Phil Mickelson is one of the greatest golfers of all time. But his collapse in the 2006 Masters Tournament is legendary:
Mickelson started his career 0-for-46 in majors, then changed his
approach. He dialed back the aggression and started making much better
course management decisions. And it paid off: He entered the 2006 U.S.
Open at Winged Foot going for his fourth career major and third in a
And he almost got it. But then he reverted to his previous form. His
driver deserted him all day (he even hit into a trash can on No. 17),
yet he kept hitting it; and his decision-making deserted him on the
Mickelson had a 1-stroke lead as he stood on the 18th tee. Despite
hitting only two fairways all day, he pulled the driver again. And
again, he missed – only this time badly, his drive hitting the roof of
a hospitality tent and bounding into the spectator area.
Mickelson had a decent lie, but a bad idea. Rather than advancing the
ball a short distance but getting it back in the fairway – where he
might make par the hard way, or, at worse, bogey to get into a playoff
in which he'd be the heavy favorite – Mickelson attempted a huge slice
under and around tree branches. It didn't work. The ball hit a branch
and stopped 25 yards in front of him.
He hit another big slice, but this one plugged in a back bunker, and
not even Mickelson's short-game magic could save him from there. He
double-bogeyed and finished one shot out of a playoff.
"I am such an idiot," he succintly said afterward.
“We don’t rise to the level of our expectations – we fall to the level of our training”
-Archilochus, Greek Soldier
What we're talking about here is internalizing a skill until it can happen subconsciously, without conscious thought. Is it coincidence that the "Canadian Sport For Life" website lists a minimum of 10,000 hours of practice before mastery can be reached?
Malcolm Gladwell sure doesn't think so. In his essay, "Outliers," he talks extensively about "prodigies" who simply had more practice than their peers. Mozart was composing symphonies as a child, yes. But his best work started to emerge in his early 20s – still young, but by that point, he likely had 10,000 hours of practice under his belt. Gretzky was the same. Tiger Woods, at age three, below:
Was he already hitting a ball straighter than some adults? Yes. Was this his first time holding a club? Nope.
The process of internalizing motor patterns takes repetitive practice. And skills must be practiced as close to perfectly as possible, not just wobbled through. Practice makes permanent. To become masterful, a child has to stop practicing a new skill when his form degrades, and resume when they can successfully coordinate the movement again.
In the graph at the to the right, we can see that virtuous performance in any sport or motor skill must start from a base of repetitive practice, and then be refined by comparison, competition, and challenge. Practice IS necessary, but so is competition, to evolve a skill. And each skill has to start out at the same level, but several can be learned concurrently; some will even help the development of others.
You simply can't 'skip' a level. Mastery must be achieved at the most very basic set of skills before they can be complemented with greater, better skills. For instance, if a child isn't taught how to fall and get back up on skates, they'll never progress to learning to stop properly. Likewise, if an adult isn't first taught how to squat properly, they'll never progress to a clean….. they'll probably defer to the Smith machine and blame their 'bad knees' on squats in general.
Add stress into the equation – good 'ol Lizard Brain! – and the athlete will start to backslide, dropping levels until they reach the level at which they've developed the most unconscious skill.
That's not a discouragement; rather, it shows that it's NEVER too late to learn brand-new skills. It's also a terrific illustration of the domain mastery trap: once someone is really, really good at a skill, it's tough to make them consider another. They'd have to restart at the bottom, after all. A comfort zone is just another name for quicksand.
Starting a child with a broad base of skills, including running, jumping, tumbling, skipping, calisthenics, ball sports, and weightlifting, ensures that they're starting from a higher level when they learn a sport later in life. Think Whit's grace in the clean and jerk is just something she's born with? That's years of gruelling dance rehearsal, plus two years of hard work and coaching. Think Ty's just one of those 'gifted' kids who are great at everything? Well, he DID everything. He established a solid motor base as a kid, refined it enough to play baseball at a University level, and is now developing parallel skills – but the broad base was there.
Development of the 'broad base' can happen at any age. To become more athletic – fitter, leaner, and able to do more of the good stuff – are you better to do CrossFit, or sit your way through a machine circuit?