Back in college, in the middle of studying for one particularly rough round of finals, one of my friends told the rest of our study group that he would normally go to the driving range to release some stress. Since we were all very stressed out, we decided to take a break and visited the local driving range together.
I consider myself an athletic guy, since I’ve played all sorts of sports and athletic endeavors (including baseball, which is relevant to this story), so I picked up a club and started whacking away at the ball. Often, I made contact (thanks to being blessed with fair hand-eye coordination) and the ball would go sailing. Where did it go? At the time, I didn’t care and it wasn’t the point. It was just fun to smack the little white ball.
And so began my first golfing experience...
Fast forward a few years.
I got invited to play an actual round of golf by some members of my team at one of my first managerial jobs. One of the guys lent me his spare golf club set and they gave me a quick explanation of the rules. My first game was nothing spectacular. I spent a lot of time chasing that little white ball back and forth, under trees, in the sand, on the cart paths, behind bushes. I was told I could stop counting when I got to double bogey.
And so began my golfing career.
Fast forward several more years.
I’ve played in a lot of work tournaments and spontaneous games with friends or colleagues. They invariably go the same way. I try to have fun but I have what most people call a tremendous slice.
For those of you non-golfers, a slice means that when I make contact with the ball, it takes off like it’s going to go straight and then makes a hard right turn. The ball usually ends up somewhere that it shouldn’t and I spend much of my time trying to get back in the vicinity of the rest of the people with whom I’m playing. By the end of 18 holes, I’m frustrated and swearing that I will never play again. As a result, I haven’t been terribly passionate about it and rarely play more than once or twice a year.
For me, as a relatively athletic individual with good kinaesthetic control and an engineer that is acutely aware of details, golf has been an enigma. I respect the game and acknowledge the fact that there are so many factors that affect the flight and spin of the ball. I’ve been to PGA events where I have been in awe, watching professionals who make it seem so effortless. And yet, it eludes me.
I’ve gotten advice from the hundreds of people that I’ve played with. Everyone sees how I swing and has a solution: swing slower, swing faster, open the club face, close the club face, drop the shoulder, swing level, buy different equipment, blah, blah, blah… I’ve sincerely tried every piece of advice I’ve gotten and very few have had even the slightest positive effect. It’s so bad, I have even tried accounting for my crazy slice by aiming completely away from where I want the ball to go! With each attempt I’ve made, I’ve been left even more deflated that perhaps it’s just not in me. I’m just not capable of being a good golfer.
Fast forward to the present.
Living in NC, we’re surrounded by some of the best golf courses and incredible weather. In spite of my troubles playing the game, I still enjoy walking the course and being outside, so I’ve come to accept my golf game and laugh it off.
And now, I want to share this with my wife. But I can see that as she’s starting her golf journey, she’s getting frustrated because the ball is doing all sorts of crazy things for her as well. I know I can’t help her since I can’t help myself and I don’t want her frustration to grow to the point where she resents the game.
So I did something different: I bought her an hour lesson with a golf pro. I wanted her experience to be better than mine has been.
We showed up at the driving range for her lesson and I had no clue how it was going to go. Surprisingly, in that single lesson, this pro took a look at her swing and gave her little tweaks to correct her technique in a non-threatening way. Her confidence was soaring. She was launching some perfectly straight shots and having fun! Is this what golf is supposed to be?? Have I been doing it wrong all along? Is it really within reach for everyone?
At the end of the hour, I was so impressed with her progress that I immediately purchased an hour lesson for myself. It took one swing for him to identify what the problem was. I spent a lot of my youth playing baseball; it was my favorite sport. I was locked into the various ways to swing a baseball bat and it was ingrained in my body. So when I transitioned to golf, I picked up the golf club like it was my bat and let it rip. After all, a swing is a swing, right? It turns out, not so much…
I was initiating the swing with my legs, which is a typical baseball swing. But in golf, the swing begins with the core; it’s the trunk rotation that does the brunt of the work. It’s a subtle biomechanical difference, but enough of a difference that it would send my ball flying scattershot. That hour has opened up a whole new world for me.
This past weekend, I spent my first hour at the driving range since that lesson and for the first time ever, I was hitting the ball straight more consistently than I have ever done. During the lesson, we didn't even look at the driver; but on this day, I wanted to test out my learning. I have literally never hit the driver straight more than an occasional lucky shot. But I launched 5 straight gorgeous drives in a row! I was having a blast and was looking forward to actually getting on the course as soon as possible!
So aside from being a great story in perseverance, what does this have to do with the rest of you?
Well, I’ve learned a few lessons that I want to share with you:
- A lot of people really don’t know how to swing a golf club. I have received all sorts of well-intended advice and none of it made any sort of difference in improving my game. My guess is that many of my friends started their golf experiences in much the same way I did: just hacking away. But some of them got lucky and through some unique combination of unorthodox habits, the ball just happened to go straight! So they kept doing it. Others were not so lucky. I’ve run into many folks who had similar or worse golf swings and we were all just struggling through it together; with nobody having a clue how to fix ourselves. And that's why you see so many different types of swings. The reality is that fundamentally, there's one way to swing the club properly; but there are a million ways to compensate when you don't know the fundamentals.
- A lot of people really don’t know how to do a lot of things. We, as humans, have an overarching desire to fit in and that leads us to try to fake out everyone, including ourselves. For example, as a fitness professional, I watch what goes on around me at the gym. And I see a lot of really, REALLY bad technique. It has led me to believe that, much like a golf swing, people don’t really know what they’re doing; they’ve just been told that it’s a good idea to go out and do something, so they get out there and give it a go. It's the same thing with running; there are so many variations because nobody stopped to think what the best, most efficient way to run is. Most people just go and do it. Some people get lucky and feel something good where they want it when they hit the gym or the asphalt, so they keep doing the same thing over and over. Some are not so lucky and they start to feel a twinge in their lower back, recurring shin splints, or shoulder pain. Some may soldier through the pain, not realizing that they’re doing it to themselves, until something in their body breaks.
- Don't underestimate the emotions of being unable to do something. As much as I enjoyed getting out on the course with friends and tried to stay positive about my swing, I dreaded the moment when I had the club in my hand, standing in front of the ball. I worried that the ball would fly off and hit someone or crash through someone's window. I worried that I would have to go digging around the woods to try to find the ball so that I could continue the game while everyone was waiting for me. But more importantly, I worried that this was something I could never do right. I imagine that a lot of people feel this about their "thing", whatever that may be.
- There are a few real “professionals” out there, who take the time to really learn their craft and share that with others. It’s not easy to correct someone who is doing something wrong. First, you have to really know what you’re talking about. Then you have to be able to recognize what they’re doing wrong. Next, you have to be able to communicate how to get them from where they are to where they need to be. Lastly, you have to be able to manage the pride, fear, and other emotions that keep people from wanting to change. These talented folks are out there in just about every field of endeavor; these people who love what they do and are willing to help others figure it out for themselves. When you run across one, pay them because they’re worth it; listen to them because they will give you the truth; apply it because it will change you for the better. And when you find someone that doesn’t help you, run away! Nothing is worse physically and emotionally than bad advice.
Lastly, this has been a 20 year journey for me and I feel like I’ve wasted those 20 years. The good news is I finally figured out what I needed to do and I can spend the next 20 years working on it. I can practice intentionally and develop better habits. But it makes me acutely aware of the fact that there are a lot of people out there, struggling to figure out their “thing”. If you’re struggling with something, suck it up and get help.
And pay attention to the clues that your body is giving you. If your knees hurt when you squat, don’t keep doing it! If your elbow hurts when you hit a backhand, don’t keep doing it! If your lower back hurts when you pick something up, don’t keep doing it! If your shins hurt when you run, don't keep doing it! Get help before you do irreparable harm physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Have you been struggling to try to figure something out on your own too? I'd love to hear about your experiences in the comments or on social media. When we open ourselves up for feedback, it's uncomfortable, it pushes us to our #unsteadystate, but we grow beyond ourselves!