Getting Inside the Fascinating Mind of Thomas Bjorn
Article by Golfshake Ambassador Andrew Picken
It’s been suggested that you should never meet your hero. Heroes are important. Heroes develop the game. Heroes provide mentorship and aspiration. Heroes encourage mankind to develop. Look back at the stories of Greek mythology surrounding heroic deeds.
I have recently been blessed with the opportunity of meeting a number of high-profile sporting legends. Spending time with David Leadbetter at the commencement of his university project was a delight particularly as it was coupled with the opportunity to meet former England Cricket Captain, Andrew Strauss.
Hearing these two discuss the psychology of high performance in elite sport fascinating, impressed by their knowledge and insight into a complex but important area of behavioural science.
Both reflected on the issues of well-being in colleagues, peers and those they sought to support and mentor. They have an easy, captivating communication style that meant my interaction with them was much too short.
Meeting Thomas Bjorn
Imagine my delight when I was recently invited to visit the European Ryder Cup team room at Versailles in order to meet and question Thomas Bjorn. He is an ambassador for the ECCO Group and has been for 21 years.
I have watched his career with great interest since he first broke through onto the European Tour.
The room in which we were to meet is where the Treaty of Versailles was signed to end the First World War, so my interest in military history was also being satiated. A marble plaque embedded into the wall of the room details this momentous event.
The room was also witness to further momentous events in the autumn of 2018 as it had been adapted to the needs of the European Ryder Cup team and was their Safe Place away from the prying eyes of the thousands of spectators and media.
As part of my preparation for the interview, I had purchased a copy of Mind Game: The Secrets of Golf’s Winners. This is a simply stunning insight into the private side of a very individual game when played at the elite level. Written by Michael Calvin and Bjorn, it has been deemed to be such an important work that every current member of the European Tour has been provided with a copy.
If you have any interest in sport, psychology, mental health and well-being, then this is a book that is required reading.
My daughter holds a Masters in Mental Health Nursing and issues around mental health and well-being are not discussed as openly as they should be. Mental health is as important as physical health. This book is a seminal work in opening up the issues and challenges faced by the elite athlete who operates as an individual in a very challenging environment.
My opinions of Thomas Bjorn had been formed through his TV image. I thought he would be introspective, serious and probably sufficiently self-centred to succeed at the highest level. 19 wins in global tournaments requires an internal focus of exceptional levels.
I could not have been more pleasantly surprised. He was communicative, engaged, humorous, and clearly the location in which the meeting took place had a special part in his heart. He recognised that this was his Safe Place as well as that of his team and described the warmth he felt for the special moments that he shared with his team in that room.
Having devoured the book in two sittings I felt like I was blessed with a small insight into his psyche.
The Ryder Cup
We discussed his personal reaction, post Ryder Cup. Thomas described finding the process all-consuming for a 20-month period with a very sudden comedown once the event was over. He decided that he would give himself a period of reflection as he has been immersed utterly and completely in the Ryder Cup process for the nine months prior to the event. He was only able to spend six nights at his home during that period.
Denmark’s greatest player described the feeling of getting his life back following the amazing week of the Ryder Cup. He considered one of his major achievements was the relationship that he developed with each of those team members and the ability to share in the feeling of their respective achievements.
The Ryder Cup Captain returned regularly to a theme that he’d used throughout the event asking the players to be themselves, to do it their way, to be individual. Through this individuality they created a successful and highly functional team. This same theory extended from his previous Ryder Cup experiences as he had learned from others to be true to himself. It was quite clear that any attempts to be anything else would have been utterly unsuccessful as authenticity from the leader once lost, cannot easily be regained.
Being himself and trusting his own instincts were a constant theme to his leadership style.
We talked about the management of individual egos and again returned to the theme that he felt it remarkable that there were so many differences within each of the 12 individuals within the team.
His thorough, methodical and utterly scientific approach to his team and the partnerships that he developed was fascinating.
Psychological profiles of all of these players had been established and were considered to be as important as their individual performances on the golf course. The pairings in this event are crucial to the team and it is clear from the success of those partnerships that the work he undertook was totally successful.
This fascinating character constantly reinforced the importance of his Vice Captains and the ability that they had to encourage and amplify his thoughts. The Vice Captains were crucial to the success of the team as a whole and the mentoring, support and guidance they provided to individuals was a crucial component to the eventual win.
Thomas talked of his data collection team being crucial in his decision-making process and he was also massively appreciative of the efforts of Billy Foster who coordinated information from all the caddies regarding the players.
When asked where he learned the skills required it was clear that he had culled many lessons from his many different leaders during his time playing in three different Ryder Cups. Taking away and pocketing those elements of leadership that he felt would suit his own individual style.
It is clearly a challenge establishing a cohesive team of professional players given that team golf is individual to individual not against the course.
Many have played in the amateur ranks at team events but apart from a few exceptions elite amateurs when turning professional are left utterly to their own devices. This leaves the aspiring players who play on the feeder tours desperate for success with little or no pastoral support network in place to guide and assist them.
This European Tour stalwart advocated for more team events in the professional ranks. Suggesting that there would be a ready market for a mixed event between Europe and Great Britain and Ireland for example. He talked of the success of the Presidents Cup and the fact that this was a very positive event from the players perspective.
Thinking to the future he is excited at the prospect of qualifying for the Seniors Tour on 18 February 2021. I am a fellow Aquarian who shares the same day of birth, only a decade older!
He describes his anticipation and pleasure at being able to play again with his peers and friends in a competitive environment. He asked us the question how would you feel if you’re old enough to be the Dad of most of the people you are competing against and they were hitting the ball 80 yards further than you were capable of doing.
The keen Liverpool FC supporter was genuinely excited at the benefits to be enjoyed by the European Tour playing the PGA at Wentworth this year as he anticipated that that will provide for a much stronger field given the players schedules with those who are sharing between the PGA and European Tour events.
Thomas was unequivocal about the issue of slow play. He considered it was definitely too slow and that is an important issue that has to be resolved. He described golf as being in the entertainment business. Boring people to death with prolonged unnecessary delays will lose people from the game. The game has to be sold to the consumer through television and he suggested that visible time boards ensuring that all players knew where they were in relation to the field is something that he would support.
He clearly supported the European Tour four-point plan on pace of play. Eloquently justifying the use of the category systems.
His view was that that the use of timing boards placed strategically around the course would allow the players to police themselves. He accepted the difficulties that the referees have in imposing the regulations and felt that the self-policing would be the best of all options.
We discussed formats and how to make the game attractive and available to youngsters. He used the phrase that I will definitely steal “golf gets in its own way on occasions”. I couldn’t agree more.
We discussed some difficult Ryder Cup issues, in particular the challenge of telling Rafa Cabrera Bello and Matt Wallace that they had not been selected. It is clear that he has established a good relationship with both after the event and concedes that they were extremely unlucky not to have featured in 2018.
Having talked about his 21-year relationship with ECCO and it was very clear that he has an excellent understanding of the manufacturing and design processes that have been used by this company during the period of his sponsorship. They have sold 50 million pairs of shoes globally since 1996, he has had an active part in the design of the products. ECCO were responsible for the introduction of the first hybrid golf shoe used by Fred Couples at the 2010 Masters
Thomas was clearly delighted at the recent success of Eric van Rooyen who has also been an ambassador for the brand.
My interaction passed all too quickly. Together with the insight provided through his book this is a man that I would love to understand better as he is one of life’s natural leaders.
He was offered the opportunity to remain as a senior administrator in the game after the Ryder Cup. He refused, recognising that he and his contemporaries had moulded the European Tour into what they needed. He knew that it was his time to make room and encourage others from the next generation, like Eddie Pepperell, to move forward and take up the reins so that the Tour could be moulded to suit their needs and that of the new generation.
To be that perceptive given the perks involved in the process deserves to be applauded. One of the most difficult challenges for most leaders is the ability to give those they lead the room and time to make their own mistakes. This man is clearly a leader of the very first order and it was an utter pleasure to spend an hour in his company.
To return to my original theme of Heroes.
Thomas made some telling points discussing how local heroes could provide the catalyst for the ongoing development of the game.
Youngsters need a local hero. They need an idol to inspire them. They need to aspire and achieve to follow in the footsteps of successful golfers. This is how the game is encouraged and promoted and the local golf unions have a responsibility to ensure that developing talent is encouraged to participate in local events.
Look at the impact of Shane Lowry. His success as an amateur transferring this year to one of the best Opens in recent history due in no small measure to the engagement of his fellow countrymen and women.
Whoever said don’t meet your hero was simply wrong!
Local Heroes matter. As the interview drew to a close, I felt like I had met one of mine.
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