Sergio Garcia- No need for a Sport Psychologist?

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Any of you who enjoy golf will remember the scene vividly. It’s a little after midnight UK time on what is now Monday 10 April 2017. After an epic duel with Justin Rose, Sergio Garcia, the brilliant Spaniard who has convinced us all that he will never win a major championship, is stood over a 10-foot putt on the 18th green at Augusta. He has two putts from here to win the Masters. He looks at the putt from every conceivable angle, carefully addresses the ball, and strikes it smoothly. The ball curls slightly from right to left: the pace is possibly a little quick, but the ball rolls around the left side of the hole and falls satisfyingly into the bottom of the cup. Sergio sinks to his haunches and begins to celebrate. The crowd chant his name and he gradually releases all of the emotion and frustration that has built up over 18 years of hurt. Eventually he leaves the green with his arm around his fiancee Angela Akins. There is a huge outpouring of joy from Sergio and from everyone who has supported him through the dark days when he looked thoroughly depressed, declaring that he was not good enough and would never win a major.

I thought that I would never write the words in the paragraph above. I am delighted to have been proven wrong (more words that I thought I would never write!). Sergio has been one of the very best golfers on the planet for nearly 20 years. He has no equal as a shotmaker. If conditions are particularly difficult, especially if the wind is making the course look unplayable, Sergio often seems to score almost as well as if it were a warm summer’s day. His only real golfing weakness has been his putting, which became increasingly tentative under pressure during the days when his confidence was shaky. So, why has it taken him so long to win a major? Many golf commentators have weighed in on this question over the years, but I think it boiled down to the fact that Sergo did not really believe he could do it. His infamous Augusta press conference of 2012 gives some insight into this. He lamented: ‘I’m not good enough and today I know it. I’ve been trying for 13 years and I don’t feel capable of winning. I don’t know what happened to me. Maybe it’s something psychological. After 13 years, my chances are over. I’m not good enough for the Majors. That’s it.’ Of course, Sergio was probably feeling particularly down when he said this, but it illustrates the fragility of his self-belief. It also shows that he realised that psychological issues were at the root of his problems. Despite this, he has consistently been quoted as saying that he would never work with a sport psychologist because he does not believe in them. He feels that he can handle the mental side of golf himself, without outside assistance.

Should we therefore simply applaud Sergio for his fortitude, and recognise that a determined person can overcome any psychological issues which might be holding them back without any help? Not necessarily! There were of course other factors which helped Sergio at this year’s Masters. Firstly, the windy conditions in the early part of the tournament certainly favoured a player with his skills, and he has been putting more solidly of late with his claw-grip technique. In addition, he had the memory of a superb singles performance in the last Ryder Cup under similarly extreme pressure relatively fresh in his mind- he had shown himself that he could stand up to the highest pressure and not crumble. But none of this would have been enough but for two words: Angela Akins. Sergio’s fiancee is a former college golfer who clearly understands the mental side of sport, and Sergio obviously trusts her more than he would any sport psychologist. Angela and her father Marty, a former successful college footballer, have by all accounts worked hard on keeping Sergio positive. During the Masters, Angela put inspiring quotes from figures as diverse as Audrey Hepburn and Buddha on post-it notes on the bathroom mirror in order to help Sergio to keep the appropriate mindset. He has also said that Angela and Marty have helped him to accept things that happen with more calmness than ever before, and have aided him in changing his approach to the game by telling him things that were perhaps difficult to hear. So, in essence, Angela has acted as a sport psychologist to Sergio- and the man who does not believe in sport psychologists has found himself doing the things that a psychologist would advise him to do!

Of course, this is not the end of Sergio’s story, and he will hopefuly go on to further success. However, the story to date is a clear illustration of the value of mental skills training. Sergio did not want to follow the orthodox route to get help, but he found it anyway, and now he has achieved his dream of winning a major championship. 

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