Tiger Woods and the Sports Psychology and Power of Will

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With Tiger Woods’ well documented fall from grace, the subject of sports psychology and the power of will has come front and center. We have all heard the saying, with reference to a given sport, that it is 10 percent physical and 90 percent mental. While this is an obvious over-statement it is meant to communicate the heavy burden an athletic competitor has in managing emotions that can swell and dominate in direct proportion with the sometimes huge stakes involved with high profile competition. Tiger Woods plays on the biggest of stages and for golfers like him the mental game is huge.

When Karl Malone was in his first season with the Utah Jazz he was a terrible free-throw shooter.  His coach, the inimitable Frank Layden himself, got so frustrated with Malone’s poor shooting percentages that he would occasionally say something a reporter could pick up on knowing that it would make the local and national papers the next day. While not trying to shame Malone, Layden knew that Malone’s pride and desire to win and be the best would create the needed modifications. In the end Malone ended up becoming one of the game’s most prolific scorers not just in field goals, but on the free-throw line as well. .

Tiger Woods is clearly not back to his old mechanically sound, high performance self but not for lack of trying. Watching Tiger’s current struggle the question becomes, why? Why, all things being equal in terms of capability and potential, does one athlete perform at a high level and another perform much less adequately? For world-class athletes, answering this question can be the difference between a decent living and being truly wealthy. One need look no further than to Tiger himself. Once the highest paid athlete on the planet, he is now earning a fraction of what he once made.

Sports psychologists are now telling us that what was once supported only by anecdotal evidence is now firmly grounded in science. For example, when someone like a Norman Vincent Peale said that there was power in positive thinking or when Zig Ziglar insisted that if you believe it you can achieve it, they would base their teachings on people they knew or stories they had heard. Certain prominent people and the stories behind their dramatic success made up the reference section of their presentations. That has all changed. Now sports psychologists are informing their motivational speeches and personal coaching with the hard evidence that only science can provide.

For example, recent brain studies tell us that the brain, in the form of thought processes and the introduction of what are referred to as propositional truth statements, will give us exactly what it is fed. There is a science, as it turns out, to positive thinking and positive outcomes. Much is being currently made of what is referred to as neuro-linguistic programming, colloquially referred to as NLP. The working premise is that while human beings are, by nature and by birth, positive, forward looking even curious beings, they can and do eventually fall prey to negative, or what some refer to as, stinkin-thinkin. Golfers like Woods can be seen weekly either watching an errant drive or missed putt with a pained look on their face. While for some one can only imagine what they are thinking, for Tiger Woods? Well, not so much. His thoughts are not just all over his face, but occasionally find their way into the airwaves. Indeed, Tiger Woods and the sports psychology and power of will are on full display as he makes his way up and down a course.

The argument is that by the time humans reach full maturity they demonstrate thinking patterns and processes that are, in some cases, negative and obstructionist upwards of 75 percent the time. Imagine a young person, prior to going through puberty, looking at the girl in class and thinking how gross or what-have-you. Then imagine that same kid, after going through the changes, getting his full dose of testosterone, thinking in quite different terms. When the girl walks by, as things go, a chemically-induced birds do it bees do it response kicks in. The boy wants to be around the girl. The problem is that over time this perfectly natural, biologically induced response is replaced with a newly conditioned response that goes something like this. Boy meets girl, passions are inflamed, boy wants girl. Boy then realizes he has no shot with her because he is not good enough. Extrapolate that into any aspect of human life and one gets the picture.

Where does this negative thinking come from? Researchers argue that much of it comes from or at least initiates in one’s language formative years where the word no is the norm, and where the terms cannot and will-not abound. Psychologists are telling us that a new pattern of negative thinking overtakes an originally positively-inclined one. Parents are often seen responding to children with a simple no or do not instead of engaging the child and perhaps asking questions. This latter approach is seen by child-psychologists and family counselors as perhaps the best way to raise children. Instead of yes/no answers, engage the child in discovery-oriented dialogue. As children get in the habit of answering questions they get into new critically informed patterns of thought and, curiously so, self-regard and esteem. Under these conditions the no is replaced by a why not? Then followed up by an investigation of fact that, more often than not, leads to the realization that, in the case of the boy-meets-girl, the boy can be with her after-all. or in Tiger’s case, he can and will make the shot.

Neuro-linguistic programming is simply reprogramming the way human-beings speak to themselves. Known as self-talk, human beings are always, every waking moment, carrying on dialogue with themselves. Because this is generally a negative process given the learning formative conditioning they were subject to, or that their current environment is imposing on them, the sports psychologist will tell the aspiring athlete to start an inner dialogue that is filled with positive affirmations. The family counselor will tell parents to not only start inviting children into dialogue, but to fill their minds with affirmative language. Instead of the constant I am not’s and the I will never be’s that inform negative self-talk, replace it with I am or I will be and one will start seeing that the no, cannot, and never be will evolve into can, will do and more importantly, I am. Golfers like Tiger Woods and other high or even low profile competitors often struggle with the I am not aspect of self-talk. With an ubiquitous press looking at every aspect of a given athlete’s performance, is it any wonder that athletes like Tiger Woods let out an occasional not for prime time invective?

Because the brain, at the primitive level, does not distinguish between fantasy and reality, and early Woods is our map into that arena, the affirmation is a value-neutral, and can either can bode well for positive thinkers or, for the negatively inclined, bode poorly indeed. The idea is that as athletes, and human-beings alike, not just the Tiger’s of the world, begin to incorporate a positive view of things, the body will follow suit and one’s performance will improve in exponential terms. As long as the stinkin-thinkin continues so likewise will the under-performance. One might well ask Tiger what is on his mind lately.

The mathematics of it all appear to be quite simple. For someone like Karl Malone, the effects while slow at first, took on a life of their own and he became a legend in the paint and on the line. For Tiger Woods? Well not so much. His fall from grace may have permanent status unless and until he can find a way to not only believe in himself, but will it so. When athletes like Tiger Woods and people from all walks of life buy into what sports psychology is teaching us, then the power of will-not will become the power of will.

By Matthew R. Fellows


Jazz Basketball


USA Today


Norman Vincent Peale The Power of Positive Thinking (1996)

Zig Ziglar See You at the Top (1982)

Smith, R.E. (2006) Positive reinforcement, performance feedback, and performance enhancement.

Tosey, P. & Mathison, J., (2006) “Introducing Neuro-Linguistic Programming”

Photo By Tord Sollie Flickr License