Last week, I wrote about some faulty cognition among the American team that may have contributed to its remarkable demise in this year’s Ryder Cup. This week, we flip the coin and interpret the Europeans' response to the moment and see much to emulate in their cognitive approach. Last week, we mentioned Jim Furyk’s painfully long preparations to hit his match-losing putt, an arduous process that would have incapacitated even the most lion-hearted from drawing back the putter blade. Compare this psychodrama to that of Martin Kymer’s Cup-winning effort. He stuck to his regular routine, lined up the putt and drained it. Now, mind you, there was a great deal that could have thwarted Kymer’s attempt: the entire Cup was riding on this putt, he had been experiencing a season-long slump and just barely made the team, and he had the weight of history squarely on his shoulders. Much was made of the fact that the last and only other German on the Ryder Cup team, Bernhard Langer, had missed a putt of similar length on the 18th green at Kiawah Island in 1991, the famous ‘War on the Shore’ that transformed the Ryder Cup.
But rather than letting these potential demons out of the closet and loose on his neurons and sinews, Kymer responded differently. In this quote, he lets us in on his process leading up to that putt: “ I thought: I know the putt is for the Ryder Cup. I know what happened in ‘91. Just focus on the putt. It doesn’t matter what happens. Just knock it in. Just make a good stroke and it will go in.” Wait. What?! It doesn’t matter what happens????? Crazy as that sounds, I am going to submit to you that everything he did was excellent sport cognition. By recognizing the moment, he is not pretending it isn’t happening. By acknowledging the potential pitfall of ‘91, he is putting the past in the past and bringing his attention to the present. By focusing on what he can control and staying positive (“make a good stroke and it will go in”), he is doing everything in his power to guarantee that history doesn’t repeat itself. And finally, by saying that it doesn’t matter, he is squaring himself with the possibility of failure. Thus, in allowing himself to miss, he thereby gave himself the freedom to make.
Last week, I wrote about the Americans and threat rigidity. This week, let’s focus on how the European team ensured good play on a team-wide level. The media commented often on the fact that the Europeans had the silhouette of Severiano Ballesteros, ramapante, emblazoned on their bags and on the shoulders of their shirts and sweaters. Ballesteros is the godfather of the modern Ryder Cup, the era in which all of Europe, rather than just England and Ireland, competed against the Americans. Ballesteros’ contagious enthusiasm and unbridled ferocity catapulted the event to the fevered pitch it currently enjoys. By reifying their tutelary daimon and literally carrying him on their shoulders, they were not only giving the team its unifying purpose, they were also employing one of the more spiritually effective cognitive devices, the device I have called “participating” in a previous post (“The Jesus Club,” August, 25). In this device, athletes are immediately in touch with the fact that “they are participating in something larger than themselves, that they are a small feature of a bigger drama that is playing out around them.” That Ballesteros had died of brain cancer since the last Ryder Cup and that this team was playing for Ballesteros’ own Ryder Cup prodigy and fellow Spaniard provided even greater galvanizing force. As I have argued elsewhere, it is just this kind of spiritual connection that, rather than constraining one with the weight of history, liberates one to respond to the demands of the here and now.In all of this, it is important to note that the Europeans in 2012, like the Americans in 1999, were in the very liberating position of having nothing to lose when they showed up at the course on Sunday. Most people, not just Davis Love, thought it was over, and it is usually easier to go for broke when the till is largely empty. In the aftermath of the Cup, there has been speculation about who will take over from Olazabal and Love. Darren Clarke and Larry Nelson are names that have been bandied about. But for American fans, the real question remains whether the Europeans will continue their habit of being able to answer brash American individualism with stalwart European unity. There’s much to suggest that history will repeat itself, because, as we say in the sport cognition business: those ignorant of their cognitive errors are doomed to repeat them.