Rory McIlroy is performing more consistently, and so far, is having one of his best seasons to date. This is of course due to many interconnected reasons, but one aspect of his golf that is particularly intriguing is his seemingly new mindset towards his performance.
On approach to the Masters this year, he is “focussing on the small things.” He has “a little more acceptance”. He is also focussed on what he can control, not on others. He is focussed not just on the result, but on the processes of performance. He is talking about creativity, fun, and excitement. He is happy. Any learned sport and exercise psychologist could have a field day dissecting his recent media interactions because they are so packed full of buzz words that portray a plethora of psychology theory and application. But the focus of this piece is on how Rory’s utterances on approach to the Masters reflect a rational, and logical, approach to his game.
‘Want to’ vs ‘Need to’
The main aspect that the media are focusing on, as well as psychologists on social media, is Rory’s distinction between ‘wanting to win’ and ‘needing to win’. In a recent piece in the New York Post McIlroy said that,
“I think there’s a difference between a personal desire and a need, and I think I’ve separated those two…I would have said a couple of years ago, ‘I need to win a Masters. I need a green jacket.’ Where now it’s, ‘I want to. I want to win it.’ And I’d love to win it. but if I don’t, I’m OK. And I think that is the difference.”
As well as separating the “want” from the “need” Rory has “become a lot more comfortable with the fact that I’m going to fail more times than I succeed.” Rory is just being honest here, and placing importance on the facts, rather than on fiend optimism. But crucially, Rory said that “I am motivated to make the most of what I have and to put my name among some of the greats of our game. I’m going to try my ass off there [Masters], and I’m probably not going to win…do I have a desire to do it? Yes. Do I have a need to do it? No.” This is important, because there is misconception that being rational means that you are unemotional and unmotivated. I wrote a piece for The Psychologist in 2014, in response to which one reader wrote a letter to The Psychologist protesting the emergence of rationality in sport, in part due to its poor motivational power. This of course is a misinterpretation of rationality, and a misconception of motivation. Our research has shown that helping athletes to think more rationally can help to shift their motivation from more extrinsic forms of motivation, to more intrinsic forms motivation. Motivation is multidimensional, it doesn’t just go from high to low, or low to high.
What Rory is saying here is that he is thinking rationally, but is also highly motivated. He clarifies,
“Look, you still want to win, but there are ways to do it and there’s mechanisms that you can put in place that help you achieve your goals that aren’t just about the result…So it’s not as if I’m coming here not to try and win the golf tournament, but I know if I have the right attitude and I have my goals that I want to achieve this year, the by‑product could be winning this golf tournament.”
A logical perspective
Along the same lines, in a recent press conference Rory said that “I would dearly love to win this tournament one day, and if it doesn’t happen this week, that’s totally fine, I’ll come back next year and have another crack at it”. In a piece in the Guardian he says
“If you win you win, if you don’t…I think it has taken me a while to get to this point…I’d love to win it. I’m going out there to try my best. Indifferent maybe sounds wrong but I’m not at the point where it’s a burden to me. Not at all.”
So not only is he separating “wants” from “needs”, he is also using a logical perspective to view success and failure. He says “Its perspective. Its perceptions” and “It is all about perception and meaning.” To reflect this perception and meaning, concerning Augusta, he says “It’s a golf course, it’s a golf tournament.” He speaks not of terrible or awful results. He talks of “undesirable results” in the recent past. Under pressure, Rory even goes so far as to say that “when you are in contention, not giving a shit if you win or not.” He is being honest. Focussed on facts. To help athletes gain perspective, we have used something called the badness scale, which helps people to realise that even if what happens to them is really really bad, it can never be truly awful. It can always be worse.
I am not my score
Rory also skilfully separates himself, the human being, from the performer. Whilst recognising that winning at the Masters would cement his place amongst legends of the game, which is motivating, he also communicates that this achievement would not fundamentally change him. He says “If I win the Masters I’m not going to wake up on Monday morning as a different person. I’ll be the same Rory, with the same parents, same wife, same group of people around me. Nothing is going to change. That’s hugely motivating but it’s not going to make me a different person.”
This idea is distilled perfectly by McIlroy when he says “I am not my score. I am not my results” and his decision to “not let my golf scores define who I am as a person.” We have spoken recently about the dangers of attaching self-worth to achievement pursuits, and the benefits of separating the self, from the outcome of these pursuits. Our research has also shown how the tendency to attach self-worth too tightly to performance outcomes is associated with psychological distress, and that we can help athletes to understand that performance failure, doesn’t make them a failure.
McIlroy is in a “good place”. But why?
According to McIlroy, his change in attitude has been a huge key to his quality of performance of late. We have known for quite a while that rational mindsets, or beliefs, are healthy and helpful for psychological wellbeing. But the idea that rational beliefs could help athletes to stay healthy, and fulfil their athletic potential, is a relatively new endeavour. The notion that wanting to, rather than needing to, succeed could be helpful, that winning and losing is not life or death, that failure is part of the process for an elite athlete, and that an athlete is more than their performance, squarely fits within the theory and practice of rational emotive behaviour theory (REBT) developed by Albert Ellis in the 1950s.
Ellis broke from Freudian psychodynamic therapy, because frankly, it wasn’t working for his clients. Instead, Ellis drew on the philosophy of Ancient Stoics such as Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius to help form rational therapy (or RT), which these days is called REBT. In recent years, there is a growing body of research concerning the application of REBT with athletes. Our own work has demonstrated that REBT can be used across a wide range of athletic populations to aid psychological and emotional functioning and performance. We have also found that rational beliefs, used by McIlroy and first conceptualised by Ellis in the 1950s, can aid golfing performance and reduce golf-specific anxiety. We also have a program of research that specifically focusses on how REBT can be employed in golf (by Nanaki Chadha).
So, it is unsurprising that McIlroy’s beliefs concerning his performance are helping him in his career. In fact, it would be difficult to find as perfect example in the media of an elite athlete using principles aligned with REBT so explicitly. Rory even touches on the idea that his mindset, if practiced, can become unconscious – an idea imbedded deeply within the effectiveness of REBT. Rory also talks about the importance of being healthier away from the golf course, placing priority with Rory the “human” rather than just Rory the “golfer”. I talk more about this important delineation here. Rory explains this by saying that “I’ve had that in the past where I see myself as the golfer, and basically the only thing that matters is what I shoot that day. That’s not me.”
Form Rory to Rose
Another good example is Justin Rose. Rose has said in the past that “Golf is not a game of perfect” and “you can’t beat yourself up”, but more specifically, in a very evocative short-film about his 2013 US Open win, he talks about his attitude to pressure:
“You are leading the US Open, so what? There is 500 million people watching on TV, so what? If I ever felt myself getting out of that what mattered, what was going to impact hitting a good golf shot, my attitude was, so what? And I think that when it came to the moment on the 18th tee, it was like yeah you’ve got a great chance to win the US Open. So what? I accept that golf is a game where you are gonna win some, you are gonna lose some…I knew that this didn’t HAVE to be my time…I’ve accepted I’m gonna win majors, and I’m gonna lose some majors.”
McIloy’s and Rose’s language and sentiment in their media interviews is remarkably similar to the flexible self-talk we used in a golf study published recently, that showed how rational self-talk was more beneficial for putting performance compared with irrational self-talk. The idea that you don’t HAVE to win, the idea of acceptance (of the self, the situation, and others), and gaining perspective, are present in how McIlroy and Rose think about golf, and in our study.
Not for the first time
Whether McIlroy and Rose have engaged with anybody versed in REBT, or the rational musings of Stoics such as Epictetus, is unclear. McIlroy refers to Ryan Holiday in his pre-Masters interview, who is a Stoic writer, so it is possible that whilst he may not be engaging in REBT, he may be reaping the benefits of the Stoicism that heavily informed REBT. In a recent public lecture, I spoke about the use of Stoicism in performance settings, and the strong link between Ancient Stoicism and REBT.
However, for McIlroy, this isn’t the first time he has communicated his rational mindset to the world. In 2011, Rory McIlroy had a four-shot lead after the first day of the Masters. However, he bogeyed the par-four first on Sunday, and then squandered his chances of a first major victory over the space of four holes. He triple-bogeyed the 10th, recorded a three-putt bogey from less than 10 feet at the next, before taking four putts to double-bogey the 12th. McIlroy then landed his drive at 13 in to Rae’s Creek. He closed at eight-over 80. Charl Schwartzel took the Green Jacket.
What were McIlroy’s reflections after this collapse? “There are lot of worse things that can happen in your life… Shooting a bad score in the last round of golf tournament is nothing in comparison to what other people go through.” He said that “You’ve just been in a place where millions of people have no clean water, and millions of kids get no education, and you’re nervous about hitting a golf ball into some water!” McIlroy went on to win his first major (US Open) in resounding fashion, shattering the tournament scoring record and winning by eight strokes.
Also, in the not too distant past, McIlroy revealed his new philosophy behind his putting, saying that, “I think it’s just the mentality of not really caring whether it goes in or not…If I hit a good putt, great. If it goes in, wonderful. If it doesn’t, I’ve done all that I can do…It’s a philosophical change, a psychological change…I’m trying to get back to feeling how I did as a kid, where your instinct takes over.”
But now, just before the Masters at Augusta, it seems that McIloy’s rational mindset has deepened, and is spreading. Tiger Woods recently said about the Masters that “I don’t really need to win here again, but I really WANT to win.” Dustin Johnson similarly remarked that:
“If you’re telling yourself you need to win I think you are putting a lot of pressure on yourself. Talk to any of the top players, we all want to win, everyone out here wants to win. There is definitely a difference. For me, I want to win every week. But, I don’t need to win. You put more pressure on yourself if you’re saying you need to win”
This difference between wanting to and needing to win, is at the core of REBT. In REBT, we ask: where is the evidence that you need to win? Is it consistent with reality that wanting to win, means that you have to win? Is needing to win helping you to achieve your long-term goals for performance and wellbeing? I have never heard a good justification for “needing” to win. Roy Hodgson, ex-England Mens Senior Football Manager said a similar thing, that “One of the phrases I hate is, “This is a must-win game”. So, if the opposition are winning 2-0 and there are 10 minutes to go, does it mean I’ve got to get a machine gun out and shoot them? No one wants to lose.” The ‘want’ to win is not a weak, flaky desire to win. It can be a deep and powerful desire to succeed. A desire to win that is hinged on an intrinsic drive to fulfil your potential is way more useful and powerful than a self-pressured and rigid demand to win. Right? Rory says that “I desperately want to win it, because I want to feel that satisfaction that I had worked hard, persevered, persisted and eight years later after having that chance to win the Masters I’d achieve something I hadn’t done before.” But that doesn’t mean he ‘needs to’ win.
In essence, thinking rationally (flexibly, logically) may help performers face pressure with helpful emotions that increase the likelihood of fulfilling their potential. This way of thinking about pressure may seem very matter of fact and unappealing at first glance. It is more sensational to say “I have to win and its life and death” compared to “I want to win but its not life and death”. Even so, research is showing that this flexible and logical way of thinking can enhance sports performance, and is linked to greater psychological wellbeing. Also, some of the most high-profile golfers are using this way of thinking as part of their approach to golf. One piece by Kyle Porter at CBS puts it rather well, stating that “here’s a dirty little secret that people might not believe because we live in the ‘only winning matters I don’t even want to discuss anything else’ generation: McIlroy is playing the best golf of his PGA Tour career.”
For McIlroy, there is a sense of perceptive. A truth that golf is not life and death and an ability to reduce self-pressure through logical thinking. The golfers competing at the Masters are of course wanting to perform well at this important and prestigious event. But perhaps the key to performance under pressure is to remain logical, think flexibly, and recognise that win or lose, wanting to win is superior to having to win, golf is not a matter of life and death, and that they are not their performance. The bigger picture is self-fulfilment, a goal that was important for the Stoics too. As Rory says, I am thinking of the bigger picture…fulfilment is much bigger than golf tournaments.”
Oh, one final thing. Rory talks about his use of mindfulness apps and using apps to get his head in the right place. But there is an REBT App too! See here.
Martin J. Turner