Walk Your Skills Up the Four Steps to Mastery


Learning golf is a process, not an epiphany. You have to walk an athletic skill up several steps before you can master it. You can’t acquire skill through the media (magazines, books, television), by sharing tips among friends, or through infrequent and disconnected lessons by a variety of teaching professionals. What other sports are learned this way? Only in golf do you attempt to flip on the balance beam before you learn to walk on the beam.


In order to finally own a skill to a point where it will hold up under pressure, you must walk the skill up “The Four Steps of Mastery” shown below. On Step 1, you determine which skill is costing you the most strokes, seek understanding of what you’re doing wrong, and identify what you need to do to fix it. Take a lesson from a golf instructor and most likely you will find yourself on step 1—gaining an understanding of cause and effect—identifying the causes of the errors in your game and their respective solutions.


Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you have a tendency to leave your bunker shots in the sand or skull them over the green. In step 1, the golf coach might explain to you what the bounce of your sand wedge is, and how it’s designed to work. He or she may then explain to you that your clubhead is bottoming out too soon, which is causing you to hit your shots fat and thin. Then your coach would prescribe a fix such as keeping your weight more forward (on your front foot) and a drill to help you control your entry point into the sand.


However, just because you understand what causes your poor bunker shots and how to fix them, it doesn’t mean you’ll be able to apply this knowledge on the golf course when it counts. To truly own the new bunker skill, you must train the skill through the next three steps.



“The player who expects a lesson to ‘take’ without subsequent practice just isn’t being honest with himself or fair to his professional.”—Gary Player



Step No. 2 involves supervised practice –lots of repetition with feedback. Golf is a motor skill and therefore requires repetition of motion for the motor cortex of the brain to store the skill as a habit. In our bunker example, the coach might draw a line in the sand and teach you to use it as feedback as you attempt to control 1) the entry point into the sand and 2) the amount of sand you displace. Your coach may teach you to practice getting the clubhead to enter the sand at the line and exit a defined distance after the line. Once you could do this eight times out of 10, your coach would then instruct you to place a ball 2 inches in front of the line, and strive to hit eight out of 10 balls within a certain distance of a pin. Step 2 involves focused repetition with feedback provided by your coach or from a drill or training aid prescribed by the coach.


The next logical step (No. 3) involves transfer training: exposing the skill to on-course, competitive conditions. Can you do the above drill eight times out of 10 from a hard-packed lie or very soft, fluffy sand? How about from a downhill lie? What about when people are watching? It is very common, when your technique is first exposed to these various transfer conditions, to revert back to your prior tendencies. Many repetitions under transfer conditions are needed to extinguish old habits and develop the new skill to a point where it will reliably show up on the golf course. This step might take you months to transcend and is the one step that most golfers fail to complete. As players experience periodic setbacks in performance, they often conclude that what they were working on does not work. Discouraged, they abandon Step 3, drop back down to Step 1 and start searching for another quicker fix. What you have to understand is that while it takes time, discipline, and stick-to-itiveness, transfer training is a necessary, non-negotiable step to taking a new skill to the course. 


The final step (No. 4) involves playing with that skill while keeping score on the course. As with all sports, the application of the learned motor skill is what’s most critical for success. Shooting a basketball in a game of horse is quite different than shooting one in an actual game with a hand in your face and the shot clock ticking down toward zero. In golf, you must learn to apply your new skill under real playing conditions, not just in a controlled environment on the practice range. This means executing your new bunker technique in competition, where you may be confronted with a high lip or a downhill lie, or there may be water on the other side of the green. It involves decision-making (knowing how much green you have between you and the flag, and how the ball will react once it lands on the green) and self-management (keeping your focus on the shot at hand when you know water looms on the other side of the green). A skill is not completely learned until it can be drawn upon and successfully utilized on the course under competition.


“Fortunately” Learning Takes Time


I was playing golf with my brother-in-law one Saturday afternoon and he was going along quite nicely until he unfortunately chunked a rather simple pitch shot. He let out this big “ahhhhh” and I said, “What’s wrong?” He said, “Corey Pavin.” I asked, “What?” He then explained that he watched Corey Pavin giving a tip on pitching the night before on Golf Channel, and he decided he’d try it. He figured that if the tip was coming from Corey Pavin, it would have to be good. I said, “You’re kidding me, right?”


He wasn’t. My brother-in-law made the common mistake of skipping steps two and three (supervised practice and transfer training) and figured he could take this new knowledge right to the course and execute it. Unfortunately, it’s what most golfers do: Skip from Step 1 directly to Step 4. They get a tip from a friend, a television show, or a magazine, and head to the course and give it a try! Then when it doesn’t work they blame the tip, fall back to Step 1, and start looking for another tip. If you read or hear something one night and go out the next day and try it, expecting to succeed without practicing (and transferring) the skill, you are engaging in wishful thinking!


One guy who never skipped any skill-building steps was former world No. 1 professional tennis player Ivan Lendl, who won eight Grand Slam singles titles between 1984 and 1990. During a conversation that I had with Lendl, who was an avid golfer, he clarified what he thought separated the best from the rest—their willingness to stick with the learning process. Lendl explained that “fortunately” the process of learning a new skill takes time, and because it takes so long, not everyone will do it.


Lendl spoke of five steps, not four, that he used to build a skill to the point that would hold up under the pressure of competition. “It takes a long time and there are five steps to it,” he said. “Step No. 1: You have to identify and decide how you are going to go about it. Step No. 2: You have to do it in practice. Step No. 3: You have to do it in a match. Step No. 4: You have to do it in a match under pressure -- meaning four-all, break point in the final set. And Step No. 5: You have to do it in a big match under pressure -- meaning five-all, fifth-set tiebreaker in the U.S. Open finals. It took me between 12 and 24 months, which is a long, long time to work on something before you become comfortable with it. Fortunately, from my point of view, it takes that long, because I had the desire to keep working on it and believe in my coach and myself that we were working on the right thing. A lot of guys, they just give up after three months and they stay at the level they are.

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