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Swing Into Recovery with Golf

12 ways golf relates to the 12-Step recovery process

Louise Stanger is a speaker, educator, licensed clinician, social worker, certified daring way facilitator and interventionist who uses an invitational intervention approach to work with complicated mental health, substance abuse, chronic pain and process addiction clients.

My husband, John Wadas CFRE, as some of you may know, is a certified funding executive and retired athletic director (SDSU, ASU, South Florida and Long Beach State). Along with his wrestling prowess, he is a former collegiate golf coach and sat on the NCAA Division I golf championship committee. With such experience, he has put on hundreds of successful golf tournaments. He loves the game and has a great understanding of its intricacies. Though he has come to learn a great deal of recovery from the work that I do, I unfortunately have not been well informed in golf.

Since Mr. Wadas has an expertise in this arena (amongst his many talents), I decided I would learn from him the specialties of the game. Every behavioral health conference has a golf tournament and many centers offer golf as a treatment modality. Often the physicians, dentists, executives, men and women, athletes, etc. that I work with love the game. Could golf hold secrets that aid in the recovery process? Not being a golfer, I sat down and asked him to tell me about the game, what it means to others, and how it may help folks in recovery.

Like the 12 steps of AA, here are 12 reasons golf is great:

  1. Golf, like recovery, is the game of a lifetime. Men, women and children of all races and ages can learn and have fun with the game. In other words, anyone that has the desire can play just like anyone who has the desire may join a 12-step group.

  2. Golf is a challenge by choice. In many treatment programs, outdoor activities are integrated into the curriculum along with trauma-based somatic experiences and talk therapy. Golf represents a challenge by choice – with golf your endorphins and neurotransmitters are kicked in while you are being challenged to engage in positive thinking as well as exercise that works our minds and bodies.

  3. Golf is exercise and social. You walk in a beautiful setting with friends. In recovery one walks in and sees the world with clean eyes. Peers are important to the process. NIDA recommends exercise, ritual and peer support as evidence- based modalities that are integral to successful recovery.

  4. Golf gets one closer to nature. The sounds of the birds in the trees, the flowers and the design and the layout of each and every course is appealing and serene. You have an opportunity to connect with nature and a higher power. One must be mindful, watch one’s breathing and maintain focus. These are all therapeutic strategies which help folks in recovery.

  5. Golf is therapeutic and a stress reducer. Like many forms of exercise, it kicks the endorphins in, allows you to clear your head, focus and allow you to be present in the moment. Like recovery it’s one stroke at a time, one moment at a time, one day at a time.

  6. Golf welcomes all players, regardless of skill level or ability to compete. The handicap system provides a level playing field when competing with others. A higher handicap player, women or child, can tee off at the more forward tee boxes. There is likewise a self support program for every age and race. One must just have desire to play just as one must have willingness to engage in recovery.

  7. Golf is a sport that allows us to be competitive long after other sports are not possible. A professional athlete who has aged out of their sport or sustained injury no longer competes. Not golf. Tony Romo, the former Dallas Cowboys football player, for example is taking a swing at professional golf. The only true competitor one has in golf is yourself. Just as the Serenity Prayer challenges us to take control of our own lives and to give up that which we can’t, golf welcomes us to embrace the level we’re at.

  8. Golf builds and reveals character. In golf, one must take the good with the bad and you are responsible for your own rule violation and penalty stroke. This is self-reporting sport. There are no referees. Like steps 4 and 5 of “AA” golfers must “make a searching and fearless inventory of themselves and admit to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”

  9. The caddy is a coach and the player must execute the shot. One’s caddy in golf is a trusted compatriot, “a winner” who has your back and gives you direction along the way. Similarly, one’s AA sponsor is seen as “a winner” who is living the program and who may offer you his/her strength, wisdom and experience. A person who seeks a sponsor must do the “footwork and be willing to take direction.”

  10. Golf is a Challenging Sport. While it appears easy, golf takes a lot of practice and most golfers struggle to break a 100 on a par 72. The challenge brings you back to take on the challenge and improve. Recovery is not easy and takes a lot of hard work – think 90 meetings in 90 days, think working with a sponsor, think changing people, places things, thoughts feelings and actions.

  11. Competition- There are many games to play with a foursome. Mr Wadas reports – Nassau, Point Quota, Lagging, Wolf, Stableford Skins, Best Ball, Match Play or Scramble tend to be most popular at charity events. There are many more games and the prize per point is usually decided on the first tee. The loser can pay for lunch or donate to a charity of his choice. In recovery, companionship and comradery is important. Most good treatment centers have alumni groups which foster competition and fellowship.

  12. The Look – Suit up & show up. Golf attire is required at golf courses and players like to look stylish and professional. The equipment and the bag put the ensemble together. In AA, “we aim not only for sobriety – we try again to become citizens of the world that we rejected, and of the world that once rejected us. This is the ultimate demonstration toward which Twelve Step work is the first but not the final step,” writes Bill W. in his book As Bill Sees It: The AA Way of Life. Suiting up and showing up is the most important action for each day. Folks in recovery must choose to embrace life, go to meetings, get a sponsor, talk to newcomers, be of service, seek out needed counseling, learn new skills. People who are actively engaged in recovery albeit AA, NA, ACA, Alanon, Naranon, SA, CA, OA, etc. learn new things to live healthier, more productive lives.

Recovery and golf are a process. The task is to keep doing what you are doing and keep falling up! Keep doing the footwork so one can rise to their best possible self. If golf is a challenge by choice and becomes an activity that takes you to higher places, then by all means I am FORE the game!

To learn more about Louise Stanger and her interventions and other resources, visit her website.

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