Golf is a series of mental breakdowns.


20 years ago I phoned Tim Gallwey, author of the Inner Game books, to see if he could work with me on a client. “Sorry Brian, I’m finishing my next book (The Inner Game of Work) but you could try Pete Shoemaker”. Pete and his brother Fred ran a programme called Extraordinary Golf in Carmel, California. I called and explained that I wanted to use the mental side of the game to get the management team at one of my clients to look at their business differently. “Sure Brian” said Fred “golf is a series of mental breakdowns”. What?

Fred explained: you have expectations for every shot you play, and very often the results don’t match. When that happens you have a choice: get annoyed/blame your clubs/your luck/your partner … and hang on to your hopes for the next shot – or allow your mental ‘set’ to break down, accept reality and allow for some learning.

In the Cold War of the 1950s when the USSR’s nukes were to be delivered by bombers, the defence of the USA was in the hands of fighter pilots guided by radar operators on the ground. The intensive training they were given hit a snag – in simulated exercises they weren’t downing more than 50% of the bombers. Not a bad result in a WW2 setting but not great in a nuclear world.

The USAF called in the famous RAND think tank. They pulled the trainers and any other form of authority out of the war-room and left the operators to be confronted by the results of their actions.

To begin with they indulged in behaviour later labelled Blame-shedding (‘It’s not our fault, we did our bit’). When it became clear that this was getting them nowhere, Blame-grabbing emerged (‘If it will move things forward, we’ll take the blame’). When 50% remained the best that they could do, they began to hunt for a Magic Solution (‘We’re missing something, there must be a trick to this).

Even after rejecting the first two behaviours, the pressures for the ‘quick fix’ of the third are hard to resist, particularly as they often come from the top. One has only to look at the number of ‘initiatives’ launched by politicians to realise this. Only with effort do those trying to solve the problem arrive at a fourth way: Dealing with reality (‘Those are the facts, now let’s all just do the best we can.’)

More than anything else, getting to the fourth pattern of behaviour requires dropping defensive barriers and collaborating in an open and flexible response to reality, Fred Shoemaker’s ‘mental breakdown’ if you like. That done, the 50% barrier melted and fighter pilots and radar operators found their way to levels of performance that had been thought impossible.

Fast forward 20 years and we’re watching four doctors who are running a podiatry (foot) clinic. They have taken themselves off for a couple of days to tackle the problem of their ever-lengthening waiting lists. The walls of their hotel room are covered in flip charts: SWOT and PEST and BCG and, and … nothing looks remotely like solving their problem. Head in hands, one of them begins to cry. This is serious stuff, it’s his life, it’s his patients’ lives. They’ve been at this for two days. One way or another they all break down.


Out of their despair they come together ‘Why don’t we …’; ‘If we changed … ‘; ‘I’m sure they’d …’. And they begin to see the reality behind the endless waiting lists: they were part of a community that needed their help to take better care of its feet. So began outreach clinics; school visits; secondments from the staff of local gyms. And the waiting lists came down.

Anyone reading this who doesn’t need a mental breakdown from time to time?

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