One of the most common complaints Shawnee Harle’s athletes have voiced over the years is they don’t have enough time.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, that complaint was often replaced with: “I’m bored.” “I can’t find any motivation.” “This isn’t fair.”
Suddenly time was all they had.
The mental toughness coach, who worked as an assistant for the Canadian women’s basketball team at two Olympic Games, challenged her students across all different sports to WAIT. That is to say, three times a day set an alarm and ask themselves, “What am I thinking?”
“We have around 60,000 thoughts a day,” said Harle, who notes that roughly 85 percent of those thoughts are negative and 90 percent are repetitive. “Pay attention and then shift,” she continued. “You get to choose what you think. I think that is so empowering. Be the boss of your thoughts. Catch yourself in the negative thoughts that are taking you away from your goals.”
The coronavirus break has impacted the LPGA more than most golf tours, with it having shut down in mid-February and not scheduled to return until the last week in July at the LPGA Drive On Championship in Ohio. Such a unique time highlights the disparities between the men’s and women’s game – earnings, resources, opportunities – even more.
Some players will come out of this with a refreshed and renewed spirit. Some might quit the game. Some will be mentally handicapped by a dwindling savings account. Others might play more freely than ever knowing their status is secured for 2021. (A player’s current LPGA status will roll over into next year.)
“We’re all dying to make money,” said Kim Kaufman. But at the same time, she continued, when will most players ever have a chance to play in 10 or more events where no matter the results, they get to come back next year?
It’s the bright side of a dark time, and being able to flip a tough situation on its head might mean the difference between success and trunk-slamming these next few months.
Kaufman began working with Harle last spring at the Hugel-Air Premia LA Open. Harle was the first person to tell Kaufman to stare down the hazards or bunkers she feared, acknowledge them and then shift to the plan.
“You can’t ignore those thoughts,” said Kaufman, “you can’t run from them.”
There will be a lot of that in the coming weeks as players tee it up for their first paycheck in months.
Angela Stanford believes veteran players will have an advantage. The 42-year-old Texan knows what it’s like to put the clubs down for eight weeks and say see you next year. She also knows what it’s like to work straight through an offseason.
On weekends in Fort Worth, Texas, Stanford plays in a standing game with Shady Oaks members, and when the pressure mounts, she’s admittedly out there acting like it’s a major championship. She still thrives off of competition, but it’s always been the travel that gets to her.
The newly named assistant Solheim Cup captain has asked herself some tough questions during the extended time off.
“For someone like me to take a step back and say, how much do I still want to do this? How much is that sacrifice of traveling?” said Stanford. “If I’m asking myself those questions, I have to believe that every player is asking themselves these questions, too.”
Vision54 coaches Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott say every player is faced with an opportunity to reframe the situation. Nilsson recalled that when Annika Sorenstam first earned her tour card, she had only conditional status and had to play in Monday qualifiers.
Sorenstam had to reframe her plan: Either she makes it on Monday and has an opportunity to compete, or she gets a full week of practice to get better for the future. And besides, Nilsson said, she needed to get better at getting off to a fast start in the first round. Monday qualifiers presented an opportunity to improve on that.
When Ariya Jutanugarn won the 2018 U.S. Women’s Open, her clubs didn’t show up until Wednesday’s practice round. She only saw the back nine of Shoal Creek before the tournament started.
“You stay stuck on lost, you’re going to be lost,” said Marriott, “whether it’s lost luggage or a lost opportunity.”
For some players, this coronavirus break might be the longest stretch they’ve gone without a touching a club or traveling since early childhood – something that never would have happened otherwise without injury or retirement.
The Vision54 coaches suggest players use timelines to project 10 years from now what they might have learned from this time. The Jutanugarn sisters – Ariya and Moriya are two of their clients – recently returned from a meditation retreat in northern Thailand. It’s obvious from social media posts that health and fitness have been a priority during the break.
LPGA rookie Albane Valenzuela used the extra time to finish her degree at Stanford, taking three classes while at home in the Bahamas. Knowing she won’t have to go back to LPGA Q-School this year or study during tournaments has provided a tremendous sense of relief.
Valenzuela’s decision to forgo her final semester at Stanford was a “big leap of faith” for the Swiss star. She never could’ve dreamed that college golf would be cut short before the postseason and that Q-School would be canceled for 2020. So many college seniors are now faced with the reality that their LPGA dreams – even the Symetra Tour – has been delayed at least one year.
“It really just showed me that sometimes you have an opportunity in life,” said Valenzuela, “and you just have to jump, be a little risk-taking with your decision. I can’t imagine what it’s like to finish college and you don’t have Q-School. That’s so heart-breaking.”
When Harle gets a new client, she often asks: What are you afraid of? What are you protecting? What are you avoiding?
There’s nothing wrong with negative thoughts, she says. We’re hard-wired to protect ourselves against danger. “Mental toughness,” she said, “is what are you going to do with those thoughts?” Because in today’s uncertain times, they certainly aren’t going away.