Why external pressures took their toll on McIlroys on-course processes

Rory McIlory’s Masters collapse in 2011 gave us a troubling glimpse into what his whole 2013 season would look like.

It is widely reported that McIlroy turned up for his final round at Augusta nearly three hours before he was due to tee off. The three rounds before he had arrived with an hour to spare.

From my point of view, as a mental performance coach, it was this change in process that gave him unwanted time and saw him switch focus from the task at hand (i.e. get the ball in the hole) to the magnitude of the situation on which the task rested (i.e. becoming part of golfing history).

Golfers, sensitive souls that we are, will always be reminded of the external pressures that playingScreen Shot 2014-06-25 at 11.06.05 AM this great game brings. Be it the Sunday medal final and the chance to get your name eternalized in gold leaf or getting your handicap low enough to win representative honors and all the way up to slipping on the green jacket and leaving an indelible legacy on the history of the sport. These various outcomes will always be lurking in our consciousness, applying pressure to what we are trying to achieve.

The extra two hours that Rory gave himself on that fateful day was just enough time for him to clamber upwards in the ‘blue triangle’, pictured above, and make the journey away from peak performance when a player’s focus switches from process to outcome.  This is an unfortunate journey which McIlroy undoubtedly made.

McIlroy stated he was unhappy with the strike of the iron he delivered to the first green. His inability to accept this was a telling indicator of what was bubbling away under the surface, a bubble that eventually popped spectacularly (and rather messily) by the time he had pegged up on the 11th tee.

Elite golfers work on their mental games. This isn’t a trendy new fad or even me trying to drum up some more work to buy food for my tiny, but worryingly ravenous, dog. It is a fact.

Elite golfers develop a process focus and use tools such as a pre-shot routine to keep their mind concentrated on the task at hand, a routine that prevents them from ‘playing the situation’ and removes any thoughts of outcome. This pre-shot routine is practiced incessantly, and as such, acts as a ‘comfort blanket’ against the damaging effect of external pressures.

Screen Shot 2014-06-25 at 11.18.37 AMOn April 10, 2012, McIlroy lost his comfort blanket. It vanished into the proverbial jumble pile in the extra two hours he gave himself to prepare. Two hours that allowed him to become utterly and irrevocably anxious, focusing purely on the outcome and bumbling his way to a final round 80. As career lows go, only his excruciating Santander adverts can top it.

External pressures led to changes in the way our mop-topped hero felt on the course and this invariably led to a worrying physical change.

Once we enter this cycle, what we call ‘attentional narrowing’ strikes, and we no longer assess shots with the focus they demand. Simply put, our minds are now elsewhere (and our golf balls are anywhere, everywhere and nowhere near the green).

Those critical seven hours in the spring of 2011 (three pre-round and four on the course) gave a snap shot of what his whole 2013 season was going to look like. Rory had fought a losing battle with ever growing external pressures all year, with no signs that he had any idea how to arrest, let alone remedy the decline.

‘Ah, but what about the clubs?’ I hear your cry. Well, no need to cry friend, the truth is that the switch from Titleist to Nike has unquestionably impacted on McIlroy’s game.

Not because they are a degree more upright or because the shafts are stiffer.  Rather, it’s the microscopic scrutiny that this new sea monster of a brand and the accompanying riches has created.

Every missed green, every pushed drive just means a little bit more attention from the media and a little more doubt in R Macs mind. And it all adds up to more external pressure and a situation more unnerving than Jensen Button diving out from behind the curtains to sell you a credit card.

But, this alone surely could not keep McIlroy winless since claiming his second major at Kiawah Island?

The unwelcomed spotlight of the equipment switch is coupled with other factors away from the course. Chief amongst these is the ongoing court battle with his former management group, Horizon, who are mighty eager for a sizeable nibble of the Nike pie.

And while all this drama is unfolding, McIlroy is setting up ‘Rory McIlroy Incorporated’ with his dad while the weight of the external pressure keeps growing. Outcomes are becoming more and more important and, again, up the blue triangle we go.

Meltdown is an over-exaggeration, but the discomfort and stress of McIlory’s situation was sadly best reflected by the bending of a wedge mid-tournament and even further confirmed when he chose to walk off the course mid competition.

McIlroy no longer feels safe on the course with the ever growing external pressures becoming too much for him to deal with.

The golf course used to be his sanctuary, the place where he could express who he was with freedom and very little unproductive thought. This is no longer the case. Stardom and the external pressure that comes with it have cruelly stolen his comfort blanket.

The one place he now feels safest is probably hand in hand with his superstar tennis playing girlfriend, quite probably another factor that has added to the build-up of pressure and made every outcome matter that much more.

As golfers, we must focus on the process of hitting good shots, not what might arise as a result of that shot. If I became convinced that hitting the next shot poorly would mean my tennis player girlfriend would dump me and Santander would replace me with Nick Faldo, then I would go to bits.

Instead, we need to be so deeply immersed in our routines that external pressures are blocked from our minds. We must play the task at hand and not the situation the task is wrapped up in.

I am sure McIlroy will learn how to deal with all these external factors that have attracted so much unwelcome and negative attention to him, both as a golfer and as a man.

Once he gets back into his processes and realizes that the outcomes are actually less important than he currently perceives them to be, 2013 will be classed as a year of learning and not the start of a golfing decline.

Here at Bishops Gate Golf Academy, we teach all of our students the five components of a golf shot we call the OSVEA. Over the coming weeks I will be uploading a shot video of each OSVEA component that will help you understand what it is and how to use it as your comfort blanket against external pressure when playing golf.

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