The Guinea Pig: mental resilience

What can amateur golfers learn from Tiger Woods and Magic Johnson? Matt Cooper finds out from mind coach Dr Karl Morris.

Matt Cooper, golfer: a hacker playing off 15. Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to build the world’s first bionic golfer. Matt Cooper will be that golfer. Better than he was before. Longer, straighter, holing more putts.

It’s time for me to build some mental resilience – the latest phase of my mind coaching course with Dr Karl Morris at the

As with most of Morris’ subject matter it is something I am fascinated with anyway – not just improving my own mental strength but with regard to high class sportsmen and women.

I’ve always thought that fans and critics have a loose appreciation of the ability of top sports performers to deal with setbacks.

It is easy to observe that Tiger Woods has superb mental strength, but he is even more outlandish because the golfers he outwits are no slouches in this regard – just getting to the top level of professional golf proves as much.

Some observers on the sidelines during the final round of a golf tournament love to spout high and mighty criticism of the “chokers” and “losers” on show.

Yet even the very worst “choker” will almost certainly have a mental resilience far beyond that of his or her critics on the sidelines – they simply would not be where they are if they did not have the ability to withstand setbacks that would have had the clever-dicks and smart-arses shuffling away from the arena with their tails between their legs (to mix my metaphors horribly but curiously fascinatingly).

The words of two athletes have always resonated with me on this point.

Linford Christie once told a story of how, in aftermath of winning the 1992 Olympic 100 metres final in Barcelona, he met a man in the street who boasted that he had beaten Linford on school sports day when they were young.

“Yeah,” said Christie, “but did you beat me in Barcelona?”

It was a chippy, spiky and, some might say, unnecessary retort.

But there is a genuine point behind those few words – Christie knew that raw talent was simply not enough to gain the ultimate golden reward.

Christie needed years of hard physical labour, immense mental strength and sheer bloody-mindedness in the face of frequent failure to turn natural speed into high level success.

The man in the street didn’t have it.

He had the raw talent but he lacked those other attributes.

The heptathlete Kelly Sotherton tells a similar story about how people often assume that top athletes have won every event they have ever entered and therefore “had it easy”.

Of course, for some special sportsmen and women this is the path to the top – for the likes of Tiger Woods and Sergio Garcia in golf, for example.

But Sotherton explains that for the majority the opposite is the case.

Indeed in her career she has encountered far more defeat than success; the difference between her (an Olympic bronze medallist) and hundreds of equally talented girls is her ability to deal with those backward steps and losses – to find a way of bouncing back, to use the pain as an incentive to clear the next hurdle rather than choose not to attempt it.

That is not to say that all sportsmen and women possess these stubborn skills – many don’t and need guidance from the likes of Morris.

It’s even more apparent that amateurs needs a few pointers and when Morris discusses the work of the cognitive psychologist Martin Seligman I can instantly recognise a number of examples from my own sporting career and that of friends.

Seligman talked about the “trained helplessness” of baby elephants that are tethered to a stake from birth at which point they are too weak to break free.

Eventually the baby elephant will grow strong enough to escape this captivity but by that stage they will have ceased to try.

That example immediately reminds me of my cricket career.

I began aged 14 as a half-decent lobber of leg breaks, but when I grew a few inches, as is common, I lost the ability to land the ball on a length and soon lost my confidence.

My place in the village side became settled as a non-bowling tail-ender who was scared of the ball coming near him in the field (but not as scared as the rest of the team were of it going anywhere near me).

A year at university, playing and practising amongst better cricketers who knew nothing of my previous inability, saw me improve beyond recognition.

However upon return to my village side I fell into old ways – my team still expected me to be rubbish and, instead of proving I had changed, I meekly assumed my old role.

It was a case of “trained haplessness”.

What I needed to do, in effect, was to show-off – to perform my new skills in front of my old team-mates.

This is, to some extent, what Morris suggests and it ties in with something I once discussed with my brother-in-law.

He is the conductor of a Welsh male voice choir which every year competes in the National Eisteddfod and his last minute reminder to himself ahead of competition is to show off: he knows deep down that he and the choir are up to their task so he determines to let everyone know it.

And Morris makes the point that Tiger Woods and Magic Johnson also do this, albeit in a rather more deliberate and sophisticated fashion.

What they are doing is separating the real self and the performer self.

Or, to put it another way, they are separating what they DO from what they ARE.

That does not mean that I need to create a nickname for myself as Woods and Johnson have done (although, daydreamer that I am, I have done just that – Guinea Pig Cooper doesn’t sound very imposing however; it sounds like I’d go to the first tee and nibble some out-of-date lettuce).

The key to this strategy is far more advanced than nicknames.

What Woods and Johnson have done is recognise that their value as a human being has nothing to do with their sporting abilities because we will lose our identity if sport determines our value as a person.

If that sounds a like a self-help platitude, consider this: if you can only feel good as a human being if you hit 68, what sort of risible person are you going to portray yourself as when you knock it round in 84? (Or, in the case of amateurs, 94? Or 104?)

Some might mock this but I know one person who unfortunately fits this problem to a, err, tee.

He does view himself by his golf score and is consequently stuck in a horribly vicious circle of golfing self-hatred; it’s so painful to watch I avoid doing it.

As Tim Gallwey wrote in his best-selling book The Inner Game of Golf: “If golf has the ability to make you a somebody then it will also have the ability to make you a nobody.”

Or as Morris says, “You are more than the direction your golf ball takes.”

These thoughts proved quite comforting recently when I played an abysmal round in the pro-am at the S4/C Wales Championship of Europe, but they are just one small step in the