Sunday, November 06, 2011

Want to Make Progress on a Tough Challenge? Take Some Cues From Golf

Until most individuals recognize that sustained training and effort is a prerequisite for reaching expert levels of performance, they will continue to misattribute lesser achievement to the lack of natural gifts, and will thus fail to reach their own potential.
- K. Anders Ericsson

We humans have always marveled at the accomplishments of athletes or for that matter anyone who pushes the limits of mastery no matter the skill to be conquered. Golf provides a special window into the journey because we witness the ups and downs of professional golfers of all ages publicly, Tiger Woods for one. Their stories in many ways mimic working life, particularly the managing stress and personal development parts. That’s where we can tune in for some tips.

Karl Morris who is mental coach to Darren Clarke, Charl Schwartzel and Graeme McDowell, picks up on the importance of “deliberate” practice popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers. As K. Anders Ericsson explains – the academic guru on the topic – this is not mindless practice. Athletes and any other persons wanting to better their best focus on incrementally stretching beyond their comfort zones, not unlike what we all had to do during our elementary, high school and college or university studies. Plus athletes have expert coaches who, like teachers in our younger years, are a must to provide feedback, guidance and encouragement.

In golf or any domain for that matter, deliberate practice requires work, lots of it. That means attention, concentration, reflection and managing emotions with each shot, each action and reaction.

So, here are three tips from Morris and the researchers on whom he draws:

1. Attend only to one task at a time, one ball at a time until you get it right. So multiple goals and tactics are out.

2. Write down your score. Keep track so you have hard data feedback. This “immunizes you against pressure” in the future.

3. Attach positive emotions to shots even when they are less than your expectations. Even a smile despite a disappointment can shift your opportunity for future success.

Tip # 3 is probably the hardest to do. Rick Hanson in Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time breaks it down into three simple steps that are easy to remember:

Let Be: Acknowledge how you are feeling, your “inner dialogue”.

Let Go: Breathe deeply. Say goodbye to those feelings if negative.

Let In: Replace what you released with something better, like feeling grateful for… (you fill it in). Call it the “silver lining response”.

Note that “mere experience” and “everyday skills” do not qualify as deliberate practice. The latter is akin to the mental demands of complex problem-solving. But, according to Ericsson, too many people default to their everyday skills and as such suffer from “arrested development”!

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