28th September 2018
When golf meets football: The psychology of the Ryder Cup
This weekend has seen the sporting world gripped with hyperbole and tension as Europe and the United States compete for golf’s most prestigious team trophy – The Samuel Ryder Cup. Sensible Soccer director and UCFB academic David Horrocks worked as a performance director and psychologist for three years in a brief hiatus from football on the European, US and South African professional golf tours, taking in two Ryder Cups along the way.
One of the courses David worked and analysed in his time was Le Golf National in Paris, the very scene of this weekend’s crimes and glories. A former charge of his was Tyrrell Hatton, who’s making his maiden appearance in this year’s event. Morgan Rothwell, Director and Head of Communications at Sensible Soccer and D&M Creative, caught up with Dave to get an insight into the prestigious competition.
The Ryder Cup then, sum it up for us. What makes it so special?
Well it’s a charged atmosphere, the general rules and etiquette of golf both on the course and in the galleries go out the window, and in all honesty it becomes a three-day football match and for many people that’s their adrenalin fuelled idea of heaven. We know Sir Alex Ferguson has been involved with Europe in past Ryder Cup successes with Paul McGinley, and a lot of football stars play the game and attend the events, so there is a close dynamic between the two sports.
Football and golf are quite inextricably linked. One of the first things I noticed when working the tours was the amount of passion the golfers had for football. Between days, after rounds and over dinners and lunches, a lot of the talk was about football or centred around watching certain matches. Rory McIlroy and caddie Harry Diamond are Manchester United fanatics, Ian Poulter is Mr Arsenal, Tyrell Hatton is a Liverpool fan and Sergio Garcia a Real Madrid supporter. Garcia has even played for Spanish third division outfit and hometown club FC Borriol, and is now an investor and board member of the club. I think it’s pretty fair to say, certainly on the European side, many of these golfers are quite literally football mad.
Do any of the principles of performance overlap and what can golf learn from football?
Yes, they do. There are things especially in this particular event. This is the only time that golfers are trying to win something as part a team dynamic, which in turn brings shared responsibility, emotion and associated adrenalin. The players are also in positions where they don’t have total control over the next shot they may be faced with. For instance, and to use a football analogy, a wide player crossing a ball for a striker is a situation where you are reliant on the quality of cross from that winger, so in golfing terms your lie and line of approach on shot two is reliant and dependant on the quality of your partners drive in the foursomes format of the game. This brings with it harmony, tension, uncontrollable peer pressure and peer scrutiny, which is not part of the normal tournament golfers experience in 99% of their professional existences.
Having worked in both sports, is there anything you would do differently with golfers in a Ryder Cup context as opposed to a normal tournament?
Yes and no. Firstly, these are top level sportspeople. Routine and individual ownership is one of the key reasons why they are where they are, so it’s important not to re-invent the wheel. Therefore, I would say technical and tactical preparation remains the same. The atmosphere and shared responsibility is the main differential and is something that is not common and in some cases completely new to these golfers. This in turn may also flood into any internal pressures they could possibly feel dependent upon their character in terms of decision making, as the stakeholders may double on certain shots. E.G. Two players and two caddies could be discussing a situation that is normally dealt with by half that dynamic.
So what may you do different or bring to golf from football?
Many golfers ask me questions with regard to football and football players and they are more often than not centred around the debate they (footballers) suffer different nerves and anxieties, and sometimes the game is so quick that the decisions are easier for them.
Well that’s not actually the case; footballers do suffer nerves, they do suffer from doubt and they do think just like golfers do. Watch Ronaldo breathe pre penalty kick, watch a goalkeeper’s tics and fidgety routines as he lines up a wall, watch how many times a defender checks and checks to be certain he’s got the right line and position as he tracks a striker’s movement. They’re all the same physiological symptoms, motor control demands and decision making quandaries, and one of the things that may be transferred to help the golfer are anecdotal tales of specific football situations.
Stories are powerful mediums of learning, are the cement and scaffolding of early childhood and can form a powerful yet less intrusive psychological blanket for a golfer to draw upon. Many may ask if Sir Alex Ferguson affected or benefitted the European team he addressed? They’ll all say “yes he did” but then ask what did he do. The often stock reply is: “Err, not sure really.” However, press a little deeper and you’ll find he delivered powerful stories and comforting words. Then ask the golfer did they use this on course and hey presto, come to think of it there were times you did think of these words. Did they make you feel any better? Yes, they did actually. Simple psychology – a non-intrusive intervention, yet ultimately something that found its way into the finite cogs of performance in certain key moments.
Tyrrell Hatton is one you’ve worked with, tell me more about him?
Tyrrell came to me via his manager at the time as a player with a reputation of having a fiery nature and a history of finishing several tournaments without a putter, as he had snapped them after simple misses. He was a young lad with a personal expectancy to win everything and was arguably still in the undergraduate phase of his development. That early career demand to win is certainly something you wouldn’t go anywhere near knocking out of him, and was a trait I immediately identified as synonymous with the likes of Gary Neville. In all honesty I thought this was something hugely in his favour which other golfers I had worked with lacked.
What was also instantly obvious with Tyrell was his love for the game, his total personal sacrifice to the game, and the family support he had from his father (coach) and his girlfriend. He’s one of those where you wouldn’t want to take the fire out of him as it may affect his creativity and technical performance (I guess a bit of a Luis Suarez with Tyrell being a Liverpool fan). He is a private guy with a dry sense of humour, and a very smart guy who was basically just finding himself and transferring through the levels. In all honesty it is almost a Jesse Lingard type case, just give him time. However, put experienced people around him and let him be himself and his talent will flourish. We did little bits on the professionalisation of pre-tournament preparation, but in my eyes the preconceived idea of a fiery character was more to do with letting the boy become a man and providing an experienced environment to help this transition flourish. To assist nature along its way, we implemented a socialisation with and an introduction of experienced caddies and players into his environment and then let him find his own way amongst the new group, while at the same time taking him out of the younger peer group and developmental stage environment he had grown out of.
I think Tyrrell will go on to great things, and I don’t see the Ryder Cup environment affecting him as he’s very self-focused. The one thing I may offer an in tournament partner of his would be to leave him to it. He’s very much the Trent Alexander-Arnold of this European side and a player who should go on to have a very successful career in the game and play many more Ryder Cups over the coming years. Sit back and watch him bloom.
What’s your prediction for the weekend?
The Americans come in with more collective form. However, this is a course of tactical nous, most certainly over the water laden closing holes. The Europeans have more miles on the clock playing Le Golf National, so home advantage is not just evident in terms of the crowd. In addition, Thomas Bjorn and the ground staff could well be crucial in terms of how they set up the challenge. The Tiger Woods effect is possibly going to be way greater than ever before. It’s almost a Christ like resurrection to see where he is and what he’s doing in the game right now, and this is a serious shot in the arm for America.
The captain’s picks are arguably out of sorts on the European team, so add into that there are also three debutants and I think it’s fair to say the captain’s picks must deliver. The beauty of this is the fact that we’re not asking for 72 holes of consistency from these experienced campaigners, so scoring the necessary points isn’t a ridiculous ask.
America are littered with household names, major titles and serial winners, and the captain’s picks are showing way more form and consistency through the season than their European counterparts. Woods and Phil Mickleson will need their bodies and time in field managing and therefore wider factors may play a part in the American strategy across the three days. The tournament will swing more than past years have witnessed. I think it will be close but I’m hedging my bets towards a European victory with the final putt on Sunday evening.