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Mental Health: What Role Golf Plays

I've never told anyone publicly about my struggles with anger, anxiety, and depression, and how golf played a leading role.

I’ve been going to a counselor/therapist/psychiatrist/shrink (whatever you want to call him) for a few months now, and what I didn’t realize was the terms for what I have been feeling for over a decade. I need to state right away that I’ve never had anything clinically diagnosed as depression, but how I can call what I’ve experienced “depression” will be explained.

As some of you may know I’ve been playing golf competitively for about 15 years. I’ve spent probably an average of 60 hours a week practicing, playing, and working out over those 15 years. That adds up to over 46,000 hours over the course of my life that I’ve spent training, competing, and striving to make myself better at one singular thing. So it goes without saying that I poured my heart and soul into getting better at golf.

I spent so much time with golf that my personality became intertwined with it. My very being WAS golf. When golf was good, so was I. When golf was bad, so was I. When I got play golf, I got to be Josh. When I didn’t get to play golf, I couldn’t be Josh. When weather, obligations, or jobs kept me from playing or practicing, I felt it down to my bones.

This symbiosis with golf caused me to excel when others would stagnate. It got me up out of bed in the morning with the desire to work harder and be better than yesterday. But it had ill effects as well. When I wasn’t playing well, I felt like I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning. When I felt unprepared, I got anxious. When my goals felt unattainable (as they do from time to time for even the fiercest of driven people) I felt hopeless. When the days were short and the ground was frozen and I was stuck inside for what felt like months, I dropped into depression.

This cycle went on and on over those 15 years with the only breath of air being the one thing that I had made my identity. Until one hot day in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, I met my future wife. This encounter, along with the dating and engagement and marriage process, taught me a massive truth: there are bigger things in life. My parents were always supportive and loving, but I was still on a path that only I could go down. But Kayla (my wife) showed me that I wasn’t alone in this world.

This realization didn’t mean I dropped the clubs and stopped caring about golf. It just meant that things in golf were easier to let go. It was easier to accept a bad result or a lingering goal that seemed too far away. It was easier to move on when it was time to move on.

But as I found out despite the shift in perspective, I had still yet to totally remove that dark part from myself. I still feel the lingering effects of hopelessness when goals seem too difficult. I still get angry when I don’t see results right away. I still get depressed when I feel like I’ll never get what I want. So Kayla implored me to go see a counselor. As mentioned above, I haven’t been seeing this counselor for long, but I have learned that depression doesn’t have to mean taking medication and being labeled with a mental illness. Yes, there are those with mental illnesses that I can’t even fathom the darkness that fills them and drowns them and can only be helped through medication. But there is a spectrum.

I have learned that the words “anger” “anxiety” and “depression” aren’t as scary as they once were to me. In my case, they simply have to do with getting what I want. Depression is the feeling that I will never get what I want. And this perfectly describes the feeling that I have felt so many times over my life.

Not everyone’s relationship to golf is as close as mine was, and golf isn’t that serious for everybody. But on the other hand, there are so many that find even more identity in golf than I ever did, and are more affected or susceptible to the effects than I was.

This post is simply a plea, or a warning or a suggestion, to not neglect your mental health, even with something as seemingly trivial as golf. Because when you’re in it and you take it seriously, golf doesn’t seem so trivial. It feels life or death.

There is a stigma through all levels of golf (and life in general) that “Oh all that silly mental game stuff is for head cases. Just be tougher”. Don’t let that stigma cause you to neglect your mental health.

Pay attention to your mind, your emotions, how good golf makes you feel, how bad golf makes you feel, your personality when golf is good or bad, and how much golf affects you and those around you. I am still (and will probably always be) working on this.

Write it out. Talk it out. I believe you can have that same realization I did.

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