Rory McIlroy finished the first three rounds of the 2011 Masters with an impressive four stroke lead at 12 under par. On Sunday, however, his golf game began to unravel when he triple-bogeyed the 10th hole, bogeyed the 11th and double bogeyed the 12th. By day's end, McIlroy had shot an 80, completing one of the biggest collapses in Masters history.
So, how did it happen? McIlroy certainly didn't wake up that morning aiming to blow his opportunity to don the green jacket. Certified sports psychologist Dr. Rob Bell suggests that anxiety might have gotten the best of the 21-year-old from Northern Ireland. Bell says, "The level of play falls at such an extreme rate due to the presence of one thought—'I just lost the Master's' [speculative, of course]— which causes the anxiety to spike. When an athlete makes a mistake under extreme pressure, his anxiety becomes so high, so fast, that it takes awhile for him to recover. But in the meantime, the errors often keep piling up, along with the negative funnel of thoughts and anxiety."
That might explain why athletes in any sport can experience a sudden devastating decline. After giving up a crushing home run, a pitcher can't find the strike zone; a basketball player shooting 1 for 12 can't even make a foul shot; or a wide receiver finds it impossible to catch a pass after dropping the last two thrown his way.
To deal with feelings of anxiety, Dr. Bell suggests cross-training with bowling. Given the importance of "the next shot" in bowling, Dr. Bell believes it trains the athlete to maintain sharp focus on every play. He also says pre-performance rituals are easier to see in bowling, allowing the athlete to recognize when a routine is sloppy.
Obviously it's impossible to be completely free of anxiety in a high pressure event like the Masters, but an overly-nervous athlete begins to focus on what could happen instead of the next play or the next shot. "We must train our minds to focus only on the next play and to develop a consistent routine for our preparation and play," says Dr. Bell.
Unfortunately for McIlroy, "the next play" is history. Perhaps a trip to the local bowling lanes will help him get back on track.
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