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How to Improve When You’re Stuck at ‘Just OK’

Golf is a sport where many people improve until they get to a level of personally acceptable competence. They become satisfied with being ‘ok’ and will likely remain at that level, failing to make any significant improvements, for as long as they continue to play. They’ve reached their ‘OK Plateau.’

However, professional golfers can continue to break through these plateaus and improve their game. What separates them from the average golfer? It comes down to how they practice: deliberately and systematically.

Golfers have taken a deliberate and scientific approach to improvement for decades. Ben Hogan has been called ‘golf’s greatest scientist’ and has even been credited with ‘inventing practice’. Spectators would find Hogan practicing for hours immediately after finishing a tournament round. While common today, he was the first golfer to do this consistently. Hogan explained, “When I’m not playing, I like to be practicing. I enjoy every minute of it. To tell you the truth, I’d just as soon do this.”

Hogan became a dominant player in the 40’s and 50’s by acting like a scientist. Early in his career, he had a bad habit of hooking his shots and it was limiting his consistency on the course. Hogan needed to find his swing through systematic experimentation and a lot of time ‘in the dirt’ of the practice range.

Hogan experimented with a range of swing types, tested out different grips, and tweaked his stance and posture until he arrived at an effective swing. He methodically broke down each aspect of the golf swing and practiced until he mastered them.

Hogan pioneered the scientific approach to improvement in golf, laying the foundation for future generations to build on. One golfer who is taking golfing science even further is Bryson DeChambeau.

DeChambeau has unorthodox practice strategies, which have earned him the nickname ‘Mad Scientist.’ Like Hogan, he is continuously experimenting with his game to learn more and find some way to improve.

Leon Lederman, an American experimental physicist, said, “Science is not about status quo. It’s about revolution.”

DeChambeau embodies this quote. He isn’t satisfied to simply accept conventional golfing norms. DeChambeau explained his thinking to the New York Times, “I’m a total nonconformist; for me, it’s about going down rabbit holes. I have to chase down the most scientifically efficient way to get the golf ball in the hole.”

DeChambeau golf swing is modeled off theories from the contentious book, The Golfing Machine, written by Homer Kelly in 1969. In it, Kelly breaks down the science of the golf swing into all of its components and details. DeChambeau has fully embraced it’s science and used it as a recipe book to create his most optimal swing.

He has experimented with using same-length irons and swinging on a single plane. These practices go against conventional golfing wisdom, but the results are paying off. In 2015 DeChambeau became only the fifth player to win both the U.S. Amateur and NCAA Division I championship in the same year. (He joined the company of Jack Nicklaus, Phil Mickelson, and Tiger Woods.) Since entering the PGA tour he has steadily improved and has risen into the top 10 world rankings.

DeChambeau doesn’t care what others think of his methods; he cares about the numbers. He is always chasing down rabbit holes to find his next edge, even though it sometimes doesn’t work out. He explained, “And if I get bit in that hole, that’s actually a good thing. I’ll learn from it. Most people are afraid of failure. I love failure because it tells me where to go next.”

Neither Hogan nor DeChambeau was content with ‘just ok.’ But what exactly is the ‘OK Plateau’ and why do people get stuck there?

The ‘OK Plateau’ Psychologists found that when you develop a skill you progress through 3 stages: cognitive, associative, and autonomous. During the cognitive and associative stages, you are consciously thinking about how to improve, making mistakes, and learning effective strategies. This conscious focus leads to improvement.

After steady improvement, you arrive at the autonomous stage. Actions and skills become automatic, requiring less of your attention. It’s like you’re turning on autopilot. This is why you get stuck at the ‘OK Plateau,’ a term coined by author Joshua Foer in Moonwalking with Einstein.

You’ll end up going through the motions without a conscious effort to improve. Think about a skill like cooking. When you first start cooking you make a lot of mistakes. You make steady improvements until you reach an acceptable level of competence and call it good.

Your cooking skills, or any skill, will remain around the same level unless you make a change. You have to force yourself back into the cognitive stage to see improvement again. The key to breaking through the ‘OK Plateau’ is through conscious, deliberate practice. Systematic Deliberate Practice: A Scientific Approach to Improvement

If you want to break through the ‘OK Plateau’ you’ll need to engage in deliberate practice. Your odds of improving go up if you approach practice systematically: like a scientist.

Deliberate practice is a purposeful and systematic method of practice. It is based on working at the edge of your abilities and using regular feedback to drive improvement. Instead of going through the motions, deliberate practice requires focused attention and hard work. Any time you stretch yourself past your current abilities you’ll encounter resistance, but it is the surest way to learn and grow.

“When you want to get good at something, how you spend your time practicing is far more important than the amount of time you spend.” — Josh Foer A systematic approach to deliberate practice is more reliable than a haphazard one. To improve like a scientist you need to experiment and measure feedback to see if your actions lead to improvement. If you practice without intentional focus, you may see some improvement, but it will be difficult to understand what changed and why.

Improvement, like the scientific method, is an iterative process. Some experiments fail, while others succeed. Regardless of the results, experiments give you key insights into what works and what doesn’t, so you can adapt your approach.

Bryson DeChambeau does not look at failed golfing experiments as a waste of time. They simply provide another data point that he can use to continue to refine his game.

Here are 5 steps to help you act like a scientist and systematically break through your skill plateaus:

  1. Deconstruct to identify areas for improvement

  2. Research and learn from experts

  3. Practice deliberately

  4. Collect feedback and measure results

  5. Analyze and apply learnings

1. Deconstruction The first step you need to take is to break down what you want to improve into components or sub-skills. This process of deconstruction helps you identify where you need improvement. Doing this helps you avoid practicing at random or at too high a level for it to make a difference. Practicing ‘golf’ as a skill isn’t helpful. You need to break it down into sub-skills for your practice to be meaningful. For example, you could break golf down into a specific type of shot: Golf → iron shots → bunker shots → green-side bunker shots.

Continue to use deconstruction until you have a specific area of focus. Then, move onto the next stage.

2. Research Once you’ve narrowed your focus, you need to know what to actually do to improve. Research can take many forms, but it is simply learning from those who have more experience than you do. Find an expert and study what makes them successful. Spend time learning new information, watching tutorials, and collecting ideas that you can later try out.

The goal here is to help you avoid recreating the wheel. You’ll save time by learning from others and mistakes of the past. Researching the best way to do things gives you direction as you progress to testing.

3. Deliberate Practice Using what you learned from the deconstruction and research stages, it’s time to begin testing and engaging in deliberate practice.

The key to making deliberate practice worthwhile is to make sure you are practicing beyond your limits. If the practice isn’t challenging, you aren’t focused, and you aren’t working hard, you likely won’t improve.

Josh Foer said: “When most musicians sit down to practice, they play the parts of pieces that they’re good at. Of course they do: it’s fun to succeed. But expert musicians tend to focus on the parts that are hard, the parts they haven’t yet mastered.”

Experts focus on their areas of weakness and challenges. They practice things they haven’t mastered so they can learn from failure. Failure is a great teacher if you are willing to pay attention. If you are practicing outside your comfort zone you will fail a lot. That’s okay. Experiments aren’t always successful. Science is an iterative process. Failure provides valuable data and insights that you use later.

4. Feedback When you are practicing and running experiments you need to make sure you are collecting feedback. Feedback is there to let you know if you are improving or not.

How can you measure improvement?

If you are focused on improving your golf swing you get immediate feedback by seeing the ball’s flight path. Did the ball have the flight path you expected? Take note of what happened and in the analysis stage dig in to understand what happened and why. (In this example, analysis can immediately follow feedback. In other cases you may collect feedback over a period of time and analyze trends)

“Without data, you’re just another person with an opinion.” — W. Edwards Deming, American engineer, data scientist, and consultant

Data is essential if you want to improve. Without it, you’re left guessing at what you need to do. It can be difficult to both practice and measure how you are doing, especially if you are intently focused on the task at hand. Coaches can help you measure feedback, provide suggestions during practice, and offer insights you might not have thought of.

You don’t have practice in isolation. Scientists often work on experiments in teams. Collaboration can help you break through plateaus that may be too difficult to overcome on your own.

5. Analysis Back to the golf swing and ball flight example. If the flight path deviated from what you expected, try to understand why. To do this you need to know what the key drivers that influence the flight path (research and coaches can help with this). What angle was the clubface when you hit the ball? What path did the clubhead take with your swing?

When you understand, what happened and why, you begin to learn and can start correcting your technique through practice.

You may notice that analysis is the final step of systematic deliberate practice, but it leads back into the first. That is because science is an iterative process. Every time you test something you learn something new and use that to guide where you focus your practice time.

You can apply and reapply this process any time you find yourself stuck on an OK Plateau. Following the process isn’t easy, but it can be rewarding.



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