How Tiger Woods used his mental strength and self belief to make the biggest sporting come back in history
‘It aint what they call you, it’s what you answer to” W. C. Fields.
Stand up Tiger Woods. They called him ‘past it’ he answered ‘champion.’
This article examines Woods’ spectacular mental strength and relentless self- belief and how he came to pull off the greatest sporting come-back in history.
Mental and Physical Challenges
Tiger Woods’ comeback is unique because he was not just on the floor mentally but physically as well. Four spine fusion back surgeries left him wondering if he could ever play golf again ( let alone compete) Against this mental, physical and bad publicity back drop he would go on to win his 80th PGA tournament age 42. As one U.S. sports journalist wrote
‘ ‘a wounded and crippled big cat fought his mental demons and won.’
The Fallen AngelS
We find it easier to love the flawed genius than the perfect one. Paul Gascoine, Alex Higgins , George Best, the’ fallen angels’ share a place in our hearts and so it is with Tiger Woods.
When Woods won the Masters with a record 12 shots aged 21 he had the appeal and the swagger of Kanye West. Tiger Woods made golf cool. At his peak he was the most exciting golfer to watch , not just because he was an amazing player but because he could shrug off any level of pressure thrown at him. He was renowned for toughing it out on the final day ie when the pressure is at it’s peak. The young Tiger Woods had an untouchable aura which rattled his opponents. Quite simply he was control personified which made it even more sensational when his perfect life went hurtling down dangerous and scandalous avenues.
Following the fire hydrant embarrassment, the sex scandals , his Father’s death , the back and knee surgeries , it was beginning to look like this dethroned and bedraggled Tiger had had his day. Six months before that incredible PGA win, sports correspondents globally were saying it was absolutely impossible for him to win another significant tournament ever again.
the vital ingredient of a champion
But they over looked one vital ingredient ; from the cradle Tiger Woods was trained to be mentally tougher than anyone else out there. Could this unshakeable self-belief and laser like focus be bright enough to shine through the layers of injuries, absenteeism and personal turmoil to restore the 42 year old to his former glory.
Don’t forget that self- belief doesn’t just provide the edge on competition field, it also provides the essential motivation to get out of bed and put in hours of practice. The biggest threat to motivation is doubt that we will succeed. It is why so many people cannot stick to a weight loss or exercise programme.
If you know you can succeed, you will be motivated to go the extra mile. If you don’t have that, then the long testing hours of repetitive practice, the physical pain and mental endurance competitive sport demands will be a mountain too high to climb.
THE EARLY YEARS – THE GOLFING MOZART
This is how Tiger Woods s first golf instructor, Rudy Duran describes him;
“I felt he was like Mozart. It was genius. At four and a half he could make the ball go high or low or medium with that 7 iron. He could do it on command. Mozart composed finished music in his head. I saw that with Tiger. He was composing shots in his head.”
This is fascinating. Visualisation is an invaluable skill in golf and other sports. Some people do it instinctively whilst others are coached to do it. Wayne Rooney also used to visualise the shots he was going to play as a youngster the night before matches long before he learned it from coaching. Johnny Wilkinson had the same visualisation kicking routine which appeared to come naturally too.
The young Tiger Woods was not only visualising for fun, he also had a pre-shot routine aged 3 ! (admittedly more likely to be his Father’s influence !). Earl Woods executed ‘project Tiger’ with eagle eyed precision. The foundations were being laid for Tiger Woods, Champion.
BELIEF AND THE ZONE
Top French golfer Jean Van de Velde :
“Woods is the most remarkable sportsman I have seen in terms of self- belief. He is fully able to commit to the shot. On ten feet puts he believes he will nail them. On 40 feet shots he is able to focus his entire mind on the possibility of success rather than the probability of failure”
The key word is ‘commit’. You are can only fully commit if you have one hundred percent belief. Belief is vital because the optimum sporting performances happen outside conscious awareness. It is all about trusting your ability to perform and withstand the temptation to try too hard by over think a skill which is best executed without thinking ie on auto pilot. This is the zone state that sports people aspire to.
THE DIFFERENCE THAT MAKES THE DIFFERENCE
From an early age Tiger Woods was able to commit and trust in his ability. You may be thinking ‘well that’s easy to do when you have Tiger’s talent!’ But when Woods started off, he knew he wasn’t as physically good as other players so he had to find the mental edge. When you get to a certain level differences in talent level off. What makes the difference is the mental approach. Belief is the difference that makes the difference.
Tiger Woods Father, Earl knew this and he trained his son to develop the strongest self belief and concentration. He worked on Tiger’s mental training from a very early age and then honed it with Sports Psychologist Jay Brunza.
This is what Tiger said about mental toughness.
“I certainly learned it (mental toughness) Dad had all different types of techniques to get into my head. I actually asked him to do it because I wasn’t as physically gifted. I was playing against guys who were better players than I was and the only way to get better was to get tougher. I figured if I didn’t have the physical gifts I could challenge them on a mental leval and be tougher and out think them. “
And so a champion was created.
TIGER’S FOCUS : TIPS FOR PRACTICE
Golf requires a narrow focus on where you want the ball to go. Anything that detracts from that focus damages your ability to play. Part of Tiger’s mental strength came from his ability to focus regardless of what was going on around him.
Earl Woods used acclimatisation techniques with his son. He would throw golf balls, golf bags, rattle drums, fire water pistols , do anything to distract him so that he perfected the skill of blocking out distractions.
Similarly, some of the NFL teams practice to piped high decibel jeering and booing – so that they are acclimitized to crowd noise during games. It works – it is like getting a police horse used to hazards – the more they experience disruption the calmer they become.
THE 10,000 HOUR PRACTICE RULE : THE PSYCHOLOGY
Dr. K Anders Ericsson’s research is the basis for the 10,000 hour rule. The 10,000 practice concept suggests that it requires at least 10 years and/or 10,000 hours of DELIBERATE PRACTICE to achieve an expert level of performance in any given domain – and in the case of musicians closer to 25 years to attain) Deliberate practice means practice which has engages the mind and the body and has goals and challenges. It is the old ‘practice doesn’t make practice : perfect practice does” wisdom.
The amount of time spent is not as relevant as the quality of the practice – so basically you have to put in a lot of quality practice hours to become exceptional; raw hours alone doesn’t cut it
Not only did Earl Woods create the best conditions for developing mental toughness in practice, he ensured that his son clocked up an extraordinary number of hours at a very early age. Knowing Earl Woods’ attention to detail and his devotion to ‘project Tiger’ this would not have been aimlessly hitting balls on the range either. By his mid teens Tiger had clocked up 10,000 hours of dedicated practice just like Mozart.
From a young age these physical and mental skills were being ingrained into his psyche and muscle memory. Little did he know then, that it would be these attitudes and skills which became an integral part of him that would lift him from unimaginable and dark depths.
DISTRACTIONS FROM THE CROWD
Tiger Woods has the reputation of being aloof and arrogant. He was unfairly criticised in my opinion for ignoring requests to sign autographs or speak to the crowd prior to competitions. It is his ability to concentrate in spite of distractions from the crowd that produces the sharp focus and golfing magic that his critics go on to applaud. He is going to compete on a high pressure stage : he is not tripping down the red carpet ! Top sports people use a focus routine before they perform and it the run up forms part of the performance.
HOW NOT TO FROM ARNOLD PALMER
Arnold Palmer learned the hard way that engaging with the crowd can take the prize away from you. In the 1961 Masters Palmer had a one stroke lead coming up to the 72nd hole. He hit a fine drive but as he walked towards the back a friend in the Gallery said “nice going boy” “You won it” Palmer made the mistake of shaking his friend’s hand. He admitted after it was a big mistake as in shaking his friend’s hand, he completely destroyed his concentration.
COMMIT TO THE SHOT
Jean Van de Velde identified Tiger’s ability to commit to the shot under pressure made him the best performer under pressure.
When anxiety takes hold, people try harder to take control. They hope that being careful will increase their chance of success. It doesn’t. Attention to performance or technique disrupts the flow of subconscious and muscle memory.
Most of all, if you start thinking about your technique, you are going to interfere with the connection between the picture in your mind and the automatic natural learned movements. This is called paralysis by analysis. To play freely is one of the most challenging skills to master. Because being able to ‘just do it’ goes against our emotions and instincts when under pressure.
THE RESEARCH ; WHEN LESS IS MORE
American Sports Psychologist Sian Beilock’s golfers study showed that novices hit better putts by concentrating on their game, by paying attention to the mechanics of their stroke etc. But experience changes everything. After golfers have learned how to putt – once they have memorised the necessary movements – analysing the stroke is a waste of time.
in research trials, the professional golfers did much better when they had the shortest time to take it as they were forced to trust their natural ability. They just did it. They were forced to do what Tiger Woods had spent all his life being trained to do and that is they had to commit to their natural instinctive shot. When offered more time (and they didn’t have to take the extra time ) they fell prey to the ‘over thinking, trying too hard’ mind set which is a form of doubt. They did not commit. They took longer and did not do as well. Because over thinking interferes with muscle memory and the automatic processing.
The key to replicating the ‘unthinking’ shot that comes naturally in practice in competitions is to to embed routines into your performance and as Tiger Woods, focus on the possibility of success rather than the fear of failure. I take clients through a routine of what to think about as one of my foundation lessons in confidence.
THE IMPORTANCE OF ROUTINES IN SPORT
Routines are also fantastic for the competition itself as they quieten the mind. The mind needs familiarity to get into it’s comfort zone. Routines also supplement motivation for setting good habits like exercising.
Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz’s excellent book “On Form “ produced some invaluable performance enhancing tips. They coached a variety of top sports people including tennis players Pete Sampras , Gabriela Sabatini, Monica Seles, golfer Ernie Els, hockey players Eric Lindros and Mike Richter , boxer Ray “Boom Boom”, bakset ball players Nick Anderson and Grant Hill .
Their research goal was ‘what gives the world beaters the winning edge.’ What did they do differently to their slightly inferior competitors. They spent hours watching them play and also watching videos of their games. Interestingly, they couldn’t find any difference in behaviour or technical skill when they were actually playing the shot – it was what they did between points of play that made the difference.
Whilst most of them were unaware of this, the best players built exactly the same set of routines between shots. These included the way they walked towards the base line, how they held their head and shoulders, where they focussed their eyes, the pattern of their breathing and even the way they talked to themselves. Not only did their routines propel them to better performances , they actually conserved physical energy as well as promoting mental resilience.
This is why pre-shot routines are so important. Routines help in committing to the shot as routines relax the mind – it sends a message that we are on familiar ground as this action has been performed millions of times before.
GOLFERS PRE SHOT ROUTINE
Your physical routine will get your body properly aligned and in the best position. The mental routine will signal to the mind that it can relax, it has done this many times before which makes committing to the shot easier.
When Tiger Woods made his come back in the PGA his pre- shot routine was rock solid. He used the same process, the same strategy especially in big moments. The timing and the rhythm didn’t change and neither did his thoughts. You could put a stop watch on him and his routine would be the same every time.
This is why it is SO important to do pre-shot routines in practice as the more it becomes ingrained, the more effective it is in signalling to the mind and muscle memory .
STAYNG IN THE PRESENT
Coach John Wooden insisted his UCLA basket ball team players kept their minds in the present. Only when the time expired did they look at the score. It is the basis of good sports psychology to play one shot at a time. Your mind should be focussed 100 % on the shot you are playing in that second.
If you step onto the tee thinking “this is a birdie hole” you are already thinking 2 plus 3 shots ahead of present moment. A player in the moment steps on the tee and thinks of only hitting the ball and where it is going to go not what he “should or ought” to do. The zone takes place in the present – not in the past and not in the future.
Similar to routines, these are used by many sports people on competition day to relax the mind.
There are many examples of these sporting rituals : NFL players meticulously tape their feet and ankles using precisely the same amount of tape and in exactly the same way. As one player commented, this process is religiously followed each game. There is no talking – surgical spirit is used – it is like a military operation. The wrist bands are fitted in a precise way and jerseys are tucked in without being wrinkled.
So why do the NFL players do this almost OCD ritual. It is because their routine signals to the brain that this is normal, they do it frequently and it prepares the mind for the performance. It helps them to focus on the right things. Most of all it is their mental comfort zone. It allows them to stay in the present as they perform the ritual.
When you are performing your competition day ritual, you are taking control of what occupies your mind. Your conscious mind is filled up with performing these tasks.
. Routines are often mistaken for superstitions or ‘lucky charms’. I heard a pro footballer on Talk Sport recently say “No I didn’t go in for superstitions or lucky kit because I didn’t believe in them”. Routines are different – routines are behaviours you adopt – not articles of clothing . A routine could involve an article of clothing provided it is not just that one and only piece of clothing. The obvious danger is using a unique item which may go missing.
So is the red shirt Tiger wears in the final round of tournaments superstition or a ritual ?
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE RED SHIRT
Tiger began wearing red in final rounds long before turning professional in 1996. At this time he said "I wear red on Sundays because my Mom thinks that that's my power colour, and you know you should always listen to your Mom."
Well that may have been then and his Mom was right. But I believe that the red shirt and his final day fantastic mental performance have become inextricably linked in his mind so that the red shirt acts as a positive trigger and reminder in his sub conscious of former great performances. It is an ‘I can do this, I have done it’ resource.
Clive Woodward’s HALF TIME Clean Shirt Trigger
Clive Woodward used this psychological association with the English rugby team. Woodward was intent on getting his players to focus on playing in the present and not looking at the scoreboard. He wanted them to play the same way regardless of the score or time in the match. He introduced putting on a clean shirt at half time. It was met with raised eye brows at first but it worked . Putting on a fresh shirt signals to the mind and body that you are starting a game. Clean shirt – clean sheet – stay in the present. It was so successful it has been adopted by many teams now an it is a superb illustration of how anchors and positive triggers work .
BATTLE OF THE RED SHIRTS
Tiger Woods is now so associated with the final day red shirt that fellow competitors who show up pairing with Woods wearing red themselves can be seen as aggressively challenging him. He had claimed it as his own.
At the 2006 PGA Championship, , Luke Donald was paired with Woods for the final round. Donald had planned his outfits prior to the tournament and had chosen red for final round. But then he found himself paired with Tiger. Dilemma on what to do. Either stick with red and risk being seen as trying to outdo Woods or abandon red and feel he had been intimidated before he stepped on the course.
In one of his Tour Notebooks from 2007 for the Associated Press, golf writer Doug Ferguson quoted Donald:
"Obviously Saturday night I knew I was playing with Tiger. I think if I changed my outfit, it was almost like giving in to him already on the first hole. It (wearing red) was nothing against Tiger. I wasn't trying to make a statement or anything. I thought if I changed it, I'd have already lost."
Donald lost anyway. Woods shot 68 in that final round, Donald 74. Donald worrying about his shirt colour—or how that colour would be seen would have unsettled him. It was a forced decision and one less than Woods had to make. Tiger had won the battle of the shirts J
DID TIGER BENEFIT FROM THE UNDERDOG SYNDROME
My own jury is out on this one. Undoubtedly some people perform better when they do not have the pressures of being the favourite. This was well documented in The Psychology of being an Olympic Favourite by Peter Haberi. Tiger Woods is different. He didn’t seem affected by this in his prime as he was so used to being the greatest. Remember he grew up being idolised by everyone around him. The cloak of favourite would have been easier for him to wear than most.
When he made his comeback though maybe he did enjoy the zero expectation from the press and public. What we do know is that a combination of determination and programmed self belief turned out to be an irresistable cocktail for success for some one like Tiger Woods.
WHAT TIGER SAYS ….Never Trust the Artist Trust the Tale
When Tiger Woods was asked whether he imagined winning a big tournament again he said that he thought his golf days were over.
On one level this may be true. But, I am sure this is only half the story. Deep within Tiger Woods was the most powerful reserve of self belief and determination borne from his unique upbringing and self development.
Without this belief he would not have dragged himself out of bed to put in the arduous, painful and numerous hours of practice and rehabilitation. Nor would he, as Jean Van der Velde described, have been able to commit to those winning shots on the final day with 100 per cent belief.
A BELIEF BEYOND LOGICAL JUSTIFICATION
Arsenne Wenger could have been talking about Tiger Woods when he offered this advice.
“To perform to your maximum you have to teach yourself to believe with an intensity that goes way beyond logical justification “
Tiger Woods’ belief went way beyond logical justification according to 99.9 % of the sporting pundits.
The final thought is with Earl Woods, the Father who dreamed big and played a huge part in Tiger’s phenomenal sporting achievements. Tiger Woods finally could say these words after a rocky ten years of personal and professional heartache.
“Pops would have been proud” Tiger Woods, after winning the PGA Tour , Sept 23rd 2018 .
Choke – Sian Beilock
Bounce Matthew Sayeed
The Psychology of being an Olympic Champion
R. E. Beaumister Choking Under Pressure Journal of Social Psychology
Clive Woodward - Winning
Never Trust the Artist , trust the tale - D. H Lawrence
10 minute Toughness - Selk
The Psychology of being the Olympic Favourite Peter Saberi
Quote - Never Trust the Artist Trust the Tale - D. H. Lawrence.
The Zone - Perry and Jameson
About the writer Jenny Truman
I am a Mental Skills Coach helping professional and amateur sports people with improving their mental game. If you are a professional or amateur sports person and would like to find out more,
Contact me via web site www.jtperformancecoaching.co.uk or mobile 07870 705007 email firstname.lastname@example.org