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The dark side of too much change

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In 2010, I wrote a book called “You are a Contender!” that highlighted a key characteristic of high performers called high achievement drive. Achievement drive is essentially your ability to set your own personal standard of excellence and not be constrained by the expectations of others.

Athletes with a high achievement drive set their own standard, and this is how they can separate themselves from the pack. They have little concern for how others are doing, and a singular focus on their own abilities. Obvious examples are Tiger Woods winning the 1997 Masters by 12 shots, The Open Championship in 2000 by 8 shots and the 2000 U.S. Open by 15 shots. Recent examples are the runaway major championship victories by Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth.

But can this pursuit of achievement be taken too far? Can achievement drive actually damage your game after a certain point?

Golf’s law of diminishing returns

Having experience consulting to world-class athletes, I often see achievement drive taken too far and misdirected. Some athletes believe that making big changes will always create big results. Change is healthy and change is good, but I can tell you it can be overdone. It can sometimes lead to an obsessive search for perfection that can inevitably lead to performance decline and frustration.Results-vs-Effort-e1337318296352
You are likely familiar with the economic principle of the law of diminishing returns. It basically states that the tendency for a continuing application of effort or skill toward a particular project or goal will decline in effectiveness after a certain level of result has been achieved. Very simply, if you reach a certain level in something, there comes a point where the quest to perfect it no longer creates important returns for the time invested.

The law of diminishing returns applies in everything, including golf. At some point, as we are currently seeing with Tiger Woods, the investment in trying to constantly improve swing technique and ball-striking does not generate better results.

You know and I know that it isn’t reasonable to expect to hit perfect golf shots. After all, we are surrounded by imperfection, and it is a fact that nothing in golf or life is perfect. The human body isn’t perfect, and neither are golf equipment or golf courses. So to expect to reach a level of perfection in striking a golf ball is an unreasonable goal.

I think you would agree if you saw Tiger Woods in 2000 that a golf ball has rarely been struck with the precision and power that he demonstrated at that time. And through 2005, Tiger won most of the events he entered. He owned the game.

Is it reasonable to think that a ball could be struck, or the game could be played, that much better than Tiger did it in 2000?

The greatest hitter of a golf ball may have been Ben Hogan, who worked and worked to perfect a swing that would not hook the ball. Hogan did this through necessity; a lack of control in his early days as a young pro led to disappointing results. But even Hogan admitted that he only hit 5 to 6 shots in every round round that were exactly what he wanted. The rest were expected misses.

Less science, more art

Golf is a subtle mix of art and science. In the pro ranks, we see extremes of both. At one end of the spectrum there are “technical” players who focus mostly on their mechanics. At the other end of the spectrum there are “feel” players who play primarily by instinct. In the period of time from 2000-2005, Tiger Woods may have been the perfect blend of art and science. His fundamentally sound, fluid golf swing created great speed and precision, and his mechanics were blended with an instinctive genius and courage to create and invent shots around the greens that others might not have attempted. And, to top it all off, Tiger was also arguably the Tour’s best putter!

Some golfers forget, however, that once the basic, fundamental science has been achieved, the development of the art becomes the key. Creativity, feel, imagination, decision-making, life balance and other little details continually help a golfer develop into something better and more consistent. Jack Nicklaus seemed to understand this. Like Woods, he also had prodigious talent, but he knew his limitations. He continued to refined his game, had great life balance and became the most consistent golfer in history.

Tiger-Butch

A golf ball can only be struck so well. When science becomes the obsessive focus, the art part of the equation suffers. In continually trying to be more technical and more perfect with the swing motion, the genius within players can be diluted and other areas of the game, that have been reliable strengths can suffer.

Achievement drive is important, but proceed with caution

Achievement drive is important in golf and everything else in life, as is the ability to set a personal standard of excellence. Pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone to take on new challenges is key, but you must also remember the law of diminishing returns. Because perfection is not attainable or possible, at some point in your development the pursuit of art should be more of a priority over the unattainable, seductive goal of perfect science.

While swing coaches, short game experts and putting gurus are all important to develop your capabilities and are key to building your skills, don’t forget to pay attention to instinct, the object of the game, simplicity and other less scientific factors as important factors to continue your development as a player. Exercise caution when you think about changing what already works.

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John Haime is the President of New Edge Performance. There is a reason that John Haime has been published in leading publications around the globe. People believe his story. And so will you. His highly anticipated first book, You Are a Contender! Build Emotional Muscle to Perform Better and Achieve More … in Business, Sports and Life, was released in December 2009 by Morgan James (New York) and became a bestseller in the United States in mid-2010. It was re-released in 2016. From 1985 to 1991, John successfully competed on international golf tours in Canada, Australia, Asia, South Africa and the United States. Along with several professional victories, career highlights include a career-low 62 in a professional event in Melbourne, Australia. Before turning professional, he was one of Canada’s top amateur and junior golfers. As a world-class Coach in the area of performance and a leading authority in Emotional Intelligence, as it relates to performance in sport, John coaches top athletes, executives and artists in a variety of performance areas. His client list includes some of the world’s leading athletes in a variety of sports, including professional golfers on all tours. See www.johnhaime.com for more. Email: john@newedgeperformance.org Twitter: @johnhaime

17 Comments

17 Comments

  1. Scott Thomson

    Sep 6, 2015 at 8:16 am

    In other words, “Golf is not a game of perfect”. Took me years as a young player to understand this phrase and now I spend every day explaining it to others. Excellent read John.

  2. martin

    Sep 3, 2015 at 8:20 pm

    All heroes will die in eventually. There is no miracles out there to stop the declining process. It is just the way the life, as we know it, works… But Go Tiger! You will beat Sneads record, but Jacks record will stay unbeaten… “This is The End, my only friend The End”…

  3. Mat

    Sep 3, 2015 at 9:27 am

    An argument could be made that the graph should actually be an upside-down U.

  4. JH

    Sep 3, 2015 at 9:11 am

    I was left a bit confused as to the message of the article. At first I took it as too much change is bad and you shouldn’t do it, as the title suggests. Then it goes into Tiger and how he has performed, followed by the law of diminished results, followed by something else. I’m sure they are all inner related, but I don’t understand the message. Is it to accept my own ability and when I see a peak in performance no matter what the score sheet suggest I should take that as the best and at that point will never play better? I think I kind of took the message that way, which leads me to think this is a dangerous article for the average golfer. The average golfer will probably read this and think oh that explains why I shoot in the 100s all the time. I guess I’ll accept that and realize I can never get better because of the law.

    If I’m off base let me know.

    • John Haime

      Sep 3, 2015 at 1:09 pm

      Hey JH,
      Thanks for the comment – completely understand your thoughts.

      For everyone, the situation is different. For Tiger, reaching the pinnacle in 2000 – after years of developing his skillset – the law of diminishing returns applies to the swing motion. As you know, you can only hit the ball so well – does it really matter if you are in the middle of the fairway or almost in the middle of the fairway? In his case, completely changing the science instead of refining with the art – will only produce marginal returns – maybe.

      For the “average” player, based on their effort levels, talent, time put in etc. – will determine their point of diminishing returns. If an average player can keep the ball in play and generally hit the ball solidly – will the time constantly changing the swing motion generate return in their scores? Or, will effort to manage their game better, understand emotional trigger points, additional work on short game/putting and a better perspective on the game help them lower scores? I think each individual has their own point of diminishing returns based on a variety of factors.

      I am a big believer in change to improve and move forward. But, when achievement drive runs amok and change is done for the sake of change – and ego runs the show – this is when change becomes unhealthy. And, remember, that “other” change continues by improving the little subtle “art” parts of the game that can improve scoring.

      Hope this makes sense.

  5. Aren

    Sep 3, 2015 at 2:05 am

    Good article and in my respectful opinion on the money.

  6. marcel

    Sep 2, 2015 at 11:54 pm

    nice article and great comparison. however there is major difference between individual sports person and anonymous economic sphere. Tiger is going thru what every sports man will go thru – Decline in physical elasticity and recovery. More prone to injuries and longer time to recover. Tiger is no longer looking for perfection but rather to find what can he do best at the age and body he has. Tiger is still a stellar player by every measure… but there are these kids that play better.

    We are going to see decline in 30+ major winners and winners in general. I believe there was lots of performance juice in the game before… and now you can see that young bodies keep being consistent and old guys one good week in 2-3 months.

    • John Haime

      Sep 3, 2015 at 1:19 pm

      Hey Marcel – thanks very much for your thoughts and comment.

      IMO diminishing returns applies in everything. There is always a relationship between effort and results in performance. At some point, athletes determine when additional effort does not produce additional results.

  7. other paul

    Sep 2, 2015 at 8:59 pm

    Tigers initial changes with Haney were to try and take pressure off his knees. Then they just kept going. I am in the process of a huge over haul and can’t wait to have my new swing finalized.

  8. Christestrogen

    Sep 2, 2015 at 2:20 pm

    Didn’t he win like 79 tournaments? Hard to argue with his formula.

    • John Haime

      Sep 2, 2015 at 4:13 pm

      Good point Christestrogen – agreed.

      But, I think you’ll agree that the law of diminishing returns applies here as the swing motion has become less effective after 15 years of major changes. We all know Tiger is a genius and could have won (and did win) with a variety of swings, but imagine the long-term performance with the swing that had all 4 majors in 2000 with the addition of an incremental mastery in the “art” part of the game and emotional stability off of the course?

      Hopefully the article will make readers think about change – and the potential risks in performance.

      • Christestrogen

        Sep 3, 2015 at 2:10 pm

        Personally I think he was at his height at the 2006 open championship…hoy lake…
        Faldo was paired with him and said it was the greatest ball striking he had ever witnessed…and think of the people Faldo has seen hit irons…Seve, Jack(well late 1970s jack), Watson, Trevino, Norman and the list goes on….
        Faldos son was on his bag and nick asked tiger if his son could have the driver since tiger only hit it once over the first two days.
        Also Haney said that performance was the greatest example in history of the nine shot clinic…
        -great article but I find it incredibly difficult to argue with his results

    • Pugster22

      Sep 2, 2015 at 5:17 pm

      I agree it is hard to argue his winning formula. However, he changed the equation over the last four or five years and I think that is what the author is trying to express. At least that is my takeaway from the article.

  9. Frank McChrystal

    Sep 2, 2015 at 12:51 pm

    Never underestimate the life balance. This game tests your heart and soul. If your personal life is in limbo, everything seems monumental under the pressure of a round. If your heart and soul are somewhat wounded, you have no chance of performing at your highest level. So quit wasting time. Get rid of the “gray” area in your life and then try this “game” again.

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When it comes to playing good golf, where you strike the ball on the club face is vital.

One of the key skills in golf is being aware of where the club face is as you swing the club around your body in order to be able to strike the ball in the center of the club face. In this video, I share one of my favorite drills for you to practice to improve your club face awareness. It will help you to hit the center of the club face more often.

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Of all the things I teach or have taught in golf, I think this is the most important: It’s not what we cover in a lesson, it’s what you discover. 

Some years ago, I had a student in golf school for a few days. She was topping every single shot. Zero were airborne. I explained that she was opening her body and moving forward before her arms and club were coming down. “Late” we call it. I had her feel like her arms were coming down first and her body was staying behind, a common correction for late tops. Bingo! Every ball went up into the air. She was ecstatic.

Some time later, she called and said she was topping every shot. She scheduled a lesson. She topped every shot. I asked her why she was topping the ball. “I think I’m picking up my head,” she said to my look of utter disbelief!

I had another student who was shanking the ball. At least 3 out of 5 came off the hosel with his wedges. I explained that his golf club was pointed seriously left at the top of his backswing. It was positioned well OUTSIDE his hands, which caused it to come down too wide and swing OUTSIDE his hands into impact. This is a really common cause of shanking. We were able to get the club more down the line at the top and come down a bit narrower and more inside the ball. No shanks… not a one!  He called me sometime later. The shanks had returned. You get the rest. When I asked what was causing him to shank, he told me “I get too quick.”

If you are hitting the golf ball better during a golf lesson, you have proven to yourself that you CAN do it. But what comes after the lesson is out of a teacher’s hands. It’s as simple as that. I cannot control what you do after you leave my lesson tee. Now, if you are NOT hitting the ball better during a lesson or don’t understand why you’re not hitting it better, I will take the blame. And…you do not have to compensate me for my time. That is the extent to which I’ll go to display my commitment and accept my responsibility. What we as teachers ask is the same level of commitment from the learners.

Improving at golf is a two-way street. My way is making the correct diagnosis and offering you a personalized correction, possibly several of them. Pick the ONE that works for you. What is your way on the street? Well, here are a few thoughts on that:

  • If you are taking a lesson at 10 a.m. with a tee time at 11 a.m. and you’re playing a $20 Nassau with your buddies, you pretty much wasted your time and money.
  • If the only time you hit balls is to warm up for your round, you have to be realistic about your results.
  • If you are expecting 250-yard drives with an 85 mph club head speed, well… let’s get real.
  • If you “fake it” during a lesson, you’re not going to realize any lasting improvement. When the teacher asks if you understand or can feel what’s being explained and you say yes when in fact you DO NOT understand, you’re giving misleading feedback and hurting only yourself. Speak up!

Here’s a piece of advise I have NEVER seen fail. If you don’t get it during the lesson, there is no chance you’ll get it later. It’s not enough to just hit it better; you have to fully understand WHY you hit it better. Or if you miss, WHY you missed.

I have a rule I follow when conducting a golf lesson. After I explain the diagnosis and offer the correction, I’ll usually get some better results. So I continue to offer that advice swing after swing. But at some point in the lesson, I say NOTHING. Typically, before long the old ball flight returns and I wait– THREE SWINGS. If the student was a slicer and slices THREE IN A ROW, then it’s time for me to step in again. I have to allow for self discovery at some point. You have to wean yourself off my guidance and internalize the corrections. You have to FEEL IT.

When you can say, “If the ball did this then I know I did that” you are likely getting it. There is always an individual cause and effect you need to understand in order to go off by yourself and continue self improvement. If you hit a better shot but do not know why, please tell your teacher. What did I do? That way you’re playing to learn, not simply learning to play.

A golf lesson is a guidance, not an hour of how to do this or that. The teacher is trying to get you to discover what YOU need to feel to get more desirable outcomes. If all you’re getting out of it is “how,” you are not likely to stay “fixed.” Remember this: It’s not what we cover in the lesson; it’s what you discover!

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