Dr. Mandelbaum Discusses with Medscape Tiger Woods and the Victorious Spirit

Tiger Woods and the Victorious Spirit

About 15 years ago, I got a chance to hang out with Tiger Woods at the Riviera Country Club in the Pacific Palisades, California. At 6:30 in the morning, he was putting balls into the hole from 15 feet, one after the other—boom, boom, boom. A thing of beauty!

Then he did something I had never seen before: He covered his left eye with his left hand and began rimming the hole. Ball after ball rimmed the hole. And I realized he was teaching himself what it felt like when he missed. It was like a basketball player shooting off the rim, a pitcher throwing just outside the strike zone, or a soccer player training himself to hit the post. By teaching himself the difference between the feeling of missing and the feeling of putting the ball in the hole, he knew which one to avoid. That kind of dedication set Woods apart then, and it is setting him apart once again.

Perhaps the most accomplished golfer in the history of the sport, Woods was stricken with an anterior cruciate ligament tear and lumbar sacral problems. He went through unsuccessful conservative treatments, surgery, rehabilitation, divorce, more challenges with his golf stroke, and drug abuse. Now once again, he is competing at the highest levels, from the Masters to much of the PGA Tour.

The attributes he has exhibited through this process are iconic of those I describe in my book, The Win Within.[1] Woods discovered that the win is within by unleashing his victorious spirit to create opportunities. I saw a similar determination when I was working with David Beckham. He returned to soccer 6 months after rupturing his Achilles tendon—an injury that normally requires more than 1 year of rehabilitation.[2]

I have seen the same victorious spirit in Tim Daggett, the gymnast who broke his leg, and Charlie Davies, a rising star of American soccer, both of whom overcame disastrous obstacles that would have ended the careers of most athletes. They succeeded because of their ambition, perseverance, and hard work, in addition to their God-given talent.

Opportunity in Adversity

My favorite example of how adversity can lead to new success is Cliff Meidl, a young man who was hit with 30,000 volts of electricity during a construction accident; that voltage is 20 times the charge typically used in an electric chair. Meidl needed 14 operations. After his recovery, he still could not walk well, but he could paddle, and in 1996, he qualified for the US Olympic Kayak team. He was not an athlete, but he became an athlete, and in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, he not only made the team but was elected by his teammates to carry the flag into the opening ceremonies. He focused himself. It took that adversity to learn that he had this special athlete inside him.

I believe that adversity can be an engine for unimagined opportunity. The greatest physical adversities Woods has faced are the injuries to his knee and his back. The back is the nemesis of the golfer. The power of the gluteus maximus coming through the kinetic chain requires great torsion in the lumbar spine, and the golfer's core must be sufficient to control this force and drive the ball 300 yards. Woods' latest surgery, which fused two discs, required him to relearn the movements on which he relied throughout his career.[2]

As sports doctors can attest, it is tough to get an athlete back in the game even at age 22, let alone 42. The older athlete cannot train with the same vigor. In his 20s, Woods out-trained everyone and intimidated them. At 42, the athlete does not have the same training capabilities; range of motion and speed of recovery are more limited. It is not surprising that Woods tied for 32nd place at the Masters. That he could finish even that high, and come in second at the Valspar Championship, is remarkable.

Even tying for 23rd in the Memorial Tournament is a significant improvement over Woods' 2015 finish at 71.

Five Characteristics of the Victorious Spirit

Woods typifies the five aspects of the victorious spirit of the win within.

1. Nutrition and exercise. Woods is legendary for his workouts, running and lifting weights at a time when most professional golfers thought big muscles would be a liability. As a result, he has the fastest club-head speed in the PGA Tour. Woods espouses a disciplined diet. "I stick to lean meats and seafood, lots of fruits and vegetables, and no junk food. My typical breakfast is an egg-white omelet with vegetables. Lunch and dinner is usually grilled chicken or fish with salad and vegetables. Protein ranks high in my diet because it helps build muscle tissue. I also take daily supplements for bone protection and nutritional support."[3]

2. Optimism and hope. Writing on his blog in December as he prepared a comeback from his latest surgery, Woods noted that his swing was shorter, but he chose to focus on the positive—his explosive strength and great putting. He said he was "optimistic" and "encouraged." After days when he needed help to get out of bed, that kind of upbeat attitude was essential to his return.[4]

3. Adventure and challenge. Woods set himself the challenge to be the best golfer ever. Every one of the high-stakes tournaments in which he's played has been some kind of adventure, to say nothing of surviving injuries and car crashes. The rest of us can learn from a spirit that embraces this roller-coaster ride. He uses his positivism and optimism every day of his life to overcome mental, physical, and emotional struggles.

4. Relationships and mentoring. Woods' relationship with his father, Earl Woods, is legendary. Earl Woods began to coach Tiger in golf before he was 2 years old. When Tiger was 5, Earl hired professionals but remained actively involved in his son's career. A strong home is also essential to success. When Woods' marriage foundered, he had to take a break from golf as well.[5]

5. Values and character. After marital infidelities disrupted Woods' career and happiness, he commented that he had departed from the path his Buddhist mother showed him. "Buddhism teaches that a craving for things outside ourselves causes an unhappy and pointless search for security," he said. "It teaches me to stop following every impulse and to learn restraint. Obviously I lost track of what I was taught."[6]

As fans, we appreciate an athlete's achievements more when we realize that the athlete is human. All of us have an athlete inside us. In our DNA is the code of the fittest survivors of the fittest. We are the descendants of people who chased impalas across the savannah in 100°F heat, caught up to them, and hunted them down, to become the survivors of the fittest. Each of us feels that, but in some cases it takes adversity to bring it to the surface.

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