How Sports Build Mental Strength and Resilience

Mental strength or fortitude is one of those things that each person needs to find a way to build throughout their lives. The only real way to do so is by putting yourself in situations that cause stress and then learning to dig your way out. 

Sports is where many people first find their mental strength.

Sports, specifically golf, is where I have always found myself building the mental callouses needed to survive in life. On the golf course, there is no one to save you but yourself. When everything seems to be going wrong, you need to dig deep, stay the course, and find a way to finish strong. 

This was never truer for me than when I played in the Minnesota Golf Association's Mid-Am Championship on August 28, 2023. 

I had been working so hard to have my golf game ready for this event as it was the first individual competitive golf tournament I have played since 2008. I wanted to play well and see if I could compete against some of the top mid-amateurs in Minnesota. I sort of knew what to expect, but you never really do until you step foot on that first tee. 

When the day came, I arrived at the course an hour before my tee time to get warmed up on the range and putt a little bit. I was a ball of nervous energy but I put in my headphones and started hitting balls. I was striking every club in the bag great and feeling amazing. I thought to myself "I know how to play golf otherwise I wouldn't be here."

Before I knew it, my tee time had arrived. Show time. 

My big nervous energy was just that, energy. Excitement. Anticipation of what was to come. 

I have been thinking about this first tee shot for at least a week. I knew I didn't want to be that guy that duck-hooked one out of bounds to the left. That is all I could think about. 

But here is the thing. Thoughts are just thoughts. They are not reality. They have no bearing on reality unless you let them consume you. 

This was my first mental hurdle to overcome. 

What happened next was I pounded a driver just into the right rough. All those thoughts about hitting it out of bounds down the left never came to fruition. I was in play and we were off to the races. 

I was feeling it through the first 3 holes. I played exactly as I wanted to play. Three good tee shots and three good approach shots. Two putt pars on the first three holes. 

All that time preparing seems to be working. 

But this is golf. Any golfer will tell you that these high times never seem to last very long. You will face adversity on the course and it was about to show up right now. 

The next hole is a 150-yard par 3 with water in front and on the left with a tiny green. The pin was in the back at about 157 yards, so I hit a 9-iron into the green. It was looking good for a while but it hit the down slope on the back part of the green and rolled off. 

That wouldn't have been too bad except the ball stopped on a bare area of the ground with thick rough right behind it. Not ideal. Not in my control. I just have to face it where it is. 

That is an easy example of life. You sometimes do something the best you can but not everything is in your control. Now and then you will have a bad bounce and an even worse lie. You can't control that. All you can control is how you respond to it. 

My chip hardly got back on the green as I was deathly afraid of blading it across the entire green. I two-putt for my bogey and walked away thinking "No big deal, it is just a bogey, we have to play the next hole"

But the next hole would become the real problem. 

It is a short 370-yard par 4 but with water in front of the green and it is another small green. I hit a 3 wood off the tee and balloons in the air as it was into the wind. It hits this weird hill on the edge of the fairway and bounces into the rough. 

Not a big deal, I have 150 yards into the green but playing into a 10-15 mph wind. I want to be sure that I clear the water and if I want long I figured it would end up on the hill behind the green and I can play from there. So I hit an 8 iron. 

Oh no. 

I catch a flyer (the ball has no spin and goes way further than normal) and the ball flies at least 180 yards through the air into some long grass way behind the green. So I hit a provisional, this time a soft three-quarter 8 iron swing. 

It is another flyer because I didn't adjust enough. I see it bounce on the hill though and think that one has to be ok. I get up there and start looking for my first ball. 

You see where this is going. I don't find the first ball. Now it is time to look for the provisional, but we can't find that one either. 

What do I do now? 

I have only one choice. I need to go back 150 yards and hit a THIRD. Yes, a third ball.  

But there is a second choice. 

I could simply pack it in right here, right now. I don't need to play golf. I could skip the hole or walk off the course. I would have to put a DNF (did not finish) on the scorecard but who cares? There is nothing riding on this tournament. 

Many people would pack it in when left with this choice. I would be lying if I said that thought didn't cross my mind. But I couldn't do that to myself. Why would I come all they were just to pack it in on the 5th hole of the tournament? 

All that would do is preserve my ego. But it certainly wouldn't make me any mentally tougher. It would make me weaker as a person. 

When adversity like this hits, you are always left with the choice of giving up. Very few people would blame you for doing it. But this is character-building. This is strength building. This is where you find out who you are as a person. Are you a quitter who gives up at the first sign of trouble? Or are you a person who digs deep into their soul and guts it out? 

All I knew at that moment was that I couldn't be a quitter. 

I grabbed my 9-iron this time and ran back to hit another shot. I get it on the green this time, but it still takes me three more shots to get it in the hole. 

There it was. My first blow-up hole of the tournament. I posted a 9 on a relatively straightforward Par 4. A complete disaster. 

However, there are 13 more holes left to play. And I need to find something to pull myself out of this mess.

To be continued...