If failing to prepare means preparing to fail, the question about how to prepare effectively must be broached by any self-respecting high performing athlete and coach. Mind you, there is no answer that will serve everyone equally.
In fact, preparation for one event may not work appropriately for the next event. If we accept athletes and coaches are complex beings, then we must also accept they are in constant flux, as are the environments and events they engage in throughout a season and ultimately, their career.
Yet, every week there are plenty of examples in sport that from the outside looking in, look like either world-class preparation or sub-standard negligence. Of course, hindsight is a great asset when criticising the decisions of others.
Are we to assume Shane Lowry’s preparation for his historic and dominant Open Championship win last weekend in Royal Portrush went exactly to plan?
Yes, of course, because he won.
Are we then to assume that he will do the exact same next year in his quest to retain the Claret Jug?
Maybe, but not necessarily.
It was deemed unusual for last year’s champion Francesco Molinari to arrive at Carnoustie without any links golf under his belt, before going on to raise the trophy in his typical understated style.
This time around, he chose what felt right for this year, extensive practice under pressure away from competition and the spotlight, for the quiet man of golf, with his team at The Wisley Club.
Did it work?
Only they can decide that following a more than respectable defence of his title with a tied 11th finish, shooting 74, 69, 72, 66 over the four days. Incidentally, that final round was the score of the day last Sunday.
So where does Rory McIlroy fit into this debate?
Is it too easy to suggest he got his preparation all wrong because of what unfolded last week? Or are there any lessons to learn from the painful anguish we all witnessed unfold over the first two days?
Traditionally, players would play links golf in the lead up to the Open Championship. It is why Paul McGinley went to such great lengths to encourage the team at Lahinch to set up the course in a similar way to Royal Portrush. No doubt, it will have given him additional satisfaction that the eventual Open winner chose the Irish Open as part of his preparation, along with a host of others inside the top 20.
Not to mention the fact the Scottish Open the following week at the Renaissance Club was broadly criticised for how it played more like a parkland course.
But such a convenient correlation really means nothing in the greater scheme of things.
Or does it?
Is it possible to over-prepare for an event?
If it is, and that’s a big if, then the Open at Royal Portrush has some stark examples for us to learn from, and none more so than what appeared to be the case for McIlroy. It has all the trademarks of an over-prepared athlete, which essentially presents itself as over-investment, and the old cliché of putting all your eggs into one basket.
It is hard to wish that anyone else won last Sunday after the scenes Shane Lowry produced over the weekend, and every day since. But prior to the event, McIlroy was my dream pick.
There is little doubting the impact his fellow major-winning Northern Irishmen in Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke may have had in bringing the event back to Co Antrim, but McIlroy is the man, he’s the draw and, with that, the greatest influence.
However, on reflection, the writing was on the wall as far back as when the venue was announced. The Holywood man did not hide his dreams for how he wished the event would unfold and even the media began to question whether the occasion would be too much for him to handle.
His intention to make sure every eventuality was covered may sound like good preparation, but it can also heighten anxiety. When we invest heavily into something, we inadvertently raise our expectations, as we tend to believe such investment has to return a favourable result.
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
Yes, do the work. Yes, cross the t’s and dot the i’s. Yes, run reconnaissance on the course. But then you have to let go and just play golf.
In fact, the only thing you have to do is be ready to play the first shot on the first tee as if it’s just like any other shot. Which because we are living, breathing, emotional humans, makes it almost impossible to do, because we know it is not just any other shot.
Even though, the golf ball you’re hitting with the club you’re holding, does not know it is on the first tee of the Open in your homeland.
And so we can appreciate the delicate balancing act that faced the former world number one.
Therefore, it is less about blocking out the exciting and excitable thoughts, and more about managing them in a constructive way.
Shane Lowry spoke after his win about how as early as the fifth hole he was telling his caddie that all he wanted to do was get his hands on the Claret Jug. Which is a completely normal thing to think, just not over a golf shot when you’re leading the Open Championship with 13 holes to go! Which is why he also mentioned how brilliant his caddie Brian (Bo) Martin was in keeping him focused on the task-at-hand, one shot at a time.
Lowry also mentioned a 40-minute chat with his coach Neil Manchip on the Wednesday afternoon before the tournament started that gave him confidence and helped him put things in perspective.
Are we to think he was not confident before that chat? Of course not, but the essence of good coaching is figuring out what to say and when to say it. The brilliance of the player is then being able to play to that theme, triggered by that chat, for four days in a row.
And as far as perspective goes, McIlroy’s words about how his team, family and friends will still see him in the same way after Thursday’s crushing experience as they did beforehand, tells us all we need to know about the class act he continues to be.
Following his incredible, but failed run to make the cut on the Friday, he mentioned how the disappointment will hurt for some time to come. The kind of hurt, one feels, will only subside when he lifts major silverware overhead in the years ahead.
If last week was his rock bottom, then the only way is up, so long as any lessons to be learned are learned in the days, weeks and months that follow.
I find it incredibly difficult to criticise McIlroy, as it would feel like such a cheap shot.
Therefore, I won’t.
Instead I’ll choose to think he did what he believed was best for him realising that none of us know how close it was to actually working out.
Like every missed opportunity, it is only a failure if it does not lead to a place of better understanding which, for McIlroy might mean that the one that got away may actually be the one to set him on his way.