Two-time major title winner, Rory McIlroy, believes he can “kick-on” and win further majors, following his first professional triumph on European soil at Wentworth’s BMW PGA Championship on Sunday. For the young golfer, who has found his form waiver in recent years, his mental resilience was impressive; coming days after the 25 year-old Northern Irishman announced the end of his engagement to tennis star Caroline Wozniacki.
If the tournament’s timing had been a challenge, he hid it well, stating: “I used it like a release. I was on my own and doing what I do best and that gave me five hours of serenity. I was just focusing on the job in hand and trying to get the ball round in the lowest number of shots possible.”
McIlory may have been able to find focus and sanctuary in sport during a testing time; however, other competitors have found that the field of play can become a minefield of mind-games, with many now turning to mental preparation techniques to aid performance.
Too often, the absence of “luck” has been used as an explanation for why competitors fall short of their expectations. Whilst Sir Steve Redgrave, Jonny Wilkinson and Dame Tanni Grey-Thomson’s achievements have been justifiably proclaimed; British sport has celebrated a tradition of the “noble nearly man.” However, the performance of Team GB at the London Olympics in 2012 seemed to herald an age of sporting achievement, where British athletes’ preparation left little to fortune and more to judgment and strength of mind.
Sir Dave Brailsford’s work with the Team GB and Team Sky cycling teams is an example of such success. His “incremental gains” philosophy looks to limit the impact of chance upon events, by aiming to deliver constant small improvements. His athletes are told to “control the controllable,” rather than focus the mind on all possible eventualities. Athletes are reminded that even an improvement of 1% a day adds up to 365% in a year. Results have been spectacular and have led to Tour de France wins for Sir Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome, and a dominance of Olympic medals by British cyclists.
In an age and culture that turns sportsmen into celebrities, Tennis star Andy Murray may be far from people’s idea of a “sports personality,” yet he is perhaps the embodiment of mental fortitude. In an individual sport with no team-mates’ performance to hide behind, the Scot has needed a strong character to improve and sustain performance in the face of a number of set-backs and injuries. Murray carries the weight of public expectation and has spoken about few people appreciating the need for athletes to be able to influence a game, when they are off form. Murray has now delivered 2 major titles including Britain’s first Wimbledon men’s title for 77 years; at times having to dig deep for the mental reserves required to overcome opponents.
In contrast, England’s footballers have often been consoled as “unlucky” when they have exited past competitions thanks to the “lottery” of penalties, or when referees’ decisions have seemingly been made in favour of the opposition. With next-month’s World Cup in Brazil on the horizon, England football manager Roy Hodgson is embracing techniques from other sports in an attempt to improve his team’s chances. Amongst others, Hodgson has called upon Dr Steve Peters, a man credited with helping Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers and his squad in last season’s Barclays Premier League campaign. His “Chimp Paradox” philosophy explains the brain’s workings in simple analogies, explaining ways in which individuals can teach themselves to disregard distractions and act productively when they may question their own ability and confidence to achieve a goal.
The British may be learning to be better winners and in doing so, there may be a growing appreciation of what is required to win. Confidence and the ability to act decisively are traits many admire in others and wish to see in themselves. The techniques behind the achievements of our sports men and women may provide a platform for individuals to flourish in other walks of life.
What can we as individuals learn from McIlroy, Murray and co as we approach challenges at home and at work?