I wrote an article for The Examiner earlier this week about Tiger Woods losing his “Mojo,” and have since had a number of conversations with people about how confidence and anxiety impact sports performance and athletic success (Mind of Steel). The discussion around Mojo, or mental toughness in the sports psychology literature, is an interesting one that actually applies to many more athletes than just Tiger Woods.
When people analyze Tiger’s current struggles, they often judge his talents as though they happen in a vacuum. In other words, many fans immediately point to how good he was, and expect that he will automatically return to the dominant presence he once was because of his talent. Of course, if life happened without outside distractions, stressors, and hungry competition, this might just happen. Unfortunately, in sports there are countless factors that impede the success of athletes, perhaps none more important than self-confidence.
When Tiger Woods was on top of his game, he played with such great confidence that it appeared as though he hardly even thought about his competition – much less worried about them. Similarly, Tiger’s confidence prompted his competition to experience unusual amounts of anxiety as a result. This unique dynamic created a very proportional, linear, inverse relationship: As Tiger’s confidence grew, his competition experienced increasing levels of anxiety. The result was Tiger playing freely to win, while the rest of the field played conservatively to not lose.
Today, the pendulum has swung — Tiger Woods is the one who now appears to be playing scared, while his competitors seem to have gained confidence playing against him. The seemingly small shift actually impacts athletes and their abilities in very big ways – especially in sports like golf that rely on fine motor skills. Think about it for a moment — lining up a golf shot is a very precise task, and when players begin thinking about anything other than being successful it becomes very easy to feel the symptoms of anxiety (i.e. shallow breathing, tense muscles, rapid heartbeat, etc). These same symptoms also decrease with confidence, probably what we are currently seeing with Tiger’s competition who are feeling less anxious and more secure.
Sports that rely on fine motor skills are the ones most affected by nerves. Think about this example for a moment — how would you feel if you were asked to thread a needle while strapped to train tracks with a locomotive coming straight at you?! All of a sudden a rather manageable task becomes nearly impossible to complete – this is exactly how athletes experience overwhelming, debilitating anxiety.
Interestingly, millions of families deal with this same issue each year when they watch their child excel in practice situations (where there is little pressure), only to play very poorly in game situations. While it is rare that parents make the connections I just discussed above, in most cases it is exactly this dynamic at the heart of the problem. More simply, the child sees his confidence dip while his competition experiences increased confidence. The result is a lot of frustration and curiosity around why the child isn’t playing as well in games as he has shown he is able to in practice.
Mojo, or self-confidence, is a vitally important variable to not only sport success, but life success. People who have Mojo don’t think too much about losing or failure, and as a result have tremendous resiliency and perseverance. Likewise, those competing against the athlete with Mojo tend to change their games for the worse, often playing conservatively and with fear. It is this dynamic that you almost always see in place when witnessing great athletes (or teams) compete.