There are a few words in sports that have tremendous negative connotations – shank, choke, air-ball, fumble, and error. Of course, there are more, but the media and players throw these words around with such great frequency that it is amazing that players do not walk around scared to death of negative consequences. Or do they?
On Sunday, during the WGC Accenture Match Play Championship in Arizona, Hunter Mahan was in the semifinal match with Mark Wilson when the rare happened on the PGA Tour. On the 4th hole, Mahan hit a shot that terrifies and destroys golfers – a shank. With about 130 yards into an accessible pin and sand wedge in hand, Mahan literally hit the ball dead right, landing on the 6th tee box. Right off the hosel, the purest definition of a hosel rocket. It is the shot that every golfer fears, only this time it happened on live television. Even the announcers, Dan Hicks and Nick Faldo laughed. You simply do not see shots like that among the world’s best golfers.
Click the Link to Watch the Shot -
The error, the shank, the air ball, and the fumble are the unfortunate results of normal play. They happen. Given the absolute number of shots, ground balls, free throws, or carries that a player has in their career, the statistically rare occurrence will likely happen to the player at some point. It is a game of odds. Failing to pull through a victory, what some call a choke, happens too, but I hate that word and won’t mention it again (It is usually used by someone that has never played or lacks the appreciation for the difficulty of getting in that position). Back to the topic – when most players experience the embarrassing events discussed, it is a challenge of great mental fortitude to move through it.
In baseball, the pitchers used to sit in the dugout and try and find the player that was scared. The reason was that when the game was on the line, it was inevitable that the ball would be hit their way with the game on the line. The ball smelled fear and hunted it. It was amazing how frequently it happened. The bad thing was that we pitchers could see it too. That infielder moved tighter, seemed stressed, and failed to display the confidence you want in an infielder.
So, what Mahan did yesterday was amazing, not because of the shank he hit, but because how he handled it. Mahan’s immediate reaction to the shot was astonishment, even wrangling a little smile. I am sure that he was embarrassed and shocked, but you could not tell. He and his caddy simply walked to his ball and surveyed the next shot, hitting it to about 5 feet. Now, most players would fear the next iron shot, but Mahan walked to the next tee and hit a normal shot. It was over.
What was amazing, though, was that Mahan was not the only player to hit a shot of the terrible magnitude yesterday. Rory McIlroy, one of the top 3 players in the world, topped one out of a fairway bunker and nearly shanked a shot out of the rough. Both he and Mahan were destined for a loss on the day, right?
Wrong – Mahan and McIlroy both won their matches and played each other for the championship. Mahan ended up beating McIlroy for the title. It is important to understand and appreciate the mental fortitude it took for Mahan to “FLUSH” the negative shot and move forward. Strong, resilient, and focused.
When humiliating and negative events occur to most players, the immediate reaction is embarrassment. The athlete psyche is usually susceptible to the pressures and need for acceptance from colleagues, competitors, and the public. That is why the adrenaline rush of victory is so powerful. It is intoxicating knowing that you are standing up in front of everyone with their own desires wishing they were standing in your place. Does it only happen in sports? Absolutely not. Why do you think they have sales contests?
After the initial embarrassment sets in, it is common for players to start thinking about how they can prevent it from happening again. The focus is not the next play, the next shot, or the next opportunity, but undoing the last event. That is a dangerous scenario. Remember, the ball always finds fear and fear always finds failure. That fear is what usually leads to a series of negative events that follow, because the player has opened the door due to fear. It takes a strong mental approach to flush the negative event, acknowledge the fear, and focus on the next opportunity with fearless aggression.
The next time you hit a bad shot, make a mistake in public speaking, mess up a sales call, shoot an air ball, or spill coffee down your shirt, think like Hunter Mahan and laugh it off. Laughter is the greatest deterrent to entrenched embarrassment and is actually a great sign of humility. Accept the fact that you are going to make mistakes and some are going to be embarrassing, but that it is going to be fleeting. That is a fact of life and competition. The greatest failures in life are there for a reason – to challenge yourself to see if it is worth fighting for and learning how to rise up to the new opportunity.
“I have always felt that although someone may defeat me, and I strike out in a ball game, the pitcher on the particular day was the best player. But I know when I see him again, I’m going to be ready for his curve ball. Failure is part of success. There is no such thing as a bed of roses all your life. But failure will never stand in the way of success if you learn from it.” – Hank Aaron – the Greatest and Most Profilic Home Run Hitter in Major League Baseball
I love this quote from Hank Aaron. He is still the Home Run King. I cannot give the title to Barry Bonds, as Hank Aaron did it the right way. He was not afraid of failure, as he was also one of the most prolific hitters in regards to strikeouts, but he was so consistent in his performance. He handled failure, embarrassment, and defeat with a strong mental fortitude. Failure did not define him – it developed him. It made him work harder. Embarrassment did not break him – it hardened him. It made him strive more for the greatness that he knew he had in him. Every day, he understood that there was a chance he would be successful or he would taste defeat – the difference that he and players like Hunter Mahan embody is that they choose to focus on the desires and rewards of the greatness that they want and not the avoidance of the failures and embarrassments of performance.
You have a choice. In the next week, you will suffer a defeat, a struggle, or an embarrassing outcome. Are you going to allow it to define you, changing the way you view your work and performance, or are you going to allow it to develop you? That is your choice – Champions are developed. Others are defined. Develop your greatness today – You are great – Show it.