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”.