Working My Plan

Detailing the Path to Improvement

[Originally Written July 2017]

“There is no coming toward it or going away from it; it is, and you are it.  So become what you are.” – Alan Watts

Become what you are.

This line has stuck with me for a while, both as an affirmation and reminder that we are not anything more than what we are right now.  That lesson doesn’t mean we can’t change.  We have the choice to either accept that we will change or to try denying it in the face of the inevitable.  At the end of each day, however, we are what we are.

I’ve seen this play out on the course throughout my growing infatuation with the game.  Watching other people compare themselves to pros or falling victim, myself, to disappointment in the result of a difficult shot.  Especially after a good hole, we wonder why we can’t sustain elite performance.

Our best shots are tricksters.

In statistics, the measure of standard deviation allows us to quantify the amount of variation or dispersion of a set of data.  In golf, standard deviation helps explain why when we shoot at a flag, sometimes we end up near the pin and why we’re more likely to be off the green.  What we want is a low standard deviation, meaning our data (or shots) tend to be closer to the expected average. Lower SD, lower handicap.

When we perform above expectation, we start to think we are lowering our deviation.  The truth is great shots can happen even in high deviation.  It is that expectation of continued higher performance that removes us from accepting results.

Eastern interpretation of golf data?  You bet.

Here’s what I mean:

Right now, I am a 6.3 handicap golfer.  In the last 20 rounds my average score is 80.8.  During that time I hit an average of 40.3% of the greens and 42.9% of the fairways.  I average 30.7 putts per round and get up and down for par 46.05% of the time.

If you have no background in golf, that probably means very little to you.  To bring in another Watts’ analogy: we only know where we are in the wave by being aware of the crests and troughs.

PGA Tour Leaders (through July 16, 2017):

  • Scoring Average – Rickie Fowler (69.161)
  • Greens in Regulation – Dustin Johnson (72.22%)
  • Hit Fairway – Steve Stricker (72.46%)
  • Putts per Round – Wesley Bryan (27.90)
  • Scrambling – Chad Campbell/Webb Simpson (66.52%)

*Handicaps aren’t officially kept on the PGA Tour.  Estimates usually fall somewhere between +5 to +8.

Before anybody jumps down my throat about how I shouldn’t be comparing my stats to the greatest in the game, I want to make sure we’re clear that this is just a data qualifier.  The largest goal is on the shore, and we’re swimming in the ocean. If we don’t peek our heads out of the water from time to time, we’ll end up swimming parallel to the coast, never getting any closer to our target.  This is also to point out that even the best don’t hit every fairway, every green, or only one-putt every green.

With that in mind, here are the worst in each category:

  • Scoring Average – Steven Bowditch (74.607)
  • Greens in Regulation – Steven Bowditch (52.27%)
  • Hit Fairway – Steven Bowditch (45.93%)
  • Putts per Round – Bobby Wyatt (30.31)
  • Scrambling – Matt Every (45.95%)

Poor Steven Bowditch isn’t having a great year, but he offers some valuable insight.  Like I’ve mentioned before, GIR% and scoring are closely tied together! There are a few categories here in which I’m much closer statistically than in other categories (so which ones do you think I’ll be focusing on?).

Digging further into the stats can be fun.  Does fairway hit percentage mean more greens in regulation?  

Only one of the players in the top ten of hit fairways is also in the top ten GIR.  In fact most of the GIR top ten are bombers. Being closer to the green seems to mean more than being in the short grass.

Which one, fairway hit or green hit, do you think leads to better scoring?  In the top ten of scoring, only two are in the top ten fairways hit while half are in the top ten GIR.

You get the picture.

Measuring where I stand regarding performance is easy.  Measuring where I stand in practice is not.

Malcolm Gladwell accidentally assigned a number to practice in his book Outliers: The Story of Success.  You may be familiar with his interpretation of Anders Ericsson’s deliberate practice report, otherwise known as the “10,000-hour rule”.

No need to get into the Anders v. Malcolm debate, since they are both really saying the same thing:  you need a lot of focused practice to become great.

10,000 hours is not a “rule”.  For that I’m taking the side of Anders.  It is, however, a great reference number (so point to Malcolm).

Unfortunately I haven’t tracked every hour I’ve been practicing.  Even more unfortunate is that learning is not a linear process, so having an hour-counter wouldn’t be much help anyway.  In order to reverse engineer my place on the graph of progress, I need to assign value to progress.

So here’s a neat little graph:


If that line looks familiar, you’re probably really into math and probability stats.  That’s a Pareto Type 1 cumulative distribution function line to show mastery in relation to practice hours.

Pareto is the infamous 80/20 guy: you get 80% of the output from 20% of the work.  So my graph shows that after 2000 hours of practice you will be at 80% mastery! After 2000 hours of deliberate practice, I should be better than 80% of the golfers out there.  

So am I?  Have I even practiced that much?

My handicap can serve as the measuring stick for how far along I am.  The USGA keeps handicap index statistics and here’s a little snapshot:

Screenshot 2018-08-27 at 10.50.21 AM

Using the Cumulative column we can see I’m already there.  In fact I’m more than 83% of the way to mastery! That’s the good news.  The bad news is that funny, little graph I made from before. Learning has slowed and progress is going to take a lot more effort for a lot less result.  I call this: QUANTUM LEARNING!

Quantum sounds way more impressive than it is.  Quantum really means the smallest amount (sorry Scott Bakula, you weren’t really “leaping”).  We’re working in percentages of percentages.

Let’s “practice” in some more theoreticals.

Pretend for a second that Pareto’s principle is 100% true and so is Gladwell’s 10,000 hour “rule”.  That leaves me 8000 hours of practice left to get to “mastery”, which in this example probably means I’m in the +HDCP category (expected to shoot under par every round).  So for the last 8000 hours of practice, each hour is equivalent to 0.0025% improvement (that is if the last 20% of competency is linear).

If I practice for four hours, deliberately, I will only improve one one-hundredth… of a percent.  

Is it any wonder why there are so few masters of anything in the world?  The dedication and patience required to breakthrough from comfortable to elite performance is astonishing.

There is a little dotted-line in the graph you may have noticed.  That’s the “asymptote of mastery”. No matter how skilled you get, you can never fully master something.  No golfer will reach a point where she will hit every drive down the center of the fairway, stick every approach to within a yard, and sink every putt faced.

Mastery constantly moves as you expand your skill set, and that’s okay.  It means we will spend our entire lives growing.

We now know where I am, where I can grow, and how far I need to go to get there (it’s a ways isn’t it?).

Of course, next comes the how.

As discussed in Jump-starting Improvement, I’m going to chunk my game down into specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART) goals.

Here are the things I’ll work on:

  • Face Strike
  • Ground Strike
  • Full Swing Adjustments (based on coach feedback)
  • Short Game
  • Putting
  • Swing Speed [2018 Addition]

[Continuation of article written August 2018]

Goals fall into one of two categories:  either process or result. The list above is made up of process goals, or goals that are directly influenced by action.  Result goals are simply products of those process goals.

If my result goal is to play at 1.4 HDCP or better, then the process goals have to support a game that functions at that performance level.  So I need to have face strike skills, ground strike skills, short game skills, putting skills, and a swing speed that players at a 1.4 HDCP will have.

Most important to me is the ability to measure these goals.  As long as we can take measurements along the way, we can verify improvement in each category.  Face strike is measured with impact tape, ground strike is measured with… well, the ground… and so on.  Goals regarding short game and putting can be broken down into face angle and tempo, or whatever else my coach and I decide needs work.

After I’ve established a baseline, I can personalize every practice.  Each range session I put aside a block of balls to work on specific goals for improving skills, like variability face strike drills.  I’ll show you how I do this in my next article talking about my GoJo.

To add even more to measurable skills, I play practice games.  Kind of like your favorite part of team-sports practices in middle school, it’s the last 10 to 15 minutes dedicated to goofing around.  Fortunately performance science is giving us the go-ahead to mess around as games introduce even more differential and variability to our skills by introducing unique scenarios, all the while keeping us engaged with internal competition and pressure experience.

Of course the largest improvements come from the guidance of my coach.  He helps me measure my skills with the greatest detail and shows me what I can do to improve.  If you’re looking for a shortcut to getting better: take lessons. Simple as that. I’m not going to get to scratch without practice, but I can get there faster with extra help.

Even with all the planning in the world, it’s important to stay motivated to go to the range.  I’m not a huge fan of relying on motivation, because I know how fleeting it can be. When I think I’m only improving .01% for every four hours spent on the practice tee, it can become pretty discouraging pretty fast.  In my mind, this is where results goals come in handy.

One of my biggest weaknesses when it comes to motivation isn’t when the going gets tough.  I find I have the least motivation for practice when things are going well!

Based on the ideas presented in Level Up Your Life by Steve Lamb, I built a reward system for accomplishments along my journey.  Kind of like leveling up your own video game character by getting better loot and skill points.  Except you’re the character. Creating additional layers to your process makes it easier to grind through the plateaus when you know there’s a powered-up wedge set waiting for you or a “rare” driver on this side quest.

Keep it fun and reward yourself along the way!

Next time I’ll show you how I keep track of my progress using a personalized journal system, which might just help you on your own path to improvement.

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