Going live before you’re ready is deadly

Playing bass in a punk band has taught me a lot about playing golf.

Great punk music has a rawness that gives it a delicious edge, but it is remarkably precise. If you consider punk chaotic noise, you haven’t listened to The Clash. (Check out Death or Glory.)

I equate a great punk song with the feeling of effortless power and immaculate balance you experience when you crush a powerful drive.

The connection I’m making is that learning to play a piece of music flawlessly as an individual or with a group neatly parallels the process of developing your golf game. Or mastering anything that involves performance.

The challenge in both is to work your way intelligently and patiently through the learning process to the point that you completely own what you’re doing before you go live with it.

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I was reminded of this about a month ago with our band CID (pronounced see-eye-d). We mostly play what we call vintage punk, which includes The Clash, Sex Pistols, Stiff Little Fingers, Buzzcocks, and Ramones, but also Green Day, early David Bowie, Teenage Head, and more.

Each summer, we are joined for a few months by Michaela, our lead guitarist’s niece, while university is adjourned. As an all-male band, it’s wonderful to have Michaela join us. She adds sweet flavouring to our sound with her great harmonies, but she can also belt out lead vocals with confidence.

To showcase Michaela, we play three or four songs expressly for her to sing the lead vocal, including Blondie’s One Way or Another.

As we prepared to be the closing act for a big fundraising event in August in Waterloo, Ontario, we thought Only Happy When It Rains, a powerful and emotive song by Garbage, would be perfect. It was her final show with us this summer, and it’s always exciting to debut a new song in public.

It’s not a difficult song to play, but it’s tricky; it has several sections that repeat varying numbers of times. (A lot of punk is like that.) The band practiced the song over the course of two practices leading to the event, called Strummerfest. After a few solid run-throughs during our last practice, we added it to our set list.

At Strummerfest, we cruised through six or seven songs—most of which we’ve been playing for three to five years—and launched into Only Happy When It Rains.

We got through the first verse and chorus, but then everyone got lost. We looked wide-eyed at each other wondering how we were going to rescue this disaster when Michaela raised her fist over her head—the agreed-upon signal for the ending—and brought it down, and it was mercifully over.

We all agreed that we had performed the song before we owned it. Our intentions were good, but it was a mistake to try it. We could play the song competently in practice—a band’s version of a driving range—but we weren’t ready for prime time.

It’s the same thing when learning a new move in your golf swing. As golfers, it’s common to think we’ve mastered a move or uncovered a problem during a range session. But on the course, whatever magic we thought we had found usually goes poof.

Here’s the part that no one wants to read: Whenever you hear or see anyone performing at a high level, that person has invested a massive amount of time and quality practice to get there. This is the basis for the oft-misunderstood 10,000-hour rule popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, which has mislead many people to think that anyone who spends a significant amount of time doing anything will somehow become world-class.

To master a skill requires 10,000 hours of deliberate practice that includes targeted, mistake-focused practice, said researcher Anders Ericsson, who suggested in a research paper that elite performers spend 10,000 hours training in this focused way before they reach the top of their field.

Sixty minutes spent doing ‘the right thing’ is better than any time spent learning in an unfocussed way, Ericsson told the BBC.  “You need to be practising with purpose.”

This runs counter to the culture of golf which proclaims that if you digest the right information and apply it, you’ll fix whatever flaw you’ve got. But it’s just not true. And golfers are just impatient. I am.

I find that working on an aspect of my golf swing is remarkably the same as learning a new song. In the initial phase, it’s an intellectual process of thinking about moving my fingers in a certain way and memorizing the structure of the song.

Then I play it repeatedly along with the recording so that my playing becomes an intuitive, physical experience where my fingers just know where to go and when. As golfers, we’re aiming to get to the same place with our swings.

According to Daniel Coyle, author of The Talent Code, by the time I’ve got to this stage, my brain has changed. That is, mastering a move in my swing or playing a song correctly results from “precisely timed electrical signals traveling through a chain of neurons—a circuit of nerve fibres. (A substance called) Myelin forms around these circuits as a kind of insulation that increases signal strength, speed, and accuracy.

“The more we fire a particular circuit, the more myelin optimizes that circuit, and the stronger, faster, and more fluent our movements become,” Coyle writes.

This explains why the best golfers that you know are so good and remarkably consistent, such as the senior club champ who has kept his index low for decades, or the twenty-something with the swing to die for. At some stage, they went through an intensive learning stage and embodied a solid swing until they owned it. (It’s also far easier to learn motor skills as a kid than an adult, but that’s a topic for another day.)

However, most golfers rarely spend the time to learn a new move or uncover a problem before they flit off to something new. And they don’t practice deliberately.

Legendary coach Fred Shoemaker, founder of Extraordinary Golf, says that golfers seeking to change their swings must be patient. In an email, Shoemaker said that during the early stages of the learning process, the most important thing is to dramatically slow down your motion. When you swing too fast, it’s impossible to be aware of what you are doing, which results in unfocussed practice. In addition, it’s too early to hit a golf ball.

(Have you ever seen anyone at a range swinging but not hitting balls?)

When he’s working on his swing, Shoemaker says he’ll swing at 20 per cent of his regular speed and monitor his swing on video. When the video shows that he’s making solid progress, he’ll make swings at 40 per cent speed. Only when he can repeat a move correctly—as seen on video—does he hit a ball, but only at about 50 per cent speed.

“If I go faster than my awareness, I’ll probably grab power from old, familiar, and ineffective sources, my sequencing will be off, and my swing will look as its always looked,” he wrote.

“My body must learn this new sequencing from this new place. This takes patience! To get from being able to monitor my swing at 20 percent speed to the same quality of monitoring at 50 percent takes time, energy, and attention.”

The evidence is quite clear: if you try to take short cuts during the learning process, you’ll likely end up playing like garbage.

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Tim O'Connor
Tim O'Connor is a golf coach, an award-winning writer, and speaker. Tim takes a holistic approach, coaching golfers in the physical and mental aspects of golf. He co-hosts the Swing Thoughts podcast, and is the author of The Feeling of Greatness: The Moe Norman Story. He plays bass in CID — a Guelph punk band!

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