Being Jordan Spieth

As news of Jordan Spieth's stunning change of fortune claimed the media spotlight, some more important life lessons began to emanate from Augusta National. Lessons that will well serve our nation's youth.
04/14/2016 04:27 pm ET Updated Apr 15, 2017

On Sunday morning, April 10, many young athletes likely awoke wanting to be Jordan Spieth. Just 22 years old, Spieth was on the cusp of winning his second Masters Tournament, buffeted by what he referred to as his "B-minus tee-to-green game" but buffered by his putts.

It seemed inevitable. Until the collapse.

With just nine holes to play, America's latest golf superstar succumbed to his humanity, bogeying two successive holes. His next two shots landed in the water, and another in the sand.

Alas, the back-to-back green jacket scenario was not to be, despite Spieth's enviable resolve and brief rally.

As news of Spieth's stunning change of fortune claimed the media spotlight, some more important life lessons began to emanate from Augusta National. Lessons that will well serve our nation's youth.

Perhaps the most salient of those lessons was Spieth's stoic demeanor while helping -- twice -- the ultimate winner, Danny Willett, don the coveted coat that used to be his. (Life Lesson: Grace) Though stunned and stiff, Spieth managed to contain his emotions, possibly avoiding a public debacle reminiscent of league MVP but 2016 Super Bowl runner-up Cam Newton's post-game press conference, according to those in the Twittersphere. (Life Lesson: Self-Control)

To some, the generally affable Spieth appeared somewhat less than gracious for apparently failing to congratulate his successor. But one can forgive the absence of great behavior in the service of acceptable, even enviable, behavior. Karen Crouse, in a New York Times article, states, "Spieth showed what he is made of while answering questions less than an hour after his dreams of a repeat had been dashed," acknowledging Spieth's nod to Willett's recent fatherhood and proclaiming his character "intact."

Self-regulation is, of course, an important part of sports, and life. And therein lies an analog: golf as life, life as golf, filled with water holes and sand traps. Requiring constant analysis, action and correction. Do, reflect, re-do. All taking place through nuanced corridors sandwiched between rough edges.

Such is the sport of growing up.

As parents and other caring adults relinquish primary responsibility for that three-step process, we help young people migrate from an external locus of control to an internal one. Along the way, they become more aware of whom they are, what choices they confront and what decisions they wish to make. It's all a part of what Erik Erikson called identity formation. Such self-definition, in turn, propels youth to sample observed behavior in order to ascertain what "works" for them (and those they care about) and what doesn't. The juxtaposition of Cam Newton and Jordan Spieth in moments of failure created -- in a sense -- a living classroom for those en route to maturity. (Life Lesson: Leadership)

It has become in vogue of late to point out that failure fosters success. That is true to the degree that one learns something of value from struggle and applies it to future endeavors, be they athletic, social, relational, academic or vocational. Paul Tough, in his book How Children Succeed, posits that doing well is irrevocably connected to traits of "perseverance, curiosity, conscientiousness, optimism and self-control." All of these, of course, can be -- and are -- modeled by influential people in a young person's life, whether those they know or ones they see on television, in film, and on social media and the Internet.

Of the example set by Spieth, 17-year-old student-athlete (and golfer) Briggs Wright told me: "In times of adversity, the way you respond is what dictates how people view you. Spieth exemplified traits of grit and leadership. He showed how important it is to always give your all even when the odds seem stacked against you. After faltering, Spieth did what not many could. He attempted a comeback instead of caving in. In sports, as in life, it is often easier to give up during difficult times than it is to fight. On Sunday Spieth demonstrated how to take the hard road and persevere. That's what leaders do."

As important as outside role models -- like Jordan Spieth -- may be, parents are first among equals.

Yet Jessica Lahey, a teacher and author of The Gift of Failure - How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed laments that too often overprotective parents, who don't allow their children to experience disappointment and frustration, rob them of experiences that will ultimately help them to become resilient, successful and self-reliant adults.

To that end, "Don't be perfect, be courageous" is a good message to send to our kids. So, too, is helping them learn to fail, as Jordan Spieth just did. (Life Lesson: Tenacity)

How to do that? Jamie M. Howard, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and Director of the Trauma and Resilience Service at the Child Mind Institute, suggests the following.


• When you see that your child is struggling or having a hard time, empathize with him. Be sure not to brush off his feelings. Try using language like "I know you're really disappointed and that you wanted to do better."

• Explain to your child that everyone fails and offer a story about a time when you yourself failed. You can model for your child how to handle frustration and disappointment. Remember, kids are always watching and taking cues from parents.

• Look at failure as a chance to teach your child a lesson about resiliency. Talk through what went wrong and use problem solving skills to come up with a plan for what to do next time.

• If at first you don't succeed, try again. Remind your child that they can try again and use this failure as a learning experience.

Ultimately, there is meaning in meltdown that can endow and inform future acts of courage.

Writing about the Masters outcome for TIME magazine's "Motto," Robin Hilmantel quotes Sian Beilock, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago and author of Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To: "People worry about the situation, its outcome and what is on the line." These worries can be distracting and lead us to pay attention -- often in too much detail. "When we dwell on aspects of our performance that usually operate outside conscious awareness, we can actually screw ourselves up."

What does Beilock recommend? Practice under stress, such as in front of family or friends, so that competition isn't something to be afraid of.

Finally, Beilock notes that nobody is infallible and advises that, if you've already choked, "Don't dwell. Change how you think about your past performance." Failure is an opportunity to learn how to perform better and think about what to do differently the next time.

Good advice. And all the more reason to want to be Jordan Spieth.

He'll be back.