The 2019 Masters will be remembered for the comeback of Tiger Woods and rightly so, as it was from a psychological point, an extraordinary demonstration of determination and resilience. However, the Masters this year again revealed how important coping under pressure is to winning that green jacket. Lazarus and Folkman (1986) defined coping as “the person’s cognitive and behavioural efforts to manage (reduce, minimize, master, or tolerate) the internal and external demands of the person-environment transaction that is appraised as taxing or exceeding the person’s resources” (p. 527). Coping can regulate and modify perception to facilitate a more relaxed state of mind that will result in optimal performances (Bognár, Géczi, Vincze, & Szabo, 2009). On the other hand, Lazarus (2000) suggested that it is the inability to cope with stress that is a significant factor in whether athletes fail to function in many types of athletic performance.
Before the tournament, Rory McIlroy spoke about what he was doing to mentally prepare for it. He spoke about how he was spending more time on his mental practice than on the practice green. He had not coped with the pressure of leading the event in 2011 nor had he performed well when he was in the final group last year. Rory did not contended this year either, leaving his best round until Sunday when all the pressure was off and he knew he could not win. Does he not cope well under the pressure of the Masters as it the last major he needs to win a grand slam?
I read a Tweet on the Sunday while the final group were still on the front nine – “How do you catch Molinari when he doesn’t make a mistake?”. Up to this point Francesco Molinari had not made a bogey in 49 holes. He seemed to be coping well under the pressure and I for one could not see him making a mistake that would cost him the tournament. However, after hitting shots into the water at the 12th and 15th holes and ending up with a double bogeys on both, his chances of winning were over. They say the Masters doesn’t start until the back 9 on Sunday and again this seemed true. Molinari’s is not a unique story, in 2015 Spieth threw away a 5 shot lead on the back nine to lose to Danny Willett, in 2011 McIlroy lost a 4 shot lead going into the last day to eventually finish 15th, going further back to the 1996 Masters where Greg Norman lead by 4 shots after the 7 holes and ended up losing to Nick Faldo. Many of these did not cope with the pressure and were thought to have choked.
Could it be that Molinari choked like many other golfers over the years? Choking under pressure is a common phenomenon among athletes that has been described as “the occurrence of suboptimal performance under pressure conditions” (Baumeister & Showers, 1986, p.362). Therefore, it is thought that choking is likely to occur when athletes are striving for excellence in their performance and when incentives for superior performance are available (Baumeister & Showers, 1986). The symptoms of choking are somewhat similar to those of an arousal state such as tense muscles, rapid heart and pulse rates and feelings of panic and can lead to more severe states such as the “yips” that occur in sports such as golf that involve the individual not being able to complete a movement (Moran, 2004). One of the things that characterises choking is that the harder you try in the situation the worse it seems to get. However, Molinari was still able to birdie the 13th and 17th so maybe he just didn’t cope as well as he could have under the pressure. Tiger Woods on the other hand coped as well as he usually does with pressure. Nearly acing the 16th showed that he thrived in that situation.
So how does one cope under pressure? Coping strategies have been divided into three different categories which included: problem-focused, emotion-focused, and avoidance coping (Kowalski & Crocker, 2001). Problem-focused coping is defined as doing something about the stressful situation. Emotion-focused coping is defined as the cognitive regulation of stressful emotions (Van Yperen, 2009); which can include relaxation or acceptance (A. R. Nicholls, Holt, Polman, & Bloomfield, 2006). Avoidance coping consists of behavioural or psychological efforts to remove oneself from a stressful situation (Krohne, 1993).
Julieanne McAuliffe is a postgraduate researcher in the Department of Physical Education and Sport Sciences at the University of Limerick. You can contact Julieanne via email at Julieanne.McAuliffe@ul.ie