The Archetypes of Learning Golf
Are you on the path of mastery?
It’s almost that time of year where the snow banks melt away and the grass emerges from its long slumber.
With this metamorphosis comes the distinctions of fairways from rough and of greens from bunkers. In fact, the very emblem of the changing seasons will come in only forty days or so, when the first stroke is made into the hills at Augusta National. So start up the mowers and sharpen the rakes, because the game we love is awaking from its hibernation.
At this point in the Yearly Training Plan (YTP) many of you have been fortunate to have carved out eighteen weeks of development to your skills already, and you can now enter the third “mesocycle” of the season (that last stretch of eight or nine weeks before we head outdoors for the six months of play ) with a sense of confidence and satisfaction.
In phase one and two, the focus was on reflecting on the skills we need to improve, and on developing our motor patterns and patterning our bodies. As coaches we encouraged you to focus on the “technical” and “physical” pillars – working to establish more efficient movements in deliberate fashion. For those who have been diligent with this training – hundreds upon hundreds of repetitions have now set the stage for the next focus for our training.
If the first two phases of the yearly plan were about attending to our swing patterns while developing our bodies, the third phase begins to turn our attention to the playing of the game. This means focusing on those skills required for performance. There is a difference between working on your golf swing and working on your golf game, and in this third phase we can begin to develop those skills which relate to playing the game. This means attending to our ability to score, as well as our ability to manage: our decisions, emotions, focus, swing variations, and energy.
But this progression of training focus is only realizable by those who have spent the past four months training deliberately. You can’t skip steps in the process, and so if you haven’t been working on the first two phases then you have no right to enter the third phase.
And so rather than describing the content we typically see in the third mesocycle of a YTP, I thought it would be interesting to explore the types of students we seem to encounter in any given year. Why is it that some types move gracefully through a yearly plan and improve their performance, while others seem to live an experience of perpetual sameness?
I will begin by describing the “Master” student, and then list a few of the other types we see. Everyone has a “master” within them, but I think that you may see a little of yourself in some of these other types as well – and if you do recognize yourself you can decide whether you would like that to be your future. I’ve also included some suggestions to each type to hopefully re-rout their path closer to that of Mastery…
1) The Masters
“Masters” are practicing their golf all the time – whether at home, on the course, or on the range. They follow a set plan (YTP) when they train. Very little of their efforts are wasted – they efficiently get their work done and they seem to really enjoy the process. These learners are busy working out in the gym – in ways that will positively affect their golf game, and they even tailor their diet and sleep to maximize their energy levels for when they train. They will typically have a few golf books beside their bed, a putter, wedge, and a few balls somewhere in their house, and they will work on things like breathing and meditation because they believe it will make them better players.
These master learners also understand that their progress in the game will not be linear – that you don’t improve at things in a steady line – but rather that their journey to mastery will be a series of plateaus met with occasional bursts to new heights. But they don’t care that results aren’t always apparent – they simply enjoy the “practice” of the game they love…
For those “Masters” who have been practicing deliberately over the first eighteen weeks of our “Yearly Training Plan” this passing cycle is met with confidence. They can say goodbye, convincingly, to a stage of the year where they have consciously built motor patterns that increase repeatability. They can be certain that they will be able to produce swings less consciously when they play. The majority of repetitions are done – especially those tough repetitions at the start of learning new patterns – and now they simply need to maintain the new patterns and allow the growth to set in. They can trust the work they’ve done.
To borrow an oft-used metaphor for how the brain works – these players have now developed a more solid “hard drive” of neural patterns upon which all of the variability (software) will be applied in the next phases. These players won’t need to consciously control their swings when they play, and will therefore be able to “attend” to other things while they perform. They might even be free to attend to the target, rather than attending to their swing. They will certainly be able to adapt to the variable conditions that are inevitable in the game.
And by the way, these “Masters” are not the types of players you want to encounter in your competitions this summer. They have a habit of consistently performing very close to their potential.
2) The Sometimes – “I Just Couldn’t”
There are some students of the game who do practice occasionally, but not nearly as much as they’d like. These players have great intentions, but simply cannot match their attention to those intentions. Months ago they might have talked about practicing a few times a week, but they actually end up practicing every few weeks. These aren’t slackers by any means, but they aren’t living up to the vision they had envisioned for themselves. They are often changing their minds, and because of the compressed schedule they have trouble determining what to work on when they finally do train.
My best advice to this group is to acknowledge what has happened so far and work hard to fit practice into your lives over the next mesocycle. You have the makings of the master learner and you’ve even displayed those traits on occasion. It’s not too late (it never is) – but if you do in fact want to see different performances when you play this summer than the time is now to get serious about your practice. You still have a good nine weeks to engrain some strong patterns – to solidify your hard drive in preparation for the outdoor phases. Get practicing.
3) The Tippers – “I’m Just a Tip Away”
This is an all too common group who believe that the key to unlocking a new horizon in their games is just a tip away. These players are usually searching for a perceived “swing guru” whose incomparable insight into the golf swing will quickly diagnose their “problem” and prescribe a “fix” which will be painless to adopt and which won’t even take any work to develop. This group believes that a golf game can be bought (and they often confuse “golf game” with “golf swing”) and that improvement in golf can be had with minimal effort. These are often “Type A” personalities who aren’t very interested in the process of mastery and who hope to circumvent that path through ingenuity and commerce. Each week, sometimes each day, is often a new idea and a new fix.
This is a tough archetype to watch because despite their success outside of the game, they are destined to live a life in golf which is fraught with anguish, anger, and despair. These types are prone to a cycle of constant change, but in a way which halts their progress in the game. But they can (sometimes) be helped with a good conversation about their purpose in the game and by making a compelling case about the nature of the game. Only by deconstructing their beliefs is there a chance to alter their path towards one of mastery, and so the case must be made for the inherent joys of practicing golf in a way which doesn’t search for immediate gratification. It’s then up to them.
4) The Strugglers – “I know what I’m Doing Wrong”
This is an interesting group of players who seem to think that they are destined to struggle in the game. They have usually had a bunch of lessons from many instructors, and they have been told that their swing is a series of errors. They usually have one major “affliction” that plagues their game and despite a keen awareness of that weakness they are at a loss for how to fix it.
Fortunately, this type of learner can be helped. With little more than a change in perspective, these types can be helped to see that what they have done in the past is not necessarily their future. In fact, these learners are often just confusing a slump with a plateau – and if we can help this type to see the joys of plateaus and practice then they can quickly set themselves on the path of the master. Because so much of the world of instruction is bent on telling people what they do wrong, this sensitive type can hardly be blamed for having insecurities about their game. But once we dispel the myth of “golf is hard” we can change this type to “I know what I Do When I Play Well”
5) The Infallible – “I Know That Already”
This is a group of players who, whenever encountered with a new idea or suggestion, believe that they are already doing that (when they actually aren’t). To me, it’s a wonder these players don’t shoot 54 perpetually when they play, because they seem to know and do everything necessary to perform at the highest level. Because of their resentment of feedback and reflection, these players are tragic because their development is stunted by their ego. Without acknowledging any shortcomings it is very difficult to evolve in any forward direction – and that leaves only one direction to grow…
The antidote to this type is usually a frank conversation about the inherent challenges of the game and an analysis of past performance. Once these types can acknowledge that there is room to improve then they can usually be swayed to the path of mastery. The hard part is in convincing them that they aren’t complete yet, and it’s a dangerous conversation because their egos are usually entwined with this belief of infallibility. But once you make room in their self-image for improvement, this type can be a very strong learner as they will do whatever they can to improve their self-image through training. The very fact that they want to be perfect can inspire great efforts in training.
6) The Exhausted – “Because I have To”
This is an obsessive type who have no concept of balance and who spend more wasted hours than anyone on developing skills. Unfortunately, they work beyond the point of diminishing returns, and as such these types fall short of the Master learners because they overlook the need for balance in their training regime. By overlooking aspects like enjoyment, recuperation and rest, these players often burn-out or, worse yet, suffer debilitating injuries.
The greatest antidote for this type is to get a better understanding of why they play the game. These players need to firstly remind themselves of what they love about golf. Secondly, these types are usually well served to embed other life activities into their schedules – hang out with friends, learn a new instrument or language, anything to level out the intense focus they’ve been directing at their golf. This type can easily be moved onto the path of mastery as they have the work ethic already, but need to better recognize the purpose behind their efforts.
Most of us are a combination of a few or all of these archetypes. And this list is not exhaustive by any stretch – it’s a small list of some of the many types we’ve encountered over the past decade of coaching serious golfers. I would also encourage you to contribute your own idea for some of the archetypes of learning golf that we encounter – maybe because you don’t see yourself in the list below, or you know a playing partner who is worthy of mention. Either way, I would love to hear your contributions.
So depending on where you are on the spectrum, here’s some helpful advice on how you might plan out your next cycle of training to better prepare yourself for the outdoor season – where hopefully you can play the game in the way you intend:
1) The Masters: Keep going. Love the plateau
2) The Sometimes: Just work to force yourself into practicing a few more times a week. Set up a weekly plan that you follow and use your coach to provide feedback and design ideas for your training plans. The roots of mastery are there, they just need to be cultivated a little more.
3) The Tippers: Acknowledge where you are coming from and embrace the depth of the challenge of golf. Mastery in golf isn’t a commodity to be bought and sold – it’s a process that when recognized as such can be immensely rewarding and fulfilling – more than anything you can buy.
4) The Strugglers: Let go of that culture in golf which sees golf swings as broken segments of failed movement. The reality is that every person is a combination of fine athlete and perfect learner. What a combination that is – and so let go of the harsh self-judgement and look to practicing the game in a non-judgemental fashion which celebrates what you do when you perform well.
5) The Infallible: Let the challenge of the game into your experience of it. Acknowledge that you are not complete and perfect, nor will you ever be. The journey of mastery is the surest way to ever attaining your finest performance, so let go of your ego when you train and allow new ideas to challenge your self-beliefs.
6) The Exhausted: Stop trying so hard, work to enjoy the efforts you put into your practice. Add some balance into your life by welcoming things outside the game – spend time in other endeavours than golf to help you better appreciate the game when you focus on it.
Thanks in advance for your feedback and comments, and best wishes for the next cycle of your yearly training plan.