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How thinking like a golfer can help you ride out market mayhem

March 21, 2020, 11:00 AM UTC

Getting through dramatic market swings like this one takes a few different skills: maintaining focus, blocking out the noise, sticking to a game plan, and making the right decisions in high-stakes, high-pressure situations.

Those are almost precisely the conditions that golfers deal with, says Mason Champion. The senior VP and sports and entertainment director for Wall Street giant Morgan Stanley is a longtime PGA member who manages money for multiple professional tour players. His take: Thriving on the greens—dealing with the highs and lows, avoiding the traps, and being able to move on from adversity—contains some excellent lessons on how to navigate the markets.

“There are hazards and threats on any course, and that’s part of the journey,” says Champion, whose handicap is an impressive 1.3. “Sometimes you see those coming, and sometimes you don’t. But you have to build that expectation into your plan, and then even in an environment as sensitive as the market is right now, it will help you strip out all the emotion and fear.”

That in mind, we talked to Champion and a couple of other prominent golfers-slash-investors—like famed success coach Tony Robbins, author of Money: Master the Game, and Trip Kuehne of Double Eagle Capital Management, once crowned by Golf Digest as the best golfer on Wall Street—about how to survive this ugly round we’re in, and live to putt another day. Their tips:

Have a plan. If you haven’t charted a path forward already, you’re going to be very vulnerable to market hysteria. “The best players in world always have a plan for how they’re going to approach a round,” says Champion. “They have already thought about where they are going to be aggressive, where they’re going to be conservative, and how they’re going to utilize their strengths to navigate that journey. In the same way, you want to have a game plan for your wealth—and then stick to that plan, the best you’re able.”

Focus on the long term. If the market is down 1,000 points one day and up 1,000 the next, that shouldn’t really matter to long-term investors. “The quicker you can forget about that bad shot or that double bogey, the better,” says Robbins, reached before teeing off for a round at Augusta National, home of the annual Masters Tournament. “The market has always had corrections and slumps, and then rebounded to new highs. A single bad shot or a single down year in the market, must be shrugged off on the path to victory. It’s the long game that counts.”

Keep a routine. Sticking to daily positive habits can help anchor you during times of craziness. “If you watch the best players in world, they all have a pre-shot routine they adhere to, which helps them to focus in the moment,” says Champion. “There is a lot of distraction that can occur when you’re standing over a shot, so you need a routine to fall back on. It’s the same in wealth management: An automated routine might mean maintaining a specific savings discipline, like 401(k) contributions, no matter what else is going on.”

Don’t overcomplicate things. “The way I play golf is using one little acronym: KISS, or ‘Keep it simple, stupid,’” says Kuehne, who is close to a scratch golfer. “In these markets, don’t try to be a hero, like trying to call a bottom. Just get the ball on the fairway, make it to the green, and go for par. Then when you start seeing the ball well again, you can start attacking the course and get some birdies.”

Play to your strengths. Your response to market movements may not be exactly the same as the next investor’s, and that’s okay. “My game is different from your game,” says Champion. “There are a lot of different styles on the PGA Tour. Some are better putters, some are better drivers, some are more aggressive than others. You have to understand your own strengths, then design a game plan around those. It’s the same in investing: You may have different risk tolerances, or saving or spending habits, but you need to understand what those are and then leverage them for best results.”

Tune out the noise. The market chatter is almost deafening right now, so put on those noise-canceling headphones and focus on process. “As any golfer will tell you, success comes as much from winning the psychological battle with your own doubts, nerves, and anxieties as it does from technique,” says Robbins. “If you shank it into the bushes, it’s nearly impossible to stand over the next shot and not think about that happening again. The golfer who shuts out all that noise to tap in a five-foot putt to win, is the one who prevails. Many of the greats will tell you that they don’t even hear the crowd once their tunnel vision takes over.”

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