My mate has worked for years at the Gleneagles Hotel. When it staged the Ryder Cup in 2014 he was involved with looking after the European team. On the Tuesday evening before the Ryder Cup got underway, Sir Alex Ferguson came to the European team room at the invitation of captain Paul McGinley. My mate managed to record what he said on his iPhone. I can bring you the transcript here……
“Good evening gentlemen.
It’s a real pleasure to be here, and to have been asked by Paul to say a few words to you.
I’m not much of a golfer myself. So I’m not going to talk to you about how to play golf.
But then I wasn’t much of a footballer either.
I want to talk to you a bit about leadership, team building and mental approach.
The first thing that I want to impress upon you is that it’s the sub-conscious part of your brain that plays golf for you.
Just like it’s the sub-conscious bit of a footballer’s brain that plays football for him.
It’s your body that swings the club.
And it’s the conscious part of your brain that makes strategic decisions, like what club to hit.
But it’s the sub-conscious bit that controls how you actually hit the ball.
If you tried to use your conscious brain to hit a golf ball you’d be useless. Worse than me.
The conscious part of your brain, the bit that deals with what you’re thinking right now, is much, much smaller than the sub-conscious. It only has room for a few things at a time. Like 2 or 3 swing thoughts. Or a couple of tactical points on a football field.
A golf swing is a complex thing. It involves the co-ordination of hundreds of muscles and ligaments in your body. All contracting and expanding to produce a swing.
If you tried to control everything with your conscious brain you’d be standing there all day.
You would need to think; ‘right, exert 4 pounds of pressure on the grip, place my feet 26 inches apart, flex my knees 20 degrees, set my spine angle at 30 degrees, take the club away at 15 kilometres an hour’…
All that stuff is programmed into the subconscious part of your brain, by hours and hours of practice over years and years.
People talk about ‘muscle memory’ but that’s bollocks. Muscles don’t have memories. Muscles are just bits of elastic.
It’s your brain that has the memory. And specifically the sub-conscious bit of it.
Ever tried hitting a golf ball when you were drunk? You guys could probably still do it, but you wouldn’t do it as well as when you’re sober.
That’s because the alcohol muddles your sub-conscious brain.
You can still think consciously ‘I’m going to hit a great shot here’.
But you won’t, because your sub-conscious isn’t working properly. It isn’t clear and free to do its job.
The same thing will happen if you let external nonsense cloud your sub-conscious when you’re playing this week.
What you’re looking for is to get on the course, with your sub-conscious brain calm and relaxed, free of all clutter and distraction.
Able to do its job. Which is to make you play great golf.
How do you do that when there are so many distractions, so much pressure and hype?
Good mental preparation.
You need to prepare your mind like you prepare your body, to play your best.
Here’s my suggestion.
Use the opening ceremony. The ceremony is Thursday night. You’ll be sitting on the stage with nothing much to do apart from look interested, in front of ten thousand people.
As you walk onto that stage picture a box. A big box. It’s your box, so it can be made of wood, metal or whatever you like. Take it up onto the stage with you.
As you sit there on the stage, soak everything up. Think of everything the Ryder Cup means to you. Look out at all the thousands of people. And picture things that could happen during the competition.
Think of everything. All your hopes and fears. All the best things that could happen. All the worst.
Think about what you need to do. What your role is in the team. It’ll be different for all of you. They’re your thoughts.
And make a pile of them. Visualize stacking up all these thoughts in a big pile in front of you.
Don’t leave anything out. Get everything out of your head and put it in the pile.
Think about all the hype, the media and the cameras.
Think about playing in a pair with all your potential partners.
Think about what it means to your career. The money. The glory.
Think about the expectations of your families and friends.
Think about not letting your team-mates down. Being a leader. Inspiring others.
Picture yourself holing the winning putt on Sunday. Spraying champagne and celebrating.
But also think about the worst things that could happen. Missing a short putt. Shanking an approach to the 18th.
And go all the way. Think of the very worst thing that you can possibly imagine happening.
Standing on the 18th green on Sunday, with a putt to win or lose the Ryder Cup. And you shit yourself. Literally shit yourself, wearing a pair of white trousers in front of 500 million people watching on the telly.
And then you miss the putt.
Good luck trying to think of something worse than that!
As you get up to leave the stage at the end of the ceremony, pick up your pile of thoughts, hopes and fears. And drop them into your box.
It’s a magic box, so no matter how big your pile is, they’ll all fit no problem. Once they’re in there, slam the lid shit. Snap closed a padlock. They’re locked away, can’t get out.
Then hand the box to me. I’m going to take it from you and stick it in my garage. And you’re not getting it back until Monday morning.
I’m not letting you anywhere near it. If I catch you trying to get back into your box I’m going to smash your head in with a bat.
There’s nothing in there that’s going to help you. Nothing in there that will make your sub-conscious brain perform better. So leave it in my garage.
As you walk off that stage, the only thought left in your head is ‘Game On!’.
All you need to think about is that for the next three days you’re going to do the best you can do. Play the best you can play. Be the best you can be.
Not in an ‘ach, I’ll try my best’ sort of way. I mean really, your absolute best. Play the best golf of your life.
Be the very best team-mate you can be. Contribute 100% to the team ethic. Be a leader. Support your captain. Be the very best you can be.
Focus on yourself and your own performance, being the best YOU can be. Don’t fixate on winning, or worrying about the opposition.
Golf involves randomness, luck, You can shank an approach that hits a tree, bounces off a path and rolls up to 2 feet.
And you can smack a perfect 7 iron right at the flag, which hits the pin and bounces off into a water hazard. Shit happens.
Focus on your performance, not the results. Hit great shots. Play great golf.
If you shoot 62 and the other bugger shoots 61 to beat you, don’t worry about it. Shit happens. Go out and shoot 61 next time.
We had games at United where we had 80% possession, 20 shots on goal that their keeper saved. They had one shot and scored from it. Shit happens.
Keep striving always to play the best you can play, no matter what the score is. Keep fighting, and never ever give in. The results will come your way.
You guys are all lucky. You were born with a talent for playing a game that you’ve nurtured and improved through dedication and practice over years.
This is your reward. The Ryder Cup is a brilliant event. Embrace it. Enjoy it. Best days of your lives boys.
With your sub-conscious mind free to do what it does best, you’ll do your best.
By doing that you’ll have reduced this stressful environment of the Ryder Cup down to what it really is, if you get right down to it.
And that is; 24 guys, walking around a field, hitting a ball with a stick.
That’s all this is when you boil it right down.
Just like a Champions League final is really just 22 boys running around a field kicking a ball.
Clear your mind of the rubbish, and you’ll be free to do what you do best.
Which is to walk round that field playing great golf. Doesn’t guarantee you victory. But it does give you the best chance.
I know a lot of you like your football. So I’ve got a little quiz for you.
The stats below are for two football teams.
Can you guess who they are? The data covers 21 seasons.
Finished in Top 2
Pts per Game
Goals per Game
Goal Diff per Game
I’ll tell you.
They’re the same team. My team. Manchester United, in the 21 seasons we played in the Premier League.
But Team A is us playing at home. Team B is us playing away.
I took the points and goals we scored and conceded playing at Old Trafford each season and multiplied it by two. And looked at where that would have put us in the table. Same for the away numbers.
Look at the difference. It’s massive, isn’t it?
17 championships versus 4. Win % of 75 against 55. In 20 of the seasons the ‘home’ version of Man Utd beat the ‘away’ version.
And let me tell you, these numbers are not unique to Man Utd. Look at the home and away results of any club in any of Europe’s big leagues and there’s the same difference between how they play at home, and how they play away.
Same for international teams. And it’s the same for other sports. All other sports. Including golf.
Defining what ‘home’ means is a bit trickier in golf for sure, especially with so many of you lucky buggers living in Florida.
But if you look at the data you’ll find golfers also get an advantage by playing somewhere they can call home.
Sportsmen play better with home advantage. It’s a definite, universal phenomenon.
Some people have suggested it’s down to biased refereeing. The home crowd intimidates the ref into favouring their team. But home advantage still holds where a referee doesn’t really influence the outcome, like in golf. It’s not that.
Top level sport is a macho thing. All the time you hear words like ‘drive’, ‘commitment’, ‘motivation’, ‘passion’, ‘bottle’. These are the things that people talk about being the difference between winners and losers.
But look at the data for my Man Utd teams. These were the exact same players.
And my teams were captained by guys like Roy Keane and Nemanja Vidic. And they had me managing them.
Do any of you think that we performed so much worse away from home because we lacked passion and commitment? Any of you want to call Roy Keane just now and tell him you think he lacked bottle when he played away from home?
The truth is actually a lot more touchy-feely. And it’s pretty simple.
The truth is that sportsmen play better when they feel…….comfortable.
And human beings feel more comfortable in surroundings that are familiar and positive.
‘Comfortable’ is the key word, not any of those macho words.
That’s it. That’s all it takes to make the difference between 17 championships and 4. Winning 75% of the time versus 55%.
My players felt more comfortable at Old Trafford, so they played better. And of course the visiting players felt less comfortable and played worse.
If you feel comfortable you play better.
Why should this be?
The answer is in what we’ve already talked about. You play sport with the sub-conscious part of your brain. And to be at its most effective your sub-conscious needs to be clear and relaxed.
It is much easier to get your mind into that state when you are feeling comfortable.
You’re playing at home this week. You’ll all get great support all week from the Gleneagles crowd. Yes, even English bastards like you Poulter.
You have the crowd on your side. You have the benefit of home advantage. So long as you use that to clear your sub-conscious, to relax and enjoy the experience then you’ll already be one up as you step onto the first tee.
But you can do more.
Every one of you can concentrate on making everyone else on this team feel as comfortable as possible.
Foster a great team spirit. Make everyone feel included and part of the process. Think about how you can make yourself feel more comfortable in these surroundings, and how you can do it for your team-mates. The caddies, the vice captains, all the staff.
If you all pull together, with the clear purpose of striving to do every little bit you can to make everybody around you feel more comfortable, then you’ll give yourself the sort of advantage you can see up on the board behind me there.
You are fortunate to have a captain like Paul who gets this stuff. He is fantastic at working out what makes you all feel comfortable. Do everything you can to support him.
Be positive. Accept his decisions; recognise he’s got to make some real tough calls to make with the pairings, and with leaving players out of sessions. If it’s you you’re probably not going to like it.
But just think how uncomfortable you will make everybody around you feel if you’re an arsehole about it. Stick all your egos and gripes and moans in your box, and leave them in my garage until Monday morning.
Focus everything on what’s best for the team.
For some of you that will mean being vocal, being a leader. For others it will mean being more of the strong silent type.
Whatever role you’re asked to play, and however you think you can contribute most – always remember that by making everyone within this team feel comfortable you can tap into this huge sporting advantage.
If you believe what’s written in the press you might think that I spent my managerial career giving the hairdryer treatment to all my players the whole time.
Like most stuff you read in the papers that’s total nonsense.
The truth is that I spent 99% of my time looking to make my players feel more comfortable. Because I knew that’s what would make them play better.
The occasional sharp reminder was useful to remind everybody who was in charge. I needed to maintain control. But the main job of any manager or coach is to make sure his players feel comfortable. That’s more important than tactics or shouting at people.
I made my players feel comfortable by making sure everything was right for them. The conditions were right for them to get the best training facilities, the best diet and medical care. Travel and accommodation. Great training sessions. Clear tactical instructions.
All to make them feel as comfortable as possible. They wouldn’t have respected me, and they wouldn’t have felt comfortable if I just spent my whole day screaming abuse at them.
I was good at making them feel comfortable. But look at the numbers. I could have done better. In particular I could have done things to make my guys feel more comfortable when they played away from home. I didn’t realise the significance and the barriers in the way to performing at your maximum away from home until late in my career.
But you guys are very fortunate. Paul has figured this out much quicker than I did.
And I know about a lot of the work he’s been putting in to find out all about you, what makes you tick. Who you’d feel most comfortable playing with. Golf ball. Playing order. Strategy. All the great little touches around this room.
You are very fortunate to have such a strong captain.
Trust him. Back him up. Support him. Help him to make everybody feel as comfortable in the environment as it’s possible for them to feel.
Remember, it’s only walking around a field hitting a ball with a stick.
Prepare your mind.
Play great golf.
Glory will surely follow.
And good luck.”