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