Sunday, 9 April 2017

A Happy Person is a Happy Athlete

It has been mentioned a few times over the course of The 2017 Masters that Sergio Garcia is recently engaged and the man himself has acknowledged that this off-course happiness "definitely helps" his on-course performance. Garcia has put himself in serious contention for this year's green jacket and, for me, this is no coincidence.

When I work with athletes, I'm coming from a place where I see them as a whole person and not just as some high-performing machine. Sure, I'm often sitting with them because they are experiencing dysfunctional performances and/or they're not enjoying their sport as much as they have done previously, however what I find is that this normally stems from an unhappiness with something external of their competition performance. Now if I was to consider them as an athlete only, I would likely be wondering what goals they're setting, whether they are able to visualise positive outcomes or what their concentration levels are like at specific times during a performance. These things can all be beneficial, however how impactful would improving these areas be if this particular athlete had a difficult relationship with their coach, if they had recently become unemployed or if they were stressed about a personal relationship, for example? Without taking this whole-person approach, it's my belief that any work on purely performance-related improvements would be extremely limited. Perhaps more importantly, I wouldn't feel comfortable as a helping professional or a human-being if I was to take the approach of "I'm hearing that you're worried about leaving school and home and starting university, however can we just get back to something you said about your distance-putting a minute ago?".

As with all people I work with, my aim is to help that person grow and get closer to becoming the person they want to be. Often this involves an acceptance of how and where they currently are before being able to look forward and strive for their ideals. A paradox exists in the sense that often we must accept failure to be able to succeed. If all that truly matters to you in your whole existence is to achieve a specific goal, such as a Green Jacket, then you cannot truly be content until you achieve it - but what if you don't? And what about that pressure on your shoulders? It's only making this achievement even more difficult than it already is. Rory McIlory is perhaps a good illustration of that at the moment, as he bids to become only the 6th player in history to have won all four of golf's Majors. He recently admitted he would feel "unfulfilled" without a Green Jacket in his wardrobe...that sounds like an awful lot of pressure to me. Only when you accept that a goal may not happen and that you'll be OK regardless can you truly give yourself the best chance of achieving it. It's possible that Sergio doesn't 'need' the Masters, or a major, as much as he once did to feel truly satisfied as a person.

I'm not saying that there's a definite right or wrong way to help athletes - just highlighting my own preference for supporting them. Some work from the belief that a happy athlete is a happy person, however my own stance is the opposite - a happy person is a happy, successful athlete. So while Sergio's Masters chances could possibly have benefited from some focused mental work with putter in hand to tidy up that aspect of his performance, for my money his contentment off the course is more likely to have been a far more significant factor should he find himself in the Butler Cabin later tonight.

Sunday, 17 April 2016

The 2016 Masters

The Masters never fails to disappoint and this year was no different. Just when you thought Sunday was looking like an anti-climax, all of a sudden things started to get interesting and then within minutes, the race was wide open. I'd like to use this article to focus on two golfers in particular and how their psychology may have hindered or helped their quest for a green jacket.

1. Ernie Els

I'm sure you will have seen what I'm about to explore. It was the talk of Thursday's play, appeared on Youtube within minutes and undoubtedly made amateur golfers across the globe feel much better about their own experiences on the greens. I'm talking about Ernie Els' six-putt, and resultant nine, on the first hole of day one of the tournament and I'd like to examine it from a sport psychology perspective.

While uncomfortable to watch, we can learn a lot from Ernie's behaviour on the first green. To provide some context, he had a four-foot putt for an opening par to settle himself into the four-day competition. He takes an age to start the stroke once he makes his address (11 seconds from address to contact) on putt 1. The stroke, when it eventually arrives, is far from smooth and looks to cut across the ball as opposed to follow through with conviction. The ball misses on the low side of the hole and stops three feet past. Els rushes after the ball, stands awkwardly, neglects to line up or practice swing and proceeds to overcompensate and miss the putt on the high side of the hole on this occasion (2 seconds). The only change he made to putt 3 was the adoption of a square stance, however the putt misses on the low side once more and finishes in almost exactly the same position as putt 1 (again 2 seconds). This time, as the putt misses the target, Els takes a hopeless look at his caddy, a plea for help. Thankfully, this time Ernie takes his time, lines up the putt and runs through his routine. The stroke looks much better, however the putt slides a foot by on the low side. The following one-handed tap in lips out to a foot before the four-time major winner rolls in, desperately, for a +5 start.

The first point I'd like to note is the variation in Ernie's routine for each putt. In fact, the only consistency was the inconsistency! The only time he really engages with his routine in full is putt 4. The second point is Ernie's body language throughout the whole experience. On putt 1, he appears extremely uncomfortable over the putt. Look how much he fidgets and is unable to settle. What he described afterwards, finding it difficult to take the putter head back and start the stroke, really appears to match up with what we see during this putt. This appears to be an example of debilitative performance anxiety in action, particularly given Els' nod to being able to make 20 of these putts in a row in practice. His description of having 'snakes in the brain' sounds horrible but is probably something that many of us can empathise with. It sounds like Ernie had a number of unhelpful thoughts rattling around his head each millisecond he spent on the first green, most likely outcome focused (i.e. I need to make these size putts if I'm going to do well this week, what if I miss this? A par would be a great start). This potentially explains his perceived discomfort and reluctance to be thinking about executing his routine on each putt. Ultimately, a consistent and comfortable routine in combination with here and now thinking are more beneficial for performance.

2. Jordan Spieth

The demise of Jordan Spieth was harrowing to watch last Sunday night at Augusta. While most of us tune in to watch this type of drama, you can't help but sympathise with elite athletes in these situations. After 4 consecutive birdies, the defending champion was five shots clear entering the magical, unpredictable back nine. Everyone watching thought it was over and you can certainly forgive them for doing so. However, after back to back bogeys on 10 and 11, Danny Willett, the eventual champion, had narrowed his lead and for the first time serious questions were asked of Spieth's ability to defend his title. To the 12th tee and, again, I'm sure that if you're reading this then you are fully aware of what happened next. And what happened from the resultant drop....and the following resultant drop. In the space of about half an hour, the leaderboard had swung from a 5-shot Spieth lead to a 3-shot Willett lead, as a result of the combination of errors from the defending champion and aggressive, confident play from the Englishman. Willett, as we know, would go on to hold his nerve under immense pressure on the closing holes and become the first Englishman to win the Masters in 20 years.

From what I've heard from Spieth since, I believe that his back nine crumble may have been down to one key factor. If you listened to or read Spieth's post final round interview, you will have heard him openly admit that his mental approach changed from what he had been doing, very successfully, on the front nine when he reached the 10th hole on Sunday. After four consecutive birdies to finish the front nine, he "knew that even par was good coming in, at least by a shot". He self-discloses that he abandoned a successful approach to one that "makes it hard" and the result was that he played "a little conservative" on holes 10, 11 and 12. Ultimately, this 30-40 mins of golf cost him the defence of his green jacket. So not only do I believe that this shift in psychological approach had a significant impact on his performance, Spieth too sounds like he has identified it as a key factor - possibly even THE key factor.

I'd like to focus on this shift in approach, which I have found to be extremely common in my time both as a golfer and as a sport psychologist supporting athletes across a variety of sports. Under pressure, we think emotionally as opposed to logically. Logic would tell us that it makes great sense to continue to think and act as we have been doing when things are going well. With Spieth 5-up with nine holes to play, after four consecutive birdies, I'm sure you would agree that things were going pretty well. However, Spieth's inability to cope with the pressure of leading the Masters led him to think emotionally and defy logic, resulting in the change to his winning formula. Emotional thinking takes us from the here and now and leads us to thinking in the future and the past, it influences our decision making and it allows our mind to wander to outcomes and results, abandoning the process thinking that Spieth undoubtedly adopted on the front nine. You will hear Spieth mention 'compounding mistakes', which is a key symptom of debilitating anxiety. This is best illustrated by his decision to take his drop from the water on 12 far from the designated drop zone, which he admitted was closer to the green and he and his caddie has the exact yardage from this zone. 'One shot at a time' thinking possibly became 'just make sure we don't lose this from here' thinking and Spieth's play succumbed to anxiety, which I am sure the majority of us have experienced during our life time. Frustratingly for Spieth, this would be the second time in 3 years that his performance on the 12th hole has cost him the number 1 spot at Augusta.

It happens to the best of us and while we possess different abilities and handicaps, our commonality is that we are human beings at the end of the day. Whether you're a four-time major champ, or the defending champion with a healthy lead, our mind is always capable of becoming our worst enemy. To avoid this happening to you in an important, pressured situation, be aware of yourself during your performance and challenge yourself to identify and rate whether you are thinking logically or emotionally during your round. If it's the latter, get back on track with here and now thinking and the commitment to executing routines to give yourself the best possible chance of performing how you know you can. If you feel you need some support to achieve this, just get in touch!

Jordan Shirley
Sport and Exercise Performance Consultant

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Superstition and Sport Psychology

This week's Masters is the biggest event in the golfing calendar. The first major of the season, it is guaranteed to provide excitement for spectators and is almost always unpredictable. One could argue that the only aspect of the Masters that IS predictable is that the winner of the Wednesday Par 3 Competition will NOT win the Masters. Why? Because no player has ever done this. Ever.

This stat results in a selection of the world's top players letting celebrity caddies, their partners or even their kids hit their shots for them, particularly if they find themselves at the top end of the leaderboard. Anything to prevent actually winning this friendly yet cursed tournament! Every year, this amazes me. This is one of the greatest superstitions that I've witnessed in sport - and it happens to be at one of the most renowned competitions, consisting of the crème de la crème of world golf. It fascinates me that incredibly highly skilled champions would want to avoid a successful performance, the day prior to the tournament that they dream about winning, all due to superstition.

While I see it as incredibly important to accept and respect my client's beliefs and spirituality, I also see it as my role to challenge thoughts and behaviours that may be having a negative impact on performance and well-being - usually the main reason that the athlete has requested my support. I feel it to be important to help the athlete to understand what superstition means in a psychological sense.

A superstitious view suggests that the athlete does not believe that they can control that particular outcome. It often defies logic - "if I win the par 3 tournament, I won't win the Masters". However, with a plethora of factors that athlete's cannot control during competition, I like to work with athlete's on the aspects of performance that they CAN control. I find that this increases self-confidence, reducing anxiety, and allows athletes a better chance of performing close to their maximum. In this particular scenario, these golfers who sabotage a winning opportunity are missing a valuable method of preparing optimally on the par 3's to take that into the main competition and increase their chances of achieving their outcome goal. Preparation plays a huge role, as does previous successful performance, in the development of self-confidence which we know is essential for optimal performance. I also believe it to be important for athlete's to learn from performances, which cannot be achieved if disappointment or success is attributed to fate or destiny.

While individual philosophies must be respected, this particular one creates a mythical view which I find fascinating at this level of competition. There is no logical link between winning the par 3 competition and losing the main tournament, yet years of form has created one. Possible explanation could be that winning creates pressure or simply that those who play the short holes well cannot maintain this form over 72 holes consisting of par 3's, 4's and 5's. In my opinion, winning the par 3  tournament INCREASES your opportunity of winning the Masters and it would be so refreshing to see golfers take this approach next year and change this long-standing stat for good.

Monday, 10 March 2014

When it suits...

In the week that the English football team openly announced that they would be employing a sport psychologist for this summer's World Cup, I thought I would write about something that I picked up on during this weekend's FA cup tie between Manchester City and Wigan Athletic.

Before I get into my observation, I'd like to briefly give my opinion on the aforementioned appointment. Sport psychology, particularly in football, is still, in my opinion, hugely undervalued and underused. It is refreshing to hear Roy Hodgson and Steven Gerrard talk candidly about the influence that a sport psychologist has had and will have, both individually and collectively. With regards to the much discussed penalty kicks, a sport psychologist can armour players with the knowledge and skills to reduce anxiety and enhance their chance of finding the net - few would argue that the team would benefit from this type of support. I hope that this raises the profile of sport psychology and results in a wider use in football and in sport in general, from grass roots to elite level.

Now, back to the article. Did anyone else notice Manchester City manager, Manuel Pellegrini's, attire during Sunday's shock defeat at home to Championship side Wigan? I can't claim to have seen all of Manchester City's matches this season, however whenever I have, the manager has been very sharply dressed in a suit on the sidelines. So what was he wearing against the lower league Wigan on Sunday? That's right, a hoodie. Now before you double take, this is really not a fashion article. The purpose of this article is to highlight the impact that small, trivial, thoughtless things can have on the psychology of athletes.

"I think we played the worst first half we have played in my time here". Who better to judge than the manager himself? Now, as a top class manager, Manuel will this week be trying to figure out why this happened now - what was different? To do this he must be aware of patterns in terms of his and the squad's regular approach to matches and highlight any changes, conscious or unconscious, to his approach. In my opinion, the manager's change in attire and the resulting performance, particularly in the first half, are no coincidence. Now I am not saying for one second that this is why Manchester City are out of the cup, but what I am saying is that this was a contributing factor in their shock exit. Put yourself in the players' shoes: you see the manager every weekend in a suit, looking confident, authoritative and classy. You get used to this approach, which conveys professionalism and sound preparation, and City's results and performances this season have been very consistent and very positive. You then go into a match against a lower league side, who you are widely expected to beat by all, and your manager has changed his preparation. He swaps two-piece for track and 45 minutes later he is dealing with the worst first half performance of his reign.

For me, being an elite coach is about striving to find successful formulas and recipes for success. In my opinion, Manuel Pellegrini appears to have already discovered this formula during his short reign and it was serving him well. He decided to alter one tiny, insignificant aspect of his preparation and the result was disastrous. The manager would likely not have wasted one thought on this, however swapping a suit jacket for a hoodie could convey a relaxed attitude and could be construed as an arrogance and a lackadaisical approach to this match. It could say that this match doesn't require or deserve the standard approach and could be construed as a lack of professionalism and respect. Football players are human too and some of the Manchester City starters would have picked up on this subtle change, which may have affected their individual motivation and confidence levels. This can spread like wildfire throughout a team and before you know it, you cannot achieve that intensity, desire and collective confidence required to perform at your best. Preparation in sport is incredibly important, and a consistent preparation is even more so. Are you doing everything you can to prepare in the same way for each performance? Are you aware of subtle, trivial aspects that others may notice? Find a formula and stick to it as much as possible, not just when it suits. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

From Men to Moyes

The current goings on at Manchester United are at the tip of every football enthusiast's tongue at the moment; everyone has a respective opinion. As I write this, they are sitting in 7th place, 14 points behind the leaders with 16 games remaining. This, for many, is incomprehensible after United's period of dominance during the Sir Alex Ferguson era and I include myself in this. We are all so used to them being title contenders that their current predicament has become a huge issue, and for those of a red persuasion anyway, a huge concern, especially after winning the title only 8 months ago with the same group of players. Now I am certainly not claiming to have the answers or solutions to this problem and this article only aims to examine the psychology behind possible reasons for this season's demise.

Hypothesis 1: The Sir Alex Ferguson Effect

It would take a brave person to argue that Sir Alex Ferguson is not the best football manager Britain has ever seen after witnessing his dominance over 26 years at Old Trafford. As a 'man-manager' and a psychologist, he is undoubtedly one of the best as time and time again he got the very best out of people. He was also a master at creating teams with individuals who often had sizeable ego's and the phrase 'Fergie Time' was coined due to the amount of last minute equalisers and winners his teams scored. This was no coincidence, in my opinion - Sir Alex knew what he was doing! His departure in May has coincided with a slump in form and a malaise at Old Trafford and again, in my opinion, this is no coincidence. I imagine that the group of players felt, and continue to feel, a huge loss when he - the man many have called a 'father figure' - retired. He made players feel confident, comfortable, secure, part of something big. He gave them a purpose, he knew them as players and as people and he knew exactly how to motivate each individual to get every last ounce out of them. He made the great players crave his attention and he told his weaker players how great they were because he knew they might let him down. For 26 years, he was Manchester United and a loss like that cannot go unnoticed. Putting it very simply, people in general don't like change and there couldn't have been a bigger change at Manchester United during the summer. Usually when a manager leaves a football club, it is under a negative circumstance where players, staff and chief executives are desperate for change to end a poor run. However, this situation is completely the opposite - the only person connected with Manchester United who wanted a change was Sir Alex Ferguson.

Hypothesis 2: From Men to Moyes

So in comes David Moyes from Everton, who many, including Sir Alex himself, saw as the natural successor. Many saw him as the man to take over from the mantle of 38 trophies in 26 years, even though he had not won a piece of silverware after 11 years at Everton. The players, still reeling from the sudden loss of Sir Alex, must have picked up on this fact and they could not possibly trust this new man as they did their old gaffer. What is a relationship without trust? Motivation and confidence is reduced, anxiety increased and good performances are difficult to produce under these conditions. Then, when Moyes actually has his feet under the desk, he is completely different from his hugely trusted and incredibly successful predecessor. Training is different, tactics are different, his communication style is different, his leadership skills are different, his motivational climate is different, his confidence- and team-building techniques are different. Everything's different. Without mutual trust, respect, commitment and confidence how can a leader expect to succeed? As a distant on-looker, there seems to be elements of frustration between coach and athletes at the moment, best displayed by Moyes' body language and post-match interview after their shock penalty defeat to Sunderland. The same players who gave everything for Ferguson seem reluctant to do the same for Moyes and we have never seen a Manchester United side make so many fundamental mistakes.

Hypothesis 3: Timing is Everything

Who's to say that psychology is actually the answer here? Could it be that Moyes has inherited a squad which has peaked with several players now past their best all at the same time? Did Sir Alex know this and decide to leave the required rebuilding job to his successor? There is certainly an argument that the vast majority of United's players this season have simply not been good enough and are performing significantly differently to how they did last season. Ferdinand, Vidic and Evra now look too old for the Premier League while Cleverley, Rafael, Fellaini, Smalling, Nani and Young suddenly don't look anywhere near good enough to wear the red jersey. The previously mentioned penalty shoot out portrayed a great degree of stress across the faces of Welbeck, Jones, Januzaj and Rafael, with only Darren Fletcher scoring and looking as though he was believing he would score. Moyes does need new players, there's no doubt about that, however there must be a niggle or two in the back of his mind wondering why he can't get these players to perform like Sir Alex did only a matter of months ago. A good manager gets the best out of what he's got, in my opinion and this particular has a reigning Championship winning squad at his disposal.

These are of course just a few of my own thoughts about the current situation at Old Trafford and the issues may be far more simple or far more complex than those that I have raised. The answer is more than likely a combination of all three and more due to the complex nature of the transition that Manchester United are dealing with. Moyes will be given time, he has a six-year contract, however he will want to prove to the players, the fans and himself soon that he has what it takes to follow British football's greatest ever manager. A top four finish would be a good start.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

The Psychology of Defending a Title

"Defending a title is much more difficult than winning one". One of the great cliches in sport. We hear it from pundits, commentators and column writers each time a team or individual embark on a journey to mirror a success from the previous season but they rarely explain their logic. This article does not aim to defend or attack this common belief but instead discuss the psychology surrounding this pursuit.

Anyone who is or has been involved in sport will appreciate the role of self-confidence in a successful performance; it's one of the key ingredients. The research tells us that there are four main building blocks for developing confidence, with previous experience/success being arguably the most important. There's nothing like doing well the last time for developing confidence. In the case of an athlete or team defending a title, they have experienced the ultimate success during the last occasion that they competed in the respective competition. As a result, you would expect that the winners would experience a heightened confidence level second time round. Logic would dictate that previous winners + increased self-confidence levels = an even more likely chance of winning the competition again. Yet apparently, more often than not, this logical outcome doesnt come to fruition. So why not?

Well let's look at the other side of the coin. It is often said that there is a fine line between confidence and over-confidence, could these increased levels result in a touch of arrogance and, consequently, complacency in the preparation for and during the competition? Pressure too may have a fundamental role. The athlete or team will now be favourite to win the competition and there will be a level of expectation, both internally and externally, to do so. Increased anxiety levels can significantly reduce performance levels, making it difficult to recapture previous winning form. Also, motivation may be significantly affected by an initial win. Having achieved a goal, it may be difficult to maintain identical levels of desire to replicate the achievement. Its human nature.

The idea to write this article came from Andy Murray's shock quarter final exit at the US Open, a tournament he won the previous year. To me, he seemed almost relieved to be out of the competition and admitted that he felt different as defending champion. From what I have heard and read, it seems as though the previous success and his career defining Wimbledon win affected his motivation to train for the US open, which affected his normally meticulous preparation and consequently reduced his self-confidence and increased anxiety to a point where he could not play his best tennis.

A huge amount of research would need to be conducted to either reinforce or dismiss this cliche. It is clear that a number of factors are involved here, however perhaps the most influential factor is one that separates all of us. Personality.

Monday, 9 September 2013

The psychological perspective of the summer Transfer Window

For the entire day last Tuesday, Sky Sports News' Jim White lay motionless in a dark room, signalling the end of yet another chaotic transfer window and 'Deadline Day'. A substantial amount of business was completed during the final moments of the 2 month-long window by some of the largest clubs in football and although there were times where I was almost as excited as the Scottish presenter, I spent the majority of the final hours pondering the psychology of this much talked about transfer free-for-all.

This summer, more than any other that I can remember, saw a number of professionals within the sport comment on the transfer window and the vast majority suggested that they were an unnecessary evil. Their biggest gripe was that if there was to be a transfer window, this should be closed before the first league game of the season is played. I am not sure that the fans would share these opinions, judging by the amount that were outside Premier League stadiums, desperate for an incredibly expensive car or helicopter to appear, right up to the 11pm deadline. As a sport performance consultant, concerned with both optimal performance and well-being in athletes, my allegiances lie with the managers and coaches on this one and I would like to explain why.

First of all, let's look at the manager or head coach's side of things. Almost as soon as the final whistle is blown in the final game of the season, the future of his squad is plunged into uncertainty and this is a feeling he must endure for the entire summer. Pre-season is a time for building and developing and this must be incredibly difficult to do under these conditions. I can't imagine the number of phone calls they must receive on a daily basis about player x, y and z from chief executives, scouts and those pesky agents. Managers, while already under significant pressure trying to build a successful squad for the coming season, must also prepare for the very real possibility that key players could be taken from his grasp with minutes of the deadline remaining and no time to source replacements.  Hence why we often see managers appearing stressed and anxious during the summer months. I also agree heavily with some opinions that suggest having this window open during the initial fixtures of the season significantly damages the integrity of the league. Transfer requests, failed bids and public interest ultimately make the opening league games a non-event and there is almost an anticipation to get the transfer window out of the way so that the season can begin in proper. Transfers will always occur but surely part of the purpose of having such windows is to minimise disruption during competition?

From a player's perspective too, a transfer window must be a real nuisance. People, athletes included, are motivated by a need for security in addition to feelings of belonging and worth. Including the winter window, for approximately a quarter of the year, footballers are deprived of these fundamental needs. As we are constantly reminded these days, every footballer has a price and so no one is safe. The uncertainty around their futures must be distracting and disruptive for even the most consummate professional. People tend to forget that footballers are also people who have families, responsibilities and everyday problems too and this uncertainty can result in greater consequences than the surface issue of playing for one club or another would suggest. Would the chairman cash in on me?  Should I uproot my family again? Am I naive not to take the opportunity of an increased salary? I am happy here and don't want to leave. These must be examples of just a few of the thoughts that the majority of footballers must experience throughout a transfer window;  they are only human. This type of thinking, where the outcome is unknown and uncontrollable, leads to doubts and ultimately anxiety. Anxiety is associated with low self-confidence and feelings of depression, which are detrimental to both well-being and performance. In the build up to, and during, an important season both player and manager require optimal performances and this is unlikely with the amount of uncertainty during this time of the year. Would you want to coach players low on confidence, lacking motivation and entertaining interest from other clubs when you are under significant pressure to get results? Me neither.

I am sure some will read this and say "footballers and football managers get paid mega bucks so they can deal with it" and offer no sympathy. What I would say is to try and walk in their boots first, or compare the situation to your own line of work and the thoughts and feelings you would experience under the same uncertainty. Highly paid or not, professional footballers are people doing a job like all of us and are motivated by the same fundamental needs as all of mankind. Transfers will always be part and parcel of the sport and that is a good thing. All I recommend is that transfer windows close before the competitive season begins, to protect both the integrity of professional football and the well-being of those who are fortunate enough to work within it.