Book Review: Zen Golf by Dr. Joseph Parent

I am not really a golfer, but I owe a lot to the game. Despite being a lawyer, I have only played at the occasional outing during my practice and even then have not been serious about it. In high school, however, I took up the game because my basketball teammate was an excellent player and needed another girl to round out my school’s newly formed team. Knowing right off the bat that I would have no obligation to be any good, it seemed like a low-pressure compliment to the physically demanding and lengthy basketball season, so I gave it a shot.

While playing golf was certainly a change of pace, I quickly found that “low-pressure” was not the word to describe it. Yes, I got to hang out on a beautiful golf course in the rolling hills of Northern Kentucky and chat with my teammates and competitors rather than run suicides or fight them for position on the court. Though my surroundings and relationships with competitors were comparatively more peaceful with golf, I soon learned that my relationship with myself was far more difficult. Suddenly, I had to learn to coach myself to focus acutely, deal with setbacks, and use my judgment to try to make the best of hard circumstances. After 3 years of high school golf, I never became a great player, though my team generally used my score and won some matches, but the game helped me start the process of becoming a decent adult.

So, when a lawyer who had seen one of my mindfulness seminars reached out to me this year and suggested I read Zen Golf, it was almost like a blast from the past. I have no ambitions for rejuvenating my own golf game, but having played, I knew immediately how mindfulness might help anyone who wanted to do so. Zen Golf is written by Dr. Joseph Parent, a sports psychologist who has worked with some of the world’s best golfers and a long-time meditator. In the book, he offers some basic instruction in mindfulness practice and describes strategies that he uses to help golfers struggling with various aspects of the mental game of golf.

The book is now 20 years old, so some of the references to golfers may seem a little bit dated. In the same way, knowledge and awareness of mindfulness meditation has skyrocketed since that time, so some of Parent’s sayings and references such as “Today is a gift. That’s why we call it the present.” may sound a bit hackneyed. Overall, though, Parent’s analysis of the many ways that the mind can block even the best golfer’s success and his recommendations for a path out are ones that I don’t think can get old.

For example, one of my favorite parts of Zen Golf was when he describes the concept of “unconditional confidence.” While at first this sounded like business-book drivel and made me skeptically wonder how one could expect to be confident all of the time, I quickly realized that Parent wasn’t talking about cocky bluster or promising 100% good results. Instead, Parent was explaining the Buddhist concepts of essential goodness and self-compassion. According to Parent, unconditional confidence didn’t come from results, but instead from a player’s acceptance of their own intrinsic goodness and choice, time and time again, to treat themselves with kindness regardless of the circumstances.

This concept came through best when Parent talked about his approach to teaching putting, which for many players can be the most maddening and heart-wrenching aspect of golf. Parent explained that golfers, much like Happy Gilmore, usually define success with a putt as getting the ball in the hole.  But Parent suggests a different approach that defines success with the process rather than the result. He says that a golfer has “made” a putt when they have a clean, steady stroke, use the appropriate force, keep their head down, and select and execute the right strategy. For golfers who play regularly, this makes sense because it emphasizes and rewards the process of putting, which is within the player’s control, and lets the player off the hook for result, which (despite our frequently recurring delusions) is not.

Clearly, this utility of this advice may extend well beyond the golf course. As a lawyer, it is often tempting to judge ourselves based on the results we get in our cases. Despite our best efforts and even when the law seems to favor us, we just cannot entirely control the results we get. Thus, as Parent suggests, it may make a lot more sense and be a whole lot kinder to ourselves if we judge success based on the things we can control: doing our best, putting client’s interests first, complying with ethical rules, and advising, assessing risk, and counseling along the way.

In short, Zen Golf is a good read for golfers or anyone who wants to understand the practical benefits of mindfulness. The book explains in easy-to-understand language how the mind-body connection works and the many ways mental states and assumptions can ensnare us and impede performance. It also offers many lessons for not just playing the game of golf better, but also enjoying it more and treating yourself better as you play. In this way, even if Zen Golf doesn’t make you a better golfer, it offers strategies and advice that may make you better at dealing with life.

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