The Tiger Woods Analogy for Therapists Makes a Roaring Comeback! By Howard Rosenthal, EdD on 6/27/19 - 4:10 PM

On April 14th of this year, Tiger Woods won the 2019 Masters Tournament at age 43, creating a sports story which NBA legend Michael Jordan called, “the greatest comeback I have ever seen.” Just for the record, this was Tiger’s fifth Masters victory. This, mind you, after some of the top pundits predicted he would never win another tournament, much less the Masters.

But what, if anything, does this amazing accomplishment have to do with the practice of psychotherapy? Well grab a 9 iron, or preferably a putter, and indulge me while I explain. Also, you need not be a golfer or even a putt-putt mini-golf aficionado to benefit from this information.

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In 2007 I wrote a brief chapter titled “The Tiger Woods Analogy: The Seven Minute Active Listening Solution,” for Lorna L. Hecker and Catherine Ford Sori’s wonderful book The Therapist’s Notebook. Volume 2. In the book I show precisely how to prove to yourself that the “Tiger Woods Analogy” I am about to describe impacts your therapy sessions. Using a trusted friend playing the role of the client, I share an experiential activity with two trials where the “client” provides you with a rating concerning your effectiveness as a helper. In this exercise, the “therapist” is first instructed to let their mind wander while listening to the “client”; following which, they are told to hang onto every word the “client” says. In such an exercise, you will discover that your helper rating is significantly higher when you are listening versus when you are contemplating the purchase of your next cell phone plan.

I will now share the rudiments of the analogy with you. Let us assume that I am faced with a four-foot putt. Is there a good chance I will miss it? Indeed, there is an excellent chance. Now, let’s challenge Tiger with the identical putt. Even as well as Tiger putts, he doesn’t sink them all, so yes there is a chance Tiger could miss it as well.

But the key difference will become clear if both of us are asked to attempt the exact putt once again. In my case, I will likely be clueless as to why I missed the first putt and I am afraid there is a very high possibility I will miss it once again. Well, how about Tiger? Could he miss it again? It is possible, but the odds of this occurring will be much lower. Why? Tiger will consciously or unconsciously say to himself, “Hit the putt a little more to the left,” or “loosen your grip on the putter,” or whatever.

Tiger is aware of why he missed it. He has insight into his behavior. He is constantly watching his performance and listening to feedback. Me, not so much or maybe not at all.

Now let’s apply this to a counseling or psychotherapy session. How many times when a client is talking, are you thinking about your daughter’s birthday party, your son’s soccer game, or your larger than life credit card bills? (And if you answered “never” then I know you are least to yourself.)

If you are beginning to think that the point of this blog is, “Oh Dr. Rosenthal, I get it. I promise, I’ll never zonk out, stop listening, and I’ll hang on to every word uttered by every client,” you are delusional. Sorry, that’s not going to happen. Albert Ellis reminded us for more years than we care to remember, that humans are fallible and are far from perfect.

There will be times when you are daydreaming and not totally listening to your client, merely because that is a part of the human helper’s psychotherapeutic experience. The point is that after reading this blog (and preferably performing the exercise fully explained in the Therapist’s Notebook with a trusted colleague who will be rating your effectiveness), I want you to be like Tiger attempting the putt for a second time—intensely aware, insightful, and fully cognizant of your behavior and therefore bringing yourself back to listening to your client ASAP.

Hence, in the future when you begin thinking about whether you should order the chicken or the beef fried rice after the client’s session ends, you will have this amazing larger than life insight that maybe you ought to recall the Tiger Woods analogy and pay a wee bit more attention to what the client is trying to convey.

No matter how you use it, knowledge of this analogy, even though it is extremely valuable, won’t transform you into a master therapist, and it sure as heck won’t allow you to putt as well as Tiger, but it will go a long way to improving your active listening skills.

File under: Musings and Reflections