on Getting Better
By Robert Ross



Do you ever get the feeling that everyone around you is better at doing things — you know — the things you’ve chosen to do in life? Are you surrounded by better artists, writers, singers, tennis players, cooks, musicians, athletes, or whatever it is you do professionally or as a hobby? Or, is it just me? It seems like everywhere I go, I am amazed at how well things are done (the things I like to do) by others. Maybe I’m a bit frustrated at my expressions of mediocrity or perhaps discomforted by the fact that I’m getting older, but . . . not better.

For example, I play the classical guitar — it’s a hobby, but I take it seriously and I practice almost daily. Yet, my classical guitar playing friends leave me with my jaw hanging open every time they play. Or, we go to friends’ homes and look at their home improvement projects, the stuff they’ve done themselves. More often than not, the projects are superbly done. And then there’s my new endeavor — golf. I guess it was the frustration that golf can evoke that got me thinking about getting better. So I started asking the “pros” (just about everyone I know) how does one get better at . . . (fill in the blanks). The answers surprised me, and with a little contemplation, turned out to be quite transferable to just about any aspect of life.

How to Get Better
Coach Sanchez teaches golf at Mesa College. He’s an excellent instructor who teaches the fundamentals in a way that can be easily grasped by just about anyone. He coaches for a living. So, I asked the coach the big question. “What three things can I (or anyone for that matter) do to get better at golf?” The coach gave it some thought and replied “first, swing the club — a dry swing (no ball) every day, in your yard, or wherever. You’ve seen Tiger Woods swing on T.V., just kind of keep that image in your mind while you’re swinging.” This seemed simple enough. It’s a non-threatening exercise. I can do it in a relaxed manner without judging myself or being judged by others.

Of course, I immediately starting seeing metaphors in his answer. “Just swing the club,” with no self evaluation. I guess that concept could apply to learning any new activity; swing a tennis racket if you’re a tennis player, take some photos — without film, if you’re a photographer.

 What else? I asked the coach. He thought for a few moments, and then added “Make sure your grip is correct.” O.K. I thought to myself. The “grip” is the connection between the person and the sport. The connection . . . something that ties the inner world of the person to the outer world of, in this case, the game of golf. I made a mental note to give that “connection” concept some serious thought later in the day.

 Eager to hear the final answer from the coach — I prodded, “and the third is . . .” Without hesitation the coach stated “work on the short game.”

At this point, metaphors were flying through my head. The short game . . . The coach was referring to hitting golf shots in the area close to the putting green. The short game — the short distance shots. I, of course, translated that to mean work on the smaller, perhaps easier aspects of one’s avocation or vocation. If you consider yourself to be a writer, write a letter to the editor, or an essay, that’s the short game. Work on it. If you’re a musician — work on that easier piece, or a section of a piece and play it for a friend or family member — that’s the short game. Sure you can shoot for a performance at the Met or write the great American novel, but in the meantime, work on that short game.

 I reflected on his comments for many days after this question and answer period. Light bulbs were going off in my head. I guess you could say I had an epiphany or two. It all seemed so obvious.

Getting better at whatever it is you’re involved in requires some daily non-judgmental “swinging of the club.” In other words, practice daily, but in a way that is relaxed, that puts you in the groove, and avoids the little voice in one’s head that tends to criticize. Getting better involves using the proper grip. For golf, the grip is obvious. The grip connects it all, the individual, a golf club, a ball, and a golf course. But if you’re a classical guitarist or a pianist — that instrument (piano, guitar) is your golf club. Proper technique connects you with the instrument. And lastly, getting better involved working on the short game. I view the short game as the less grandiose aspects of any endeavor.

 It was clear that the coach, without knowing it, had spelled out the groundwork for getting better at just about anything.

Putting It to The Test
It was time to put these pearls of wisdom to the test. I had a game coming up the following week. I was eager to practice these recommendations — eager to see if I could “get better.” So, each day, I went out into the yard and swung a golf club twenty-five times. It was a relaxed swing, without the usual self criticism. I checked my grip every few swings, making sure it was correct. And, one day, before the big game, I went to a pitch and putt golf course. It was a “mini course” where one can focus on the short game.

 The big day arrived, the test. I realized that only a week of practicing with my new “getting better” strategy wasn’t really enough time to show results. But, I might get a little glimpse as to whether or not this was going to be a beneficial way of approaching the things I do in life.

 It was a sunny morning, clear blue skies. The grass had that freshly-cut smell. Glancing out over the course, I was particularly struck by the contrast in colors. The course itself was tucked in a meandering valley, particularly green after the recent rains. The hills which surrounded the course were various shades of brown, with shrub, oak and palm trees dotting the hillside.

I joined a group of three other students and we set off on our golfing adventure.

 So, how did it go? Well, I hit some superb shots. On the other hand, I also hit some not-so-superb shots. After the game, I gave things a little thought and concluded that getting better also involves two other elements — dedication and time. For me, it’s back to the yard — back to the dry swing — back to the grip — back to the short game. I’m on a mission — it’s time to get better!

Robert Ross can be reached by e-mail:
Copyright 2006 by Robert Ross, all rights reserved

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