Expert Advice

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. 

 Back at it! 

Back at it! 

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:

  1. 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. 
  2. 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. 
  3. 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. 
  4. 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!

In Response to Tom Junod's Article

This is a direct response to an article by Tom Junod called "In Defense of Participation Trophies" on espn.com.

Before anything else, I'd like to just start by saying that the arguments against participation trophies are not a partisan political debate. There are liberal and conservative individuals on both sides of the argument, as perfectly demonstrated by the Johnson Ferry Baptist Church stories recounted in Junod's article. By focusing only on anti-trophy conservatives in the article, we are being kept from having the meaningful conversation that is needed. I'll proceed without partisan arguments because this isn't a right vs. left issue. 


While the author was trying to defend them, the article was devoid of any real evidence that participation trophies are good. It was a "feel-good" opinion piece, but one that tried to convince readers that there was no harm. The problem is that just because it makes you feel good in the moment doesn't mean that something is necessarily good for you in the long run and that there isn't a lot of valid evidence against it. While I don't have any personal experience, I've heard that cocaine makes people feel good when they use it; but there's enough evidence of the long-term addictive effects that we, as a society, have decided that it should be illegal. This is what prompted me to write this response: a lack of facts with good intentions is still missing the facts and shouldn't be construed as a legitimate argument for or against anything. 

There are a few assumptions in the piece. The author says that parents must "have no objections" to the concept of participation trophies "or the arrangement would not exist." That's an incorrect assumption. Obviously, enough people have publicly objected to the matter because we're hearing those objections now, loud and clear. Allowing kids to take part in the culture doesn't mean acceptance of the culture; it means there are no other currently available options. 

Honestly, it doesn't surprise me that some parents, when asked as they were by Danny Downing in the article, would want their kids to get participation trophies. I don't have kids, but I can appreciate that I would want them to succeed at everything. Love does that you. But love's blinding effects can be just as harmful as good, if left to their own devices with no regard for the consequences. We would all do just about anything for our families and loved ones, but it's our understanding of society's mores and the consequences of our actions that keeps us in check. But if the action seemed like a good thing and had no perceptible consequences, we would have no reason to not proceed. So the question is: are participation trophies (and the culture surrounding them) a good thing or is it possible that they're doing harm?


Why do we think participation trophies are good to begin with? We want our kids to feel good about themselves, but why do we think these little pieces of plastic accomplish that? It speaks to one of the most basic, primal human desires: the desire to please others. We are driven by this innate desire to please because it makes us feel like a part of the group and in primitive times, when we were living under the constant threat that a lion (or some other big nasty) could snatch a weak individual, there was safety in numbers. Even though we're no longer exposed to the same threats from Mother Nature, those basic desires are hard-wired into our DNA and the need to please is very much a part of who we are.

I've seen it in action. As a part-time job, I teach group fitness and small-group training sessions. My job is to make adults do something that very few people in their right minds want to do: exercise! Exercising can be hard. We know the benefits, but that doesn't take away from the fact that sweating and breathing heavy in front of strangers is hard work!

So part of my role as the instructor is to motivate my participants to keep working hard. You'd be amazed how motivated a person can get from something as simple as acknowledging their hard work with a simple "good job" or "you've got it". They appreciate being recognized for their actions and they work harder for continued recognition.

So knowing this, it would be relatively harmless to tell everyone in every class that they're doing a "good job", right? Well, actually, it isn't so harmless. If someone isn't really working hard and they get told that they're doing great, one of two things happens: either they stay at the level that they are or they realize that the instructor must not be paying attention and they put in less work. So thanks to human nature, even though I may have the best of intentions, it leads to the exact opposite result.


In his book, "Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us", Daniel Pink (who worked as the chief speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore... To reiterate, this is not a partisan issue.) cites studies that show the long-held belief that rewards and prizes motivate people to do better work is flat-out wrong. When given a reward for doing a task, over time, people will need greater and greater rewards to do the same thing. In the long-run, the reward actually demotivates them. 

Rewards also demotivate in another very important way. We're intelligent creatures and we can tell when someone is trying to motivate us to do something that we wouldn't otherwise care about. "If they have to give us a reward to do this, this is probably something crappy that I don't want to do." So the reward has actually demeaned the task and taken away any inherent motivation that may have been there naturally. 


So getting back to the article: "parents wanted them to have the experience of receiving a trophy". Over time that "experience" of success without doing the requisite work has the potential to demotivate the kids and potentially make them dislike the very activity that we want them to do. 

In the grand scheme of things, it doesn't seem like a big deal to hand out a participation trophy and it may seem like there are "no untoward effects". The problem is the long-term deleterious effects of this "reward" culture. Those far outweigh the possible short-term "feel good" benefits.

So how do we get kids to enjoy the activities and get the most out of them?

The most important way is to allow them to develop an intrinsic motivation for the activity. An intrinsic motivation is one that comes from inside you, as opposed to an extrinsic motivation, which comes from outside. Reading a textbook because I know I have a test coming up is extrinsic motivation; reading science-fiction because I love the genre is intrinsic motivation. One good way to have kids develop intrinsic motivation is to not force them to try to be good at everything they do...


I feel bad for the author because he explained that he was made to feel like s--- playing sports while growing up. I am not advocating that we return to that mentality. I grew up in the same environment and in spite of the fact that I didn't have participation trophies, I loved my time playing sports. I wasn't the most athletic guy growing up, so I didn't win a ton of trophies for my sports prowess. From as early as I can remember, my parents emphasized that I should try everything. They put me in little league baseball, youth basketball, bowling, swimming, martial arts... You name it and I probably tried it as a kid!

I wasn't expected to succeed at everything, but I had to give my best effort. I remember getting some 3rd place ribbons in swimming before everyone else had their growth spurts, but that's about it. I remember my Mom telling me that I won't know what I'm good at unless I try a bunch of stuff. As I've heard before: "You learn from failing and getting back up; but you learn nothing from being perfect." So, sports for me was about getting out there, having a good time, and trying my best. Sure, I envied all those big championship trophies, but that drove me to want to work harder and also to find my specialty. I loved getting out there and having a blast with my teammates. More importantly, I learned to really enjoy playing sports for the fun of it. There was no pressure; there was only the potential for upside!

I won my first sports championship as an adult, playing for a recreational co-ed softball team! (And I cherish that trophy!) To this day, I still jump at opportunities to go out and play sports. The funny thing is my love of sports and physical endeavor got me started on the path of fitness. It's through fitness that I found one of my talents and it's also through fitness that I found my wife. 

Finding that internal motivation for kids is also about the attitude that we as adults have. If we show a genuine interest in sports and in our kids’ activities, they see it and get it. I’m not saying that we should fawn all over them and act like they’re the second coming of Michael Jordan. Rather, pay attention and let them know that we saw them doing a good job out there (when they really did do a good job out there!) instead of spending the game on our phones. Kids pay attention to everything and it’s those little incidental comments that make a world of difference in their lives, more than some cheap plastic trophy. I knew when my dad told me I did great, it meant that I was, because he also let me know when I wasn’t trying my hardest. 

Kids are looking for love and encouragement, not disingenuous praise. Let the job well done be its own reward. 

And that speaks to my final point: nothing can replace a parent's love. One of the reasons we are even having this conversation is partly because parents oftentimes feel guilty for not spending enough time with their kids. We live in a hectic crazy world with all sorts of demands for our time. Know that as a parent, every decision we make will either lead to a self-confident, well-adapted child or to one who isn't. There are no shortcuts. (It’s one of the reasons why so far, I have chosen to not have kids.) And handing out a little trophy may make us feel less guilty, but it doesn't necessarily help our kids.

A trophy will never be anything more than a momentary pleasure. But a parent's influence will last forever. Recognize that influence and appreciate the responsibility that comes with it. If we as a society do that, we will all be tremendously better off. 

Agree? Disagree? Either way, join the conversation and use #unsteadystate! It's only through open discussions that we can move forward as a society... If you enjoy the conversation, please share away!

Cam's Really Horrible, No Good Day

 Super Bowl 50 in San Francisco, CA! Denver vs. Carolina [courtesy of nfl.com]

Super Bowl 50 in San Francisco, CA! Denver vs. Carolina [courtesy of nfl.com]

So I'm just getting back home from a little R&R this weekend. We took a little vacation and got to watch a little football, just as a big percentage of the American population did. We were supporting our Carolina Panthers and were a bit disappointed to see them lose. To make matters worse, Cam Newton had a pretty bad press conference and everyone lit into him for walking out on reporters after sulking his way through the post-game interview.

He has since explained that he doesn't like to lose, that he wasn't ready to talk to the media at the time, and that he's got emotions like the rest of us. You can also hear very clearly in the video that a jubilant member of the Denver Broncos is being interviewed within earshot.

That doesn't necessarily make it ok for him to react the way he did and I'm not writing to defend him...

Rather, I'm calling attention to the fact that we have only ourselves to blame. Yes, while he's responsible for his actions, I think we, as a society, need to take a good, long look in the mirror and shoulder part of the responsibility.

Why? Because our society is creating an environment where our young people don't know how to respond to adversity. Because in this world of "participation trophies" for everyone, people don't really know what it means to lose. Because kids are coddled and have no idea how to respond when things don't work out the way they expect.

Don't believe me?

  • CNN reported on a study that showed kids who are overvalued by their parents have a tendency towards narcissism later in life.
  • HBO Real Sports recently did a piece entitled Trophy Nation in which they talk about the ramifications of handing everyone a trophy for just showing up. In it, Dr. C. Robert Cloninger says, "The technical term is 'partial-reinforcement extinction effect.' If you constantly reward a kid, you spoil them and don’t build a capacity for them to be resilient to frustration."
  • There is anecdotal evidence that students who grew up without adversity lack the fortitude to get through technical and engineering programs because they're too difficult and here in the U.S., we're left with fewer technical adults who can troubleshoot or diagnose problems. Heck, most people can't even tinker anymore.

This very topic even reached the NFL last year. James Harrison, an Outside Linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers, took to Instagram last year when his sons received participation trophies:

I came home to find out that my boys received two trophies for nothing, participation trophies! While I am very proud of my boys for everything they do and will encourage them till the day I die, these trophies will be given back until they EARN a real trophy. I'm sorry I'm not sorry for believing that everything in life should be earned and I'm not about to raise two boys to be men by making them believe that they are entitled to something just because they tried their best...cause sometimes your best is not enough, and that should drive you to want to do better...not cry and whine until somebody gives you something to shut u up and keep you happy. #harrisonfamilyvalues

A photo posted by James Harrison (@jhharrison92) on Aug 15, 2015 at 10:09am PDT

It's in this environment that a star athlete like Cam Newton has grown up. It's in this culture that he thrived and made a name for himself by succeeding at every level. And it's quite possible that he has never experienced a failure equivalent to the one he felt this past Sunday.

I don't condone his behavior, but I certainly understand that unless we do something to change the culture, we're only going to see more people act the same way. It's time we start to teach our kids that it's ok to fail. Criticize him all you want, but we need to start looking at the part we, as a society, play.

Agree? Disagree? Change doesn't happen until we start to talk. Reach out to me, @ultrasmoov on Twitter, and use #unsteadystate. Join the conversation!