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How Can Too Much Success Lead To Failure? Golfer Jason Day Will Explain

How Can Too Much Success Lead To Failure? Golfer Jason Day Will Explain

How much success would be too much to handle? For Jason Day, it was after he won the Players Championship in 2016. It was a wire-to-wire victory that cemented him as the number one player in the World Golf Rankings. He was on top of his profession. Then, he didn’t win again for the rest of 2016. And nothing again in 2017.

What happened?

As Day told ESPN, “I got burned out being No. 1. It’s easy to get burned out in a position that you’re in the spotlight. It can be demanding at times,” he said, “I know what it takes and feels like to win and be in that position, and it was a more disappointing emotion that came over me last year saying that I feel I’ve got all this talent. For me to not work as hard as I should be and to be selfish in that mindset – well, I’m burned out, it’s OK to have an off year. That really bugged me.”

After reading Day’s honest assessment of his abilities, I like him more for knowing himself so well. Most people aren’t as honest, with themselves or with others, about the challenges or pressures of being the best. I think it’s great that he called himself out on this.

We each work to succeed in life and business, but not everyone is made for the top spot. If you want to be number one, are you ready for the pressures and pitfalls that come with being at the top? Being ready is not just about natural talent. Talented people rise to the top every day, but to stay there you have to have both the right skills and temperament to stay there.

But is there something in our makeup that makes us more likely to handle the pressures of success? Do certain people have an easier time being at the top?

Science says yes.

A study in the Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care, 2012 July-Dec Issue titled “Behavior of Personality Type Toward Stress and Job Performance: A Study of Healthcare Professionals,” examined 160 healthcare professionals in stressful situations. It measured their performance across a broad range of daily activities. The researchers also separated the group into Type A and Type B individuals, to see how the different personality types performed under these stressful conditions. The study showed that Type A personalities perform better in stressful situations than Type B personalities in every test.

Which makes sense. Driven personalities focus on the goals in front of them, even when presented with stress to perform. Easier going personalities have other concerns beyond succeeding in the current task when stress takes hold.

What about the amount of stress? Jason Day obviously handled the stress of winning major tournaments just fine. He won 5 in 2015 and 3 in the first part of 2016. What changed when he became number one in the world?

Robert Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson, two psychologists from the turn of the 20th Century have some insight. The Yerkes-Dodson law dictates that performance increases with increased arousal (stress), but only up to a certain point. Once you are too stressed, your performance dips just as fast as it builds up.

Yerkes and Dodson also found that this optimal stress point wasn’t fixed for all tasks. Tasks that weren’t familiar or couldn’t be performed by rote had a much lower optimal performance point than simple, repeatable tasks.

Going back to Day, he’s immensely talented at his craft and has been playing golf for years. His optimal performance point was higher in tournaments BEFORE he became number one. Winning tournaments had been easy, but once the added stress of being the best in the world entered the picture, he was thrown off his game. He hadn’t prepared for the media, the extra demands on his attention, and the pressure that comes from being at the top of your sport.

How do you prepare for the top? One study suggests finding ways to increase your control over your life. This Harvard study found that leaders who experienced a heightened sense of control over their lives and activities were less stressed compared to others with less control.

When we look at the Great Competitors in sports, we see that they stay on top by focusing on what they can control. LeBron James hasn’t made it to the NBA Finals seven years in a row with the same teammates or even the same teams. He can’t control his external environment all the time, but he can focus on controlling himself, his routines, his play.

Jason Day just got his second win of the season, and he’s getting the fire back. Tiger Woods is a good friend of Day and said, “Now he’s got a taste of it, he wants it back again.”

My bet is that he’s better prepared now to stay on top and he has a new fan here.

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About Don Yaeger

Don Yaeger

Don Yaeger is a Certified Speaking Professional (CSP), longtime Associate Editor for Sports Illustrated, 11-time New York Times best-selling author, leadership expert and executive coach.

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