Golf Lessons from Sir Alex Ferguson

Before we get to the meat of this blog, I have a confession.

For the years that he was manager of Manchester United, I hated Sir Alex. I mean I really felt a passionate surge of negative emotion every time that I saw him on the TV chewing gum and criticising various match officials.

As a Tottenham Hotspur fan, his arrogant persona was exemplified when his team came back from 0-3 down at White Hart Lane to win 5-3 and afterwards he explained his motivating half-time speech as ‘Lads, its Tottenham!’

Nevertheless, following his retirement my feelings have mellowed and I can reflect with less emotion on the sustained success that Sir Alex enjoyed in the most fragile of professions. This blog will use excerpts from his incisive account of the keys to his legacy of trophies documented in his book “Leading” and analyse how we as golfers can benefit from his insights and experience.

Drive

“For me drive means a combination of a willingness to work hard, emotional fortitude, enormous powers of concentration and a refusal to admit defeat.”

Sir Alex goes on to identify players including David Beckham, Bryan Robson, Roy Keane, Steve Bruce, Mark Hughes, Brian McClair and Patrice Evra as players that epitomised the Drive to succeed that he always tried to infuse throughout his teams.

There is little doubt that all golfers will benefit from the attributes listed above in Sir Alex’s definition of drive. Perhaps the single most important key in this area is the golfer’s reaction and attitude to the inevitable failures that will occur on the golf course.

“We are all haunted by failure. It paralyses some and motivates others. It was my own inner determination to avoid failure that always provided me with an extra personal incentive to succeed.”

For golfer’s the attitude to see failure as a chance to learn and improve rather than get obsessed by the fear of failure will define their ability to maintain drive and ultimately set the platform for success.

Preparation

“The most important aspect of our system was training. Whatever happens on a Saturday afternoon has already occurred on the training  ground. If I was starting again as a manager, the thing that I would focus on the most is a player’s attitude during training sessions.”

For golfer’s, as for footballer’s, there is no substitute for high quality practice.

Modern golf coaches are keen to emphasise the importance of intensity and replication of ‘real-life’ situations within your practice, either by competitive games on the range or by various methods of on-course training.

“Part of the pursuit of excellence involves eliminating as many surprises as possible because life is full of the unexpected. That’s what our scouts, our youth system and the innumerable training sessions were all about.”

Golfer’s can take a couple of lessons from Manchester United’s approach to preparation. Firstly, practice from as wide a breadth of various lies and situations that you can in order not to face any surprises during your rounds.

Secondly, scout up on the course as much as possible before play. Consider the Clubs you will hit from each tee, areas definitely to be avoided and green light holes where you can take risks without too much chance of a disaster.

Excellence

“Part of the way you develop excellence..is to be careful about the way that you define success. I was always careful about setting specific, long-range targets. I would never say ‘We expect to win the League and two pieces of silverware this season’. It was much easier to say ‘At United we expect to win every game’. This created an agenda of excellence and allowed me to regularly administer booster-shots of intensity.”

What Sir Alex is explaining here is the importance of breaking long-range targets or goals into more manageable and motivating intermediate targets. For Manchester United this meant taking one game at a time and importantly approaching each game with the expectation that they could and should win.

The same principles hold true in golf. Whilst your long-term target might be to reduce your handicap by six shots, it is vital that this target is broken down into more manageable chunks so that, if for example you go a couple of months without improvement, focus and drive can more easily be maintained.

“Winning anything requires a series of steps. You cannot win the League with one giant leap. So I would be careful to divide everything up into digestible chunks. Nobody is going to take a climbing team to the foot of Everest, point to the summit and say ‘Okay lads, get up there’.

The availability of easy to use Strokes Gained Analysis apps have made the identification of a golfer’s strengths and weaknesses much more quantifiable. Focusing their goals or targets and practice regime on the improvement of the weaker areas shown up by this analysis can be an excellent way to let the short-term controllable goals take care of the longer-term targets of winning trophies or reducing your handicap.

 

The legacy of Sir Alex Ferguson’s career can be of great benefit across a wide range of pursuits and professions. All of the excerpts in this blog are taken from the book ‘Leading’ by Alex Ferguson (with Michael Moritz).

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