August 30th, 2016
Will USA win the 2016 Ryder Cup?
If yes, because of good planning or simply serendipity?
The 41st Ryder Cup matches will take place in the USA starting September 30th. What will Team USA do differently to try to win this event, given that it has only won twice during the past two decades? With Davis Love III back as Captain after 2012, and four pre-eminent golfers as vice-captains - Tom Lehman, Jim Furyk, Steve Stricker, Tiger Woods?
According to Love III, "Tiger and some of the guys were talking about, maybe we need to go somewhere away from golf and go fishing and hang out and just have some fun and talk about it," said Love III. “…just little things like that. We just want it to be fun and friendly and relaxed when we get there."
Vice Captain Lehman, when first nominated for the position, was apparently not certain of what would be required of him. He was willing to do whatever it takes, "Whether it be making peanut butter sandwiches or carrying the rain gear or some guys you put your arms around and encourage them."
Are these plans rather vague for such a high level event? Does Team USA incorporate modern, researched, coaching theories into their repertoire? After all, in the absence of a team coach or social psychologist, surely a Captain can act as a de facto coach?
According to a seminal work, Athlete-centered Coaching: Developing Decision Makers, “Team Culture” is essential for performance. It involves “A team having values, rituals, shared vocabularies, two-way communications, and a feeling of family.” The vision for the team must be mutually created or the athletes must at least buy into an existing vision. Values - commitment and communication - should form the backbone of a team’s actions. The formation of mini-groups within the main team, in which each member has a responsibility for something that benefits the team is a popular concept with coaches in all sports.
Interaction between members; a distinctive, collective identity; and a sense of shared purpose or goal are vital for team cohesion. Team cohesion has two parts to it: task cohesion, for which the group must work together and remain focused to achieve mutual goals; and social cohesion, which involves group members liking one another and enjoying each other’s company.
The book has many chapters dedicated to examples of coaches who have been successful at the international level in other sports, something a golf team can surely learn from. Mainly, the examples show how coaches act merely as facilitators, encouraging the team to form its own vision, plan its values, behavior strategies, and roles and responsibilities for each team member. Each player thus naturally feels an important part of the entity he himself helped to create. One team had their own team song, while another carried gluesticks everywhere. In this latter team, the players had decided their vision would be “B3 - Binding together to Be Better”, and wanted to carry around something physical as suitable symbolism for their vision.
It is surely vital for a team event in what is typically a highly individual sport, to be scientifically planned. One researcher advocates using a simple mathematical formula to understand how effective a group might be:
Actual Productivity = Potential Productivity - Faulty Process Losses
While Team USA has by far the better team on paper, delivering excellent potential productivity, might there be losses suffered through faulty processes? These processes are said to consist of motivational factors and coordination factors. Problems arise when some members in a team are less motivated than the rest of the team; or when there is a breakdown in an individual’s technical attributes or timing.
After the 2014 debacle, the then Captain of Team USA, Tom Watson, had said in response to post-event player-feedback, “I did talk to the players, but my vice-captains were very instrumental in making decisions as to whom to pair with.” Did the team buy into the plans made for them?
Apparently not. Phil Mickelson (who has played in more Ryder Cup matches than any other golfer), in the post-event press-conference reminisced, based on a past success, “There were two things that allowed us to play our best, I think, that Paul Azinger did, and one was he got everybody invested in the process....who they were going to play with, who the picks were going to be, who was going to be in their [practice session] pod, when they would play, and they had a great leader for each pod... he had a great game plan for us, you know, how we were going to go about doing this. How we were going to go about playing together..... if so-and-so is playing well, if so-and-so is not playing well, we had a real game plan.”
Just a few days ago, there was news about Mr. and Mrs. Davis Love III choosing team uniforms. How many uniforms have we all worn that we simply hate and feel uncomfortable in, but are compelled to wear to supposedly represent what we stand for? Should this too not have been a team decision?
Let’s wait and watch to see how the 2016 Ryder Cup unfolds, and what brings about team cohesion in the winning team.
Adapted from my August 2016 article in My Avid Golfer magazine.