Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Tiger's Monstrous Mental Focus

As I’ve been trying to write this column, I’ve toggled over to check my e-mail a few times. I’ve looked out the window. I’ve jotted down random thoughts for the paragraphs ahead. But Woods seems able to mute the chatter that normal people have in their heads and build a tunnel of focused attention.
--David Brooks

This entry was written yesterday and posted today.

When I was a kid, I used to fantasize that I was so good at basketball or bowling that no one could ever beat me. But I knew even then that not only would I never be that good at any sport but also that no one else would be either.

I guess I was right about that. No one, at least at the highest level of any major individual sport, never loses. I take that back. I guess some boxers have gone undefeated in their professional careers, and the same may be true of athletes in certain other individual sports as well. But in individual professional sports such as tennis, golf, or bowling where one typically competes in a tournament against a large field of the best of the best, no one, so far as I know, always wins or is even in contention for the championship right down to the end of the tournament.

Yet, Tiger Woods comes awfully darn close. He won the U.S. Open today with a dramatic long putt for par on the first hole of a sudden death playoff following an eighteen hole one-on-one playoff match tie with Rocco Mediate after making a must-have long birdie putt on the final hole of regulation play yesterday to force the playoff today.

What was amazing about Tiger's championship today is that he had just come off knee surgery and a two-month layoff from the game to compete in one of the most prestigious and demanding golf tournaments in the world against the best of the best, and it was evident from the outset that his knee was hurting terribly at times after hard swings. But he was somehow able to shake off the rust and the pain to bury most of his competition, including the redoubtable Phil Mickelson, with spectacular shots, including three eagles, when he desperately needed them.

And what's so amazing about Tiger's play in in general is that he, unlike any other top golfer I've ever seen, is almost always a serious threat, right down to the final few holes, to win every tournament in which he competes, and, on those rare occasions when he doesn't win the championship, he seldom finishes below third or fourth place. That kind of consistency in top-tier professional golf tournaments under the enormous pressure of overwhelming media coverage and stratospheric public expectations is beyond remarkable. As Rocco Mediate said, "He's a monster."

What makes Tiger so monstrously good? I suspect that it's a unique combination of training and supreme physical and psychological talent. But one element in this combination that is undoubtedly paramount is revealed by an absolutely wonderful Nike commercial that ran repeatedly during the U.S. Open. This commercial gives me goosebumps and coaxes tears to my eyes. It is one of the best commercials I've ever seen, and it's also one of the most inspiring. In it, there is home video of Tiger playing golf with his late father Earl, with Earl doing a voiceover explaining that he would do everything he could to break Tiger's concentration out on the course including dropping his golf bag in the middle of Tiger's swing. But Tiger would simply stop mid-swing, grit his teeth, and then crush a perfect drive and look back at his father with a triumphant expression that said, "Take that!" Earl Woods concludes by saying that he told Tiger: "I promise you that you'll never meet another person as mentally tough as you in your entire life. And he hasn't. And he never will."

Mental toughness. Focus. Mindful purposiveness. How many of us have this to a degree that even comes within light years of Tiger's? What would happen, how much would our lives change if we did have it? How different would my life be if I did?

I wonder if there's any to find out.

Nike's awe-inspiring commercial featuring Tiger and his dad.


baba rum Raisin said...

What is "golf". I've never heard of it. Is it important?

Nagarjuna said...


Golf may not be all that important, but the capacity to apply Tiger Woods' mental toughness to other endeavors may well be.

baba rum Raisin said...

Such as?

Perhaps he will cure cancer or write a great novel while he is rehabbing his knee.

In any event, I do enjoy visiting this site, as I like to see what the world looks like "upside down."

Nagarjuna said...

Could, perhaps, someone use Tiger's "mental toughness" to cure cancer or write that great novel?

baba rum Raisin said...

No more than they could use the mental toughness of Dennis Rodman or the Chinese acrobats. What Tiger Woods does is trivial -- a stupid human trick. He just gets paid a lot, that's all. Never confuse fame with significance. He's probably never had an original thought, which would be a kind of hell for the living.

Nagarjuna said...


You make a good point. Many people have, through talent or effort or a combination thereof, accomplished "trivial" things using mental toughness. A Chinese acrobat doing her "stupid human tricks" may be just as mentally tough as Tiger, but so what if she is? What is she or Tiger doing that is of real "significance"?

But, again, my point or question was that if there are things of real significance that we can accomplish, can cultivating mental toughness--i.e., the capacity to set goals and skillfully pursue them with unflagging determination and concentration--aid us in this endeavor?

As for Tiger being in "a hell for the living" if he's never had an "original thought," I wonder if he's in any more of a hell than you or me? Or is he, perhaps, in less of one?