Did he get it backwards?
Is he an exceptional player whose nerves got the best of him at Augusta National?
Tiger Woods insisted he was just a fraction off at the Masters even though he finished 42nd in driving accuracy and 45th in putting among the 50 players who made the cut.
Was Woods fooling himself?
A year ago this week, Woody Austin hit two terrible shots at the 72nd hole of the Zurich Classic of New Orleans to blow a chance to win and proclaimed himself the biggest choking dog ever.
Did that blunt assessment reveal deeper issues that may be getting in Austins way of winning?
In golfs cruel endings, when players fail on the games largest stages, do the words they choose in the emotional aftermath really matter?
Sports psychologists do some of their most meaningful work roaming the mental carnage defeat causes like triage doctors of the mind. They listen, they learn and they prescribe medicine.
What theyve learned is that defeat is a cruel teacher, all too eager to strip away fraud and pretense to expose delicate truths.
The most heartbreaking defeats can roll through a players mind like an earthquake, leaving only the sturdiest beliefs standing amid the rubble.
The games played in a little world of make believe, says sports psychologist Bob Rotella.
Do words matter in emotional aftermaths?
Sports psychologists will tell you they do matter, but that belief trumps truth in those words. And theyll tell you theres a difference between believing and fooling yourself.
Do words matter? Absolutely, says Gio Valiante, a professor in the department of education at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., who works with tour pros. Words and cognition are powerfully related. Thats why writing a journal, or talking through a problem, helps people. The things we hear, or tell ourselves, theyre very, very powerful.
Dr. Joseph Parent, creator of Zen Golf, says players who beat themselves up as choking dogs the way Austin did risk injury that lingers long after a shot.
When you say something like that, youre not only saying it, youre hearing it, and if youre hearing something too much, youre going to start believing it, Parent said.
The nature of golf, maybe more than any other sport, challenges the way players talk to themselves.
Golf is probably the most assaultive sport on the sense of self that there is, says Preston Waddington, a Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., psychoanalyst who works with Stewart Cink, Tim Clark, Jason Gore and others.
Waddington said tour pros can go from feeling exalted to deep self loathing from one shot to the next.
The refrain of every golfer Ive ever worked with is: `I stink, Waddington said. Its almost a mantra. Golf is a very, very shaming sport. Every single golfer Ive dealt with is scared to death of being shamed. You touch on that with a player, you have their attention.
Its why players find the notion that they choked away a tournament so offensive.
Choke is one of those three words golfers dont like to use, Parent said. Shank, yips and choke. Golfers are superstitious. They think if they say one of those words, they might do it.
NBC-TV analyst Johnny Miller touches nerves among players, in part, because of his zealous dissection of the choke factor.
Really, guys choke all the time, Rotella said. But people tend to think that means a player was scared to death. What it really means is that you have some doubt in your head. We use the terminology, `Getting in your own way. The mind isnt clear.
Golf teaches that its OK to have a swing flaw, but its not OK to have doubt or fear. If you have doubt or fear, you arent a man. We all have doubt and fear. Its about who can control it. Its why we play the game.
By Rotellas definition, choking can occur when a player over a shot clutters his head with thoughts that shouldnt be there.
Most recreational players never hit a shot with a clear mind, Rotella said. Most people dont understand what its like to be totally clear, where your mind is quiet.
It really doesnt take much to get in your own way. If a player has any question about his ball position, his alignment, anything like that, its going to show up in the shot. Thats why its so cool when somebody steps up [under pressure] and trusts his swing and hits a great shot. We ought to spend more time praising Trevor Immelman and Angel Cabrera for stepping up and hitting great shots to win the Masters the last two years than talking so much about players who didnt.
Words in the aftermath matter to Rotella because they reveal what clears and clutters the mind.
You can prime somebody for a given behavior by exposing them to certain words, Valiante said. I can prime you to do a lot of different things with you unaware that youre being primed.
Valiantes proven it in social experiments at Rollins College. In one experiment, he has measured the time it takes subjects to walk from the doorway of his building to his office. While in his office, he drops words related to Floridas retirement community image, words like elderly and geriatric and other such words. He says the subjects are consistently timed walking at a slower pace upon leaving the building. He can cite similar experiments where subjects act aggressively and rudely when primed with certain words.
Thats why we pay close attention to the words we use with players, Valiante said. We spend so much time finding just the right word. Camilo (Villegas) likes the word flow when talking about putting. He likes it when his putting is flowing.
Preparing at Augusta National earlier this month, Villegas sent a text message to Valiante before a practice round.
Camilo said he was going to respect the course, not fear it, Valiante said. Finding the right word to transform your mindset can be the key. Words absolutely matter. Anyone who doesnt believe that should pay attention to how Tiger Woods uses words.
Woods insistence that he was just a fraction off at the Masters was classic Woods. What he believes becomes his reality.
Tiger was once asked something like, `If God would only allow you to win one major, which major would you choose? Valiante said. Tigers response was, `Knowing me, I would argue with him and want to know why I couldnt have four. Tiger doesnt allow himself to contemplate less than what hes trying to achieve.
In ice skating, when Tara Lapinsky had that perfect routine to win the gold medal over Michelle Kwan [in 1998], Michelle was asked if she were crushed she didnt win the gold. Michelle gave the perfect example of what you want athletes to say in those situations. She said, `I didnt lose the gold medal. I won the silver medal. How you interpret an experience dictates whether you leave confident or fearful. Words absolutely matter.
Kenny Perry said he spent the early morning hours after the Masters driving around in his car for three hours, contemplating what happened at Augusta National. He formulated an interpretation of the experience.
I wouldnt consider it choking, Perry said. I was nervous, yes. But I was enjoying it. I was actually thriving on it more than I ever have in the past. So I havent beaten myself up much about this deal. I really havent. Ive enjoyed it. To me, its given me a shot of confidence more than it has deterred me from getting after it more.
Thats what Valiante would call neuro-linguistic programming.
In the end, what matters is how much Perry believes those words.
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