“A skilful approach to a recent, or distant, failure is to be in the here and now, moving lightly, flexibly toward a clear goal.”

Dr Roger Graham

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I recall once seeing a poster at a golf driving range advising players on optimal grip.

“Hold the club as if it is a tube of toothpaste, but do not dent it”

As a teenager this struck me as good advice for swinging a club with the right amount of control versus flexion.

Twenty-five years later it strikes me as good advice for life.

The driving range is an interesting place to watch human psychology reveal itself in behaviour and ball trajectory. An off-target shot occurs – a slice, a hook, or worse. Perhaps it is followed by a quizzical head scratch? Maybe a sigh or two can be heard. Another bad shot. A tut, shoulders slump. Another shot goes astray – a few expletives are muttered. Head shaking and lip biting follow. Perhaps there is facial flushing and some glances around to see who might be watching this performance? The tantrum clouds gather. A storm brews in the mind of the player that is increasingly evident in both body and behaviour. The hips and shoulders are now tightened. The swing becomes more rapid and increasingly effortful. As physics remains in charge here, not the golfer, the shots go further awry. And so, a painful cycle is set in motion.

Transcribed, this internal mental commentary might read…

“Nothing is going right!”

“What’s the point!?”

“This is too difficult!”

“These useless clubs!”

“This shouldn’t be happening!”

“Must try harder!”

“It shouldn’t be like this.”

“I never have any good luck.”

“It’s not my day.”

“This always happens.”

“Nothing ever goes right.”

“I don’t care, I’m off.”

Sooner or later, with the toothpaste tube now well and truly mangled, the player drops the clubs and walks away.“I give up, what’s the point?!”

In golf, and in life, we want the ball to land where we want it to land. When it doesn’t take flight as we hoped, then we like to have an urgent fix. We also like to have a ‘point-to blame object. We prefer to apply more pressure, more force. That’ll do it! And yet, this same overcompensation drives us toward increasingly effortful, forceful means of correction that generate new problems.

‘Squeezing the tube – it’s the harsh word to a colleague or family member. It’s a rash, reactive decision. It’s the sulking behind a closed office door (squeezing guilt from co-workers). It’s the disengaged passivity and disinterest (squeezing attention and concern from those around us). As with golf, this cascade of emotion and behaviour almost always complicates matters.

Elite golfers hit some bad shots. What makes them more or less elite however is how they respond and recover. Where the golfer makes a choice to treat each new shot as a new shot, to follow a plan for their game, to leave their recent past in the recent past, then their swing will remain optimal. A skilful approach to a recent, or distant, failure is to be in the here and now, moving lightly, flexibly toward a clear goal.

I work as a Clinical Psychologist. Broadly speaking, my job involves hosting conversations designed to help people to help themselves. In my experience people who make skilful, positive changes in their lives are willing to take aim at a better life, and commit to doing specific things differently. Then, despite setbacks and turbulence – they keep going. They proceed lightly and flexibly in response to various difficulties and barriers.

People can achieve very substantial personal change when they follow a detailed yet flexible plan.

What often stands in the way of progress are troublesome ideas about how things should be, ought to be, what emotions should or shouldn’t be happening, how others should behave, the unfairness of things, or how intolerable failure might be. Moreover, we humans are good at assuming a utopian view of how things are for others. We often imagine other people are having it easy, blessed with good luck, or encountering no resistance at all. “Grass is greener on the other side.”

Collectively, ideas like these create a sense of victimhood. This is an intoxicating way of viewing the world. On the one hand energising, it casts us briefly in a heroic role – “poor, powerless me against the world”. On the other hand, this same style of thinking places us squarely at odds with other people when collaboration or cohesion would serve everyone better. As with golf – a light, flexible grip allied with a clear view of the target is best. Squeezing the tube by fighting, huffing, sulking, by avoiding, by pressurising or rejecting others and fixating on what we dislike is recipe for more bad shots. The victimhood (“everyone and everything is against me”) mode of thinking is a trap for many of us at some point in our lives. It is a defensive psychological cul-de-sac that breeds feelings of powerlessness (“sure what can I do about it anyway?”), inertia, and leaves us very little room to grow or collaborate.

Soon enough we will have nobody to play golf with.

All of us experience emotional reactions to life’s challenges. All of us can sense the tantrum clouds gathering at times. However, how we respond behaviourally will determine how our next shot plays out. It is worth asking ourselves if we are unduly tensing and tightening, fighting, complaining, disliking, or sulking when life presents us with disappointments. Here are some questions that might prompt reflection on how you bring flexibility and control to bear on your life – at home, at work, anywhere.

— Consider any times in your life when your reaction to a difficult event was unhelpful? What were the consequences for you and others?

— Can you recall spending time with people who adhere to a victimhood mentality – i.e. ‘you, the world and everything are against me’? What was that like? What challenges does that bring to the development of adequate cohesion and collaboration?

— Consider the reactions of people you admire and would wish to emulate. How have they responded to problems, failures and challenges?

— Think of times in your life when you have, like the elite golfer, re-established composure and responded skilfully and flexibly to a challenge or a disappointment of some kind. How did you respond?

— What steps can you take to promote and sustain psychological flexibility and healthy responses to problems in your own life? What seems to help you?

We are all human, and each unique. When things go wrong some of us fight, some of us sulk. Some us freeze and withdraw. Our personalities and instincts will shape which unhelpful strategy we reach for first. Skilful responses, however, are usually a shade slower and less conditioned. They are, for want of a better term – more ‘grown up’. They come from somewhere a little wiser within all of us. Under pressure, in the shadow of a disappointment, under scrutiny, or when challenged, it will serve us all well to breathe, loosen the grip, soften the body, review the target, and only then – act.


Dr. Rodger Graham

Rodger is a Consultant Clinical Psychologist with a specialist interest in mental health and diabetes. He trained at Queen’s University Belfast (1994-2003), completing a BSc, PhD and Doctorate in Clinical Psychology. Through the Centre for Mindfulness Research and Practice at the University of Bangor, Wales Rodger has trained as a teacher and delivers mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) programmes for people living with depression, anxiety, stress, or diabetes-related difficulties. Rodger provides training for healthcare, business and pharmaceutical clients on encouraging behaviour change through empathic communication and motivational interviewing. Rodger is a Chartered Sport & Exercise Psychologist (British Psychological Society) and has worked with a number of elite athletes on performance issues. In his spare time he enjoys playing, and more recently building, acoustic guitars.