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How Rory McIlroy Turned Defeat Into Victory

Publication date: 02 April 2015

In the 2011 Masters golf tournament, Rory McIlroy started the final day four shots ahead. It should have been a clear enough margin to go on and win. Instead he experienced what has been described as a meltdown, and lost.

In a recent piece on the BBC website, McIlroy described that day as the most important day of his career. (Since then, I gather he has gone on to win some important titles and is currently the world's number one golfer.) Personally I have no interest in golf but from the perspective of psychology, something very interesting has been going on.

I guess McIlroy's meltdown was a case of performance anxiety. It's hardly unique, in fact I think it's very understandable. A number of other golfers and sports stars have experienced similar. In fact I think it's an instance of a fundamental dynamic of the human mind that's behind a lot of everyday problems. I like to call it the quicksand trap - I didn't invent the phrase but it's a metaphor for situations where trying harder makes things worse. In quicksand, if you struggle you get sucked down.

We've probably all had the experience of a sleepless night. Perhaps you have a big day tomorrow , and you want to be feel good and refreshed. But the harder you try to fall asleep the further away it gets.

Another context in which the quicksand dynamic can easily arise is biofeedback practice. In other words, you can suffer from performance anxiety. And if you're prone to anxiety, as a lot of my clients are (it's usually why they are trying biofeedback) then performance anxiety and the quicksand trap is even more likely.

McIlroy described that day in 2011 as the most important of his career because he realised he had to learn how to handle pressure. And clearly he has learned - at least to some extent. Now I don't really know how he learned, but one component of his success seems to be re-framing, as it's known in psychology. Re-framing means seeing things from a new perspective, or finding new ways to think about things that suggest solutions. McIlroy seems to be almost glad he blew that Masters competition. He saw a failure as an opportunity to learn. That's a basic and fundamental re-frame that we can all use in the context of our own lives.

It's important in biofeedback practice too. We need to see biofeedback practice not as a test which we will pass or fail, but as a context for learning. And the more you "fail", the more you can learn. In life failure is rarely really failure (in anything more that a very temporary sense) but is a step on the way to success. An example: most smokers who have successfully quit, didn't succeed at their first attempt. They stopped and then they slipped back into smoking, and they learned from it and they tried again.

I think one of the reasons biofeedback is such a useful tool is that it can teach us how to handle that quicksand scenario.

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