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The psychological game of golf

The Open was a fantastic display of psychology in sport - both from a positive and a negative perspective. Golf is often referred to as a game won or lost with the six inches between your ears (i.e. your brain!) and we have taken the opportunity to consider how appropriate psychological preparation and management can lead to life-changing success (Lowry) or devastating underperformance (McIlroy). How can two players of similar professional status, physical ability and competitive capacity produce such contrasting performances? That question has been explored extensively by sports psychologist to begin to understand how to prime players and coaches for the psychological demands of elite performance.

Despite a very impressive recovery to come close to making the cut - McIlroy’s open round did not go to plan. McIlroy had explicitly withdrawn from the Irish Open stating his claim to peak for Portrush and shot after shot we saw that plan unravel on day one. Interestingly, McIlroy made an impressive recovery when the stakes were low on the second day - playing much more to his potential when things could not really go any worse. This ironic process is a common affliction whereby psychological investment in performance leads to performance breakdown. It is a fine balancing-act being able to get in to ‘the zone’ without suffering from over-thinking performance breakdown. This is the first aspect of performance that Lowry really nailed - it seems that the combination of his new Caddy partnership and his long-standing coach has really helped Lowry understand and maintain the mind-frame within which he performs to the best of his ability. For Lowry, this might be a calm, confident, controlled and relaxed mindset, other players may require higher-energy, focus, isolation etc. to maintain their optimal performance zone. 

As well as mindset preparation to get in and stay in the zone, a player’s ability to recover from poor-shots is a crucial psychological skills developed over time. The ability to stop a poor shot from impacting the next shot is essential to prevent small mistakes leading to a poor hole or a poor round require immense psychological control and self-efficacy. These skills are developed over time and far away from the attention of the worlds media. The psychological strength of a performer is almost too subtle to detect - but it’s absence is undeniable!

These are just a couple of examples of how research examining the psychological performance of super-champions (who consistently perform at internationally elite levels) has helped us to understand the commonalities and differences that underpin exceptional performance. Importantly, psychologists have developed applied skills to support players and coaches to peak when it matters most and navigate the pressure, anxiety and stress experienced on the course.

The role of the sports psychologist as part of the back-room support team is becoming more established and we are hoping to develop the next generation of Sports Psychologist practitioners to continue to push Ireland’s athletes to the fore on a World stage. As part of our BSc Sport Psychology, Coaching and Education degree, students explore general psychological theories and constructs (e.g. personality, self-efficacy) but the predominant focus of our degree is practical training in applied interventional skills for those with a passion for understanding and promoting performance.

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