Everyone wants to know how athletes manage situations of intense, seemingly unbearable pressure. Kids famously practice putts saying in their heads, “this is for the US Open,” to accomplish the job of all play: simulate mastery over situations that seem well beyond control. This year, in advance of the US Open at Shinnecock Hills, the USGA has done us a great favor and provided video interviews with the winners of two previous winners at that storied venue: 1986 (Raymond Floyd), 1995 (Corey Pavin), calling these segments, “My US Open.” I encourage you to watch them in full, but I wanted to comment on two moments from Floyd’s and Pavin’s because of the window they provide into supreme moments of good cognition when the stakes are as high as they can be.
Perhaps the most important shot of Raymond Floyd’s victory was his third on the 16th hole in the fourth round. When he is in his crouch, on the cusp of hitting the ball, he walks away, distracted by the noise of some cameramen off in the fringe. You can watch the action starting at 3:25 in the video: http://www.usopen.com/watch/features/2018/05/16/my-u-s--open--raymond-floyd-5785577578001.html. As you saw, having noticed that he was distracted, he stepped away, and yelled at the photographers. Whether or not you think his yelling at anyone would be a good move for him in that moment, his remarkable skill was stepping away rather than just going ahead and hitting.* Many golfers know how difficult it is to step away when you have committed to your shot and are on the cusp of making it, particularly at that moment, with that kind of pressure, when nerves are on a hair trigger. As you look at the video, try to put yourself in his shoes, and ask yourself if you would have had the presence of mind to hold off your shot, rather than be distracted, be irritated, hit anyway, and make a mess of it. This video segment is a terrific testament to the power of stepping away when all is not just right. This is a skill you can practice, too, and I encourage you to do it, so that it’s not foreign to you when you need it.
Corey Pavin and the Self-regulating Power of Prayer
One of the more famous golf shots of the modern era is Corey Pavin’s four-wood into 18 in the final round of the US Open in 1995. We remember him running to the top of the hill and, seeing the result of the shot, raising his arms in exaltation. What his narration of this moment brings to our attention is that after his bit of celebration, he thought he was showing too much emotion, getting too worked up, knowing that, in theory, such elation could derail effective action. He then tells us that he gets down in a crouch, and says a prayer to help calm his nerves, and the video shows a close-up of him doing this: (http://www.usopen.com/watch/features/2018/05/16/my-u-s--open--corey-pavin-5785572358001.html, start viewing at 5:20). Now, whether or not we might think he was being a bit too uptight by punishing himself for showing too much emotion, he reveals in his video that prayer, or taking a pause to regulate his emotional response, is one important skill he relied on at this most crucial moment. This is another skill I recommend that you add to your repertoire. It doesn’t need to be prayer, per se, but, I do suggest that you work together with your coach to come up with several techniques for regulating your emotions, and work on how and when to insert those skills into your sport since they will invariably be sport specific, and each sport will have its myriad of situations which will demand these skills.**
Both of these moments have two very important skills in common, and I recommend you work them into your repertoire as well. The first skill is a keen awareness of your inner state***, and it is the sine qua non of successful sporting life and life in general, and it is a sub-skill of mindfulness writ large. It is absolutely crucial to know what it is you are experiencing, as you are experiencing it, so that you can know how to respond to it effectively and in the moment. I have written about the many forms of mindfulness in sport in this blog, and in a sense, working on one aspect is as good as working on all aspects of it. But, this is crucial: we spend so much time in our culture, particularly if you happen to be male, squelching, suppressing, or fleeing emotional experience, much to our detriment. And it is engrained in us that success in life and sport requires an eradication of our emotional experience. “Just do it,” we are taught. But, many a tragic moment in sport and life has as its seed disavowed or unacknowledged emotion. So, keen awareness of your inner state is about as crucial a skill as you can imagine. Secondly, both players make use of a mindful pause during their action. For Pavin, it involves a prayer in a prostrate position. For Floyd, it involves walking away from his duties to ream someone out. But, both men knew they needed to intervene in the action, take a pause, and then return to the action. In doing so, they are mastering not only themselves, but that most elusive of all demons in sport, time. They are orchestrating the moment, rather than being pawns of it.
*Note: As you can tell from my commentary, I think it is generally antithetical to good performance to engage in the kind of yelling Raymond Floyd did in that moment. And, as you can also see, he defends his actions staunchly. He did what he did so that he could know that they wouldn’t do it again in when he went back to execute his shot. Still, generally, in this day and age, you see players’ caddies do the work of managing such exigencies for the player. This kind of orchestration between player and his entourage is key. You do not want to further enflame your anger, and then need to perform the delicate kind of surgery required of your nerves in this kind of situation. Clearly, it worked for Raymond Floyd, but I think this is more a testament to his concentration skills, and perhaps to his particular fiery constitution. While this is not the focus of this post, I write frequently of adapting the correct ‘landscape of the mind’, and I encourage you to court one that is lukewarm rather than excessively hot or cold. The skills I discuss in this post all work toward a well-regulated, or lukewarm mental landscape. Which leads me to another point:
**Note, too, how different these players are with respect to their response to their emotions. Corey Pavin does not trust his happiness, or rather, knows that he should keep it under wraps, as if it is something unseemly. We don’t know if he is praying to stay calm, or to ask for forgiveness for showing excessive pride. But either way, he thinks he needs to do it to stay in his performance zone. Raymond Floyd on the other hand, seems to feed off his fire. He is making of his fingers a pretend gun and shooting at the hole when the ball goes in, he is winking at his caddie (an action whose derivation he couldn’t even fathom), he is yelling at people in the rough, and increasing rather than slowing his gait. He is clearly a different animal than Corey Pavin. Whereas he is not holding anything back, Pavin is urging himself toward restraint. So, what this tells us is that not everyone’s competitive engine revs at the same speed. It is a tricky, but vital, thing to know what your range is and how to cultivate a landscape that keeps you in that range. One important aspect a sport cognition specialist can help you with is, in conjunction with your parents and coaches, know which temperature suits you best in competition, and how to keep yourself revving at that perfect heat throughout your competition.
***While I have not used her language, Marsha Linehan’s “Mindfulness of Current Emotions” skill (her Emotion Regulation Handout 22) is a useful reference here. She has been one to successfully integrate Buddhist mindfulness practices into Western mental health practices geared towards managing extreme emotional states. See, Linehan, M. 2015. DBT Skills Training Manual, 2ndEd. Guilford Press. New York, New York, pp. 403 ff.