal, disc golf requires strategic thinking. Knowing when to attack a hole and when to play conservatively demands awareness of your past performances on similar holes, and an ability to change your approach depending on what others on the same card are doing.
Practicing mindfulness may help you deal with the excitement, stress and anxiety of playing competitive disc golf. But intentionally staying in the moment can negate one of the most valuable decision-making tools we have—namely, an ability to consult the past and predict the future while performing in the present.
There’s a poignant saying in the mindfulness literature: “Don’t let the future steal your present.” To me, this mantra makes sense in a lot of situations. But, on the disc golf course, perhaps the saying should be, “Don’t let the present steal your victory.”
Josh Woods is a social psychologist at West Virginia University. He is working on a book, Disc Golf Land: Rise of an Unknown Sport.
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Parked is underwritten in part by a grant from the Professional Disc Golf Association.
Cover photo by Jesse Wright.