For those of you that don’t know, I started as a mental game coach for golfers after using counselling psychology to fix my own mental game issues as a professional golfer. I then moved over to poker where I found a lot of success helping world-class professional poker players overcome their own mental weaknesses. One of the biggest issues poker players (and traders) have to deal with is variance. No matter how skilfully they execute a decision, they can still lose money because of bad luck. However, over the long term, if they are able to continue making good decisions, they will be rewarded.
Many people might think this volatility is just pertinent in fields where uncertainty is rife like poker and trading, but that is not the case. The fact is that there is a great deal of variance in golf, and I have no doubt almost every other sport. However, few people understand or even acknowledge this variance, which leads to mental game issues that hold their progress back.
I’m not talking about misfortune either. While it is certainly true that conditions like weather can play a crucial role in the outcome of a match, that is something we have little control over. What I am talking about is the variation that exists within your own skill set. The fact of the matter is that even when all the conditions remain the same, you will hit a shot differently every time.
Around 2006, when he was at the peak of his game, Tiger Woods still had a standard error of 5%. That means, for example, if he were to replicate the same 100 yard shot in the same conditions 100 times, a lot of the shots would land as much as 7.5 feet to the right or left of his target. For an average 20 handicap golfer, this margin of error is more likely in the region of 15-20%.
This means that far from expecting to hit the perfect show every time, a 20 handicap golfer should expect to miss the green more than they reach it. Even though the average shot is expected to miss, most golfers don’t handle it appropriately. Most golfers get pissed off that they miss, but the reality is they were never good enough to be that angry in the first place.
If golfers understood what the variance in their skillset was actually like, it would allow them more room to improve. Understanding the variation in their game would not only give them more mental fortitude to handle the misses, it would also allow them insight into where they need to make improvements. Instead what happens is that the few times they actually make that shot fuels their overconfidence and they believe they should be capable of it every time.
Golfers could learn a lot from poker players in this regard. Rather than trying to put their opponents on a specific hand, they focus on putting their opponents on a range of possible hands. A shortlist of the most likely holdings they would have. What this allows them to do is make the best possible decision based on if that scenario happened 100 times. Sometimes they get unlucky and walk into the one hand that crushes them, but over the long term the good players will profit from this strategy. Understanding the range that exists within your golf game is the same, instead of going for the perfect shot and berating yourself when you don’t hit it, go for the shot that mitigates your margin for error.