Imagine a 13-year-old football fanatic, shoving aside his geography homework, completely transfixed by the magic unfolding on his TV screen. The year was 1999. The Manchester United team was about to make history against Bayern Munich in the Champions League final. At the core of that historic treble-winning side? Dwight Yorke, one of the best strikers in the game at the time. Dwight was a massive part of that 1998/99 season for United, and despite being a Tottenham fan myself, I couldn’t help being in awe of that team. If someone had whispered in that teenager's ear that he would be helping Dwight Yorke improve his golf game in Sydney, Australia 23 years later, he'd have said you were absolutely mad!
Fast forward to 2022, there I was, in the Sydney sun, helping Dwight (playing off a 3 handicap) improve his iron striking and gain some club head speed. Our sessions? They almost always went over the allotted time. Not necessarily because of swing adjustments, but primarily due to my inner, football obsessed, teenage curiosity. That young lad inside me was eager to dive into the mindset of a top sportsman, especially when it came to pressure moments.
There was this one incident, etched in my memory from his Aston Villa days in 1998. I vividly remember him stepping up to take a game-deciding penalty at Villa Park against Arsenal and England's number 1 goalkeeper, David Seaman. He put the ball on the penalty spot, stepped up to take it, made a feint as if to smash the ball, but instead, elegantly chipped it right down the middle of the goal. They call it a panenka, but I’d never seen anyone have the courage to do it in the English game. With a 40,000 strong crowd holding their breath, Dwight delivered with unparalleled flair and calmness. I had to ask: "Dwight, in that moment, just before you took the penalty, what was going through your mind?"
His response was simple, but really eye opening and incredible for me. He said, "I saw it as an opportunity to show off... I was the main man at Villa at the time and I was just showing off." This wasn't just casual banter; this was a glimpse into the psyche of someone who once performed at the very highest level of his sport.
Take a look at that moment in the video below...
For those of you not familiar with football, Dwight was at the top of the game, I'm not just talking about your average professional sports person, I'm talking about the cream of the crop, one of the best strikers in the game at the time. Coaching him was the first time I've ever had the opportunity to spend a good amount of time with someone who had reached the pinnacle of their sport. I'm lucky enough to know a lot of golf pros, and some other professional sports people, but none as elite as this one.
So it was at that moment, I got a real insight into the mindset of a truly elite athlete. His answer will stay with me forever. It made me think of pressure moments I've been in in my life and how my mind worked in that moment. I can tell you it didn't quite work like his!
How it helped my coaching
The reason these chats over a few months I spent coaching Dwight were so useful, is because it helped me become a better coach when it comes to explaining the psychology of playing good golf. I've talked about this in a previous blog, but when you're hitting a golf shot, it's a lot like taking a penalty in football. It's a closed skill, the ball isn't moving, it requires thought and calmness under pressure. It requires precise planning and positive execution. But the main thing required mentally, is a need to achieve, rather than a fear of failure.
I've spoken to golfers who stand over the ball thinking "don't shank it", or "avoid the out of bounds" or "don't look stupid in front of your mates" or even worse things like "I'm going to miss this putt, I just know it". In football terms it might be the fear of 40k people watching you take a penalty, the fear of missing, the fear of failing, what will happen?
The Need to Achieve
In that moment, Dwight didn't have that fear, rather he saw an OPPORTUNITY to show off, an opportunity to score a goal in a very cheeky fashion. It was his stage, and he completely owned what he did. He was clearly at ease with the consequences, whatever the outcome might be. But at no point did he think about failing, or looking silly. THIS is the elite mindset. The need to achieve far outweighs the fear of failure. It allows these top athletes to free their mind and enter a flow state. Their true skill is then enabled in those pressure moments. Does this mean they always succeed? No. The best performers in the world fail, a lot! But they are ok with failing, they embrace it in fact. In the words of Paulo Coelho In the Alchemist, “There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.”
If you think you could do with switching your mindset on the golf course, maybe it's time to consider joining the G60 community. It's not all about technique here, we manage you through our 3 phase system to develop well rounded golf games. Click the link below to apply for membership.
Oh, and here's Dwight's golf swing if you're interested!