The US Open golf tournament is always one to produce incredible drama, and this year was no different. But, this time around, the extreme difficulty of the course, or golfers’ collapses weren’t the story, but rather, the utterly bizarre way in which the USGA enforced the rules of the game on one of the leaders of the tournament on Sunday. On the fifth hole, Dustin Johnson, on his way to addressing the ball, noticed that it had moved. The rules official with that group determined that he had not caused it to move since he had not addressed the ball, and so would not be assessed a one-stroke penalty. Then, on the 12th hole, Dustin was informed that the USGA was reviewing tape of the incident and would decide at the end of the round whether he would be assessed that penalty or not. This decision led to a situation which is not only unique in USGA history, maybe in the entire history of the sport, and perhaps in the history of sport psychology: the players would have to play without actually knowing the score. Knowing the score, in any sport, is paramount because it is, after all, the way by which we measure who wins and who loses. But, it is also vital because it dictates to a large degree the strategic decisions made by the players as they try to win. In essence, the USGA said to the players, “you go ahead and play with blindfolds, and we’ll remove the blindfolds when the golf is all over.” While it’s hard to imagine a more bizarre, and indeed absurd, situation, it’s equally hard to know how to handle this situation were you to be in it. Well, you could do a lot worse than to take a page out of Dustin Johnson’s book, not only because in going on to win the tournament, he taught us how we might manage this situation, all the while reinforcing some very important lessons of performance psychology.
The first one: thought stopping. When asked how he handled the incredible distraction as to whether he was going to be assessed a penalty from the 12th hole until the finish, he reported several answers: “I decided that I hadn’t made that ball move, and so that was that.” While some people might say that he chose to lie to himself, ignoring the sword of Damocles hanging over his head, those of us in the sport performance business see that he was engaging in one of the more difficult cognitive challenges imaginable. It’s like putting a chocolate cake in front of you and telling you not to think about chocolate cake. But, it is a crucial skill because it keeps us from racing ahead into future dreadful scenarios and “what ifs.” Thought stopping keeps us from falling into wormholes, just the kind of holes the mind loves: usually future, calamity related ones.
The skill of thought stopping did not only extend to keeping himself from imagining future demise, it also covered not racing to past catastrophes, of which he has many to call upon, moments of collapse right on the brink of winning major tournaments (2010 US Open, Pebble Beach; 2015 US Open, Chambers Bay), even including problems involving (bizarre) rules’ infractions (2010 PGA, Whistling Straits). In this regard, he did not fall into the well known “not again,” or “why me?” cognitive trap. Dustin made it clear that he was not engaging in these past-driven thoughts, when he was asked what kept him from thinking about the past. “I just thought I was playing the golf course, that’s all I was thinking about.” His three perfect finishing shots to birdie the 18th hole was proof that he successfully stopped any negative past-oriented thought from derailing his play, and allowed positive, present-orient thoughts drive positive play for a positive outcome.
Another aspect to discuss about this remarkable aspect of sport psychology is that Dustin Johnson is often spoken about on Tour as someone not blessed with a very bright intelligence. I don’t know how that rumor got started, nor am I in a position to comment on it. I will say that one way to think about this rumor in light of this winning piece of sport cognition is this: perhaps Dustin just doesn’t have that much going through his mind as he plays golf. And, there is no doubt that one result of having very little going through the thought stream during performance is that there is much less to filter out in order to get to the right thought. So, when it comes down to it: thinking too much is clearly a problem, thinking well is something you can train, and thinking well may mean thinking less. Whether by nature or nurture, find your way to thinking a lot less during your next important sport event.