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 the actual word 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?

Unless you have been hiding out in a cave somewhere over the last few weeks I’ll assume you have at least heard about the fact that golfer Tiger Woods – at age 43 – recently won The US Masters golf tournament (one of the four majors).

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

Tiger dominated the international golf scene for just over a decade. I am not a big fan of comparing athletes from one sport or era with another but it is easy to understand why many people regard Tiger’s ‘hot’ years as having no equal in individual sports. Lance would have been a contender but we all know what happened to him!

Of Tiger’s fifteen major titles (majors being the Key Performance Indicator that is typically used as the main barometer of success in professional golf) 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 the glory years.

And then came the decline by his standards …

Only he will really know what contributed to the fact that he went from more than a major a year to none for the following 10 years. Theories-a-plenty suggests a combination of ageing, injuries, improved opponents and non-golfing scandals meant that 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 81 golf tournaments (so far) during the first half of his career.

The above graph is very telling in many ways but probably the most meaningful takeaway from a performance psychology point of view 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 love to have Tiger’s trophies from 2010 – 2018 where he managed “only” 9 tour victories (and no majors). In other words, like some much in sports psychology, comebacks are all relative.

Tiger’s win at Augusta in April will be regarded as a comeback because he used to win these events without even breaking a sweat for such a long time, and then went for a long period without one. This resulted in many of these lesser golfing achievements (top 5 and top 10 finishes for example) got ignored, dismissed or underplayed.

With this in mind, I would suggest that athletes and coaches be very mindful of letting results (influenceable) play too big a role in what they regard as successful. And if you must use sporting results collect a whole bunch of them, not just the ones the tabloid journalists write about.

Our Metuf model suggests that Physical, Technical, Mental (which includes emotional) and Tactical Preparation act as the four ‘engines’ that most influence our performance outcomes (such as winning a golf tournament). But maybe it was only really Tiger’s physical capabilities were an issue during the 2009 and 2018 period. 

Take a look at Tiger’s injury “timeline” combined by ABC new (with a nice graphics if you only have a couple of minutes and would rather spend your time reading the rest of this blog). As you can see what he had to go through from a physical point of view would have been enough to force most athletes into retirement.

But most athletes don’t have the mindset of Tiger Woods.

The nature of sport, especially at the pointy end, is that you just don’t have a chance 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 who Mental Preparation and Toughness isn’t optimised (if this sounds like you shoot us an email).

The other major aspect of performance is ‘the rest of the plane’. This includes – amongst other factors – relationships, happiness, mental health and fun! It would certainly appear that these areas of Tiger’s life have improved significantly over the past year or so and I would suggest they may well have had an equal – or greater impact on Tiger’s comeback than his return to full fitness.

During the famous green jacket ceremony – where the winner of the US Masters gets a green jacket in their size – Tiger finishes it by saying ‘Yeah, I’m excited about show and tell at school’ suggesting 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 as a performance psychologist whose team of psychologists currently assists athletes and coaches from across the English speaking world – the two are linked.

Another couple of sporting comebacks that just took place and that probably gives readers some clues about the sports that I tend to follow in my downtime were the two recent Champions League semifinals. 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 stories 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 meaning 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) then the team who scores more goals ‘away’ from home will prevail.

In this 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 in early June. Barcelona would take 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 at therefore would take a lead, an away goal and home field advantage into the decider.

Yet despite all the odds, the Champions League final will, in fact, be played between Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur and the internet / social media will provide you with more than enough opportunities to see just how they did it. Both the second leg matches were remarkable in their own way but what is obvious from the outside looking in is the seriousness with which the two managers / Head Coaches take the mental side of the game and have created a ‘never give up’ attitude across there playing squads.

In fact, Jurgen Klopp – the German coach of Liverpool – described his players during the press conference after their remarkable 4-0 comeback win as ‘mentality giants’ – 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

Of course although Tiger Woods’ latest major title and a couple of football (soccer) matches on the other side of the world might not, at first glance, appear to have too much in common they add to the growing list of remarkable sporting comebacks where the performers have learnt to harness the power of the mind.

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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