Learn 3 Secrets of Self-Coaching from the Legendary Jack Nicklaus

By: David Novak 

When I was CEO of Yum! Brands (KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut), I made it a priority to go on “best-practice visits” to learn from people like Jack Nicklaus about what drove their success. When I went on to establish my podcast, How Leaders Lead, Jack was at the top of my list of people to interview. You might ask yourself–what was a CEO doing talking to a golf legend about best practices (beyond squeezing out every tip I could, of course!)? Believe it or not, there are lots of learnings from Jack and the golf course that apply to leadership in how you can coach yourself. Golf is a single-person sport – it’s all on you. And leadership can feel like that too. When you’re feeling alone, it’s important to learn how to lead yourself and to be continually coaching yourself to reach higher. Jack is a pro at this. If you can learn to lead yourself well, you can go far and I can’t think of anyone better to guide you than Jack! Read on for three crucial secrets to self-coaching that I learned from the Golden Bear.

Focus on the Bad–and the Good

One of the things that struck me when I got to sit down with Jack was to hear how he sought to learn not only from his failures and mistakes, but also from his wins. For him, it was a balanced understanding of both that best helped him prepare for future success. The holes he aced were as important as those he duffed, because each could teach him something. He became a student of his strengths and weaknesses. He became an expert in self-coaching.

It’s crucial for every great leader to know who they are and develop their own style. In fact, the best leaders are the ones who understand they are like no one else, that they have a unique set of strengths and weaknesses, and they are always going to be a work in progress. Of course, this is true for golfers as well.

Preparation is 10/10ths of Success

Jack’s round starts well before he ties up his laces.  He told me, “Being prepared is probably the most important thing in any walk of life. You can’t walk into a business meeting, you can’t walk into anything as a salesperson if you’re not prepared.” But here’s the catch – preparation requires time on your part, and it requires strategic focus. For golf, part of the preparation is physical–we think about equipment, about fitness, about diet. But much of the preparation is also mental. What is your big-picture goal for your game this year? What small part of that goal might you tackle today? And what tactic will you employ? If you want to shave three strokes off your handicap, you’re not going to do that in a weekend. But can you focus on your alignment on every tee box? Or do a mental reset before each putt? Pick one aspect you know is holding you back and prepare to succeed by focusing on it and it alone. 

You Cannot Be What You Cannot See

I’ve heard this from so many successful leaders, and Jack is no exception. Jack learned to visualize where he wanted his shot to go, and it helped him become a better golfer–he needed to see the successful shot before he took it. This applies to business too. Let me tell you how I visualize success. It starts before I go to bed each night. I look at my calendar, and then lay down and think about each meeting I’m going to have. I visualize what a good meeting will look like. I think about who’s going to be in the meeting and what their attitudes might be and how I can influence them to get the results that will take our business forward. This way, I’m prepared and ready to succeed.

How often do you visualize your success? Think again about your potential goal of shaving three strokes off your handicap this year, and about the specific aspect of your game you’ve decided to hone in on. Practice it in your mind–really see yourself on the tee box with your club in hand, cueing up your shot. Let it play on repeat to build yourself a visual framework for success. And, of course, enjoy the perfect, arcing shot that results. 

My time with Jack left me a better leader, a better golfer and a better self-coach. Jack is such a humble and grounded guy and he leads by example both on the golf course and in his leadership of one of the world’s largest golf course design companies. He does it all with a deep-down belief in pushing himself to constantly do better through honest self-assessment, preparation and visualization. And the results don’t lie.


I got to take this type of forward thinking to the next level in my new book, Take Charge of You: How Self-Coaching Can Transform Your Life and Career. Written with Jason Goldsmith, sports performance coach for World-class athletes who include Jason Day, Justin Rose, Emiliano Grillo and many others, Take Charge of You provides the tools to take your game to the next level–whether you’re in the boardroom or on the golf course–by unleashing the power of self-coaching. Tom Brady said, “knowing how to coach myself has become critical to my personal and professional growth over the past 20 years, and Take Charge of You will teach you how to do just that in your life.”  If self-coaching can create tangible change for legends like Jack Niklaus and Tom Brady, how will you use it to unlock your potential this week?