AnalysisDecember 26, 2015

Experts: Tiger Woods' outlook on future will dictate his happiness in present

About one month before his 40th birthday, Tiger Woods gave a very uncharacteristic press conference. His demeanor was humble and downbeat and he lacked the focus and goal-orientated rhetoric that has defined his interviews over the last 20 years. He stated that his recent back surgery would sideline him indefinitely. For many, the press conference symbolized what many experts had speculated for years -- Tiger is done.

It's been no secret that Woods has been struggling with his game. He’d sufficiently overcome his personal scandals to top the PGA Tour’s money list in 2013, and briefly reclaimed his number one spot on the world rankings in 2014. But more majors have eluded him. His fall from grace was compounded by persistent injuries to his back and knee, and a succession of coaching changes. Woods’ ensuing surgeries and swing adjustments resulted in an unpredictable long game. The tinkering also took a mental toll on his short game.

Despite the public’s keen awareness of Woods’s deteriorating game, he has continued to present great optimism. Until his most recent press conference he has been upbeat, hopeful and explained in great depth his process for returning to his former glory. And then suddenly, earlier this month, that facade collapsed. He confessed something with enormous gravitas, “There's nothing I can look forward to, nothing I can build towards. Where's the light at the end of the tunnel? I don't know.”

All professional athletes must eventually recognize when they have reached the end of the road. Brett Favre comes to mind. He retired from football at least three times before finally walking away from his identify as a star quarterback. It probably took Favre so long to retire because he could not imagine a future without football. Similarly, Woods is now acknowledging that his future may not include golf. To understand why an unknown future for athletes is significant, we need to consider how their perception of time, and their perceived future, affects their motivation and well-being.

We all spend time considering our past, present and future. We can choose to focus on the past, live hedonistically in the present, or plan towards a future. Research tells us that the future is a good place motivationally for our minds to be. We know that successful people construct elaborate images of their futures. Visualizing the future helps us push through hard times, manage emotions, and make good everyday choices. When we have a concrete picture of our future-self it becomes easier to make sacrifices and complete the necessary but tedious tasks required to achieve greatness. Making such connections between the present and future helps us overcome everyday distractions that detract from purposeful behavior. However, fantasizing unrealistically about the future is unhealthy. If we imagine impractical futures we will probably work less than if we imagine attainable futures.

As a child, Tiger Woods had developed a future-self with very narrow but very specific images of how his life would be. He crafted his golf skills so he could be the player of his dreams. If he was like other childhood protégés, he would have won the Master’s ten times in his head. He would have walked down the 18th fairway at Augusta hearing the crowds roar, and then slipping on the green jacket in the Butler Cabin. He would have stayed on the practice putting green until dusk inspired by dreams of becoming World No. 1. He had grit and was dedicated to his future-self. He probably never even considered a Plan B.

If Woods does believe that he has nothing to look forward to, he now needs his Plan B. Without it, he has no future-self to guide his present, or give him the motivation that propels him into a new future. Although the Champions Tour has provided many players a new future-self to dream of, Woods is ten years shy of the age qualification, injury stricken, and probably a million miles from mentally embracing such a future. So in Woods' case, he will need to construct a different future-self that he can "touch and feel" with the same vividness as he imagined his past golfing life. To do this he will need to think consciously about his future possibilities. He needs to focus on who he wants to be in five, ten or twenty years’ time. And what his recent press conference told us is that he is very far from that place.

Unfortunately for Woods, instead of looking forward, he is constantly reminded of who he was in the past. Even Woods seems to feel safer lingering in the past. He indicates regret about his failed marriage to Elin Nordegren and he admitted in an interview with Time Magazine that he peaked at 11 years old. Such reminiscing, although comforting, is damaging because when we feel our best is behind us it's tempting to dwell there. Looking backward can make us depressed, reduce our emotional control, and increase our focus on short-term gains and solutions. Quite simply, looking back stops us from moving forward.

From all available indicators, Woods is having difficulty moving on. He is busying himself with life’s everyday tasks instead of boldly carving out a new direction. But that’s OK for now, he does not need to reconstruct his entire future immediately. Sometimes just focusing on events six months in the future can provide temporary assistance and ignite a plan for a future-self. However, creating something more permanent will require Woods to divorce himself from the person he has dedicated himself to for more than 30 years. He needs to pledge to a new identity and future, and this requires the same grit, dedication and commitment he gave to becoming a legendary golfer. Who Woods perceives his future-self to be is critical. For his sake, he needs to celebrate the end of Tiger Woods, the golfer, and embrace the future Tiger Woods – whoever that may be.

Sue Shapcott, PGA, MA is founder of Golf Revolution in Madison, WI (www.golfrevolution.club). She holds a Master’s degree and is perusing a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology. She is former Curtis Cup and European Tour player. Jenefer Husman, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor at Arizona State University. She received her doctoral degree in Educational Psychology in 1998. She researches motivation.