Sporting Comebacks – A Mental Perspective

Sporting comebacks are easier to understand when you look at the different areas that make up optimal sporting performances.

AUGUSTA, GEORGIA – APRIL 14: Tiger Woods of the United States celebrates after sinking his putt to win during the final round of the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club on April 14, 2019 in Augusta, Georgia. (Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images)

The Term ‘Comeback’ Is An Interesting One

What first comes to my mind when I think about ‘sporting comebacks’ is ‘coming back to what’? The Oxford Living Dictionary defines comeback as ‘a return by a well-known person, especially an entertainer or sports player, to the activity in which they have formerly been successful’. Which of courses begs the question successful as defined by who and what?

What are some of the most memorable comebacks that you have been involved in as a coach or athlete? How about as a sports fan? Is it the size of the deficit that was overcome or the amount of surprise caused?

Last year, in 2019, we were treated to two of the most remarkable comebacks I can ever remember. But each earned the label epic comeback for very different reasons.

Tiger Wood’s Comeback Win at The 2019 US Masters

Apologies if you already know all of this. However, it’s important for the non-golf followers out there to be aware of the facts around this remarkable sporting victory.

Tiger dominated the international golf scene for just over a decade. It is easy to understand why many regard Tiger’s ‘hot’ years as having no equal in individual sports. Lance might have been a contender but we all know what happened to him! Roger had to share most of the spoils with Rafa and Novak.

Of Tiger’s fifteen major titles fourteen of them came between 1997 (winning his first US Masters) and 2008 (a third US Open). Fourteen majors in eleven years mean he was averaging more than one per year during his glory years.

The Decline …By His Standards

Only Tiger will really know what contributed to the slide in his form. He went from more than a Major a year to none for the following ten years. Theories-a-plenty suggests a combination of factors. Maybe ageing, injuries, improved opponents and non-golfing scandals or a combination? Between 2009 and 2018 his trophy cabinet did not continue to fill up at quite the same rate as per the previous decade.

Tiger won most of his golf tournaments (so far) during the first half of his career.

The above graph is very telling in many ways. For me, the most meaningful takeaway is this notion of success as defined by who and what – as mentioned earlier. I work 1-on-1 with dozens of professional golfers who would love to have Tiger’s trophies from 2010 – 2018 where he managed “only” 9 tour victories (and no majors). In other words, like so much in sport psychology, comebacks are all relative.

Tiger’s win at Augusta in April 2019 will be regarded as a comeback because he used to win these events without even breaking a sweat. Then he didn’t for a while. This resulted in many of these lesser golfing achievements (top 5 and top 10 finishes for example) getting ignored, dismissed or underplayed. Let me say it again. Most pro golfers would give their left leg to have achieved what TW did during his “slump years”.

Sporting Success Is About So More Than Trophies and Medals

I advise my athletes and coaches to be mindful of not letting results (influenceable) play too big a role in what they regard as success. And if you must use sporting results collect a whole bunch of stats not just wins.

Our Metuf model suggests there are five major areas that all contribute to performance success. Physical, Technical, Mental (which includes emotional) and Tactical Preparation act as four ‘engines’ on a performance plane. The rest of the aircraft is like their health and wellbeing. To increase your chances of winning anything you’re better of focussing on there five areas. Sport psychology stalwart Dr Chris Shambrook says it best. “Focus on the input, and let the output take care of itself”.

Tiger is now known to have had a number of physical and personal challenges for most of the previous decade. Maybe these were enough to result in him “only” coming 2nd and 3rd in the hardest golf events in the world. But we will never really know (nor will he) because we can’t unbake the cake.

What Tiger had to endure from a physical point of view (injuries and surgeries) would have been enough to force most athletes into retirement. But most athletes don’t have the mindset (grit?) of Tiger Woods.

The nature of sport, especially at the pointy end, is that you just don’t have a chance to dominate if one of your four engines is not functioning properly. Of course, a much more common scenario across all sports are athletes who are physically fine (injury-free at least) but whose Mental Preparation and Toughness isn’t optimised. If this sounds like you please get in touch, we can help, it’s what we do.

The Rest of the Plane

The other major aspect of performance is ‘the rest of the plane’. We could refer to this as mental health and wellbeing. In my work as a sport psychologist I prefer to think about this from a solutions point of view. For example, sleep, nutrition, relationships, rest and purpose to name some of the most common.

It would certainly appear that these areas of Tiger’s life have improved significantly over the past year or so. I would suggest they may well have had an equal – or greater impact on Tiger’s comeback than his return to full fitness. But we will never really know (nor will he) because we can’t unbake the cake.

During the famous green jacket ceremony Tiger finishes it by saying ‘Yeah, I’m excited about show and tell at school’. This suggests how he is thinking about his family in the immediate aftermath of his most epic comeback ever.

Although there is still a lot of data missing proving the link between improved wellbeing and sporting results trust me the two are heavily linked.

Genuine sport psychology will only become mainstream when sporting decision makers realise that happy athletes win more – a lot more.

Another Epic Comeback in 2019

Some comebacks take much less time that the ten years it took Tiger to win another major. Some only take 45 minutes in fact.

Lets fast forward a few weeks and move from the greens of Augusta to the floodlit nights of Champions League football (soccer). The Champions League is Europe’s premier inter-club competition where the best teams from all the major leagues take part in a separate competition the following year.

Again, if you know how the Champions’ League work then skip this paragraph but it’s important to put all examples into context. The Champions’ League consists of first a round robin “pool” format (similar to FIFA World Cups) and then a second knock out stage. All the matches except for the final are played over two legs. This means that the scores from each pair or games get summed to decide the overall winner of the tie. In the event of deadlocks (even number of goals scores across the two games) the team who scores more goals ‘away’ from home will prevail.

In last year’s semi-finals Barcelona (of Spain) took on Liverpool FC (England) and Ajax (Holland) played Tottenham Hotspur (England). After the two first games, it was looking very unlikely that either of the English teams would advance to the final in Madrid. Barcelona took a 3-0 lead into the second leg meaning a single goal for the Catalans’s at Anfield would mean LFC would need to score 5 against arguably the best team in Europe! Ajax fans were forgiven for starting to think about a trip to the Spanish capital after their team beat Spurs 1-0 in London. So they would take a lead, an away goal and home field advantage into the decider.

Yet Despite All The Odds …

Yet despite all the odds both Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur prevailed. Both the second leg matches were remarkable in their own way and worthy of the label comeback. But the Liverpool comeback would have to go down as one of the comebacks of the century. Especially given that it resulted in them going onto to lift the trophy a couple of weeks afterwards.

There are some lessons to be learnt here from the men who orchestrated these comebacks. For a start, both the managers (head coaches) of these two famous English team appear to take the mental side very seriously. The have created a ‘never give up’ attitude with their respective playing squads. I suspect that their comebacks are always less of a surprise to them than their fans.

In fact, Jurgen Klopp – the German coach of Liverpool – described his players during the press conference after their remarkable 4-0 comeback semi final win as ‘mentality giants’. This is a term I have not come across before but will be passing onto my coaching clients for sure.

Mohamed Salah’s ‘Never Give Up’ T-shirt epitomises Liverpool’s mindset in Barcelona victory in the 2019 Champion League semi final.

How about you? Have you been involved in a sporting comeback? If you have add the details to the comments section below. Better still, describe your mindset before and during the comeback for others to read and benefit from.

Author: Gareth J. Mole

Gareth J. Mole is an endorsed Sport and Exercise Psychologist. He is the founder of Condor Performance and co-creator of Metuf™. He lives between Canberra and Sydney (Australia) with his wife, their two children and their fourteen chickens.

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