Golfers, psychotherapists and photographers

The legendary golfer, Jack Nicklaus is supposed to have said: “Golf is 90% mental.” So, you are asking yourself, what does golf (a sport I normally have no interest in) have to do with photography, the pursuit that I love? More than I ever thought, actually.

I was having an email exchange with a friend about his photography. I was, in essence, “coaching” him through a creative block he was encountering as he was working on a photography project. The details of what he was working on are not important but the process we went through is instructive since it applies to all photographers.

He is by training a psychotherapist and was once a serious golfer. He wrote to me describing how he was having trouble loosening up to photograph. I wrote him back:

“As for photographing, this means you are trying to hard when write me that you are mentally ‘blocking about ideas to work on.’ You are being too goal oriented! Try walking around and just taking in the visual stimulus. The first thing, very first thing you react to, photograph it. A LOT. Think less. React more.”

He immediately replied:

“That advice is crucial for psychotherapists and tournament golfers as well as photographers.”

Then he continued with a discussion about how the best psychotherapists, golfers and photographers spend little time on the job thinking about the mechanics of their profession. He explained that great golfers, for example, practice their swing so much that it becomes intuitive.

That sounds familiar in terms of photographers knowing their gear intuitively so out in the field they can “just do it.” The pro golfer may analyze his or her swing before and after, but they never try to correct their swings on the course. They refine it over and over in practice till it becomes intuitive because they know thinking about their swing ruins it. The same thing is true for the best photographers.

So how do I keep in practice as a photographer? Like a golfer, I may not get to play (photograph) as often as I would like to. Similarly, most of my photography comes in short but intense bursts, when I am photographing on assignment, during a workshop or on a self-assigned stock photography shoot.

During those brief periods:

• I try to stay in practice by doing a lot of photography, making many variations of the same image, as I experiment with different techniques including varying my positions, lenses and points of focus.

• As my students and assistants know, I work very long hours, starting to work at sunrise and photographing through sunset. In the best situations, I try to look at my work at mid-day, so I can evaluate that day’s efforts.

• I have pared my gear down to the minimum, using what I know works and leaving the rest behind. I do not carry a lot of things “just in case I might need them,” because they slow me down in terms of weight and volume that I have to carry.

• I tend to stick to gear that I know works for me. I am very slow to add new cameras or lenses to my working set-up because it takes so long for me to become intuitive in using that new gear.

The business of selling photography gear, like selling golf equipment, is enormous. If you search on-line, you will see that coaching people through the mental part of golf is also a big business. I think that is because most golfers understand that it is the golfer not the gear that makes the successful player. I sure wish more photographers would appreciate how that is also true in photography. It would vastly improve their photography (and might open up a new market for photography “coaches.”)

One response to “Golfers, psychotherapists and photographers”

  1. The idea of a photography coach is a good one. In certain ways photography resembles a sport (Eg:hunting or fishing for a good image) and the notion of “being in the zone” is not only for athletes. It applies to photographers as well. Moreover, just as an athlete requires warming up before playing, so does the photographer, particularly the street photographer.
    I know something about golf as well as psychotherapy and I can relate to comparisons with photography.
    A useful therapist focuses on the other person as well as thoughts and feelings in himself that may be stirred up by the other person. The useful therapist pretty much never dwells on theory or technique. Beginning or novice therapists often do this and I suppose it is a phase to work through and get over..An effective golfer focuses on on the target and on elements that may effect ball flight (or path on the green) but does not attend to swing mechanics while playing golf. (Less intuitive golfers can be successful with a single swing thought). Moreover, thoughts of outcome are the kiss of death.
    During a good round of golf or a productive therapy session, the golfer or therapist experience being pulled along. It is being “in the zone”. One flows and lets things happen.
    The photographer, Minor White had a notion of “being in the zone” before sports psychologists wrote about it. (Subsequently, Minor White became what appears to be pretty nuts in a religious sort of way). Golf and psychotherapy are the two activities I know something about. Most likely,focus on theory,technique,and equipment while engaged in an activity are ineffective in most activities,including photography.
    I take issue with only one statement in the blog. Jack Nicklaus meant that for golfers near his level, “golf is 90% mental”. That is because the physical part has been imbedded into him and other high level golfers in an early phase of the education of a golfer. It still needs work but only on the practice tee and not during a competitive round. For the average golfer, a great deal of physical groundwork (not during the game though) is needed before golf becomes mental.Likewise,for photographers,a lot of fundamental learning needs to occur before the camera becomes second nature or part of them during the photographic flow.
    Thanks for stimulating my thinking.

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