I wanted in this post to touch on an overreaching concept relevant to all professional athletics, but especially golf. “Trying not to try” is a difficult thing to comprehend, but even harder to internalize and explain (mainly because the answer is slightly different for everybody.) I have had my own battles with this tug-of-war between working hard and letting go. I’ve had people try to help me to no end, and listened to too many people tell me “this is how you do it.” Well, no, that’s not how it works. Trust me anyone who tells you they have the answer to a question so profound and complicated as this one, is just trying to get in your wallet, and you should run in the other direction as fast as you can. The answer lies beyond words (written or spoken) and beyond explanation. Although that is not to say that there cannot be great starting points for discovering what this balance is for you, the answer isn’t an explanation but rather something you feel. What I want to do is talk about how I recently got a great insight into the balance between working hard and playing free by accident. I picked up a book simply because I liked the narrator, and the title was catchy. The second I got recommended by one of my coaches Greg Cartin, and they both turned out to be about some of the best athletes of the past 30 years, from two completely different points of view… as fate would have it, one on working hard and the other on letting go…
The first of the books I picked up was by Tim S Grover and titled “Relentless – From Good to Great to Unstoppable” (no secret what got me over the line to make the purchase.) What I found in this book, was a memoir on high performance from Michael Jordan’s trainer of 15 years. Those years included Michael’s most dominant years, his stint in baseball and the Bulls’ two three-peat’s. That got my attention, but then when he continued to talk about his working with Kobe Bryant and Dwayne Wade and how he worked with them to make them Unstoppable, I was hooked (I’m no basketball expert but I can certainly appreciate excellence.)
This book, for starters, was appropriately titled (although a better title may have been “Hold on, this S**t is intense”.) The insights into what it takes to be the best of the very best, and the work behind the scenes, was like a drug to me and I couldn’t put it down. Grover talks about the levels of commitment and intention required to dominate a sport the way Michael, Kobe and Dwayne (among others) did. He spoke about this in a way that is both believable and unrealistic at the same time. A sort of “there’s no way that’s what they actually did, but who the hell am I to disagree” kind of way.
Grover coins three terms in his book, one of which we are already familiar with, these three terms are; “The Cooler,” “The Cleaner” and “The Closer.” I bet you thought those were in order (I sure did) … we are innately drawn to the idea that The Closer is the guy we all should aspire to be. After all, the Closer is one who takes the winning shot, makes the play and gets it done when we need them most. But Grover disagrees, and now so do I. The Cleaner (named for the guy who everyone calls to come in and clean everything up, a nod to Pulp Fiction no doubt) is Grover’s ideal athlete, the one who is always doing what needs to be done regardless of what other people say or do. He focuses on himself, he does his thing and leaves the rest to scratch their head at the results he achieves. (Some of Grover’s examples of cleaners include; Michael, Kobe, Dwayne Wade, Derek Jeter, Michael Phelps, Tiger, Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, among others.)
The reason why The Cleaner sits above The Closer is that; sure the Closer is clutch, he can take the winning shot, or turn it on when he needs to. But the Cleaner is ALWAYS on, he doesn’t turn it off, he is just relentless in the pursuit of his craft, always. (Mind, blown.)
About halfway through, I found myself unbelievable inspired by this book, I wanted to go out and sit on the range until my hands were bleeding, (because apparently that’s what it took) but it wasn’t until I finished the book I understood what Grover was trying to get across… That these personas he was referencing weren’t necessarily about the physical actions they took (although that is an important part), they were attitudes. Coolers, were good at what they did and they had their moments in the spotlight. Closers, showed up when it was in their own best interest to do so and enjoyed the glory and the spotlight. Cleaners, stayed in the shadows, they preferred to be alone and taking care of what they needed to do, relentlessly. If we look, we can see these three types all around us (by the way, if you have to ask the question, “am I a Cleaner?” then you’re not a Cleaner, not yet anyway.)
Grover describes an easy way to pinpoint these three types of athletes… at an after-party; The Cleaner is enjoying himself, but knows it wasn’t really him who got it all done, although he contributed and did well, deep down he knows that this party isn’t for him, and he’s just lucky to be included. The Closer is the center of attention, basking in the glory in an alcohol-soaked championship tee-shirt and surrounded by people who think he’s all that matters in the world, to which he agrees, of course. The Cleaner, by contrast, is in the corner wearing his alcohol-soaked championship tee, but behind the look of content on his face there is a deep-seeded desire to get back to work, sure they won the championship in 6 games, he wants to win in 5. Never satisfied, his attitude can be summed up in two profound words; “Done… next.”
On a personal note; a lot of people ask me why I was able to play so well in China in 2014/2015 but I struggled on the web.com on 2015/2016. Before, I really had no concrete idea, but this book helped me see that when I was in China I was acting like a Cleaner; focused on me, I was social but I didn’t feel like I needed to be accepted, I was not second guessing what I was doing and not letting anything get to me. In contrast, when I showed up to the web.com I felt like I wasn’t at that same level and felt I needed to be social in order to fit in (Grover would ask, isn’t the whole point to stand out!?) and I fell into a Cooler persona, just a decent player out there not really focused on anything except what was going on around me. That was a mistake and I realize it now, and next time I won’t be so blind. But anyway, I digress…
Grover sure paints an intriguing and intense picture. He talks about players needing to work at levels that almost everyone else will see as excessive, but he also mentions the importance of “The Zone.” He doesn’t get into the thick of this concept aside from nodding to it’s invaluable and irreplaceable nature when it comes to the athletes’ performance. It wasn’t until I read the second book, by chance, that I learned how these same guys (MJ and Kobe) actually worked on getting into that zone…
“The Mindful Athlete” by George Mumford, was as eye-opening as “Relentless” but in a completely different way… Mumford grew up in the projects of Dorchester, Boston, as one of thirteen children in what is painted as a typical and tough African-american upbringing in the fifties and sixties, where as he puts it; “impulse control” was, “something of a problem.” He talks about his early desire to play basketball in the NBA along with his other challenges, such as his slide into substance abuse. He talks openly about having to “hit rock bottom with his ass on fire” before he was taken down a path of spiritual growth which included the AA program, exploring “God as he understood the concept” and the journey that ultimately led him to quit his job and eventually become a spiritual teacher at the Omega institute in Massachusetts.
Mumford had been college teammates and roommates with Julius Irving aka Dr J, so he knew the game well when after working with people from all walks of life “from Yale to jail” as he put it, he was called in by Phil Jackson to come and help teach mindfulness to the Chicago Bulls.
Mumford worked with the Bulls during their second “Three-Peat” after Michael returned to the team after his brief stint in baseball. He taught them all mindfulness the same way he had to inmates and students alike. He taught them awareness of breath, how to sit quietly and notice their thoughts without attaching and latching onto them. This is what Michael referred to as that “Zen Buddhist Stuff” and Michael spoke repeatedly about how this quietness and awareness of breath helped him to get into the zone.
In the foreword, Phil Jackson touches on an important point, he says “Most athletes think the key to getting better is to simply work harder, but there is a great power in non-action and non-thinking.” This was profound to read after reading Grover’s book. It could be easy to take these as opposing views, but instead I decided to see them as two sides of the same coin. The confirmation of this idea came with Mumford’s nod to the necessity of hard work with players who want to perform at the highest level. He talks about them having to get up early and do the repetitions and having to “do things and take action that others won’t” in order to perfect your technique, but then learning to let go and just flow during the game. This is how he sees that you become truly unstoppable.
This is the balance I spoke about in my “Introduction” post, the concept of “trying not to try.” The best way to get the results you want is to not think about the results and just be in flow. But without proper work, dedication and right effort you can’t hope to develop your skills to a point where your flow can perform the way you need to to win. This is such a hard balance for athletes to strike, and it’s why the true best stay the best for a long time, because they have this difficult balance figured out and internalized.
I would be willing to stake everything on the fact that when an athlete drops off his or her game it is a result of either; neglecting quality or quantity (or both) of their training, or they have lost the feel for getting themselves into flow, in practice and in competition. That (or a combination of the two) are at the heart of all problems manifesting themselves inside athletes. The best of the best are petrified of letting these manifestations come to fruition, and I’d bet it’s one of the strongest motivators for getting themselves up and at it every day. The flip side of this concept is true also, when an athlete is performing well, you can bet that they have their training and practice in a good place and they are accessing that flow really well.
What this boils down to is a road map for pure performance… for an athlete to advance their career and succeed at the highest level they must; stay committed to and always look to improve their training schedule, and they must actively pursue finding their flow state when they compete. But the true nature of this is that there is no set way to achieve this, the Athlete must figure out what this concept means to them and internalize it. This flow cannot be accessed by any technique, it cannot be cultivated or created, and there is no one who can tell you how to achieve it (Mumford points out repeatedly that if you’re trying to get into flow you won’t get into flow.) All anyone can do is help you to see what is already inside of you, the way the Buddhist teaching describes this is in my option the best (whilst paraphrasing); a teaching is simply a finger pointing at the moon and saying “there it is,” the teaching is no longer true when it claims to be the moon itself. (there are A LOT of teachers in professional athletics that could do with heeding this advice)
This is an important point when it comes to learning from other people, especially when you will be using the information actively. You cannot simply read and repeat, taking the actions directly from others will not help you in the slightest. You must read, understand and then internalize the lessons wrapped in the teachings then figure out how that applies to you in your own individual way.
This is why I feel free to share my own interpretation, because it will serve no purpose for someone to simply take my own thoughts and apply it to their own lives and actions. All the reading I have done of these books has boiled down to one concept for me; “Work hard… then flow, and stay mindful throughout.” But that doesn’t make it right, in fact it makes it most likely wrong to everyone else, but that’s the point, it’s mine. If you got 10 Athletes to read these two books and explain what it meant to them, sure there may be a few that had similar interpretations, but exactly none of them would be the same. That’s the beautiful thing about self-exploration.
It is important to note that in the beginning of this post I wrote that no one has the answer, and I stand by that. People can have amazing insights into life and its inner workings, but you will never find what it means to you without some self-exploration and internalization. Although having said that, if there was a place to start this journey… learning about concepts, from people who have achieved the absolute most possible within a field you also want to excel in, is a great start… So, do yourself a favor, if you want to excel at what you do, read these books. Then see what stirs within you…