14 September, 2022 | Posted by Dr. Susan Giblin

Padraig Harrington, Shane Lowry and the Psychology of Elite Golfers

Psychology of Elite Golfers

Padraig Harrington and Shane Lowry finished in joint fourth position at Kiawah Island Ocean Resort last weekend. They were playing at a US PGA tournament there with Harrington secure in his place as European Ryder Cup team captain and Lowry moving from 24th to 14th on the European points list. He’s chasing a top nine spot for automatic selection ahead of the Ryder Cup in September this year.

Finishing fourth, or even joint fourth as it was on this occasion is not in itself notable. But we did get to see something rare.

Harrington and Lowry are longtime friends who have played countless practice rounds together and shared golf courses with each other all over the world. But they have not often been paired together in a major tournament.

As some of the best golfers in the world and two of Ireland’s greatest ever golfers, they are already exceptions. Having two come from a small country, who are then paired together on the biggest stage makes for a rare case study in the dynamics of elite professional athletes and the psychology of performance.

The course and conditions were challenging on the day but that seemed to work in their favour. Despite being in direct competition, they were egging each other on and despite some disappointing shots, they supported each other to prop themselves up the board.

Golf is an abnormal sport in many ways. It’s an individual sport, which in itself isn’t unusual, but it’s an individual sport developed in a culture of exclusivity. There are very rare occasions when there is true teamwork on show, unlike the popular team sports that populate our televisions each week. And while being a notoriously difficult game to master technically, it’s still often referred to as a game won or lost with the six inches between your ears.

Both Lowry and Harrington have had their fair share of personal battles to overcome mental obstacles in their sport rather than physical, technical or tactical challenges. The success of a player comes from him/her successfully transferring their physical, technical and tactical skills that are practiced day in and day out to the course during a major tournament. That largely depends on the golfer’s fundamental psychological skills.

It's not unique to golf, in fact it’s universal across all sports. But the setup and environment of golf can make it more noticeable.

So, how can psychology lead to life-changing success or devastating underperformance? That question has been explored extensively by sports psychologists to help prime players for the psychological demands of elite performance. Both Lowry and Harrington have worked hard to understand the mind-frame that they need to achieve to play their best golf.

For Lowry, this seems to be a calm, confident, controlled and relaxed mindset supported by his caddy partnership and long-term coach.

For Harrington, working with renowned sports psychologist Dr Bob Rotella helped him to hone his mental game.

Rotella has helped golfers to claim 75 major championships. He focuses on the process of playing, not the outcome, and emphasizes the importance of being able to have a singular focus on where you want the ball to go. Letting all other thoughts fall away.

This may seem simple, but it is incredibly difficult to achieve in a game that is dominated by minute technical details.

Players can embroil their minds in thoughts about their stance, grip, club selection, shot type, club position, ball alignment or the weather. That’s without even considering the actual factors of the competition such as their score, their competitors, their ranking or the huge sums of money that can be won. Suddenly, just thinking about where you want the ball to go is a lot more difficult.

Given the demands of the sport, psychological affiliations are common and golfers have often been afflicted with the ‘yips’. The yips are involuntary wrist spasms that occur most commonly when golfers are trying to putt. However, the yips can also affect people who play other sports (cricket, darts, baseball). The yips are traditionally thought to be a physical manifestation of performance anxiety or ‘choking’. Choking in sport is not just under performing, it is dramatically underperforming when the situation is highly pressurized (think McIlroy at the 2019 Irish Open in Portrush).

Mental skills are a component of psychology that can enhance a player’s performance capacity and reduce the likelihood of choking or underperforming. Mental skills work through optimising factors that increase performance (e.g. single shot focus) and decreasing factors that inhibit performance (e.g. paralysis by analysis, anxiety).

Mental skills, like physical skills, require time and training to develop.

In addition to maintaining a singular, simple focus, a player’s ability to recover from poor shots is a crucial psychological skill developed over time. The ability to stop a poor shot from impacting the next shot is essential to prevent single mistakes leading to a poor hole, a bad round or a devastating tournament.

Most golfers have unique post-shot routines to erase the impact of the previous shot from their mind and to focus entirely on staying in the moment and playing the next shot. These post-shot routines are developed over time and far away from the attention of the World’s media.

Fortunately, both Lowry and Harrington displayed good recovery processes throughout the tournament, despite not making par and dropping shots, the pair steadily improved their performance throughout the final round and climbed to their respectable finishing position.

Sport psychology has helped us to understand the commonalities and differences that underpin exceptional performance. Importantly, sport psychology has helped us to understand how players navigate the pressure, anxiety and stress associated with high level sport to enjoy and excel on the course.

The psychological strength of a performer is almost too subtle to detect - but its absence is undeniable!

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