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The Human Takeover

Managing the anxiety and pressure that comes with competitive sport is often the difference between the winner and the rest.

ET Bureau|
Jul 21, 2019, 11.36 PM IST
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In winning the Open Championship on Sunday, Shane Lowry shows the capabilities of the human mind
By Anand Datla

The biggest stages of sport have trepidation built into them, knitted into the seams. As soon as champions step on them they burst out and clutch at their calves, causing unease and angst. Tommy Fleetwood and Shane Lowry could feel trepidation’s tardy fingers crawl along their skin soon as they unpacked their bags inside the grandstand around the first tee.

It has been 27 years since an Englishman won one of these, Nick Faldo clutching at the Claret Jug in 1992 is a distant fading memory. And Fleetwood has been chasing his destiny since making the Open debut in 2014. After three missed cuts, he finally got the hang of it when the Open traveled to his home in Southport at Royal Birkdale, where he finished T27. He improved to T12 at Carnoustie last year and no one was surprised to see him in the final group on Sunday at Royal Portrush.

If there have been 32 instances of an Englishman winning the Open, Lowry, an Irishman, was dealing with an identity that has barely registered its presence. Only four of his kind, on five occasions, have tasted success at the oldest major in golf. Fred Daly, Padraig Harrington, Darren Clarke and Rory McIlroy.

It is a surprising fact, considering that links golf is so native to this part of the world. Lowry also has his own history of stage fright. The 32-year-old had melted into second at Oakmont in 2016, posting a 76 after starting the day four strokes clear in the US Open.

Lowry sailed left off the first tee, navigating his way to an edgy bogey walking through the rough and dancing in the sand. Fleetwood was crisp off the tee, but he missed a makeable birdie putt on the first green. Both men were nervous, and it was there for the feasting even to the naked eye. Even Brooks Koepka, the unflappable American who has major habits that draw guffaws of envy from his competitors, was shriveling on this cold windy afternoon. He started his day with four bogeys and continued f loundering through the penal rough around the Dunluce Links.

As Fleetwood went past the left rim of the Cup on the third, it was amply clear that Sunday golf continues to be played on the real estate between the ears. The course and all the nice colours around it are all just a mirage. The anxiety and pressure that comes with competitive sport has been a subject of endless learning.

Even though we are still very far from revealing the mysterious madness that turns elite athletes into trembling toddlers trying to learn the ropes, recent strides have helped us understand the phenomena better than ever. British psychiatrist Steve Peters has been a sought-after professional in the space, having worked successfully with English athletes over the past two decades. Peters has used the Chimp Paradox, a model built on structure and metaphor, to break open the mind and dissect its machinations. In his 2012 book by the same name — The Chimp Paradox — he sought to dissect the mind into three essential machine components.

“There is a human machine,” says Dr. Peters “which seeks to function based on fact and logic. This is in the frontal lobe guided firmly by logical thinking.” The Chimp is the second machine, an independent thinking unit driven by emotion, built on our limbic systems. And the third machine is like a computer spread through the brain, with the ability to store and retrieve thoughts, experience and behaviours. Using this model, the Chimp Paradox tries to address anxiety and stress that often lead to sub-optimal behaviours.

It is how they react that determines the nature of their outcomes. The key idea that Dr. Peters professes is about the need for the human section of the mind to manage the chimp and the type of content that is being written into the storage areas. The key is to ensure that the chimp does not take over and the human mind manages it well enough to keep it active but not in control.

On Sunday at the Open, Lowry and Fleetwood, the two contenders seem to have suffered the chimp for a few holes before managing to rein it in with their well-trained human minds. Fleetwood remained firm on 9-under par through 16 holes. And Lowry, the man in front, cushioned his card with three birdies in four holes to keep a stranglehold on the lead at 15-under. With the chimps firmly on a leash, these were two men determined to ensure that the outcome on Sunday that shall be written into their computers is one that is managed firmly by their frontal lobes.
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