Lessons from Congressional

As golf fans and the whole population of Northern Ireland struggle into work this morning (or not) having sat up to all hours watching Rory McIlroy, it is worth asking what lessons there are to be learned from his extraordinary performance at the US Open golf.

Most important must be the vivid demonstration of the strength of his character, finishing off in such style having collapsed from a strong third round position both at the Open last July and the Masters in April. It is axiomatic in decision theory to learn from previous episodes, and feed the learning back into future opportunities.

It will be interesting to see whether Dustin Johnson (US Open 2010) and Nick Watney (US PGA 2010) are capable of emulating McIlroy the next time they are in the lead at a Major, having squandered apparently winning positions. Interviews this weekend with McIlroy, Watney and Johnson were revealing. All three players admitted to ‘speeding up’ under pressure. “It all happened so quickly”, said Johnson, “I was walking faster, playing faster, and didn’t leave myself time to think”.

The interviewer said that all three golfers admitted their mistake was not “staying in the moment”

There is a lesson for all of us there. Pressure can disrupt equilibrium and thought patterns. Decision makers in the ‘reflex / instinctive’ category – soldiers, pilots, firefighters, police, nurses in triage, referees etc – know that their only chance of taking good decisions in a nanosecond is to think straight, breathe deeply and let their training click them into autopilot.

If we don’t stay in the moment, disaster awaits. The language we use says it all:

  • Don’t get ahead of yourself
  • Focus on one thing at a time
  • Concentrate / keep in the zone

Frustration, impatience, annoyance, even panic – these are natural reactions to pressure, crisis or looming disaster. But all emergency service workers and combatants are trained to rely on what their training has taught them. Programmed response is as much a part of short order decision taking, as is weighing up options and factoring in more data when you have time to take a considered decision.

Sport – and particularly individual games like golf – can teach us a lot about pressure and the best way to react to it. McIlroy’s triumph yesterday tells us as much about his mental toughness as his phenomenal ball striking.

Sports fans know that the moment a player gives into pressure, technique will falter, with the result that first consistency and then victory will be lost.

That’s just as true in the day job.