Headmaster’s Assembly – 28 July 2017

Lessons from the Open

This past weekend I sat, along with millions of people around the world, transfixed with the spectacle that is The Open – one of the four major golfing events for male golfers in the world. If you win one of these tournaments, known as a “major”, you enter into an elite world of special golfers and your career as a golfer is just about guaranteed to be a success going forward. To those who don’t know the sport, this is a big deal and majors are events all golfers dream of winning or indeed competing in at least once in their careers. The Open is a tournament held in Great Britain and is the oldest of the four majors. Many golfers acknowledge that it is the most coveted of the four. Now that I have sketched a background, I wish to share a lesson or two that I picked up from the many hours I spent watching this past weekend.

This lesson involved a young man who is older than his 24 years may suggest and who has achieved a great deal in the sport already – Jordan Spieth. Spieth has had many accomplishments in his career and has won many tournaments including two majors but, until this past weekend, he had not won the Open. He started as one of the favourites and when three of the four days were over, he had a comfortable lead going into the last round. All he had to do was play fairly decent golf and the tournament was his along with the record of being the youngest player to ever win three different majors. It seemed simple, it seemed easy.

And then his world fell apart as he dropped shot after shot to squander his seemingly unassailable lead and was tied for the lead then lost the lead and he was struggling. His head was down, his body language negative and he looked nothing like a champion golfer at all. If you had to put money on his winning from where he was with only a few holes to go, you would have bet against him.

And then everything changed again…

What went on in his mind we don’t know but he went from being a struggling player to a champion in the space of five holes as he picked up shot after shot on his rivals to end up winning by a comfortable margin. I sat mesmerised with many other golf-lovers as we watched a man come from being stone dead, hopeless and lost, to win. This transformation was remarkable and it is well worth learning a few lessons from this event.

  1. Life doesn’t always work out as you think it will. Spieth thought he had a fairly comfortable cushion and then it was all gone. Just when you and I think things are going well, often one of life’s little curve balls is thrown to us and we have to deal with it. These adversities make us stronger and show exactly what we have inside ourselves. The ability to overcome adversity is one of the hallmarks of successful people. Every year when I welcome our new Form Is and their parents, I say to them that I hope their son’s time at the school will include a moment or two when they will need to dig deep. I hope their school career will not be plain sailing because I want them to test themselves against the challenges they are faced with. I ask parents to be careful about being “helicopter parents” who hover in the background and swoop down to save their child when things get rough. The other type I heard of is the “lawnmower parent” who prepares the path for their child so they will not fall. No – our children need to learn many of these lessons for themselves and I hope the lesson that Jordan Speith learned helps us too – life is not always going to be smooth, get used to it.
  2. There will be a moment when things turn and it is vital that you are ready for it and seize that chance. One lucky break may be just the thing you need to turn things around. I speak to many boys who want to be professional sportsmen and I ask them what they think they need to succeed. All agree that hard work is number one, combined with talent obviously but then I tell them that they will need a little luck as well – small chances and opportunities that you need to take. When your opponent drops the ball as he is about to score, when an unexpected break comes your way, you have to take it.
  3. Believe in the impossible and believe it can happen. Spieth turned his game around and the fire that was lit in his eyes was clear. Suddenly, instead of missing everything, he was holing putts from all over the place. And this was the same person from 30 minutes ago. He suddenly believed he could do it and really believed it. He backed himself and was triumphant in the end.
  4. Have people around you who believe in you too. One of the most important people in top-level golf is the caddie – the person carrying the bag for you that keeps you calm and focussed. Spieth gave tremendous credit to his caddie Michael Greller who stayed calm and got his man over the line.

Take these four things into your sporting lives and into your lives in general. Prepare for the unexpected and the mishaps, even if just in your mind and don’t let them get to you. Take your chances and take what pieces of luck the gods give you. Believe in yourselves and your ability to perform at levels you have hitherto been unable to achieve and finally have people around you who believe in you too – your teammates who build you up and who believe in you even when you may have lost faith yourself. This is not just about sport and I hope you are able to translate this message into your academic work, your music, your art, your writing and indeed your relationships.

Many people ask why we play sport and why we think all of our boys should play. It is not to win or lose, to experience victory or defeat. It is to learn life’s lessons as individuals and as a team. It is to learn to live.

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