Picture the scene. You’re at the golf Open, on the green at the 18th, standing over a seven-foot putt. As you approach the ball, the spectators quieten down, your competitors look on with anticipation, and the world watches through their TV sets. Then, as you prepare to bring the club back, a voice in your head says, “I want to sink this, but that doesn’t mean I must” and reassures you that “If I don’t succeed, it will be bad, but not awful”. As those words echo in your head, you take your shot, with the confidence that this ball is going in. And it does.
This is exactly what we found in a new paper published in the Psychology of Sport and Exercise. Golfers took 15 putts from 7-feet away on the green on three occasions, one week apart. At each occasion the golfers were told that they were competing against other golfers on a league table, to increase performance pressure. The first time they putted, the golfers were given no further instructions before their putts so researchers could collect their baseline putting ability.
But the second time the golfers putted, they were given a set of instructions to use before each of the 15 putts. Some golfers were given instructions that encouraged them to use very rigid and extreme self-talk before each putt, whilst some were given instructions that encouraged them to use flexible and balanced self-talk before each putt. The third time they putted, the instructions were swapped around and those who used rigid self-talk before, were given flexible self-talk to use before each of the 15 putts, and those who used flexible self-talk before, were given rigid self-talk to use before each putt.
We found that when the golfers used flexible self-talk, there putting performance significantly improved from baseline, in fact it improved by 66% on average. When they used flexible self-talk, they performed better than when they used rigid and extreme self-talk. So, using flexible self-talk helped the golfers perform better than they normally would, and better than when they used rigid and extreme self-talk.
So it makes sense for golfers to use flexible, non-extreme, self-talk when lining up for a pressure putt. But what does this flexible self-talk sound like? Before each putt, the golfers were encouraged to say the following to themselves in their heads:
- I want to sink this but that doesn’t mean I must
- If I don’t succeed in this task, it will be bad but not awful
- If I don’t succeed in this task, I will not like it, but I will be able to stand it
- If I fail to sink this putt then I will have failed, but that would not make me a failure
Thinking in this flexible way may help performers face pressure with helpful emotions that increase the likelihood of fulfilling their potential. But this way of thinking about pressure may seem very matter of fact and unappealing at first glance. 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.
Take Justin Rose for example. 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.”
Rose’s language here is remarkably similar to the flexible self-talk used in our study. The idea that you don’t HAVE to win, the idea of acceptance and gaining perspective are present in how Rose thinks about golf, and in the new study. But Rose isn’t the only golfer to have adopted this rational approach to golf.
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.
More recently, McIlroy has revealed a 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.” Again, the sentiment of this approach is similar to the flexible self-talk used in our study.
For both Rose and 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 about to compete at the 147th Open at Carnoustie this July 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, golf is not a matter of life and death.
Dr. Martin Turner