32. Golf and Empathy

Empathy is normally a good thing. In golf however it can be a drag to your results if you play competitive golf. 

The definition of empathy is: 

The ability to sense other people’s emotions. You can rephrase it to: The ability to put yourself in other people’s shoes. This can be a problem for your golf if the other person has an emotional problem on the golf course and you fully replicate the same feelings. You will then find yourself in a situation where you are emotionally distracted. Distraction is never good in golf. 

Empathy is to a large degree due to the mirror neurons in our brain. We sense the other person’s feelings, and we mirror so much that we even feel the same feelings as the other person. Imaging if your fellow golfer is very frustrated and you take on that feeling and that person’s burden. You will then be distracted, and your game will suffer. 

Normal people cannot help mirroring to some degree. Equally, normal people cannot help having some degree of empathy. The questions are how much you mirror, and which kind of empathy you select. 

The triad of empathy by Daniel Goleman (See the list of litterateur):

  1. Cognitive empathy.
    1. Simply knowing how the other person feels and what they might be thinking. Sometimes called Perspective-taking”
  2. Emotional empathy.
    1. When you feel physically along with the other person, as though their emotions were contagious.
  3. Compassionate empathy.
    1. With this kind of empathy, we not only understand a person’s predicament and feel with them, but are spontaneously moved to help, if needed.

This book is about Mental Strategies for Golfers, and the idea is that we want to have the best possible round of golf. With that in mind, let us see which one of the empathy triad that helps our golf results. 

Mirroring and empathy are very important social skills, and we use them all the time when we are together with other people. We show the other person that we care and that we listen. You may know a person who does not listen. Likewise, you may know a person who is a very good listener. How do you feel when somebody really listens to you? Or what are your feelings when a person doesn’t listen to you at all?

All in all, you cannot help being empathic, but you can choose how you want to be empathic on the golf course. 

  1. Cognitive empathy.
    1. This is when you understand emotions. It demands that you know the emotions. This can be true regarding yourself, and it can be true regarding other persons. I.e.  you know your own emotions and you understand your own emotions. This is the first step to sense, know and understand other people’s emotions. The good thing about understanding other people’s emotions rather than feeling other people’s emotions is that you can distance yourself from the emotions and you do not get the same emotions. This will also enable you to act on the emotions. You can select the method or strategy that is suited for the specific situation. This will make sure you play good golf even when fellow golfers have emotional outbursts. 
  2. Emotional empathy.
    1. Mirror neurons in my brain match up with yours when I listen to you. Consequently, I get the exact same feelings as you. I laugh together with you, I smile together with you and I get frustrated together with you etc. This happens extremely fast, and it can be difficult not to get the same feelings as the other person because our mirror neurons tune into the other person’s feelings and make sure we get the same feelings. The more you sense, listen, see, and feel the more you will duplicate the other persons feelings. This can be good and even very good in many settings, but it can be a problem when playing golf if you are distracted.
  3. Compassionate empathy.
    1. Compassionate empathy is when we manage our empathy to the exact right balance for the task in front of us. Not too little not too much. We intuitively experience the distress of another as our own. The sympathetic feeling can get too strong, and it will cause us to suffer. Imaging a nurse who takes on the distress of others to such a degree that she burns out. Likewise, imaging a manager who takes on the subordinate’s feelings to such a degree that it becomes a problem. Sometimes a lot of empathy is good and sometimes we need to protect ourselves and find the right balance. In some situations, we need to protect ourselves against too much empathy to be effective and in other situations we need full empathy. It is all up to the setting we are in. 

Golfing requires us to have full focus on the ball in front of us and we cannot allow ourselves to be distracted. Therefore, we must use the cognitive empathy in golf. We cannot let ourselves disappear into the feelings and get distracted. Equally, our decisions in golf must be based on facts and not feelings. See why in “Stick to the gameplan”.

32.1. Forget about empathy when you compete

Empathy is not always your friend when playing golf. That is the conclusion when we look and assess the works of Daniel Goleman in the above chapter “Golf and Empathy”. Neuro Linguistic Programming gives us a great technique for our performance on the golf course regarding empathy. Empathy is extremely important for human beings and for our social skills. In fact, our brain’s mirror neurons as described in the chapter “Golf and Empathy” can be with us or against us when golfing. Remember the awareness exercises 9 and 10 from Chapter 11. Decide where you want your awareness. Turn your awareness to your right little finger. Focus on your last joint on your right little finger. Try it. What happened?

Alternatively, turn your awareness to your breathing as we did in exercise 2 and focus 100% on your breathing. These are all different places you can focus and put your awareness. Now, Neuro Linguistic Programming, NLP has a great technique that you can use on the golf course. Here it comes. 

32.2. Perceptual Positions in NLP

We have 3 basic perceptual positions.

  • 1st position is when you stand in your own shoes and experience the situation through your own eyes.
    • 1st position is crucial when you play golf or when you want to stand up for yourself. It is a way to connect with your own senses. What you see, what you hear and what you feel. 1st position is all about your own experience and your own outcomes. You connect with your own truth rather than other people’s expectations, feelings, and senses. This is where you find your inner targets. The targets that fit with who you are. 
  • 2nd position is when you put yourself in the other person’s shoes and experience the situation through the other person’s eyes.
    • 2nd position empathy. It is where you connect with other people. You put yourself in the other person’s shoes. You get behind their behaviour and you feel, hear, and see the same as they do. You can do this because of you mirror neurons. Some people are very good at this, and they are very empathetic. 1st position will help you understand other people and it will help you communicate to other people. It will not help your golf game. 
  • 3rd position is when you take the role of the observer. You experience the situation as a neutral observer. This is where you from an outside position see yourself and the other person in the situation.
    • The fly on the wall position. 3rd position can come in very handy in some situations where you want to be emotionally detached. The person who observes the two other persons has no stake in the situation and cannot feel the other person’s anxiety but only see what happens on a distance. You will get a lot of information in 3rd position, but you will not be emotionally involved. Feelings like anxiety, fear and frustration will not be present. This is good in competitive and stressed situations. Imagine what you can do if you have no fear and no anxiety. 
    • People who can handle aggression from others in a controlled and unemotional way often use this technique. I personally used the techniques when I was involved in politics. Some people in politics get very aggressive and I used the techniques to get detached and stay calm and collected. 
    • Amygdala is the fear generating part of the brain which has the shape and size of an almond. Fear and anxiety come from amygdala and fear is a chemical reaction. It is a signal from amygdala to pay attention to a threat and it trickers the fight-or-flight response to help us survive. In a way it is your best friend because it makes sure you survive. The trouble is that it is counterproductive on the golf cause. The likelihood of surviving on the golf cause is close to 100% because golf causes normally are free of enemies and dangers such as tigers, bombs, or foreign soldiers. Most people already know this but at the same time many golfers are unable to tame the anxiety. NLP techniques as described in this book are used to tame anxiety and fear in many different settings. Golf, examine , PTSD and competitive sports are some of the places anti-anxiety techniques are used. A good book for veterans is “Mental Fitness for Warriors” which is written by Erik Schwensen and Henrik Wenøe. 

3rd position and Michael Schumacher.

Michael Schumacher the former Formular 1 race driver had the record of most wins (91) when he retired.  Today in year 2022 which is 10 years after he retired, he still holds the record of most fastest laps (77). 

Sue Knight writes in her book “NLP at work” that Schumacher had an amazing ability to be calm when driving the Formular 1 car. Ferrari’s Technical Director Ross Brawn describes Schumacher’s ability to stay calm, detached and collected like this:

Quote from Sue Knights and the Daily Telegraph 2001:

The staggering thing about Michael is that, when I talk to him on the radio, it’s like you and I having this conversation; you’d think he wasn’t doing anything. And the reason he’s so good is that he has spare brain capacity. He can function as an F1 driver and on top of that he can think about the race that is going on around him. 

32.3. The great shift

The shift between position 1, 2 and 3 is essential. Shifting between being self-centred in position 1, being empathetic in position 2 or being objective in position 3 will make us much better aware of what happens to ourselves when in the situation. 

It makes good sense to be empathetic in a conversation on the golf course but the moment someone becomes frustrated you cannot take on that person’s feelings. That will hurt your game. This is where you must abandon position 2 and shift to position 1. 

In position 1 which is also the GDS, you see the situation from you own point and you should be able to avoid the frustration of the other person. If that does not work, you can shift to the position of the neutral observer. Now you see the situation from a distance. You see the other person’s frustration, you see yourself and see everything that is happening in the situation. BUT you do not feel the frustration or any other feelings that the other person has. 

The shift comes in handy when you want to be free of your fellow golfer’s emotions because the neutral fly on the wall does not feel anything when observing. This is exactly the opposite of taking the other persons position and putting yourself in the other person´s shoes. When doing that, you also take on the other person’s feelings and that does not work if the other person is frustrated, and you want to get a good golfing result. 

If you want to play well, you need to play without distractions and you need to be emotionally balanced. The shift is a great help.