A golfer puts the ball on the tee, scans the terrain and fairway and consciously makes a statement to self – “keep it away from the water”.

Research has shown an interesting thing about the way in golfers often make the exact error they are trying to avoid. When a golfer places the ball on the tee, he would often tell himself to aim in a certain direction while being conscious not to miss either left or right due to water hazards or bunkers. In a non-pressurised situation, a skilled golfer would invariably succeed in executing what they wanted to do with the ball.

However, in a competitive game with high levels of pressure, the daunting task of avoiding the water can become too great. (See article on dealing with pressure) with the net result that the golfer putting the ball exactly where he was trying not to hit it. Since this is the thing he set out to not do, we call it the “ironic error”.

ironic effects

So what happened?

Why exactly does such a performance error occur? When the brain seeks to make the body perform in a specific manner, it relies on two mental processes – an operating process and a monitoring process.

The operating process is responsible for identifying all the steps that will allow us to achieve a desired outcome. If you are going to take a penalty, this would include taking the usual number of steps back, thinking of the exact target where you want to hit the ball, running up and scoring on the aimed target. Simple, right?

Simultaneously, a monitoring process is subconsciously at work. This works like a  radar sweeping for information on what could go wrong. In relation to a tee shot, that might be missing right or hitting the water. Once the monitoring process has identified these dangers, it informs the operating process to try harder to find key information that will help the athlete execute its desired outcome ie hit the drive straight. Both processes work under one control system and operate together as part of a feedback loop.

The system normally works reasonably well and provides us with the effective mental control to do what we intend. It means that a golfer driving under zero pressure will gany golf majorenerally succeed in putting the ball very accurately to the desired target and will be generally satisfied that the ball went exactly where it was intended.


What can go wrong?

However, in a competition such as any golf major, when a player is on the cusp of eternal glory or crushing defeat, the mental space required in their brain for the operating process to function will be consumed by the mental load from feeling under pressure. When this happens, the operating process (“I know what I need to do”) and anxiety (“I am worried”) compete for the same limited mental space with the operating process becoming much less effective at making the player aware of the desired result.

Concurrently, the monitoring process remains largely unaffected under pressure. This is because it works on a subconscious level and it doesn’t take up any cognitive space. This means that by being under pressure, the monitoring process becomes more prevalent than the operating process. When it carries out a sweep for information on what could go wrong under pressure – and here’s the irony in all this – it brings what could go wrong to the forefront of the person’s consciousness.

In other words, the very mental process that should help the player not to hit the ball right is the very reason that he ends up being more likely to hit it too far right. By attempting to avoid the error, the mind is drawn ever closer to focusing on it.

Recent research has found that more neurotic players are more prone to these ironic errors. However, those most susceptible of the incidence of ironic error are those who mask their performance anxiety under pressure by trying to look nonchalant or “cool”. The reason is that their brains are overloaded by statements that limit their behaviour, such as “be cool” and “don’t show that you’re anxious”.


The fix

How can players avoid the notoriety of missing penalties due to incidence of ironic errors? Anxiety control is central to alleviating the pressure and this may be addressed by using specific relaxation strategies. A player could use techniques to control breathing; or “progressive muscle relaxation”, which involves tensing up a group of muscles as tight as possible and holding them like that for a few seconds. The muscles are then progressively relaxed to their previous state and the player experiences less anxiety as a result.

An additional strategy might be to boost ones confidence to buffer the level at which the anxiety might have such an impact. An alternative might be to rephrase negative instructions in a positive way. Instead of a player telling himself “don’t hit the ball right” he should be instructing himself to pick the precise point where he wants to hit the ball and focus on that.

This article is reliably informed by the research work on the incidence of ironic errors in sport by Mr Recep Gorgulu (Phd candidate in Sport Psychology at Bangor University) & Dr Tim Woodman (Lecturer in Sport Psychology at Bangor University)


Keith Begley is a member of BASES and an accredited sport psychologist with the Irish Institute of Sport.

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