The Ryder Cup is among world’s greatest sporting events. The best golfers from Europe and the USA compete for an iconic trophy and international acclaim.
Media attention is unrelenting. Sponsors clamour for exposure. Spectators crank-up tension with ear-splitting roars as the action ebbs and flows.
It is easy to imagine how this white-hot atmosphere could reduce highly experienced players to nervous wrecks. And yet, as we saw in Paris, certain players thrived under the pressure.
Ian Poulter is probably the best example. His ability to deliver results in recent Ryder Cups earned him the moniker ‘Postman’. He beat world number one Dustin Johnson last weekend and has never lost a Ryder Cup singles match.
Unfortunately Poulter’s record in Major Championships is not as good. He has just three top-five finishes in 59 attempts and is known as the best golfer never to win a Major.
Although we will never know exactly why Poulter has struggled to achieve great success outside the Ryder Cup format, I believe he would have a better chance if he understood more about his brain. Like every golfer, Poulter will have an optimal brain state in which he plays his best. I suspect the unique Ryder Cup atmosphere helps Poulter reach this state, whereas a Major has a different effect. Poulter seems to benefit from the boisterous crowds. Other players may find that extremely unhelpful.
So what could Poulter do to help him translate his Ryder Cup form into Major Championships?
First, he should seek to explicitly understand his optimal brain state for his best golf; then develop skills that allow him to achieve this on demand.
This is not as simple as it sounds. Everyone is negatively affected by suboptimal brain states. For example, you cannot sleep at night and be productive in the afternoon if you do not achieve the correct brain state. There is an optimal brain state for everything we do, from listening to your partner, sending an email or giving a presentation.
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To help people understand their brain states we have developed the term ‘Activation’. We visualise this on a scale from zero to 100. When you are at zero on the scale, you are dead. Lower numbers on the Activation Scale mean you are calm and relaxed. Higher numbers can mean that you are pumped up, anxious or nervous.
Activation is connected to brain chemistry. Brain activity is generated partly by electric impulses and partly by chemical messengers called neurotransmitters. Although more than sixty neurotransmitters are thought to exist in the brain, some are more obviously connected to activating and calming your brain, or in our terms Activation Management. For example, glutamate excites the brain, and GABA slows it down. Other important messengers include serotonin (calming), noradrenaline (focusing), and dopamine (aids learning).
To help you to optimise your Activation levels for different daily tasks there are several things you can do. You can write a list of the activities you feel would benefit from an optimal brain state. For example, falling asleep at night, being productive after lunch, reacting when someone annoys you at work. Once you have this list you can record the Activation level you usually experience for each, and also the optimal level that you would like to achieve more regularly.
Next, you need to manage your diet, exercise and sleep. This is key to healthy brain chemistry, and therefore makes it easier to willfully increase and decrease Activation.
Finally, you can use direct Activation management techniques. For example, to increase Activation you can exercise, purposefully breathe faster or listen to stimulating music. To reduce Activation you purposefully breathe slower, take a bath, or listen to some relaxing music.
By effectively managing your Activation, you are taking a major step towards improving your well-being and personal performance. I believe Ian Poulter could also benefit and take a ‘Major’ step forward in his career.