It is normal for me to start out a round of golf with bogies or double bogies on the first three or four holes. “This is a story I have heard so often,” muses teaching pro Karl Moris, “that we could label this Poor Start Syndrome.” I label it something else, but since I only swear on the golf course, I won’t mention it here. Whatever the name, I always attributed the slow starts to stiffness, but recently have come to realize that it has more to do with fear than flexibility.
On the first tee I found myself worrying about all the things that could go wrong. “And for most of us [such thinking], creates an even bigger challenge in a game that is already very difficult,” says mental golf coach David MacKenzie. Talking with my 11-year-old granddaughter, Sally, I discovered that she faces similar issues riding horses. She said that horses can sense your mood and if you are fearful when approaching a jump, they will not go over it. To succeed she said, “You have to push through the fear and be totally committed to the jump.”
Just as Sally’s horse senses her emotions, my body senses my fear, releasing adrenaline, which tenses my muscles and over activates my brain. When that happens, my body does what a horse does and won’t do what it is supposed to do. Sports psychologist, Jon Stabler warns that “…when extreme fear is happening, we may lose touch with ourselves… It may feel like... our bodies are doing whatever they want [and] we have no direct control.” To control the fear, he explains that “your thoughts create the fear. Control your thoughts and you can stop the fear and resulting reactions and poor performance.” To accomplish this, Ellen Rudolph, an expert on the mental side of golf, says you must “…believe in your strategy [and] stay committed to the shot you’ve planned…”
Stepping onto the first tee or approaching a jump triggers reflexive fear. However, Jason Zweig in Your Money and Your Brain emphasizes that “Humans are reflexively afraid not just of physical dangers, but also of any social signal that transmits an alarm.” Stock market volatility and the resulting hysteria in the financial media will definitely trigger such responses. And “…when a potential threat is financial instead of physical,” he warns, “reflexive fear will put you in danger more often than it will get you out of it.”
It will get you in trouble because the odds are against you. That’s why after reviewing the statistics, Ben Carlson stated in a 2020 Fortune article, “Selling out and waiting for the dust to settle is… a horrible plan.” The statistics are not even close. According to Investopedia, “Nobel Laureate William Sharpe… concluded that an investor employing a market timing strategy must be correct 74% of the time to beat the [buy-and-hold] benchmark portfolio.”
However, even though the odds are against cutting your losses and running, I can’t help thinking of the lyrics to an Elvis song, “It feels so right… How can it be wrong?” Its feels right even though it’s wrong, says neuroscientist Daniel Kahneman, because in the unpredictable world of investing, human judgment is unreliable. His solution to the problem is “…to replace human judgment with formal rules that use the data… to produce.... a decision.” And that data suggests that prudent diversification and the discipline to stay the course is a better decision. In hindsight it may not turn out to be the best decision. But in an uncertain world there is usually no other prudent choice.
Fear creates an even bigger challenge for investors in an endeavor that is already very difficult. To rise to the challenge, you need to slow down your overactive adrenaline-fueled thinking. You do that by knowing the statistics, believing in a rules-based strategy, and staying committed to it. As Sammy Davis, Jr. said about dealing with fear, “You always have two choices: your commitment versus your fear.”