The Voice Of Fear


I heard you failed.

Yea isn't it great!


I learned so much.

It amazes me how often we fear failure over anything else. You would think that we are in a life and death struggle and if we fail we die. I have seen sports enthusiasts mourn a loss like a death. Actors or entertainers slump into total depression when not picked at an audition. We see failure as a confirmation of our flawed humanity. Failure causes us to be discarded and confirms that we must be discardable.


Failure is simply an outcome and fear only values outcome. Successful people use failure to grow and learn from their mistakes. Perfectionists are just people who fear failure. They aren't people trying to be "one" with what they are doing in some pursuit of perfection.


Legendary Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne said “winning isn't everything; it's the only thing.”


That's how a person terrified of failure thinks. It is illogical to think we could learn or accomplish anything without failure. A hitter in baseball who fails 70 percent of the time is consider great and makes millions. You get a second serve in tennis because you are going to miss your first serve 30 percent of the time at best. So how do we achieve and grow if we fear failure?


I have been teaching golf for 30 years and it is rare that a student will allow enough failure in order to get better. I explain that since I am teaching them something they don't  know, how are they going to learn if they keep doing what they already do know? You know the old saying, “no pain no gain.” It is the same for failure; “no failure no progress.”


I applied this philosophy to my golf game in 1974. I finished my first college golf season and was pretty disillusioned with the game. I learned to get it done and compete, but the game brought me no joy. Worse was that after all the practice and lessons I received I had not arrived at owning the game.


At the time, saying you wanted to own the game would have made other golfers laugh. Golf was not a game you ever owned. You have good days and bad days. I thought this  to be false because it is not true for any other sport. Who gets good at any other sports and lives in fear of "losing it”?


I ski in the winter and play tennis in the summer. I don't touch a tennis racket from November to April. When I pick it up in May my game is as solid as I left it. I don't ski from May to December, but when I get back on the slopes my ability is unchanged. But when it came to golf no one even thought it was possible let alone tried to achieve it.


Golfers are so mental. You don't want to say the work 'shank' around any golfer or they will throw stones at you for fear that the shanks will appear in their game. Golf was presented to me as the one game you always work on and never completely get. At the end of that first golf season I was done. I was either going to find what I was looking for from the game or I was going to quit.


I was at the University of New Mexico and I told my coach that I wasn't going to play on the team anymore and gave back my scholarship money much to my father's dismay. I set out to find the truth of the golf swing and the game of golf. I was going to treat my journey like I was the first golfer ever and had a completely blank slate.


I went to several of my professors and asked for their help. I wanted my physics professor to explain to me what was really happening in physics terms. I had a history professor who was a martial artist explain how the body creates speed and power. I talked to my psychology professor about why golf creates so much anxiety. And in talking to my philosophy professor about my project he suggest I get in touch with another philosophy professor who was on sabbatical in Santa Fe. This professor was a qigong (pronounced chee-gong) master. Qigong is the art of chi (energy) manipulation.


He would be able to teach me about the flow of energy through our bodies. It was also around this time that Tim Gallwey came out with the idea for Inner Tennis. This was the first book on the inner game or the "zen" approach. Inner Tennis was a breakthrough book for me. Even though it was about tennis, the principles also applied to golf. From that point on I called my approach “zen golf.”


I was finally on the path to oneness with the game of golf. I spent many hours on the range changing my mechanics so they would fit the way that nature designed me. Over that period, players from the team sometimes stopped by to tell me I was crazy. When I first changed my mechanics I couldn't even hit a ball. They got a big laugh out of that. I didn't care a bit. What they saw as failure I saw as finally being on the correct path. Once I had aligned my mechanics I was ready to learn about flow.


I contacted the professor on sabbatical in Santa Fe and told him of my quest. He invited me up for my spring break. I hopped on a bus and had one of the most amazing weeks of my life. I knew nothing about qigong before I arrived other than that it was a martial art. This man was amazing. We were sitting outside on his porch talking about flow and chi and he asked me to stand. I tried to stand but I couldn't. He smiled and told me to try real hard. The harder I tried the less strength I seemed to have. He then told me to stop before I got too freaked out and said he was manipulating my chi.


He explained that chi was the energy that ran through the body and the key to strength and power was to be able to channel your chi. We stood up facing each other and he had me put my hand on his shoulder. He told me to stiffen my arm and brace against him. I did what he said but he was still able to pull my arm down. He then told me to relax my arm and close my eyes. No matter how hard he pulled he did not want me to tense my arm. He just wanted me to hold it with light firmness and picture my arm being 100 miles long with energy running through it. The harder he pulled the more I had to fight the desire to tense up, but I did what he said.


It was like my arm was made of stone. He couldn't bend it. He said that I was sending my chi through my arm, which is the secret to strength and power. He said when we tense our muscles they fight each other and chi is disrupted. We spent the next week relating that to the golf swing. The last night of my stay we got in his Jeep and rode up the back road of the Santa Fe ski resort. There was still snow on the ground but the utility road was clear up to about 10,000 feet. He had this little spot that he used for meditation. It was about the size of a tee box. Off the back of the mountain it was a straight 2,000 foot drop.


He pulled out a box of biodegradable golf balls; the type you hit off of a cruise ship. We set up a little driving range and he guided me through my swing. By this point I had already made the mechanical changes to my swing, but this was my graduation into making them flow together.


The setting was amazing –  we were hitting golf balls off a 10,000-foot-high mountain. He taught me the art of storing and releasing energy. He had me so one with the ball that a couple of times I lost my balance, the way you might if you looked straight up at a skyscraper. Once I was so connected to the ball as I watched it fall 2,000 feet that I got the sensation like when you are falling in a dream. 


I made my swing the same way as my arm had been with the exercise earlier on his porch. I stayed relaxed and made everything flow together. I finally had my answer to the game of golf and have owned it ever since. It was my willingness to start over and see failure as a course change and not a destination. If you want all the details of what I learned, go to


Failure is nothing more then experimentation. It is the only way you can achieve mastery in anything and it should never be feared.

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