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Lessons for Life in Utopia!

Seven Days in Utopia by David L. Cook is a book written about golf for all levels of golfer however there is no doubt that sportsmen and women from a variety of sports and ability levels would appreciate some of the key messages of the book.

It is a fictitious story of a professional golfer who has lost is way in his life as a touring golf professional and coincidently stumbles across a former golf pro, now rancher, Johnny in Utopia, Texas who teaches him about the game of golf and more importantly, the game of life.

It is a worthwhile read for golfers of all levels who want to appreciate the game of golf in its entirety – its focus is primarily on the mental and tactical preparation, rather than the technical elements, which are overdone. Multiple mentions of the ‘game of golf’ highlights Johnny’s unwavering focus on the holistic approach to success in golf.

It is a worthwhile read for athletes in general, but more so for those in either precision sports (e.g., shooting, archery, darts) or those that involve precision elements (e.g., free throw shooting in basketball, set shots at goal in most football codes) as it provides wonderful insights into the fundamentals of target focus and letting the body do its thing (i.e., letting go). In short, the golfer’s admission that, “The transition from trying to letting was profound” (p. 600) provides the gist of this approach.

It is also a worthwhile read for athletes whose entire identity is a slave to their sport results. Athletes who merely see themselves as a performance measure such as a golf score, inevitably find themselves lacking self-esteem and unhappy. The story provides several suggestions for more productive alternative approaches to judging yourself when you are an athlete.

It is very easy to read. The story takes you through the development of their relationship as it progresses from a chance meeting between a down-and-out golfer and a wise rancher to deep bond between two men that results in a spiritual enlightenment of sorts.

The relationship develops as Johnny takes the (unnamed) golf pro through several indirect and direct lessons about golf and life. There are many moments throughout the book where Johnny provides epiphanies for the golf pro.

Towards the end the book does contain some semi-religious themes, however even for those that are not that way inclined, there are some valuable messages.

Here are the key messages that support a lot of what we do at Mental Notes with athletes in all sports:

Be in the present

We (sport psychologists) tend to talk about being in the moment, being in the present, and having no care or interest in the outcome whilst performing, knowing full well that if you do what you can in the present, the future outcomes will be taken care of in due course. The necessity of this approach for success in sport is emphasised throughout the story.

Know what you do and why you do it.

The story highlights the importance of understanding how and why you do what you do. Johnny’s view is that this knowledge is imperative to understanding yourself and how to get the most out of yourself.

“Every champion has convictions, Johnny said, “But perennial champions have convictions based on foundations. These foundations become his first line of defence when facing adversity” (p. 438).
Here is a nice exchange between the two men that is specific to golf, however it can easily be applied to other sports:

“There is no model swing in this business, no pat answers. Each person must develop a blueprint for his swing and style of play. He must have such a conviction for the manner in which it is done that there are no chinks in the armor when facing the toughest foe on tour.. When I ask you about any part of your game, I want a solid answer, and I want to hear conviction in your voice” (p. 385).

Value yourself based on executing processes (not on results).

It is becoming increasingly evident that athletes who only value themselves based upon their results and have no other form(s) of self-validation often struggle to be satisfied both inside and outside of sporting fields.

The golf pro reflects after one of his daily lessons with Johnny, “My young life flashed before my eyes. My thoughts were consumed for the most part by golf. After all, golf is what I did. It defined me to the point that my golf score and self-identity had merged into one.. He could clearly see that my life had little in the way of foundations. I had simply become a golf score. If my life continued on this course my epitaph might read, ‘Played to a plus three in golf, but had a thirty six handicap in life’” (p. 1595).

Johnny explains the value of making a significant mental shift from evaluation and acceptance based on golf scores to reviewing the specific processes that contribute to performance.

It’s challenging to forget about the outcomes but if you commit to a process-focus and give yourself some time for this mental shift, it inevitably helps you to improve your outcomes.

Remember, you have 100% control of the process.

Mental Notes is ‘big’ on measuring the mental game – it has developed a tool to work with golfers on this and can easily adapt it to several other sports. Just ask us to help you measure your mental game and see the improvements to your performance!

Prepare to build your confidence.

Johnny refers to John Wooden’s famous quote, ‘Failing to prepare meant preparing to fail’, and asserted that, “confidence comes from being prepared for an emergency” (p. 2213).

There were several golf-specific examples of the value of quality competition-relevant practice. The key gist..Make practice more like competition; make it messy and uncomfortable, so that you are confident you can deal with whatever competition brings.

Further support for the process-focus was detailed. In particular, there were several lessons highlighting the importance of pre-performance checklists and the commitment to these checklists to enable ‘letting go’.

Provide visual reminders and use positive recall.

Visual reminders are a simple way for athletes to maintain a commitment to a certain process or feeling. Johnny encourages, ‘See it, feel it, trust it’ (SFT), which is great for golf and for many target sports. The simple act of having these three letters written somewhere easily sighted, such as on a golf ball, is an aid to keeping your mind focused on helpful cues during performance.

Additionally, the story revisits the importance of recalling positive memories of performance. Essentially the ability to use your senses to recreate images of success helps future performance. Feed your mind with how you want to repeat success in your present and future!

You will benefit from many more of the golf-specific and general key messages than those briefly detailed here. Overall, Seven Days in Utopia is a neat story that helps direct passion through persistence with a process-focus.

Andrea Furst PhD | Sport & Exercise Psychologist MAPS