Monday, October 8, 2012

Ryder Cup, part I: The trickle down effect & threat rigidity

On Thursday of last week’s PGA Tour event, Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III commented that he “was still stunned” by the American’s team loss to Europe the previous Sunday.  Leading 10-6 going into the Sunday singles, in which they are traditionally dominant, the Americans must have liked their chances to win the cup.  But, as the Americans themselves should have well known from their historic comeback from the very same deficit in the 1999 Ryder Cup, no lead is safe going into Sunday, particularly given the legendary pressure produced by these biennial matches.  In light of this degree of pressure, we should all take Monday morning quarterbacking with a grain of salt.  Still, some of the comments that emerged from the event give us a good window into some of the less effective cognitive work that went into the American defeat, and the more useful thinking that proved the difference for the Europeans.
We should be clear that, first and foremost, a loss in team competition falls on the shoulders of the coach, or, as he is called in the Ryder Cup, the team captain.  As Davis Love himself said, “If we win, the players take credit, and if we lose, the captain will.”  And this is right.  For example: if the young lad McIlroy had indeed missed his tee time and thus forfeited his match to Keegan Bradley, and that point had proven decisive--as it no doubt would have--a great deal of the blame for that miscue would have fallen on the shoulders of European team captain Jose Maria Olazabal, because it is a coach’s job to get his players where they need to be when they need to be there.  That said, it is all the more surprising to have heard Davis Love comment, in the immediate aftermath of the defeat: “We’re all kind of stunned.  We were playing so well.  We just figured it didn’t matter how we sent them out there.”  Wait. What?!  Rewind that tape and listen again: it didn’t matter how we sent them out there.  That’s quite an admission.  In an earlier posting (“Scott’s Lytham Opportunity,” August 17), I commented that there is almost nothing as corrosive to a potential victory as thinking that it’s in the bag.  In that post, I called this cognitive error the “I’ve-got-this” error.  How many times have you thought, “I’ll just par 18 and post my best score ever,” only to triple it and slink home in a silent, impotent rage?  I certainly remember making that cognitive error in a match, both as player and coach, only to shake my victorious opponent’s hand only an eye-blink later in shame and dismay.  Once you’ve made that error and tasted its sting, you learn to change the self talk from “I’ve got this,” to “let’s bear down and keep the momentum going.”  It’s really shocking to hear such a seasoned Tour and Ryder Cup veteran as Davis Love having fallen prey to it.  In this regard, what have come to be called miraculous comebacks (1999 and 2012) could very well be explained by the “I’ve-got-this” error insinuating itself with the kind of insidiousness and perfidy common to all cognitive errors.
Apart from getting the players to the venue on time, another vital role for the coach is to shape the meaning of the impending contest for the players.  This is why the pre-game speech or the half-time speech carries so much weight.  The coach is shaping the cognitive framework for the players so that, as much as possible, their play reflects and lives up to that frame.  And this work is not only done with words.  The coach’s entire habitus communicates his frame of mind to the players through a sort of osmosis or trickle down effect, and they feed off of his body language and facial expressions, positive or negative, energized or lethargic.  So, my message here is two-fold.  If he actually said that the Cup was in the bag, he went a long way to having his players take victory as a foregone conclusion, and therefore, play without conviction.  And secondly, even if he didn’t say it, he communicated it in these other, metacommunicative ways.  I was not lucky enough to be in the team rooms, but all weekend, I found him eloquent, sportsmanly, and understated.  But, he definitely did not communicate the spirited thirst for victory that we always feel from the Europeans and that could have helped inspire better play from his team on Sunday.  I’m sure there is fire in Davis Love’s belly, but I’m not sure he let the conflagration circumradiate enough for his players to feel its heat.
Finally, I think another error that preyed on Davis Love and the American team is a concept from organizational management called “threat rigidity.”  This concept holds that when an organization encounters a complex series of external threats, it responds by becoming more insular and wooden, more reliant on antiquated answers and ways of being, and less creative and flexible.  This rigidity renders the organization incapable of adapting to the needs of the moment.  Where do we see this in the 2012 Ryder Cup?  The first area is in captain Love’s insistence on continuing to play the team of Woods-Stricker despite their dismal performance in their first two outings together.  Though successful in many Ryder and President’s Cups, the pairing didn’t have it this year, and finding other, younger partners whose more spirited play could have catalyzed something in the lumbering veterans might have been a more adaptive response.  Secondly, threat rigidity appears most clearly in playing not to lose rather than playing to win.  Playing not to lose manifests itself physically with tension and a need to overcontrol.  And we all know that this sort of tension wreaks havoc on a golf swing and putting stroke.  We can only perform the highly controlled and technical physical motions of sport if we have the cognitive freedom to do so.  A classic example of this loss of control through threat rigidity is Greg Norman’s epic collapse in the 1997 Masters, where it actually looked like he had forgotten how to play golf.  This year, we saw Jim Furyk and Steve Stricker play very constrained golf in losing the last two holes of their matches late in the day on Sunday.  Furyk’s seemingly endless stalking of his putt on 18 was good evidence both that he was experiencing threat rigidity and that he was going to miss the putt.
       In the next post, I will discuss some of the vital differences in the European approach that proved the difference in this year’s Ryder Cup.  As so often happens in these matches, we are left again to wonder why the Europeans consistently create more spirited, cohesive teams who are always stronger than the sum of their parts, in stark contrast to the Americans, who usually underperform relative to their potential.  To be fair to captain Love, it is a notoriously difficult job to create a team out of athletes who are most accustomed to playing by themselves for themselves, particularly when those players are super stars.  But it can be done and it has been done.  For now, American fans will have to wait another two years to see if golf’s Phil Jackson will emerge who can effectively galvanize his players to produce steely mettle for all three days of the competition.  We’ve seen Michael Jordan at a number of these events now, including this one, but maybe it’s time to call his old coach for some answers.

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