In 2010, I wrote a book called “You are a Contender!” that highlighted a key characteristic of high performers called high achievement drive. Achievement drive is essentially your ability to set your own personal standard of excellence and not be constrained by the expectations of others.
Athletes with a high achievement drive set their own standard, and this is how they can separate themselves from the pack. They have little concern for how others are doing, and a singular focus on their own abilities. Obvious examples are Tiger Woods winning the 1997 Masters by 12 shots, The Open Championship in 2000 by 8 shots and the 2000 U.S. Open by 15 shots. Recent examples are the runaway major championship victories by Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth.
But can this pursuit of achievement be taken too far? Can achievement drive actually damage your game after a certain point?
Golf’s law of diminishing returns
Having experience consulting to world-class athletes, I often see achievement drive taken too far and misdirected. Some athletes believe that making big changes will always create big results. Change is healthy and change is good, but I can tell you it can be overdone. It can sometimes lead to an obsessive search for perfection that can inevitably lead to performance decline and frustration.
You are likely familiar with the economic principle of the law of diminishing returns. It basically states that the tendency for a continuing application of effort or skill toward a particular project or goal will decline in effectiveness after a certain level of result has been achieved. Very simply, if you reach a certain level in something, there comes a point where the quest to perfect it no longer creates important returns for the time invested.
The law of diminishing returns applies in everything, including golf. At some point, as we are currently seeing with Tiger Woods, the investment in trying to constantly improve swing technique and ball-striking does not generate better results.
You know and I know that it isn’t reasonable to expect to hit perfect golf shots. After all, we are surrounded by imperfection, and it is a fact that nothing in golf or life is perfect. The human body isn’t perfect, and neither are golf equipment or golf courses. So to expect to reach a level of perfection in striking a golf ball is an unreasonable goal.
I think you would agree if you saw Tiger Woods in 2000 that a golf ball has rarely been struck with the precision and power that he demonstrated at that time. And through 2005, Tiger won most of the events he entered. He owned the game.
Is it reasonable to think that a ball could be struck, or the game could be played, that much better than Tiger did it in 2000?
The greatest hitter of a golf ball may have been Ben Hogan, who worked and worked to perfect a swing that would not hook the ball. Hogan did this through necessity; a lack of control in his early days as a young pro led to disappointing results. But even Hogan admitted that he only hit 5 to 6 shots in every round round that were exactly what he wanted. The rest were expected misses.
Less science, more art
Golf is a subtle mix of art and science. In the pro ranks, we see extremes of both. At one end of the spectrum there are “technical” players who focus mostly on their mechanics. At the other end of the spectrum there are “feel” players who play primarily by instinct. In the period of time from 2000-2005, Tiger Woods may have been the perfect blend of art and science. His fundamentally sound, fluid golf swing created great speed and precision, and his mechanics were blended with an instinctive genius and courage to create and invent shots around the greens that others might not have attempted. And, to top it all off, Tiger was also arguably the Tour’s best putter!
Some golfers forget, however, that once the basic, fundamental science has been achieved, the development of the art becomes the key. Creativity, feel, imagination, decision-making, life balance and other little details continually help a golfer develop into something better and more consistent. Jack Nicklaus seemed to understand this. Like Woods, he also had prodigious talent, but he knew his limitations. He continued to refined his game, had great life balance and became the most consistent golfer in history.
A golf ball can only be struck so well. When science becomes the obsessive focus, the art part of the equation suffers. In continually trying to be more technical and more perfect with the swing motion, the genius within players can be diluted and other areas of the game, that have been reliable strengths can suffer.
Achievement drive is important, but proceed with caution
Achievement drive is important in golf and everything else in life, as is the ability to set a personal standard of excellence. Pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone to take on new challenges is key, but you must also remember the law of diminishing returns. Because perfection is not attainable or possible, at some point in your development the pursuit of art should be more of a priority over the unattainable, seductive goal of perfect science.
While swing coaches, short game experts and putting gurus are all important to develop your capabilities and are key to building your skills, don’t forget to pay attention to instinct, the object of the game, simplicity and other less scientific factors as important factors to continue your development as a player. Exercise caution when you think about changing what already works.