If you’re a fan of Rory McIlroy’s, then you will have groaned along with him through his disappointing performances in the big events this year. Sure, he is going through some swing adjustments. Sure, he won the tour event at Quail Hollow this year. But, when the chips have been down in important moments, he has looked somewhat hang dog and stuck in second or third gear: A missed cut at the Masters, a T46 at the PGA, a T56 at the British, following a missed cut at the Scottish Open. My blood ran cold as I listened to his press conference prior to the US Open, because it screamed of an athlete looking to get mental monkeys off of his back, of an athlete fighting with apathy, and having the pressure of huge performance expectations on his back. In the press conference, he said things like:
“[I’ve been putting] Too much pressure on myself, playing too carefully, being too tentative, not playing free.”
“[I’ve been asking] How do you take the pressure off yourself? By being indifferent. Not by not caring, but by not putting pressure on myself that I have to care.
“The difference between 2011 [when I won my last US Open] and now: “I had less going on in my head. I was less cynical.”**
I know that many athletes recently have revealed mental health struggles (e.g. Bubba Watson, Naomi Osaka), and this is great for sport and hopefully reduces stigma and increases access to mental health services. But, here, in facing yet more questions about why he hasn’t won a major in seven years, Rory is revealing just the kind of pressure he is under, and just the kind of deleterious effects such pressure has. One look at his face, and you can see that the fire that used to burn so fiercely in him has dimmed, or is just temporarily out of reach for him. Furthermore, in that press conference, he referred to some advice he gave a young, female, Irish golfer, by saying that if she were to endure the “boring, mundane, and tedious” practice sessions, she could have a successful career. He’s crossed to line from convincing himself he doesn’t have to care, to dreading the monotony of it. He has pressure on his shoulders because he has to redouble his efforts when he has no interest in doing the rote work necessary to compete at that level. It’s no fun for him anymore, but the stakes are very high, and his sponsors are paying him a lot of money to care. It is just the kind of pressure Simone Biles cited as compounding the noise in her head, and helped derail her Olympic bid this year.
But, consider Rory’s plight: He’s been at this for coming on 15 years. With the wrap around season, there is no down time. For golf superstars, their calendar is truly international, with globetrotting and all the ensuing punishments that entails for the body. Additionally, in the Tiger era, training for golf has become a relentless pursuit, with many hours in the gym, crafting a super-hero body. Ask Jack Nicklaus, Raymond Floyd, Lee Trevino, and Arnold Palmer how many hours they spent in the gym. Indeed, half of the guys on tour in those years smoked. Finally, Rory now has a young daughter, and his new role as a father complicates his time and pulls on his priorities in ways he couldn’t have imagined when he won his US Open at Congressional in 2011. At this point, watching Poppy toddle is probably a lot more fascinating than another “boring” range session, “tedious” gym workout, or “mundane” weekend travel to Dubai, no matter how large the appearance fee.
Here it is in Biles’ own words:
I say put mental health first. Because if you don’t, then you’re not going to enjoy your sport and you’re not going to succeed as much as you want to. So, it’s OK sometimes to even sit out the big competitions to focus on yourself, because it shows how strong of a competitor and person that you really are — rather than just battle through it.***
Here she is laying out a formula by which less is more, and which says that sometimes you have to get off the same merry-go-round that brought you all of your success and fame in the first place. Indeed, use your place in your sport to give yourself a sabbatical. Several things need to be in place in order to support and encourage athletes in doing that:
· The mindfulness to recognize stress responses to pressure; that poor performance isn’t indicative of the need for more work, but for a break.
· A supportive family, community, and entourage that will endorse your decision.
· Governing bodies that are willing to reduce the number of events to keep its star athletes fresh, even if it means a loss in revenue.
· Governing bodies that are willing to factor in breaks and sabbaticals into rankings, tour cards, and qualifications for big events so that stepping away from the sport doesn’t carry the penalty of needing to re-qualify for everything. Let them come back where they left.
These changes would be almost unfathomable changes for most sport governing bodies, but doing so would be a sign that they truly care about their athletes and see them as people rather than as profit streams. But the change has to also come from within the athlete to listen to the inner voice, and to have an authentic conversation with that voice to, as Simone says, “put the mental first.” It’s on the athlete to rediscover the joy in the play, and the play in the work. Have fun again. Or stop.
*** “Read What Simone Biles Said After Her Withdrawal From The Olympic Final,” www.NPR.ORG, July 28, 2021.