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Putting Practice into Play is Easier and Harder than We Think

2012-07-15_14-37-05_775I was told “Practice makes perfect,” so my defiant younger self quipped, “Practice makes perfect, but no one’s perfect, so why practice?” That was a) to hide my fear of being imperfect, b) to distract people from seeing all the practicing I was doing and c) to excuse myself in case that practice didn’t work. (and maybe d) to discourage my competition from practicing too much)

Later I was told, “Practice makes permanent,” so my capable young adult self thought, “Watch what you practice because you’ll be stuck with it.” That set me on course to a) get things right, b) do them a lot and c) not enter any contests until I was good and ready.

Lately I have been learning that “Practice makes patterned.” The more we do something, the more likely we are to do it again the same way. Now to those of us in the sports skills business, that’s a no-brainer. Muscle memory has been gospel for forever, as far as I know. Brain science is now showing us how that happens: electrical signaling sensitizes the pathways encouraging it to happen again the same way.

So, since practice doesn’t make you perfect, nor does it strand you in permanent but instead creates patterns, then if we could just practice perfectly, we would be all set. Put us on autopilot and off we’d go to perfection. But that’s not the way it goes. My practice doesn’t achieve perfect. In fact often it makes me more aware of my imperfections and my inability to conquer them.

Here’s where Lent comes in: Lent is the season to practice denial. Not just giving up sweets or cutting down on Starbucks beverages, but actually denying myself something for the good of another. Giving up something good, in honor of something better. Leaving a space where I had been crammed full.

And here’s what I learned. It’s not the denial that matters, it’s practicing the denial. Actually telling myself, “No, you may not do that. No, you may not say that. You may not even think that, about yourself or others. You may have gotten used to that, but it’s a bad habit. Quit it!” It seems that I had gotten out of practice of denying what didn’t belong.

Though practicing denial, like practicing other skills, makes it neither perfect nor permanent, it does help us create a pattern. And patterns, well designed and well worn, are there when we need them. They’re worth the practice. In fact they may be the reason to practice, so that when the pressure is on, the opponents are jeering, and everything is on the line, we can swing freely and send that beautifully arching nine iron shot sailing straight toward the pin. Because we have denied our need to perform, our desire to perfect and our demand for admiration.

Hoping and imagining it won’t achieve it, and even practicing it perfectly won’t guarantee it, but we have to perform when it counts. That happens best when we deny ourselves and let ‘er rip. A good reason to practice. A good reason to discipline our practice. A good reason to practice the discipline of denial.

What we practice, we pattern. And ultimately, that’s what we put into play.

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Toss and replace are not part of his vocabulary

I just love opening the package of pretty much anything. New, sparkling, fresh, full, smooth, untouched, pristine. I have never been a consignment store shopper, perhaps for this reason. Call me spoiled. 99.9% of the world certainly would.

But once it’s opened, I rarely throw it away. Yes, consumables I toss, but I recycle what I can. Clothing that’s too small, I give away. Out of style, my kids would tell you, is likely still in my closet. If it still fits, I still have it. If it needs repair, I mend it (or ask someone to help who is more gifted in this area than I). Tossing something that is still serviceable goes against the grain.

Aka the "mayor" of John's Creek Starbucks

Aka the “mayor” of John’s Creek Starbucks

Apparently, I come by this honestly. This week I am down visiting with my Dad who lives in the Atlanta suburbs. He has been a golfer (of sorts) for 50+ years. As long as I have known him 🙂 And now, at 78, he still plays regularly with a group of guys. His participation over the last few years has been interrupted by some serious health scares. Truth be told, we should have lost him several times over.

We’re talking after his Sunday round about simplifying club selection.

“Inside 120, I reach for an iron,” I say.

“Well…I have a problem from 90 down to 40 yards. I use my 34 degree metal and just choke down. I shank the rest of my irons.”

I’m laughing at the thought of this nearly 80 year old man, bunting the ball all the way onto the green. Mind you, he carries the regulation 14 clubs, but he only uses about 5 of them. If they don’t work, he shelves them and makes do with the one that does. He improvises.

“Have you considered correcting your swing?” I ask, in not exactly these words. Correction is not something he takes easily to.

“No one can see me hitting it with the hozzle,” he says. (which is what causes shanking)

So, since no one can see it happening, this must be out of his control. Therefore, compensation is the solution. Enter: 34 degree metal. (what I used to call “a wood.”) Right on down to 40 yards.

While this cracks me up, it’s completely logical to him. He just makes do with what works. And that works. He is a self-sufficient guy and this is sufficiency.

Reminds me of Paul, “for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.” ~ (Phil 4:11) Another way to say that the solution is there, whatever your need. Trust this. Find it and make do.

Adding me as a "new contact"

Adding me as a “new contact”

This golf-specific compensation might go unnoticed if I didn’t also observe it in most everything my dad does. He has been a fix-it guy all his life. Replacing things is just not his way. Doesn’t work? Well, modify it so it does.

Apparently, this nature of my dad’s has been passed along to me, right down to my “mom jeans” that still hang in the closet. And actually, to my visit with my dad this week. I look at this man, who in his sleeping, dreams about the days when the world rewarded his clever capacity to problem solve and turn companies around. Now, he sits in Starbucks most mornings and converses with folks, some of whom need a bit of life guidance. He’s still fixing. Toss and replace just aren’t in his vocabulary.

This is so contrary to the world I see whizzing by my window. The one that rushes for the next iPhone, the latest upgrade, the newest fashion. Market forces, new start-ups and trending on twitter drive the pace. Whatever has gone before is obsolete. That would include my dad. And me, soon to follow.

Obsolescence. Waste. Worthlessness. I feel sure these were never God’s idea. Yes, we decline. But when we’re no longer shiny, new and pristine, we are still serviceable.

“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” ~ 2 Cor 4:16-18.

What we will be remains to be seen … In the meantime, I’m gonna see if I can help Dad with those shanks. I think he can still break 90. Whether he can ever shoot his age is up for grabs.

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Dad doesn’t believe in countdowns

Teaching is not fixing but founding

Golf fitness is, apparently, big business these days. Didn’t used to be, in the days when tournament champions sported beer guts and nicknames like Walrus, Golden Bear and Big Mama. Now they are Tiger and Bam Bam and Popeye.

It’s commonplace to see commercials or ads touting flexibility programs or strength training routines or infomercials with the latest repair for the common swing faults. All of them grab the avid golfer: Hit it longer…Hit it straighter… Be more accurate….if you just do this. Not so easy. Not so fast.

Having played some golf in my day, I wonder at the folks who spend on these “fix it” programs. And at the people who design them. The ‘experts’ who study the movement and the mechanics and find a market for their (a) program or (b) gadget.

The problem with the program is transferability. (I think I coined a word.) More strength or flexibility, even targeted at the appropriate body parts, doesn’t translate to longer drives. Even though ‘they’ say so.

The problem with the gadget is assembly line break down. A strap to keep your left arm straight fails to address the multitude of other break downs in your back swing and power-losers in your through swing.

The golf swing is complex and full of places we can go wrong. That little white ball heads left or heads right or dribbles into the creek, even after we have stretched and strengthened AND kept our left arm straight!

Oh, we need to be strong and reasonably flexible, for sure. But to make a pass at that ball that sends it in the intended direction with sufficient distance every time is elusive, no matter how well we move.

Your typical golf instructor can look at a golf swing and offer 100 different things to remember in the midst of it. Head down, eyes on ball, hands forward, club face square, weight equally distributed…and I haven’t even started my swing yet!  Most of us give up at this point. Or if we don’t, if we are actually able to make a pass at the ball, the results are generally pretty disappointing.

But the best teacher stands back and watches for a while, seeking the underlying key. The one thing that, were you to get that just right, would cause all the links in the chain to fall into place. Then you could just let ‘er rip.

Golfers call this ‘playing in the zone.’ When, without thinking, everything just clicks. All the instruction and all the practice is just the backdrop to the beauty of a perfectly executed shot. Just focus on the One Thing and the rest will come.

But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. ~ Matthew 6:33

Takes a Great Teacher, a dose of discipline and total trust. Could it really be that simple?

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