Great Sporting Expectations

At what distance do professional golfers have a 50-50 chance of making a putt?

This is possibly my favourite sports question. I wonder if you can guess. I often pose this question to keen golfers, whether in a professional capacity as a consultant or if, as happened a few weeks ago, at a dinner party (I rarely get invited to dinner parties).

It is my favourite sports question because it tells us a lot about how we judge success and failure and how our expectations can motivate or hinder us.

The answer comes from a statistical analysis of putting performance on the PGA tour, and it was something I included with Dr Paul McCarthy in our book The Successful Golfer. The study by Douglas Fearing and colleagues explored putting performance on the PGA tour. Rather than relying on the freely available data on putting performance such as the number of putts per round, or birdie conversion a mathematical model was developed based on a data collection system known as ShotLink. This system captured the ball location and elevation for every putt to within 1 cm on the green. As such it provided a much more detailed analysis about putting performance because it gives a real indication of how difficult the putt was (e.g., distance, whether it was a downhill putt etc.). Data were collected from 45 PGA tour events held at 30 courses from 2003 to 2008. An enormous amount of data points were collected comprising over 2 million in total and a number of interesting analyses were conducted including who was the best putter during that time (Tiger Woods) and whether putting performance is worse in the final pressure filled fourth round for players in contention (it is not). However the one statistic that caught our eye is, for professional golfers the likelihood of making a seven foot putt is 50-50.

The best professional putters will make one out of every two putts from seven feet.

I play with amateurs who barely break 100 shots for a round who get annoyed at missing a putt from seven feet. Yet, making a putt of seven feet is a ‘coin toss’ for even the best golfers.

This example tells us a lot about how we should approach our performance. It is not particularly surprising but it does highlight the nuanced difference between what we feel must to achieve and what we are aiming for, something my colleagues Dr Martin Turner, Dr Jamie Barker and Dr Matt Slater cover in their Smarter Thinking Project. With a golfer facing a seven foot putt we would work with them to make sure they are in the best shape to make the putt, for example through a well-worked pre-putt routine that precedes a confident relaxed stroke. But thinking they ‘should’ make these putts is not helpful and not true. Even for professional golfers.

It also tells us that sport is replete with failure. Whether it is the best rugby kickers with a successful kick percentage of around 80% (they miss one in five) through to the golfers making surprisingly only half the putts from seven feet. Because of this the ability to move on from failure is key to success. As is, perhaps more importantly, the ability to focus on the process of success and not be cowed by the expectation of success – in short how we engage with our goals matters.

I am looking forward to exploring how successful people from business, sport and politics deal with success and failure – and how they engage with their goals – in more detail with Alastair Campbell who authored Winners and How They Succeed and will be doing a residency at Staffordshire University on the 16th -18th November.

Still a Good walk Worth Watching

With the Ryder Cup about to start in Scotland I was reminded of an article I wrote with David Lavallee for the Psychologist the last time the Ryder Cup was held in the UK. In it I mentioned that for psychologists, or indeed anyone interested in performance and behaviour, the Ryder Cup between the USA and Europe is worth watching because of the many different elements of psychology at play. In short we can learn a lot about people from observing the Ryder Cup.

You can view the article here and much of what I wrote is still relevant to the upcoming competition. Although the data about the role of home advantage has changed somewhat, with Europe winning in such thrilling fashion in both 2010 and 2012. Since 1979, when the competition took its present form of Europe against the USA, the home team has won 11 of the 18 competitions (61%) with the away team winning six and one draw.

So while there is a home advantage, a European victory is by no means guaranteed. As I have discussed with Mark Allen athletes may perform worse at home when their motivation to achieve success is overridden by a desire to avoid failure. Fear of failure is a powerful motivator and it can cause choking under pressure, particularly if the golfer lacks confidence, as performance is directed towards the conscious control of movements that were previously automatic. So skilled movements that were previously fluid become less accurate.

However, the relationship between fear and performance is nuanced. One interesting study by economists Devin Pope and Maurice Schweitzer analysed over 2.5 million putts and controlled for position on the green. The results showed that in general golfers were more successful putting for par (the ‘expected’ performance) than putting for birdie (one shot better than ‘expected’). The fear of losing a stroke is more powerful, and a bigger motivator, than the desire to gain a stroke. Of course in a matchplay tournament where all that matters is beating an opponent overall strokes do not matter, but it would be interesting to see if golfers are better at holing putts to halve (draw), rather than win a hole.

So fear does not necessarily have a negative effect on performance and can be a stimulant to better performance if channelled. If fear of failure means we become consumed by not making mistakes then performance suffers. Just like the golfer who tries to consciously control the mechanics of his putt to avoid errors and ends up with a jerky putting stroke. However, if we use fear as a stimulant to success, by focusing on factors we can control and what we can achieve then performance can be enhanced. Just like the European golfer Paul McGinley who holed a 6 foot putt to win the 2002 Ryder Cup and said “At no time did I even consider the mechanics of the stroke. Of course, I knew what the putt meant and what it was for, but I became absorbed in the line of the putt … My only job at the moment in time was to set the ball off on the line that I had chosen. That was the only thing I could control.

You can read more about the psychology of golf from “The Successful Golfer: Practical Fixes for the Mental Game of Golf”.