Tiger Woods bombed at The Masters this weekend, even after ESPN did everything they could to manufacture his championship-caliber abilities again by promoting him far more than any of the other more deserving players in the field. With only 1 win in the last three years, Woods was the main man in every ESPN promo of The Masters, yet still lost by 15 strokes.
I have been critical of Tiger’s excuses over the last few years as he regularly blames everything from caddies to injuries, but his biggest problem by far is probably something most sports fans take for granted – his mental toughness. Tiger Woods does something that most athletes do, and it’s actually a really big hindrance to getting better at a sport – more simply, he obsesses over a specific technical part of his game (his swing) while completely disregarding his anxiety, poor focus, and loss of confidence. Read the following from SI.com and follow up with some solid sport psychology advice (bold emphasized):
>Now his problem is his swing. He’s been reworking it with Sean Foley for more than 18 months, and it remains a work in progress.
”What’s frustrating is I know what to do, and I just don’t do it. I get out there and I just don’t trust it at all,” Woods said. ”I can get it on the range, I can get it dialed in there. We’ll work on the same things and it feels really good, and I go to the golf course and I just don’t quite trust it. It just means I just need to do more reps.”<
Woods is actually like most athletes – poor play only means more practice, right? Surprisingly, the answer is NO! Lets take a closer look at passage above and how revealing it really is.
- First, it is reported he has been “reworking” his swing for 18 months. While this dedication might sound admirable, it’s actually terribly counter-productive and can lead to focus and anxiety problems. Remember, we are talking about arguably the greatest golfer of all time – his muscle memory is so refined and established that he certainly doesn’t need to rework a swing for a year-and-a-half! A calm, focused, and confident Woods could make beautiful golf swings again (probably even blindfolded) IF he obsessed less on the swing and focused more on reducing his anxiety, improving his confidence, and refining his focus. This is a very important message to all athletes because the common thing athletes do is practice more, even when the true skills they need to improve are actually cognitive/emotional skills, not physical skills! Sadly, most athletes simply “practice more” and never target their true areas of weakness, and the result is, in Tiger’s case, and 18-month long “search” for I don’t know what.
- Woods actually makes my point in his quote about playing well on the range but blowing it on the course. Think about that for a moment – he gets “dialed in” when there is nobody around and no pressure, then seemingly loses it in match play. Do you see the problem? It’s almost impossible to “solve” an anxiety issue by simply going out and hitting tons of balls in a controlled, non-anxious condition (i.e. driving range) — is it any wonder all the old habits happen again? You see, he hasn’t “solved” anything by playing beautifully on the range but never learning any skills to control his anxiety and sharpen his focus in real play. Take another example for a moment — lets say you have a child in Little League that is afraid of getting hit by a pitch. Taking your child to the batting cage might help some, but batting cages throw precise pitches and usually do not present the real fear (of an errant pitch hitting the kid). For more rapid and long-lasting improvement, the child needs to actually face his fear by gaining confidence against live pitching in real games – where there is a possibility he could get hit by a pitch. The point is it’s tough to overcome anxiety by simply going back and practicing in very controlled conditions that do not represent the true anxious situations.
- Finally, Woods explains that the only way to improve his situation is “more reps.” Actually, this is probably the worst way to improve athletic skills if you are really dealing with anxiety. Don’t get me wrong, more reps won’t hurt (and it can actually help with muscle memory), but if you are anxious, unfocused, and have a tendency to get angry when making mistakes in games/matches, then you are really not addressing the true problems. An analogy might be using a screw-driver to hammer a nail — if you hit the nail enough times with the handle of the screw-driver it might eventually drive the nail into the wood, but wouldn’t using a hammer make the job that much easier?!
Athletes who recognize their true areas of weakness and address the real problems are the ones who bounce back very quickly. In the case of Tiger Woods, simply hitting a thousand balls a day at a tranquil driving range does little – if anything – to prepare him to make clutch shots during pressure times of matches. Instead, a better way to go is to balance reps with cognitive/emotional skill building, like learning how to use relaxation strategies when pressure begins to set in during match play. Unfortunately, the mindset of “more=better” still exists in sports, hence the reason why so many athletes still practice harder, not smarter – and see limited results from their efforts.
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