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Promotion/Prevention Mindsets and Style of Play

Updated: Nov 26, 2021

On a recent podcast with Mark Immelman ( I spent some of our time talking about the promotion and prevention mindsets (based on Tory Higgins' regulatory focus theory) and how they relate to differences in golfers' shot strategy and style of play preferences. If you follow "course management" banter on Twitter or elsewhere, you already know that it is not uncommon for these "conversations" to get quite heated. At first glance, the intensity of emotion and rigidness of opinion may seem surprising given how trivial it seems in the big picture of life. On the other hand, it isn't surprising given that golfers' beliefs are not based solely on logical arguments but also deeply held values.

One of these value systems, the promotion and prevention mindsets, centers around how we frame our goals and define success and failure. Some people display the same mindset across various contexts whereas others can be either promotion or prevention-minded, depending on the activity or situation. In this post, I describe the characteristics of each and identify a sample of ways they play out in golf.


  1. Focus on advancing beyond the current state or status quo

  2. Goal is to make good things happen

  3. Success is defined as +1, doing or being better than before

  4. Failure is experienced as "staying the same"

  5. More sensitive to positive outcomes (rewards) than negative outcomes (punishments)

  6. The motive is to gain something of value

  7. Preference for eager, action-oriented plans

  8. Goals are based on ideals, hopes, and aspirations

  9. Focus on growth and mastery

  10. Prefer "fun" pursuits

  11. More likely to take risks

  12. Value the role of intuition in decision making

  13. Value creativity in problem solving

  14. Feel happy and joyful with success

  15. Feel disappointed or dejected with failure

Applications to Golf

* looking to make birdies

* willing to take chances

* focus on the possibility in each shot

* appreciate "shot-making"

* value "imagination"

* view gut feelings as moments of clarity

* continue to raise standards

* more likely to think big ("the sky is the limit")

* embrace the role of emotion in enhancing performance


  1. Focus on maintaining the current state or status quo

  2. Goal is to prevent bad things from happening

  3. Success is defined as 0, staying the same, or "not getting worse"

  4. Failure is defined as -1 or going backwards

  5. More sensitive to negative outcomes (punishments) than positive outcomes (rewards)

  6. The motive is not to lose something of value

  7. Preference for cautious, protection-oriented plans

  8. Goals are based on duty, obligation, and doing it the "right" way

  9. Focus on safety and security

  10. Prefer "serious" pursuits

  11. Less likely to take risks

  12. Value being logical and analytical in decision making

  13. Value established rules and algorithms in problem solving

  14. Feel relaxed, calm, or relief with success

  15. Feel anxious, agitated, and uneasy with failure

Applications to Golf

* looking to reduce the number of bogeys

* avoid taking "risks" (e.g., punch out; don't make things worse)

* focus on shot probabilities

* appreciate the shot that "should" be played, not the one golfers may want to play

* value data-based decisions

* view gut feelings as temptations to be resisted

* emphasize the importance of lowering expectations

* more likely to think small (prevent unrealistic expectations and avoid the pain of failure)

* view emotions as detrimental to performance

As you can see, these mindsets represent vastly different motivational worlds. It is no wonder they can contribute to interpersonal conflict, especially when people are not aware of the values that inform their own thinking and argumentation. Both mindsets have their strengths but also their downsides, especially if taken to the extremes. Aristotle defined virtue as a middle-ground between excess and deficiency. I think the same applies to "course management." On hole #8 of my book, The Motivation Game, I introduce a new shot selection strategy based on the science of goal achievement (because every shot represents a goal). It blends promotion and prevention-mindedness as well as possibility and probability. It also recognizes the value of both creativity and analytical thinking and risk-taking and safety in the quest for game improvement.

In conclusion, there is not one best style of play for everyone. Therefore, I am hesitant to embrace any course management advice that seems to imply this is the case. Ideally, golfers will discover what resonates or clicks with them and learn to play in a way that is both personally enjoyable and maximally effective. I hope this article brings greater awareness and helps you move in this direction.


  1. Any time we refer to people as if they fit into categories, we oversimplify. For example, it is very possible that you may identify more with one mindset than another but do not see yourself fitting all of its 15 characteristics. This is not uncommon as people are individuals and rarely fit squarely into any given psychological box.

  2. Know that these mindsets can change. So, if your game feels boring, contrived, and/or uninspired, you may want to consider adding promotion-minded elements. If you feel you are losing strokes because of being too reckless in your shot selections, you may want to add a bit of prevention.

  3. In regard to maximizing long-term improvement, my personal belief is that having a +1, gain-oriented definition of success is optimal.

  4. The prevention mindset is not strictly the same as an "avoidance mentality." Prevention refers more to the overall motivational orientation to playing the game and is mostly relevant while making general decisions about the game, during pre-round game planning, and while planning shots. An avoidance mentality refers more to the shot goal during priming or playing the shot and is typically detrimental to shot performance. In order not to overcomplicate things I used the terms approach and avoidance in my book and distinguished between the kind of avoidance that occurs during planning (similar to prevention) and avoidance during the priming or playing of the shot.

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