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Phil vs. Tiger - The Power of Growth Mindset

As an athlete, there are going to be moments where your abilities are tested. Maybe you are playing someone older, someone with more experience, or maybe even just flat out more talented. When this happens, many emotions can be felt, with one the most common of those being frustration. This is to be expected; athletes enjoy playing against good competition and understand that losing is part of being an athlete (no athlete has every gone undefeated their entire career) and the good ones know that failure is part of the growth process.

All athletes reach a point of uncertainty in their careers, whether it be from being unsure if they will be able to beat an opponent they are consistently losing to, dealing with not making a team that they continue to get cut from, or numerous other psychologically challenging outcomes. In this moment of doubt, a critical juncture has been reached; the decision made from this point one can determine the trajectory of an athlete’s career. Do they decide that this is all that they have - that they have maxed out their potential, or do they use the challenge to push themselves to another level and reach heights they may not have even thought possible? This juncture point demonstrates an important concept in mental performance. That is the importance of having a growth mindset. The first psychological pathway above demonstrates a person prone to having a fixed mindset: there is no more room for development, all outcomes are threatening. On the other hand, the alternative approach displays a growth mindset: the desire (and belief that one can) learn, grow, and embrace challenges and adversity - negative outcomes or situations are challenges rather than threats. Let’s look at this concept by analyzing one of the greatest rivalries of our lifetime - Tiger Vs. Phil.

Phil Mickelson has been an exceptional golfer throughout his career. A winner of 45 PGA tour events, including 6 majors, he has checked all the boxes for a hall of game career. And if that wasn’t impressive enough, in last year’s PGA Championship, he became the oldest major winner in the history of the sport at 50 years old. However, there was a stretch in his career, (particularly from 2013 until his win in 2021) when he did not win a single major. For someone of Phil’s caliber, 8 years is a long stretch without a championship under his belt. This begs the question: what did Phil do differently that ended his drought and allowed him to become the oldest championship winner in history?

Enter..... Tiger Woods.

In his playing career, Tiger Woods has approached the game of golf with unparalleled focus. His discipline in both his physical and mental fitness challenges the status quo of what it means to be “in shape” as a golfer. Just take a look at Tiger’s routine he used to do in his prime as proof that his commitment to excellence was on a whole other level. If you’re a professional golfer and see the kind of routine Tiger used to do daily, how could you not be a little intimidated? However, as we’ll see from Phil Mickelson and his attitude towards Tiger’s discipline, being in the face of more talented competition can always serve to elevate performance.

In 2018, an article published by INC Magazine discussed Phil Mickelson’s attitude toward Tiger Woods's sustained success in his career. And while Tiger has seized several major champions from Phil’s grasp, Mickelson praises him for how Tiger’s physical and mental prowess has enhanced his performance.

"He [Tiger] brought out the best in me and forced me to work harder and focus to ultimately achieve the success that I've had...I've appreciated the challenge of playing and competing against him, and I also appreciate the level of greatness that he's achieved in his career."

Going back to that point where an athlete reaches a critical point in their psyche, Phil reached this point with Tiger. Phil could’ve succumbed to the fact that Tiger simply was a better player and rolled over. He could have used tiger’s prime coming during his career as a reason to settle (fixed mindset). But this wasn’t the case. Phil displayed a great sense of humility and self awareness in recognizing that while Tiger may be a better player, he can learn from Tiger’s greatness. He saw an opportunity for growth rather than a boulder blocking his career path. Phil put his ego aside and continued to work on improving his game, getting better, and overcoming challenges (growth mindset). Looking ahead to today, Phil’s mentality and willingness to cultivate a growth mindset toward his golf game has seemed to be the catalyst for rejuvenating his career and winning another major at the age of 50. It will not be surprising if Phil and Tiger win at least one more major or two in their careers.

As an athlete, embracing a growth mindset is at times, easier said than done. After all, no one likes to fail, and bouncing back from failure is hardly ever a smooth process. Nonetheless, failing, sometimes over and over again, can cultivate and unlock an edge in your game that didn’t exist before. Just ask Michael Jordan about the benefits of consistently failing in sports; he’ll probably relay his famous quote about how he “failed over and over again in (his) life, and that is why (he) succeeded.”

It can be a tough pill to swallow, but failure is inevitable in sports, oftentimes more than you’d like to believe. But this is ok. Failure can be reframed as challenges or learning opportunities, something you haven’t achieved… yet. “Yet” perfectly embodies what a growth mindset is. That word, if it isn’t already, should be in your vocabulary of self-talk. The success that you want to achieve is there for the taking; being content with the process and the mindset of not “yet” will lay the foundation for constant learning and growth, and ultimately on the surest path towards victory.

Carol Dweck, the author of the book “Mindset” and the lead researcher behind developing mindsets, did a great talk at Stanford University on the foundations of a Growth Mindset. You can watch her talk below to get a better idea of how you can start applying this mindset to your life today, in and out of sports.

“And just the words “yet” and “not yet” after a student has a setback we’re finding creates greater confidence and greater persistence.” - Dweck

Tying it all together, Phil Mickelson is the perfect example of Dweck’s wisdom in practice. Over the course of his career, he has consistently stayed open and receptive to improving his game. Even at an elite level, he continues to look for ways to challenge himself and expand his skillset. Although he may never win as many major championships as Tiger, Phil’s mindset will always enable him to be up for the challenge.

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