Published June 11, 2014
Tags: Carol Dweck, competition, golf, Hilton Head/Savannah, Matt Cuccaro, mindset, motivation, Pinehurst #2, sport psychology, U.S. Open golf
by Matt Cuccaro, Ed.M.
There will be no defenders moving throughout the course. There is no physical contact allowed between competitors, much less the need for a cut man to monitor lacerations and bleeding throughout the round. Yet this week’s United States Open Championship at Pinehurst No. 2 will certainly feel like a battlefield which tests its competitors from start to finish. Michael Buffer (you know, the “Let’s get ready to rumble” ringside boxing announcer) should be making his trademark announcement on the first tee to set the stage for this emotional competition.
Although many believe the mental game is all about staying calm and positive, players who expect to exhibit these characteristics for 72-holes (plus an additional 18+ in an playoff situation) under exhilarating U.S. Open Championship conditions are kidding themselves. Cognitive science shows that competitors would be better served to start anticipating scenarios of how to manage and embrace some of golf’s worst-case scenarios, rather than hoping to calmly cruise through this brutal test of golf with their ball settling close to the hole all week. The truth is that motivation will slowly deteriorate as the reality of strenuous competition collides with a calm and positive dream-world. Carol Dweck’s revolutionary work supports this point (http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=fdjqz0TPL2wC&oi=fnd&pg=PA3&dq=challenge+mindset&ots=Bi1–GxDLD&sig=fSZrzW3JiUDBH_vMTEVhyjHm9RY#v=onepage&q=challenge%20mindset&f=false) and is a must-read for athletes, students, coaches, parents and leaders of any kind.
Listen closely to player interviews throughout the week. Do the weekend leaders talk about the calm, simple dream-shots they hit; or is there a more passionate dialogue, filled with the thrills of navigating tight situations on one of golf’s largest stages? Confidence and sustainable motivation come from embracing moments of uncertainty and gutting out the tough stuff. As the rest of us settle comfortably into the couch to watch the action on television, consider the emotion and uncertainty involved in competing effectively in one of golf’s largest and most difficult environments. Take note and start preparing effectively for your next “U.S. Open-like” experience.
The difference between a technician and a clinician is the level of understanding of the nuance and dynamic possibilities of mental skills. It is the “plug and chug” approach as opposed to “there are many ways to skin a cat” mindset. Mental skills can seem so tangible… appear to be a black and white recipe for high performance – set goals, develop positive self-talk, practice visualization, and learn a physiological relaxation technique or two – black and white always seems to have its limits however. The technician follows the recipe. The clinician designs the recipe to fit the palate in front of him.
I have been on record over the years of being critical of how mental imagery is often embraced (see Wasting Time on Mental Imagery and You’re Not an Olympian). The traditional close your eyes and imagine a performance from start to finish simply seems to be unnecessary for many athletes and reaps fewer rewards than taking time to develop high performance perspectives and practicing other pregame mental preparation approaches. Yet… there are certain competitive challenges that are simply spot on for settling in, shutting one’s eyes, and taking time to play a mental movie of the upcoming performance. This is an example of one of them:
There are certain competitive challenges that are simply spot on for settling in, shutting one’s eyes, and taking time to play a mental movie
Most athletes have hours and hours available for physical practice on their playing field. Many athletes have a very stable field on which to compete. Many athletes must read and react to their opponents therefore the variables to imagine are numerous.
Differently, the pilot navigating pylons, the alpine racer hurtling down a hill, and others such athletes compete on a novel course with mother-nature being the only interactive obstacle. In these sports, imagery is perhaps not only a good use of one’s mental preparation time, but an essential part.
Just some food for thought.
Mental imagery can take many forms and shapes for the variety of competitive demands facing athletes. It is a powerful skill if used wisely and well. Also, it is worth considering a necessary skill to develop and practice if one is seeking comfort and confidence on the race course.