I suck at sports. I want to be good at them, but I don’t have any talent, so I’ve avoided sports most of my life. It wasn’t until I was over thirty that I learned a technique I could use to improve my athletic performance.
This poor performance led to a lack of interest in athletics, which made the problem worse because I didn’t practice. While practice is important, I failed to realize a far more important component of improvement.
While playing football as child, I was amazed watching other kids do ‘spin moves’ at precisely the right moment. So I analyzed what they were doing. I tried to understand the exact moment that I needed to execute a ‘spin move’ for maximum effect. I’d watch the good athletes do a ‘deke’ – the move where you fake cutting in one direction and actually move in the other direction. I tried my own ‘dekes’ but it never worked. I imagined that these ‘good athletes’ were consciously thinking about their next move. I figured I was faking too soon or too late, so I tried to plan my timing, making the ‘deke’ earlier or later. But my detailed analysis of distance and timing made no difference. No one fell for my ‘dekes’, and I ended up on my ass.
My entire life I have wanted to play golf well enough to avoid embarrassment. I tried the game several times between the ages of 10 and 30 and it was an infuriating miserable experience. Sometimes I’d completely miss the ball, and when the ball was off the tee and in the grass the result were even worse. Every shot was fat (into the dirt) or thin (hitting the top of the ball or missing entirely). I scored over 10 on every hole, so I avoided the golf course. It’s sad – because today I find golf one of the most enjoyable pastimes in life. If only I would have known a few things earlier. Did people try to teach me the secret earlier in life and I wasn’t listening? They probably did but I wasn’t ready.
The inspiration for this post came when my wife returned from swim school with my 4-year-old son. My son is a lot like me, he isn’t very coordinated. He spends a lot of time inside his head, analyzing things. He obsesses over something until he understands every detail. Lately it’s been numbers – he wants to know exactly how many minutes and seconds are in a day. He wants to know what number comes after an octillion. When I ask him to play catch, he refuses and instead chooses to draw complex maps of imaginary worlds on our driveway in sidewalk chalk. He won’t ride his trike, his bike, play hockey, or swing a bat. I never push him, but I try to encourage him to be active. I play sports with his little brother and the other kids in the neighborhood while he is near by hoping he’ll ask to join us, but he rarely shows interest.
He takes swimming lessons because I insist on some physical activity. While he says that he likes swim school, he’s always tight and tense while swimming. He doesn’t appear to be afraid, but his muscles are always flexed. His elbows and knees are bent and he moves in a rapid thrashing uncontrolled style. Christine took him to his last lesson, and she noticed his tension and his struggle with the basics. Later, she looked up from her book and noticed that he was relaxed and swimming perfectly. What had changed? During his exercises his swim teacher began speaking Spanish to him and he was replying in Spanish (which he is learning in Montessori), and now he was relaxed and performing with ease. He couldn’t perform while he focused on swimming. He could only perform when he wasn’t thinking about swimming. He had to let go and stop trying. The key to improved performance was letting go mentally. He already knew what to do, he just had to get out of the way and let his body perform. I have no idea what goes through a good athlete’s mind while performing, but like my son, to perform better athletically I must stop trying and simply let myself perform the action with little or no thought.
I took up golf again when I was 32. I had two goals – to play well enough to enjoy the game, and to break 100. I visited golf coach Craig Teiken. He isn’t a golf-pro at a fancy country club. He doesn’t have a bunch of cameras and computers to analyze my mechanics. Craig is my age – 37, but approaches instruction like the great golf coaches of the past. Craig is living his dream and it shows. This helped me think differently. He didn’t videotape my swing and give me a bunch technical reasons why I struggled. Craig believes in the traditions of the game and teaches it in a way that made me feel comfortable because he always emphasizes the positive.
He told me to take out an 8 iron and hit 50 balls off the grass. Sometimes I’d slam the club into the grass and dirt would splatter into my face and other times I’d completely miss the ball. Not a single shot felt good. Each shot was painful.
After he watched me hit those balls (if that’s what you want to call it) he brought me back to the clubhouse, handed me a 50-year-old book and asked me to read a story. It was about a professional golfer in the 1920s that had a lot of talent but couldn’t win the big tournament, so he visited Ernest Jones. Ernest Jones taught him one simple thought – swing the clubhead – and it changed his game forever.
The most amazing thing about the game, is the fact that the poorest players are the ones who try to do the most. – Ernest Jones
After reading Ernest Jones’ thoughts, we went back to the range. Craig said, “Now clear your mind and swing the clubhead.” I hit almost every shot 150 yards with a perfect arc. What changed? Only my thoughts! Craig stood behind me laughing as each shot popped into the air.
Today I find golf quite enjoyable. So enjoyable I can even play it sober. And last year I broke 100. Today I approach each shot the same way. I do ALL my thinking before I swing the club. I size my situation, the distance to the hole, any hazards or risks, decide the direction of the shot, and choose a club to use. Then with my club in hand, I stand behind the ball and visualize the exact result that I desire. But once I take my stance and grip the club I try to clear my mind of all thoughts… like I am meditating, and once my mind is empty of thought, I swing the clubhead. More often than not, I hit a decent shot. Using this technique, I was able to break 100, on a regulation 18 holes, with no mulligans carrying only a Putter, Wedge, 8 Iron, and a 5 wood.
A lot of us geeks aren’t born with athletic bodies so we struggle with sports. But a bigger problem is that many of us are constantly thinking about details. This focus on detail serves us well in academics and technology, but it doesn’t serve us well in athletic areas.
This story brought an old book that my boss recommended to mind, The Inner Game of Tennis and I found this review on Amazon.
This book has had a very positive impact on my life. I have suffered with concentration problems for all my life and was recently diagnosed with ADD. I was always told at school that i was intelligent but didnt “try hard enough” and thats why I was failing. But funnily enough trying hard seemed to make things worse for me. My difficulties have led me to being fired from several jobs due to lapses of attention. After reading this book I have been putting the ideas into practice through the medium of chess (I am an expert level player) and have noticed an improved abiltity to focus my mind. I hope now to move forward in life and repair my shatterd self esteem and gain confidence to take on new challenges.
Many ‘gifted and talented’ children and adults are diagnosed with ADD. If you are one of them or suspect you may be one of them, I highly recommend this book. It may change your life.
Remember that much of athletic performance is instinctual and geeks tend to think they are intelligent, reasonable, and logical, but never instinctual – we are above all that. But don’t worry, there is still hope if you want to perform athletically. Just because you know the 300,000 year history of the planet Alderran and can understand Klingons without subtitles doesn’t mean you’ve lost all primal instinct… you still like sex… right?