The Law of Reversed Effect is a psychological principle that suggests that the harder we try to do something, the less likely we are to succeed. This principle is also known as the Backwards Law or the Law of Reverse Effort. These “laws” are based on the idea that when we try too hard to achieve something, we can become tense and anxious, negatively impacting our performance.
In other words, we impede our progress, becoming our worst enemy by being unable to get out of our own way. This principle can be applied to many areas of life, including sports, work, academics, and personal relationships. Letting go and trusting your subconscious can sometimes be more effective than consciously trying to force a result. Flow states, where you become absorbed in an activity, often emerge when you stop actively trying and just let things happen naturally. Some non golf examples – finding your keys after you stopped looking, finding a new relationship when you least expected it and weren’t trying for it, or solving a complex problem after taking a break and coming back to it.
In the context of golf, the first thing that comes to mind for me is my “almost” first-ever birdie. Having just taken up the game, I practiced like crazy and improved quickly, already having an athletic background. The first shot I ever hit stiff was an 8-iron that shocked my playing partners and finished maybe 2-3 feet from the hole. I remember putting so much pressure on myself to get that birdie and impress the others. You can guess what happened. A few seconds after pulling this straight putt, I lined it up again, knocked it right in, and then a second and third time, making it effortlessly when the pressure was off. Unable to get out of my way, my round got worse. I have more examples from 25 years of playing, but I imagine you can relate.
The inspiration for this post comes from a previous article on this site. As I read up and watched YouTube videos of George Knudson, I ordered his book Natural Golf, which I found used on Amazon. The copy I received was marked with yellow highlights on every page, with notes and a dedication at the beginning. It was gifted to “Christian” from his PGA teaching pro in 2014. What got me was twofold – Knudson’s message that the golf swing, and golf in general, was “all about balance” as well his assertion, backed up 100 or so times by whoever marked up the book, that you have to “LET GO,” “let the club flow,” and “give up control to gain control.”
I’ve read Bagger Vance, Golf in the Kingdom, the Bob Rotella books, Connected Golf, and The Inner Game of Golf, so this is not necessarily new territory for me. However, I do not exemplify this mindset at all. My routine is to focus on an aspect of my game, a piece of the swing, a drill or training aid, and obsess over it. After all, perfect practice is supposed to make perfect. When it comes to golf, there is no balance between my ears or in my golf swing. Could this lack of balance and “trying too hard” be why I don’t always get the desired results? The paradox of “giving up control to gain control” led me to the “Law of Reversed Effect” and the concept of “Wu Wei” (seriously), otherwise known as “the Zone” or “flow state.”
Going With the Flow
The philosophy of Wu Wei, characterized by effortless action and alignment with nature, finds a profound connection with the concept of “flow state.” Wu Wei in golf signifies the art of allowing one’s body and mind to seamlessly collaborate, transcending the need for conscious control over every aspect of the swing. This approach fosters a harmonious and effective motion, where actions flow naturally, without self-consciousness or manipulation.
Both Wu Wei and the flow state share the fundamental quality of liberating individuals from self-awareness, immersing them completely in the activity at hand. The result is a state of effortlessness that paradoxically amplifies one’s prowess and effectiveness. It’s essential to recognize that striving excessively can hinder access to the flow state or Wu Wei. Instead, the key lies in cultivating a mindset of release, free from overthinking or relentless pursuit. Wu Wei not only fosters a sense of unity with the activity and surroundings but also mirrors the sensation described by athletes as being “in the zone,” where distinctions between self and the world dissolve.
Moreover, Wu Wei is closely linked to total situational awareness, while the flow state may involve intense concentration on specific aspects of performance. Both of these states of mind serve as conduits to peak athletic performance. As a guiding framework, Wu Wei paves the way to access flow states consistently. Understanding Wu Wei transcends conventional notions of success in sports, emphasizing the importance of spontaneous and effortless action. In essence, Wu Wei and the flow state intertwine, offering a pathway to peak performance in golf, sports, or any activity with complete absorption.
Surrender to the Flow
Now that we’ve explored the concepts of the Law of Reversed Effect, Wu Wei, and the Flow State in the context of golf and life, it’s time to consider how these principles can be applied to enhance our journey. Perhaps you’ve been overanalyzing every swing in your golf game, obsessing over mechanics (like me), and striving for perfection. This may have led to frustration and hindered your progress. Take a moment to reflect on “giving up control to gain control.” It’s a paradox that suggests sometimes, the more we try, the less we achieve.
Consider adopting a mindset that allows your body and mind to collaborate effortlessly, just as Wu Wei advocates. This approach can help you transcend the need for conscious control over every aspect of your swing. Picture yourself in a state of flow, where your actions flow naturally, without self-consciousness or manipulation. This might be the key to unlocking your true potential on the golf course.
In life beyond golf, remember that the Law of Reversed Effect applies to various areas, including work, academics, and personal relationships. Don’t be your own worst enemy by trying too hard. Sometimes, letting go and trusting your subconscious can yield better results than forced effort. As you apply these principles, explore the recommended readings in the “Further Reading” section to delve deeper into the mental aspects of golf and personal development. These books can provide additional insights and strategies to help you embrace Wu Wei and the flow state on the course and in all aspects of your life.
Embrace the power of surrendering to the flow, both on the golf course and in your journey through life. You may discover a newfound sense of balance, harmony, and peak performance by doing so.
In his book, The Art of Impossible, author Steven Kotler details the “flow state,” and guidelines for achieving it. You can view a great YouTube video (embedding is disabled so all I can do is link you to it), that explains the premise and provides some practical ideas. I just bought the audiobook and have it queued up and ready to go.
Flow state is described as a state of intense focus, engagement, and enjoyment where you feel fully immersed in an activity. Time seems to pass differently and you may feel effortlessly productive. There are certain triggers or catalysts that can help induce a flow state more easily:
- Remove distractions and isolate yourself to focus completely on the task
- Have clear goals and know exactly what you want to accomplish
- Visualize successfully completing the task (see our post “Go to the Movies,” based around the Jack Nicklaus pre-shot visualization technique)
Developing routines and rituals around the flow state can train your mind and body to associate certain cues with entering that optimal state more easily over time. This might involve things like morning routines, favorite work locations, music, etc.
While flow is often associated with athletes, anyone can experience it by following certain principles around focused attention, defined goals, and proper challenges. With practice, flow can become more accessible.
The Natural Golf Swing
by George Knudson with Lorne Rubenstein
Summary: The Natural Golf Swing espouses a philosophy of allowing the body’s natural athletic motion to shine through when swinging a golf club, rather than overanalyzing mechanics. George Knudson argues the golf swing should be a natural, balanced motion driven by the laws of physics like centrifugal force and inertia. Knudson breaks down the swing into simple components like the grip, backswing, and downswing to create an easy-to-emulate technique for golfers of all skill levels. The book provides practical instruction, debunks common golf myths, and aims to help golfers improve their games by finding their natural swings.
The Art of Impossible
by Steven Kotler
Summary: Best-selling author and peak performance expert Steven Kotler decodes the secrets of those elite performers – athletes, artists, scientists, CEOs, and more – who have changed our definition of the possible, teaching us how we too can stretch far beyond our capabilities, making impossible dreams much more attainable for all of us.
What does it take to accomplish the impossible? What does it take to shatter our limitations, exceed our expectations, and turn our biggest dreams into our most recent achievements? We are capable of so much more than we know – that’s the message at the core of The Art of Impossible.
The Legend of Bagger Vance
by Steven Pressfield
Summary: Not your typical golf manual; it’s a transformative journey cloaked in the guise of a golf game. Set in the Depression era, the novel follows the story of Rannulph Junuh, a down-and-out golfer who gains a second shot at life and the game with the help of a mysterious caddy, Bagger Vance. More than just a game, the story serves as an allegory that delves into the concept of finding one’s “authentic swing,” that unique capability each of us possesses but often loses amidst life’s challenges. If you want to elevate your game and life, Bagger Vance offers soulful wisdom far beyond the 18th hole.
Golf Is Not a Game of Perfect
by Dr. Bob Rotella and Bob Cullen
Summary: Golf is Not a Game of Perfect argues that success in golf comes from adopting the right attitude and thought processes rather than perfect technique, with Rotella providing insights from sports psychology to help golfers build confidence, commitment, and enjoyment on the course. The book examines common mental obstacles faced by players and offers strategies to develop a “trusting mentality,” accept imperfection, and stay focused in pressure situations in order to lower scores and get more fulfillment from the game. With anecdotes from professional players he has coached and practical exercises for amateurs, Rotella aims to improve golfers’ mindsets so they can overcome frustration and realize their potential.
Fearless Golf: Conquering the Mental Game
by Dr. Gio Valiante
Summary: Fearless Golf provides a detailed plan for overcoming the fear and anxiety that disrupts both physical technique and mental focus in golfers, drawing on insights from sports psychology and interviews with top players to offer practical strategies for cultivating presence, commitment, and mastery on the course. The book examines different manifestations of fear across playing situations and skill levels and gives golfers tools to transform fear into an asset rather than liability, helping them lower scores by learning to embrace uncertainty and remain fully engaged in executing each shot. With anecdotes and advice from Jack Nicklaus, Davis Love III and other champions, Fearless Golf aims to free golfers from paralyzing emotions so they can realize their potential.
Zen Golf: Mastering the Mental Game
by Dr. Joseph Parent
Summary: Zen Golf teaches golfers how to prepare mentally, execute shots through mind-body connection, and respond positively to results using insights from Zen Buddhism and sports psychology. The book provides practical strategies to overcome mental obstacles, distractions, and self-sabotage on the course by cultivating clarity, commitment, composure, presence, and equanimity. With techniques for both skills and perspective, Zen Golf aims to help golfers lower scores while increasing enjoyment of the game.
Golf Is a Game of Confidence
by Dr. Bob Rotella and Bob Cullen
Summary: If you want to elevate your mental game, “Golf Is a Game of Confidence” is your go-to audiobook. Authored by sports psychologists Dr. Bob Rotella and Bob Cullen, this listen offers a concise guide to building and sustaining confidence on the golf course. It blends psychological insights with real-world anecdotes to deliver actionable advice. The audiobook targets your golf performance and aims to bolster your mental resilience. In a nutshell, it’s a guide for mastering your golf and mindset.
Summary: Step off the driving range and onto the green with confidence. Jayne Storey’s “Connected Golf” is the missing link between your practice sessions and actual performance on the course. This audiobook explores the nuances of “being in the zone,” a mental state where your swing feels effortless and your putts seem guided by intuition.
Storey delves into mindfulness techniques and breath control, giving you the tools to maintain peak performance under pressure. This audiobook is particularly beneficial for golfers who find that their excellent practice range skills don’t translate to lower scores on the course. With a blend of ancient wisdom and modern psychology, “Connected Golf” will help you achieve a state of flow, making the transition from practice to performance seamless.
The Inner Game of Golf
by W. Timothy Gallwey
Summary: The Inner Game of Golf applies Gallwey’s “inner game” principles of mental coaching to golf, providing strategies to overcome nerves, build confidence, and achieve optimal performance. Gallwey advocates clearing the mind of technical thoughts, focusing energy on the target, and trusting instincts to play freely without self-judgment. With simple yet profound advice on visualization, concentration, and overcoming interference from the conscious mind, Gallwey believes any golfer can access their best golf by getting out of their way. The Inner Game of Golf keeps instruction uncomplicated, emphasizing feel over mechanics and liberating one’s true potential by quieting the ego and negative self-talk. This classic book on the mental side of golf has helped countless players overcome anxiety, play instinctively, and enjoy the game to its fullest.