Golf rots your brain

OK, maybe golf doesn’t actually rot your brain, but I have come to the conclusion that playing golf rots the ability to think strategically. Before I get into my reasoning, I think it would be a good idea to define what is meant by “think strategically.”

Consider that to solve most problems, to make most decisions, and to act effectively in general one must not consider just the outcome they wish to achieve but also what competitive reaction is likely to result from their action. Just as a chess player considers not only the moves he can make, but also his opponent’s potential counter moves as well. In fact, if he’s at all good he’ll be considering moves several turns, or “plys”, beyond that. It’s that ability to think in terms of future possibilities that I’m calling the ability to “think strategically”.

Golf consists of striking a small white ball to get it moved around a course of terrain desinged to make this challenging as possible and ultimately into a small hole. The game is fun, as long as the weather is good, the traffic in front of you keeps moving. I actually like golf. If I can get on a course that isn’t clogged I really enjoy playing. It just teaches people to think reactively rather than strategically, and therefore is not a good way for those who need strategic thinking ability to spend their time.

Some folks will argue that golf is a strategic game because one has a choice of where they aim when striking the ball. Whether they choose to go over the water or lay up just in front of it. Hook the ball around some trees or to take an extra shot to go around them. If you have to make choices in how you play the game, isn’t the process of making those choices executing a strategy?

The reason it isn’t is that all of the choices are guided by one’s perceived ability – not by the opponent’s ability or actions. We choose to lay up in front of the water not because it will foil the other guy’s ability to do so, but because we doubt our ability to get over the obstacle successfully – we know from experience that we might end up with an extra stroke.

Our opponent is doing the same. We might make a gutsy attempt in an effort to beat someone, but for the purposes of competition people could play separately. There isn’t any interaction between the players in terms of each’s ability to play the game as they wish, just social interaction, which is enough for most folks. It’s the social interaction that makes the game so popular. It’s the networking opportunities, and without golf there is a lot of business that wouldn’t get done.

In the end golf is not a game that teaches strategy, it’s a game that encourages us to overcome our weaknesses. Laudable though that is, it’s not a great solution to most business problems.

You can see the results in many of today’s short-sighted business decisions. People aren’t acting on an understanding of the world around them, they’re reacting to their own perceived weaknesses. In an environment where your activity is disconnected from your opponent’s, like golf, this is fine. In an environment where you must share the field with others this can be a disaster. While you’re busy fixing yourself your opponent is working against you and giving you more to fix.

This is where it can get confusing. If your opponent is acting against your weaknesses it can sure reinforce the idea that self improvement is the highest priority, and this is very common in business. A company has a poor new product lineup, and everyone from sales on down is watching competitors stomp the market with new products. The cry goes out to create new products (i.e. fix our weakness) and tons of money is spent creating heat and smoke to get this done. This is a reactionary response, and it’s not wrong because new products are needed. In many cases it might be the exact right thing to do. But consider that the competitor may be developing those new products because that’s all they can do. Maybe they cannot support all those new products. Maybe they don’t understand the legacy of support that they’re creating with those new products, or the investment their customers are making and their expectations about how long a particular product should stay current. These are weaknesses, but a strong effort to create new products blinds us to them and the opportunity they present. Instead of leveraging our strengths, we become obsessed with our weaknesses. It would be much better to blend the two, and rather than jump to focus one development first use your advantages to buy time and maneuvering room in which to make the development.

So, while overcoming weakness is a natural and necessary part of life and business, it’s not a substitute for strategy. Strategy needs to be nurtured separately.

Chess is a great way to learn to think strategically, but there are lots of other games that offer similar value. The key is to pick a game that is zero-sum. If you win the other guy loses. While many business writers talk about the perils of seeing every situation as a zero-sum game, for the purposes of building strategic vision it provides valuable clarity.

In chess, it’s not whether you think you can drive rook all the way to the fifth rank that makes you question doing it. There’s no doubt you can move the piece there. The doubt comes in what the other fellow’s going to do after you move it there. In order to make effective choices you have to consider your opponent. In fact, without your opponent the game doesn’t exist.

As you play chess and get better, it becomes easier to see the patterns. It becomes easier to look at the board and decide what to do because you get better at seeing alternatives and processing them. It’s not long before you start applying the same skills to situations outside the game. Golf presents a much smaller number of alternatives, and the obvious one is virtually always the correct one because the shortest path is a straight line.

Chess rewards depth of thought where golf rewards accurate assessment of one’s ability. Golf encourages the player to ignore his opponent, while chess requires deep consideration of him.

So if you are looking for ways to help your team to think strategically, instead of the usual trip to the links why not organize an informal chess tournament? You don’t have to be good at the game to learn, and you may be surprised at what you learn about your people.

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