One of the most influential books that I read during my playing career was ‘Psyching for Sport’, by the respected Canadian sport psychologist, Terry Orlick. Drawing on decades of experience with high level Olympic athletes, Orlick expressed, largely in anecdotal form, what he saw as the key qualities that separated the great from the merely good, and which enabled them to achieve their full competitive potential.
Distilling the tome down into a sentence or paragraph is an impossibility, but two of Orlick’s key assertions struck home, and still resonate with me today. The most important qualities that an elite sportsman needed, he insisted, were practicing with the highest level of intensity possible, and having the ability to deal with distractions.
The latter is one that few would consider as crucial a component as physical strength or natural co-ordination. However, whereas physical attributes can be innate, or honed through repetition, a mental skill like distraction control is neither, and is rarely practiced by athletes as few envisage it ever being a factor relevant to performance.
How do you react to the death of a friend or loved one on the eve of an important match? What would your response be if your accountant told you that your government were after you for unpaid taxes prior to teeing it up in the final round of your national open? Or heaven forbid, if your caddy mistakenly left an extra club in your bag prior to teeing off in a tournament?
Such instances, amongst a myriad of possibilities, have the potential to derail the unprepared. Those unable to compartmentalise negative influences, and to put them to one side for the duration of a competition are doomed to underachievement. The more one thinks about Orlick’s premise, the more sense it makes.
At this point in time, it’s hard to imagine that Rory McIlroy wouldn’t gain something from a brief perusal of ‘Psyching for Sport’. The former world number one has had a forgettable year by his lofty standards, falling from the top ranking to number six in a year where he has failed to win a single event. Pointedly, 2013 has been defined for McIlroy by off-course drama’s regarding managerial arrangements, difficulty transitioning to new equipment following his life changing Nike deal, and speculation about the status of his relationship with tennis star, Caroline Wozniacki.
It’s been a tsunami of distraction in a year that seemed likely to be an extension of the domination that the Irishman had wrought upon world golf in 2012. It’s hard to know which element was the catalyst for his regression, and at this point it hardly matters. Only McIlroy knows the true lay of the land, and given the gossip and hearsay that surrounds him at the moment, any comment made by him to dispel such rumours will merely become grist for the mill.
The 24 year old Irishman arrives in Korea this week for his third Kolon Korea Open appearance. He is the only player in the field ranked in the Top 100 in the world, and by that measure should be the overwhelming favourite to take out the championship. But fresh conjecture about the Wozniacki relationship, a month away from the game, and little form to speak of prior to that has many questioning whether McIlroy is in the state of mind to compete at his best.
At his brilliant best, he would make short work of both Woo Jeong Hills and the field assembled to oppose him. He remains by some distance the most exciting young player in world golf today, a man who has, despite his lofty achievements, not remotely the limits of his own potential.
The prospect of this week bringing catharsis comes down to whether he can master Orlick’s deceptively simple, yet tortuously evasive principle of the mind. Should he do so, he will restore an element of order to the turmoil currently dominating his life. Amidst the cacophony of the chattering classes and the white noise in his mind, it’s time for Rory Mc Ilroy to once again let his clubs do the talking.