Article #11 - Motivation in Golf: Approach Versus Avoidance

Golf requires that we constantly change from one position on the course to another, playing the ball from its current spot to a new one..  From the tee to the fairway (or rough or lake or trees), to the green (or bunker or lake), and eventually to the hole.  For each shot we execute there is some form of underlying motivation, a force that not only drives our decisions, but one that also affects our emotional state and likelihood of hitting a good shot.  The two primary motivations for hitting shots are those of approach and avoidance.  Let me explain how these motives differ and how they impact our decisions, emotions, and likelihood of success.

Oftentimes, when we make major changes in our lives, we are either motivated to get away from a bad situation, or we are motivated to move forward to something new.   You might not perceive much difference between the two, but there is a difference. And the degree of difference is significant.  I’ll give you some examples of these two types of motivation and try to clarify the ways they are so different.

When was the last time, for example, you changed jobs or employers?  Why did you make this change?  What motivated you to switch?  Did you hate your old job, feel overworked, underappreciated?  Were your supervisors overly critical and lacking in support?  Did you feel unimportant?  If several of these factors were present in your old job, it’s no wonder you would want to leave.  And you might be satisfied to find almost any different job or company, as long as it got you out of the terrible situation in which you had been.

Contrast the above scenario to a situation in which your job was fine, you liked your coworkers, your bosses treated you with respect, and you generally felt content at work.  But then came along a great new opportunity, for example a similar position, with similar working conditions, but a salary that was twice your old one?  Or perhaps it was a similar job that had even less stress than before, or one where you would be relocating to a much more desirable climate or geographical area?  You would be champing at the bit to go!

In the first situation you drastically wanted to get away from the old job.  You hated the situation, you despised how you were being treated, and you resented the lack of respect you were shown by your superiors.  Your motivation was based on your desire to avoid these factors.  You would take almost any different position to get you out of the dreaded job in which you were stuck

In the second scenario, however, your motivation for change wasn’t to escape or avoid some dreadful situation.  No, you were relatively content and satisfied with what you had before this great new opportunity came to be.  The motivation for change in this second example came from being powerfully drawn to an even better situation.  When we are drawn to something, this motivation is referred to as approach motivation.

In both cases, a job change occurred, but the motivation and emotions associated with the change were clearly different.  With the avoidance motive, the emotions are primarily negative and unpleasant.  The approach motive, however, is associated with pleasant emotions and increased happiness. Also, the likelihood of ending up in a truly good position is distinctly different with each type of motive.

And so it is in golf!  I was standing on a tee box on a tough par four with about a million bunkers and a nasty swale all along the left side.  My playing partner, a PGA professional, teed his ball and went through his routine.  At his final address I heard him softly say, “Don’t hit it left.  Just don’t hit it left.”  His motivation for this shot was clearly avoidance, his emotions were fear and anxiety, and his likelihood of ending up in a truly good position was minimal. Every time you are trying to avoid something in golf, it means that you are worried about the outcome; you are concerned that something bad will occur.  And when you have that fear, the likelihood of hitting a poor shot is huge.  When your motivation for a shot is avoidance, you’re in big trouble!

When faced with difficult shots (actually any shot at all) you always want to have an approach motive.  The hazards on the left side of the fairway exist, and I’m certainly not suggesting you ignore them or pretend they are not there.  What I am suggesting, however, is that when you are planning your shot, you pick a small, precise, and appropriate target at which to aim.  Have an image in your mind of the shot being hit and the ball working directly at that target.  Choose to believe you will be successful and trust in your ability to execute the shot.  Perceive yourself and your ball as being drawn to that specific target.  This is the essence of the approach motivation.  Your shot is designed to be drawn toward something, to approach that target.  You have let go of any concerns about the hazards and therefore do not experience anxiety or fear.  You are envisioning success which brings positive emotions including pride and satisfaction.  And this approach motivation also significantly increases the likelihood you will execute an excellent shot.

To play your best, you always want to be sending the ball toward a target, as opposed to trying to avoid some trouble.  If you use this strategy you’ll have greater confidence and a much more pleasant emotional state.  And the best part of using an approach motivation is that it greatly increases the likelihood that you’ll hit a really good shot.  And that is what we all are striving to do!

Kevin J. Roby, Ph.D., MGCP

Las Vegas Sport Psychology
5037 Portraits Place
Las Vegas, NV 89149