When I first started playing golf, my father cut the shafts and refitted the heads of two clubs, a 7-iron and a putter, to fit my 5-year-old stature. He then found me a dozen balls, some tees, and put it all in an old travel bag he had in the basement. I was ready to learn how to be a world-class golfer.
During those first few years of learning how to play golf, whenever I complained that I didn’t have the same number of clubs as the adult players or what I believed to be the right amount of gear, he would turn to me and say, “You don’t need more than what you have to play really good golf. Most of these guys don’t even know what all that crap in their bags can do. Ignore them and go hit your ball.”
Over the next few years, as I watched dozens of full grown men duff and hack their way off the tees, miss fairways, and three-putt across the greens, I always wished I had more clubs, cooler gear, or at least a bag that didn’t smell like my basement.
What I should have wished for was the ability to appreciate what my father was trying to teach me.
I’ve realized now that I wasted all those lessons and, like most great teachings in our lives, I didn’t listen until it was too late. Four decades after getting my first set of clubs, I’ve clearly missed my chance to be a professional golfer but maybe I haven’t quite missed the chance to still learn a lesson or two.
I see a lot of similarities between my youthful ignorance and comments by CrossFitters who seem to think that they need all kinds of cool swag to do basic, fundamental movements.
Chalk, wrist wraps, knee sleeves, lifting shoes, weight belts, compression socks, special shorts, moisture wicking t-shirts, speed ropes…
I will agree that at some point each one of those things serves a function in letting athletes move better.
But can you tell me what a weight belt actually does? How does it work to make an athlete move better? What’s its primary function and when should you wear one?
How about chalk? What does it do?
Golf is a simple and beautiful game, if you let it be. Hit a ball, straight or not so straight, as necessary. Hit it long, medium, and short distances as precisely as possible. Be sure to have fun.
CrossFit is a simple and beautiful methodology. Move large loads long distances as quickly as possible with weightlifting, gymnastics, and monostructural modalities across short, medium, and long time domains. Combine these in couplets, triplets, and chippers in as many ways as your imagination will allow. Be sure to have fun.
In both sports, mastery comes only after spending more time than you think you need developing the fundamental mechanics of your movements through consistent practice. Only then should you add intensity.
As I played fewer and fewer rounds of golf with my dad into my teenage years, he never actually said much of what I just wrote but he didn’t need to because I remember seeing it on his face when I would be sitting in the fairway, 200 yards from the green and pull out a 3-wood thinking I could go for it.
“Whatcha thinkin’?” He would ask from the cart.
Knowing that I could hit my 3-wood just over 200 yards, on a perfect day, from the tee, with a slight breeze behind me, I answered, “I think I’ll give it a shot and go for the green.”
He’d politely ask,
I’d promptly reply,
Five shots and many f-bombs later, I’d return to the cart defeated and frustrated. Simple and beautiful game, my ass.
What I failed to hear in my father’s question was the simple reminder of his first lesson – trust your clubs.
I had no business trying to hit a club from a distance that exceeded the margins of my ability. Instead, I rushed to the end and failed to play within my skill level. I stopped trusting my clubs. And more importantly, I stopped trusting my training and practice.
Every golfer wants the big drive the first day they step onto the course just like every CrossFitter wants the perfect snatch the second they feel the power of lifting a barbell off the ground and over their head.
That is the temptation of the beginner.
As beginners, we so often fail to appreciate the hundreds of thousands of hours required for an accomplished athlete to effortlessly perform a skill that we are still learning.
We think more chalk will make our pullups smoother.
We believe that the new weight belt will let us squat deeper and lift more weight.
It never does.
We pray that the new Nobulls we just bought will instantly make us capable of walking on our hands.
I recently had an opportunity to take a time machine back to 1983 and watch my father give me a lesson on chipping and putting.
Fine, for those of you unable to suspend your belief in the realities of quantum mechanics or the limitations of Newtonian physics, what I actually got to see was my father giving some pointers to my sons as they prepared for their high school golf team try-outs this fall.
The boys’ lesson was simple. Pick a club that they like, learn to swing it comfortably, see how it feels. He’d make some corrections and then their job was to learn how to make that club swing the same way every time to get the same result.
The boys struggled. They hesitated. They second guessed. They didn’t trust themselves or their equipment. Simple wasn’t so easy.
My father is in his late 70s and struggles to walk these days. He’s 20 years passed what should have been double knee replacement surgery and when he tries to move it just hurts. But he makes it work and he can still coach golf better than anyone I’ve ever seen. Despite their frustration, within a couple of swings and over the course of a few verbal corrections, he had the boys hitting their club consistently about 50-60% of the time.
However, I could feel his frustration and I wasn’t surprised when he got up from the cart, took one of their clubs, set a ball under his feet, and said, “Boys, stop. I want you to watch my hands, just my hands…”
When I heard the snap of his club hitting the ball, I didn’t even need to see the shot to know that it did exactly what he wanted it to do. That old S.o.B. made that ball sail high into the air, land on the green, and stop within a few inches of the hole.
We all heard it and when we looked at him with a little bit of shock and a lot of jealousy, he simply said, “Fellas, I’ve hit that shot a million times. There’s nothing special about it, just the willingness to practice more than anyone else wants to.”
Nobody watches the professionals practice. It’s boring. It’s tedious. It’s work.
The reality is we aren’t professional CrossFitters and we don’t have hours and hours every day to practice our movements. However, in the one hour that we do come to the gym we have the chance to remember the most fundamental lesson that seems to always stand the test of time: when all else fails, practice the basics.
The basic lesson of golf is to hit a ball straight and accurate as few times as possible with clubs that are designed to strike that ball solid and true. The biggest problem that gets in the way of that happening is us.
My dad knew that a 7-iron and a putter were the two best clubs to teach this most fundamental lesson to a 5-year-old boy.
For CrossFitters, learning to air squat correctly allows an athlete to experience the efficacy of maintaining a neutral spine, keeping their weight in the heels, moving through a straight line of action, and taking the hip and knee joints through their full range of motion while letting the knees track over the toes. Do that well and the athlete knows just how powerful functional movements can be. The biggest problem that gets in the way of that happening is us.
It takes a lifetime of practicing the basics to be able to step up to a ball and, without a single practice swing, strike that ball with professional-level precision and accuracy. My dad wasn’t lucky, that was virtuosity.
Give me a hundred swings with that club or one that cost $1000 and I couldn’t have hit that ball as well as my father did on that day.
The same goes for you in the gym. If you don’t have depth in your squat; if you struggle to stay upright when going below parallel; if you feel pain in your knees the second we put a barbell on your back, wearing a weight belt or putting on your lifters is not the solution.
Train the fundamentals. Slow down. Spend a few weeks squatting a PVC to rull range of motion while facing a wall. Once you’ve got that mastered, then maybe load up that barbell and see if you still need all that gear to make you better.
I appreciate how hard it is to let go of our egos and to lean into the grind of practice. And I appreciate that it’s going to take some time for us to really trust the clubs we have in our metaphorical bags. But, look, ya’ll are way smarter than me so if Pat Ryan could wait 40 years for me to get over myself and finally learn that going for the green with a 3-wood from 200-yards is a bad idea, it should only take folks from the Creek…a decade or so?
See you on the Creek.