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The Psychology of the 2014 Ryder Cup


Pulling together some of the key psychological dynamics of the competition as it unfolded over the week.

The build up during the week and coming into the event was full of psychological content, with the press making something of every twist and turn. This ranged from challenging captains press statements to Phil Mickelson’s uncharacteristic jibes towards some of his opponents. But in the final analysis, isn’t it always about the golf and the players on the day - moment by moment? It will be worthwhile to look at the key turning points and swings in momentum during the match to really get a feel for what makes this event so special from a psychological viewpoint.

We can go back to certain shots and moments from Medinah in 2012, when Ian Poulter managed to create the spark of belief that fuelled the European revival by holing putt after putt in the heat of the moment. These examples of ‘Moments’ really sum it all up and this is where the psychology of the game has its unique essence.

Like all sports competition the focus of psychology has to be found within the individual. The player has complete responsibility for his/her thoughts and patterns of thoughts from moment to moment. The elite in golf have practised and rehearsed how to channel these thoughts into positive ones for the most part. But, it is events like the Ryder Cup where their years and years of training is put to the ultimate test. This has always been one of the attractions of the Ryder Cup with incredible situations playing out in front of the worlds’ spectators. So really the best way to assess the psychological dynamics is by looking at these moments to judge whether or not they actually are as influential as we think.

The key moments at the Ryder Cup are so full of emotion and heart that they eclipse everything else that has come before. So, was it really all about Langers missed put at Kiawah Island or Hunter Mahan’s duffed chip at Celtic Manor? They certainly are memorable moments, but are they just the necessary grand finale of moments at the end of the three days of play?

Once again this Ryder Cup did not disappoint, it threw up some truly amazing moments of outstanding brilliance, and mostly from the European players. This brilliance seemed to occur at certain moments on each day, rather than one final crunch moment. Certainly there was evidence of poor coping strategies, with Hunter Mahan spending an age on his pre-shot preparations on his chip at the 18th hole on Sunday, which allowed Justin Rose to sneak a valuable half point. But, really the Europeans dominated areas of play throughout the week, especially in the Foursomes, which meant that the event never threw up that final adrenalin soaked crunch moment. In the inevitable post event analysis, the consensus from the worlds press was that it was won by the best TEAM, which is also a major area of psychology (unfortunately no room to discuss here) and it was really down to the extraordinary diverse nature of the European team, with 9 different nationalities represented in the team that helped create such a cohesive group. Large credit must go to Paul McGinley for pulling this diversity into a cohesive group. Unfortunately the USA team appeared to get it all wrong this week and it was ironic when it came down to the ‘nicest man’ in golf to slip the dagger into his team captain in the final press conference.

When it comes down to the psychology of golf, the players at this level have highly developed ‘coping mechanisms’ that kick in when the pressure starts to mount. This revolves around a sound Pre-shot routine that has been practised on the range and on the course throughout their careers. And this coping method should allow them to do the following for every shot:

Be truly confident

Be truly committed

Be truly concentrated

But, really, can this be achievable for every shot? Especially when the potential for distraction is so prevalent, imagine playing a golf shot surrounded by 20,000 people in the Ryder Cup on the 1st hole for example! The assault on your attention in these situations must be unimaginably enormous for most golfers. This is where a ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ response can suddenly appear and anxiety inducing moments like this force a person to rely on their ‘coping mechanisms’, that’s if they have one of course! So next time you face a challenging and pressured situation , check to see if you really do trust yourself and go through your whole routine or do you, ever so slightly, panic and rush the whole process? Maybe it’s time to reflect a little when we analyse our game and be honest with ourselves. At least we can then really learn something about ourselves and our game of golf.

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