by Michael P. Sheridan, PhD
“Old Fogy almost gets it done”…This was the headline that Tom Watson suggested that reporters use in their news reports regarding his improbable run in the Open Golf Championship in Scotland this weekend.
I confess that I am a fair weather golf fan: when Tiger Woods is playing I am riveted to the TV. I am always fascinated by his mental toughness, ability to stay in the present and skill in overcoming difficult obstacles. Tiger missed the cut at last week’s British Open Championship and I all but decided that I would not watch the golf tournament this weekend. But then, along came Tom Watson’s inspirational story, who, at 2 months short of 60 was seeking to make history by becoming golf’s oldest major champion. Read more about the story in some of these news reports:
I was inspired to watch Watson’s run this weekend because, like many golf fans, it brought back memories for me when I watched him compete (in his “prime”) years ago versus Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and other great golfers.
I was more engaged because of all the talk about Watson’s mental approach to performing at this years’ Open Championship.
I wanted to see if he could stick to his game plan. He basically stayed the course, but a lucky break wasn’t his to have on the 72nd hole. Although he didn’t win the playoff, he did perform to his game plan, and as coaches and athletes, there are (at least) three fantastic lessons that we can take from Watson’s mental approach and performance in the Open Championship this weekend:
1. A positive attitude (that includes a focus on enjoying the journey) can guide us to our best performances. Watson consistently kept a positive outlook – played consistently – and never let a bad shot take him away from his focus.
2. Staying in the present can lead to flow and optimal performance. Thinking about the (uncontrollable) future or neglecting to move on from an error often disrupts one’s performance negatively.
3. Age is just a number.
If you had a chance to watch Watson during the last week, you would see that he was almost always upbeat, smiling, taking in all of the sights and sounds of a beautiful golf course and supportive Scottish audiences. He was enjoying his play and clearly grateful just to be competing. It was obvious from his body language and from his comments in his post-round press conferences, that he was enjoying himself and he knew that he could play well enough to put himself in position to win the championship. He celebrated great shots by kicking his legs in the air, smiling, waving his arms: he tolerated poor shots throughout the week by having a short memory for swings that did not turn out so well.
All that changed, however, when Watson was forced to play in a four-hole playoff against Stewart Cink (the eventual winner), when he failed to make par on the 72nd hole. In the playoff, his entire body language, facial expressions and performance changed dramatically. Watson was clearly disappointed in not winning the tournament in regulation play. He let that disappointment carry over into his performance in the playoff. All week, Watson was swinging his golf clubs freely without tension. He hit an incredibly high percentage of fairways and made very long putts time and again.
But in the playoff, Watson felt his swing had “left him”. When asked by reporters in the news conference “was it a mental or physical letdown that you experienced in the playoff?” He looked confused and could not describe why he had come up short. To this observer, and those who noted the shift in his body language during the playoff, his appearance was in stark contrast to the determination and poise he maintained through out the first four rounds. Clearly, his game plan did not call for playing four extra holes in a playoff.
In contrast, Stewart Cink felt fortunate to make the playoff by making birdie on the closing hole. He looked relaxed, energized and just happy to be part of extended play. Ironically, it was his turn to play with Watson’s game plan…and he executed it to perfection making birdie on two of the four playoff holes.
As coaches and as athletes what lessons can we take from Watson’s spectacular performance?
Our mental outlook can dramatically affect our performances: if we are disappointed in our last performance, it can lead to poor performance in our next competition. Mental approaches where we focus on enjoying the moment, soaking in the environment and having a short memory for our mistakes are keys to optimal achievement! When Watson was playing well…his poor shots did not affect his outlook. When he played poorly in the playoff he allowed his mistakes and worries to compound the difficulty of his next shot. Having a positive mental outlook does not guarantee success, but having a negative approach almost always results in a less than stellar performance!
Staying in the Present
Before the weekend, Watson was frequently quizzed by reporters. As a five time Champion and a fan favorite, he was asked, how, at his age, had he planned to go for the Championship, Watson claimed to have prepared a game plan. He said “I have a game plan that I am going to stick to for the next 36 holes” At the final news conference, he said he had stuck to his game plan (i.e. mental approach) through the final hole in regulation.
But by placing a limit on the number or holes for which he had prepared the game plan, he most likely disregarded the possibility of a playoff and having to play more than 36 holes on the weekend. Also, by backing into the playoff by making a mistake on the final hole…perhaps he had too much time to reflect on his missed opportunity. For whatever reason, he couldn’t maintain the focus any longer. In the playoff, his demeanor changed, his golf swing changed and his body language looked completely unlike the smiling, free-swinging, cheerful golfer we watched for the first 72 holes of the tournament.
As coaches and athletes, what lesson can we take from this?
Thinking too far into the future creates doubt and uncertainty. We have no control over the future. By planning for only 36 holes on the weekend, Watson failed to consider that he might have to play more than that. He placed limits on his performance by planning for only a specific number of holes in which to execute his game plan (i.e. mental approach).
By lamenting his mistakes on the 72nd hole, Watson’s regret was amplified by the time delay in teeing it up in the playoff. His focus and concentration had run out. His emotional tank was empty… his game plan (i.e. mental approach) and his best swings had also left him.
The lesson: Stay in the present, don’t look too far in the future and avoid setting time/perception limits…”let go of” mistakes as quickly as possible for our beliefs are restrictions that we must challenge in order to surpass our own self-imposed limitations. Coaches will tell you: “Mental Toughness is determined by having the mental and physical conditioning that allows you to play throughout the entire duration of the competition.” This is an important consideration given the frequency of overtime periods, sudden death playoffs, even shootouts.
Age is Just a Number
The worldwide media was fascinated by how Watson, at his age, could possibly be in contention for a major golf championship. What does this say about how our culture and society in the way seniors are percieved: We have developed certain stereotypes (beliefs, limits) based upon how people look or how old they are and how well they can perform based upon those attributes. Our cultural norms say that a 59-year-old should not be able to perform like Watson played this weekend. This writer argues that one of the reasons that he was able to perform at such a high level was because of his positive mental approach to the tournament: in press conferences he repeatedly stated that he “knew he could win” and he “knew he could play well at that golf course”.
This approach was critical to his excellent performance throughout the week. Did his age contribute to Watson “running out of gas?” Possibly. But remember, this man is in excellent physical condition and he had prepared meticulously for this event. In this authors opinion, this was not an instance of age limiting performance, rather a case of lapses in concentration compounding mistakes. Once that train left the station, there was little Watson could do to keep pace with Stewart Cink’s positive carriage.
As coaches and athletes what lessons can we learn from this?
We should try to avoid pre-judging athletes because they look a certain way. Maintain an open mind about the possibility that age doesn’t matter: our mental approach matters much more than how old we might be! Watson surely showed us that this weekend! Hence, how old we are might not mean anything – but how old we think might mean everything.
Keeping a positive mental attitude, staying in the present and keeping an open mind about our beliefs (self-imposed limits) about age, size, and other physical attributes are great lessons that we can learn from Watson’s likely run to the championship (I say “likely” rather than “unlikely” because based upon his spectacular mental approach for 72 holes, we should not be surprised that he had such a wonderful tournament.
Thanks for the inspiration Tom, (“Old Fogy”)! And thanks for teaching us that, despite how others may perceive us, we can accomplish whatever we would like to accomplish …if we just put our minds to it!