Superstars crash. It seems like they crash regularly, but we just hear about the ones who do so spectacularly. Without any inside knowledge of Tiger Woods’ particular issues, here are a few lessons I believe we can all take away …
Natural swings and skills are natural. When we see a youthful athlete with phenomenal skill, coaching should focus on preserving those skills and focusing the mind to avoid the distractions that destroy them. After his dad, Tiger had one great early coach who guided him through his entry into professional golf. Ditching that coach and repetitively re-inventing his swing led to a series of failed efforts to get “better.” That’s partially because he was already the best. The enemy of good is better, but the enemy of best is a fanatical competitive drive that lives within us.
Bulking up is good for weightlifting, but not for rhythm. Tiger led the way out of the fat, out-of-shape, sloppy golf land of mixed plaids and baggy pants. He also brought a new level of fitness to a game that had little perception of the need for muscles to create power. But he went too far astray when he bulked up — possibly with the help of anabolic steroids and weightlifting coaches. Tiger’s physique changed as clearly as Barry Bonds’ changed, from lean to huge. He excelled in power, but lost the grace we so admired. Whether his later injuries were a result of that transformation, no one knows, but we can’t help but wonder: If only Tiger had stayed lean and just powerful enough to swing the club with the beauty of the youthful god of golf that he was.
Tigers’ back surgeries, which began in March 2014, didn’t help either. That’s because back surgery often doesn’t work for athletes. Yes, there are many successful back operations that relieve pain and provide stability to millions of people. Yet very, very few athletes return to sports that require high torque, powerful twisting motions, and the ballistic striking of balls, racquets, people or other objects.
Once the anatomy of the back is changed by injury or surgery, healing is rarely completely normal. While surgery may fix one level of the spine, if a fusion is performed, the levels above and below take more of the force and degenerate. If tissue is taken out, the target vertebrae often collapse. Because of this, new anabolic therapies using growth factors and stem cells are exploding in popularity. The future is hopeful — but for Tiger, his career ended once the back surgery cycle started.
The mind controls the game. Happy people have happy careers. If their personal lives fall apart due to divorce, drugs or alcohol, few top athletes stay on top of their games. When you see the first public displays of personal dysfunction — such as the crashed car on the house lawn after a marriage fight — both the support team around the athlete and the public need to come together and support the reconciliation of the athlete’s personal life.
Even so, their career rarely continues to be as successful. The personal stability that got the athlete to the pinnacle of success is usually what keeps them there. Losing that support, often by looking for greener pastures, is likely to cause so much mental turmoil that their professional performance is at risk. If these athletes were stocks, they would be shorted upon the first disclosure of such difficulties. Tiger failed to correct, to reconcile and to use his counselors to rebuild his trust and relationships. His golden future was doomed from then on.
It is easy to point out life’s lessons in retrospect. Yet despite being surrounded by thousands of examples, displayed in every supermarket tabloid, we continue to cheer on our failing superstars, hoping they have some super power that defies the odds.
We all know why we do this. We are hoping that, when and if the time comes, we have that power, too.
Dr. Kevin R. Stone is an orthopedic surgeon at The Stone Clinic and chairman of the Stone Research Foundation in San Francisco.