A three-time All-American in golf who majored in management and psychology at Skidmore, Jared Tendler ’01 went on to earn a master’s degree in counseling psychology and become a licensed mental-health counselor. But golf has remained his passion, and he has focused his career in large part on helping golfers – and now poker players as well – come to terms with the mental aspects of those games. Jared has worked with the Kirkendoll Performance Golf Institute in Phoenix, Ariz., and ESPN Golf School’s Online Academy. He also conducts seminars on stress- and performance-management skills for corporate clients.

You describe yourself not as a therapist or a coach, but a “developer of mental strategies.” Can you provide an example of a common mental strategy you have helped golfers, or poker players, or business executives develop?

TENDLER: It’s been hard for me to come up with a name for what I do. I trained as a therapist so I could understand the underlying issues behind performance problems. I talk with clients like a coach who provides explicit direction and find ways to inspire, and I’m an expert in learning. I’m a bit of a hybrid, and calling me the ‘developer of mental strategies’ is as good as any description I’ve thought about.

The most common issue that affects golfers, poker players, and executives is anger. Anger even at low levels (intolerance, impatience, frustration, etc) can be equally problematic, because it often accumulates into bigger problems over time. Normally
calm and even keeled personalities are often those who have the hardest time understanding the source of their frustration because — when they do blow-up — their struggle to make sense of how it happened actually adds to the frustration.

The goal in working with anger issues is always to strive to understand the source. Anger basically represents conflict. A missed shot in golf might cause frustration because you expected more of yourself, and that means either that your perception of your own skill is too high (overconfident) or you failed to properly prepare for the shot. The conflict here is between you and yourself; that means you must either readjust your perception to the reality that you’re not as good at golf as you thought, or you need to take greater care in preparing. Either way, you’re taking anger out of the equation and adopting a mental strategy that’s going to improve your game – whether it’s golf, or poker, or some business activity.

What does it mean to be “in the zone” — and do you think it’s possible to merely think one’s way into it? In other words, is there a mental strategy we can adopt that will bring us into the zone? If so, can you describe it?

TENDLER: The zone is essentially a person’s peak state of mind. It’s commonly described as having a sense of pure focus where decisions come easily, time slows down, and the person has a sense of easy control over what they are doing.

There are many who think you can just train your mind to consistently think your way into the zone, or to trigger it by repeating a mantra, etc. You can do it once or twice, but the fundamental reason that this perspective is flawed is that it presumes the person’s zone, or peak mindset can’t actually improve even more. The mind operates just like the body in the sense that through proper training it can perform at levels even greater than before. The zone can improve. Your mindset can become even more timeless, focused more deeply, and have even greater mastery of what you’re doing.

The way you achieve that requires an understanding both about what fuels the zone, and what takes you out of it. The single easiest way to get into the zone more consistently is to eliminate the things that take you out of it – distractions, frustrations, poor technique, etc. Do that and the zone will naturally be there more. Additionally, you also want to prepare yourself properly by setting clear goals, and using those goals to narrow your focus before you begin. You also want to have a sense of what typically would take you out of your zone, so when it happens, you can recognize it quickly and work to refocus just as quickly.

The other key thing to keep in mind is that while the zone might feel easy, the brain is actually using a tremendous amount of energy. So if you are tired or hungry, getting into the zone will be tougher. And on days when you did perform in the zone, be sure to get plenty of rest that night, if you want to have a good chance to get there again tomorrow.

In poker, players must be continually on guard against allowing their emotions to carry them into a state of “tilt” or “steam”. Is it accurate to think of the brain as being in a constant struggle between our emotions and our capacity for logic and reason? When we develop and apply a mental strategy, are we in effect strengthening reason so as to better control our emotions.

TENDLER: Yes, the brain is in a constant struggle to become in better control of our emotions, but this is only half the ultimate goal. When we talk about being mentally tough, what we are basically referring to is the amount of mental muscle we have to control our emotions. It’s generally been something that is hard to teach, but it’s honestly no different that lifting weights and getting physically stronger in the gym. In this case, the neurons in the mind are the equivalent of muscle fibers and people who have more developed neurons specifically for emotional control are the ones commonly described as being mentally strong or tough. They can lift more emotional weight. So if you want to build it yourself, think about the principals of building muscles in the gym, and do the same thing emotionally. That’s a big part of what I do with clients.

Unfortunately, emotional control is only half of the story, because ultimately for consistent high performance, especially in the zone, your mind has to move past emotional control. Emotional control requires a lot of focus and energy. We have only have so much focus to use, so if part of it is going to control our emotions, that means we have less to use towards what we’re actually doing – playing poker or golf or leading an important sales meeting.

To move past emotional control, we have to resolve the underlying reason the emotion is there. Once that happens, the emotion dissolves completely and will never show up again for that reason. For example, you might get anxious playing poker or golf because you fear making a making a mistake. You might fear making a mistake because when you do make on you become very self-critical. Self-criticism is a common result of perfectionism. Striving towards perfection is not a problem, but expecting it is. So when the causes of your perfectionism are resolved, your fear of making mistakes naturally goes away. You no longer have to use your emotional muscles to control it, and you can now focus more realistically on your goal of playing perfectly.

Do your techniques have as much applicability in the game of business as in the games of golf and poker? Does your practice include business executives?

TENDLER: It does, but it’s been several years since I’ve worked with business executives. The major reason I’ve specialized with golfers and poker players is that I believe that people are more likely to make progress when they are given instructions in the language of what they are doing and when I have a clear understanding of the demands of their job or sport. I started with golf because that’s what I knew best, and poker I learned quickly after meeting a top poker pro on the golf course.

My long-term goal is to standardize the general strategies, theories, concepts and methodology that I’ve used over the past five years so that I can selectively begin partnering with experts in other fields – such as business executives, lawyers, other sports — and create tailor-made programs. I’m in contact with a stock broker/day trader and next year plan to begin working with him more once my book on the mental game of poker is completed.

It’s reported in Scope magazine that you devised your career plan in a Skidmore dorm room. Can you describe how that happened? Do you have any advice for students who may be striving to develop career plans?

TENDLER: The fall of my senior year it had become clear that my dreams of playing professional golfer were a pipedream because of my mental game. I played great on the Skidmore team, but out on my own in elite national competition I continually failed under the pressure. I had done some sport psychology work, but found that it made me better at every other time except under intense pressure. I figured that if I could find a solution to my problem I could find a career that could also benefit others. I added a psychology major to my business degree and stayed a 5th year.

I came up with the idea after realizing I wanted to be around golf, but not a club professional. Having seen the movie ‘Tin Cup’ several times probably gave me the idea too. I got a lot of advice from family, friends and my therapist. The resounding answer was that they loved the idea. Once I decided on it I went for it with full steam.

For me that meant deferring my ultimate goals for 4 years because I needed to learn the skills of a therapist. I think deferred gratification with career planning is essential for people with long-term goals. The biggest mistake I made at times was thinking that my success would come easier than I thought. Competition requires a level of skill and competence that can only come from years of work. If you have a goal, be willing to make the hard choices to do what’s necessary in the short-term.

I’d also say that it’s important to be flexible, creative, and opportunistic. There are a lot of opportunities out there for people who can identify a need and work hard to fill it. My sense is that with the large corporate structures being less predictable these days that people are looking to put their careers in their own hands. To do that successfully means there’s a lot of unpredictability, a lot of failure/set-backs, and difficulty in your future. These roadblocks are opportunities in disguise. Often if you solve these roadblocks, or figure a new way to the same or a better end goal that’s where your advantage in the marketplace comes from and people will want what you provide.