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How Great Expectations in Sports Can Affect You

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At what distance do professional golfers have a 50-50 chance of making a putt?

This is possibly our favourite sports question. Can you guess? We often pose this question to keen golfers, whether in a professional capacity as consultants or to sports people more generally to see what the response is.

It is our favourite sports question because it tells us a lot about how we judge success and failure and how our expectations can motivate or hinder us.

The answer comes from a statistical analysis of putting performance on the PGA tour, and it was something Paul McCarthy and Marc Jones included in their book The Successful Golfer. The study by Douglas Fearing and his colleagues explored putting performance on the PGA tour. Rather than relying on the freely available data on putting performance such as the number of putts per round, or birdie conversion, a mathematical model was developed based on a data collection system known as ShotLink.

This system captured the ball location and elevation for every putt to within 1 cm on the green. As such it provided a much more detailed analysis about putting performance because it gives a real indication of how difficult the putt was (such as distance, whether it was a downhill putt, etc.).

Data were collected from 45 PGA tour events held at 30 courses from 2003 to 2008. An enormous amount of data points were collected comprising over 2 million in total and a number of interesting analyses were conducted including who was the best putter during that time (Tiger Woods) and whether putting performance is worse in the final pressure filled fourth round for players in contention (it is not). However the one statistic that caught our eye is, for professional golfers the likelihood of making a seven foot putt is 50-50.

The best professional putters will make one out of every two putts from seven feet –  Many of us will play with amateurs who barely break 100 shots for a round who get annoyed at missing a putt from seven feet. Yet, making a putt of seven feet is a ‘coin toss’ for even the best golfers.

This example tells us a lot about how we should approach our performance. It is not particularly surprising but it does highlight the nuanced difference between what we feel we must achieve and what we are aiming for. With a golfer facing a seven foot putt we would work with them to make sure they are in the best shape to make the putt, for example through a well-worked pre-putt routine that precedes a confident relaxed stroke. But thinking they ‘should’ make these putts is not helpful and not true. Even for professional golfers.

It also tells us that sport is replete with failure. Whether it is the best rugby kickers with a successful kick percentage of around 80% (they miss one in five) through to the golfers surprisingly making only half the putts from seven feet. Because of this the ability to move on from failure is key to success. As is, perhaps more importantly, the ability to focus on the process of success and not be cowed by the expectation of success – in short how we engage with our goals matters.

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