Maybe you saw that Justin Thomas just won The Players’ Championship, golf’s fifth major with harrowing closing holes that guarantee a pressure-filled and exciting finale. And this year was no different. Of note was that Justin Thomas was able to win such a difficult tournament so recently after a number of setbacks, just the kind of life events that can derail a player for a long time: he had a very publicized public relations gaffe referred to in my last post, he lost his grandfather with whom he was very close, and his good friend and Presidents’ Cup teammate Tiger Woods was involved in a catastrophic and career-ending car accident which he was lucky to survive.
Asked how he managed to hold it together during these tribulations, he made the following response: “I talked to people. I reached out to people. I mean, I’m not embarrassed to say that I reached out to people to kind of let my feelings out and just discuss stuff with them….some of the thoughts and things I was feelings, it wasn’t fair to myself and I needed to do something. And my girlfriend was very helpful with that and staying on me to make sure I was taking care of myself…”* In this response, he leaves out the fact that he also made an immediate, non-defensive, and total apology for his social gaffe, reached out to the constituencies he offended, and went on a training program to understand the root of his implicit bias and to show the genuineness of his repair attempt.
I don’t know if he is referring to seeking out a therapist, but in reaching out to people he is, perhaps unwittingly, referring to an emotion regulation skill called “Opposite Action.”** All of the events he experienced (shame, grief, loss) elicit emotions which have action urges that bring the sufferer inward, to avoid, to withdraw, to isolate. Acting opposite the action urge is a quick and effective way to change the emotion, and in this case, it was to reach out to people who could validate him, support him, and mainly relieve the negative voice stream in his head. In doing so, he had his sadness normalized, his thoughts re-balanced, easing his sense of shame and self-blame. Also, he shortened time frame of his suffering, and won one of the largest prizes in golf, including pulling off some particular nerve-wracking shots on the 72nd hole.
To review: Justin Thomas experienced three events that had strong negative emotional impact, all of which could have derailed his entire season, if not his career. The negative emotions have action urges of avoiding and shunning. Instead, he acted opposite those action urges, made apologies, took action, and reached out for solace. Aspects of his practice that were particularly effective are that he went to people who wouldn’t reject him or reinforce his negative thinking. Finally, he didn’t just pay it lip service, he went all the way and he kept on doing it. Opposite Action works best when you do it thoroughly and repeatedly. So, the next time you are experiencing some emotional turmoil that might interfere with your game and noticing the urge to withdraw, practice some opposite action, and you may just find yourself walking tall and playing your best game.
*Morfit, Cameron. 2021. “Monday Finish: Justin Thomas Finds Better ‘Headspace’ at THE PLAYERS.” Pgatour.com. 03.15.2021
**Although the behavioral practice of exposure is not hers, the skill “Opposite Action,” as I’m using it here, comes from Marsha Linehan and can be found in her “DBT Skills Training, Handouts and Worksheets,” 2nd Edition. 2015. Guilford Press. New York, pp. 231-240 & 280.