What sport can reveal about character

Stephanie Cheah, education consultant and regular golfer since the Covid pandemic, explores the inextricable relationship between sport and character.

Sport has long been viewed as a mirror, reflecting the intricacies of human nature. While many sports showcase the physical prowess, strategic thinking, and mental toughness of athletes, few are as revealing of character as golf. This centuries-old game, revered by many, is not just about getting a ball into a hole but about understanding oneself, confronting one’s weaknesses, and adhering to a code of conduct even when no one is watching.

Like many others, I took up golf during the Covid pandemic to get a few hours of socially-distanced fresh air. Unlike the fast-paced, reactive sport of tennis that I played in my youth, I discovered that the essence of golf is patience, and it demands a far more thoughtful approach. As I make my way around the course, it is essential for me to carefully assess the landscape, the wind direction, and consider the most suitable club to use. Rash decisions can cost dearly in this game. This sport was telling me more about my character, and watching others on the course, I began to learn more about them too. If I observe their demeanour when faced with a challenging shot, I may notice if they rush. Are they driven by frustration? Or do they take a moment to reflect, strategize, and execute with deliberation? One could say that their approach on the course may parallel their approach in life!

Golf is unique in that it relies heavily on self-regulation. Players are often responsible for keeping their scores, calling penalties on themselves, and adhering to an honour system. While golfers could easily cheat or ‘bend’ the rules slightly, the essence of the game calls for unwavering integrity. In fact, how a person behaves on the golf course—whether they own up to a mistake, or whether they respect the game’s principles—can be a big clue to what their character is like off the course. It underscores the age-old adage: true character is revealed not when someone is watching, but when they believe no one is.

While golf can be solitary because every shot is executed by yourself, it is still a social game. As we interact with different partners or opponents, we get to see the interpersonal dynamics at play. A golfer can show sportsmanship and consideration on the course. On the other hand, they may be competitive to the point of being unkind. The dynamics on the golf course can be very revealing of how a person navigates relationships and collaborations in other arenas of life.

Many boarding schools in the UK offer golf as a sporting activity, using the facilities at a nearby local golf club or perhaps even on their own course within the school grounds. It’s a well-known fact that sports not only builds character but is a microcosm of the ups and downs in life. Golf is a seemingly simple game of hitting a ball towards and into a hole. But the journey to that end is layered with lessons, challenges and opportunities that reveal the core of a person’s character. Whether it’s the tenacity to bounce back from a poor shot, the honesty to admit a mistake, or the humility to accept defeat graciously, golf is a profound testament to one’s character.

As the legendary golfer Bobby Jones once said, “Golf is the closest game to the game we call life”. There is no better place to start playing a sport than at boarding school. And just maybe that sport will be golf!