Ben Hogan: Deliberate Practice

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The summer I was 15, the weather in the Scottish Borders was beautiful (so my memory tells me!). That year I got the “bug” to play golf. Junior membership was almost free and I rode my bike to the club with an old “half set” of clubs and spent all day there most of the summer. All that time I had with me a very old copy of this book by Ben Hogan, first published back in 1957.

Ben Hogan was one of the greatest golfers of all time and was known to practice more than any of his contemporary golfers. He is said to have “invented practice”. Hogan himself said, “You hear stories about me beating my brains out practising, but… I was enjoying myself. I couldn’t wait to get up in the morning so I could hit balls. When I’m hitting the ball where I want, hard and crisply, it’s a joy that very few people experience.”

Hogan believed anybody, through “deliberate practice”, could “break 80”, which in plain English means to become a good golfer. So what do we mean by deliberate practice

This is perhaps best illustrated by another story. Many years after that summer when I was 15, I started to play golf again while in the Cayman Islands. I was a reasonably good golfer, but most of the people around my standard typically took one afternoon during the week to play a round of golf, as well as playing during the day on both Saturday and Sunday.

I had a young family, so to maintain balance I committed to play just once per week, and to do that at the very start of the day on a Sunday to speed around the course and get home. This then meant that I needed a way to maintain my standard and even to improve it despite being at the golf course playing far less than others.

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I, therefore, went to the golf course driving range one evening right after work and practised. I took only a small bucket (50) of balls, and I methodically went through the clubs and took at least 40 minutes to hit those 50 balls. Each shot was taken with total care and presence to my swing, the strike, the follow through, the flight of the ball.

At the same time, I was a mere reasonably skilled amateur. Quite often working at the same range was a high-level pro golfer. He took even fewer shots in a longer time.

What I would observe, though, is that we were absolutely outliers. Almost all the people at the range were taking a large bucket (more than double the size) and, generally, mindlessly hitting them almost at random, simply enjoying the feeling of hitting golf balls. Absolutely cool to do that, simply that this was not deliberate practice, but entertainment.

Deliberate practice is focussed upon continuous improvement. At the highest level of being deliberate, not only is everything you do, every element, focussed upon improvement. In addition, you consciously and deliberately eliminate anything that does not support you to improve. As an example, if you look at older elite athletes at team practices, they save their energy wherever possible. No jumping around like bouncy puppies as the new team members may do, as they know they only have so many repetitions “in them”, so they manage their energy, they focus, they engage in deliberate practice.

“No fun!”, some may say, but I disagree. That first summer, aged 15, I broke 100 shots for a round of golf, but then I quickly broke 90 and the next summer I broke 80. Such satisfaction and happiness in being able to both achieve such a level and to enjoy golf so much more with clean ball striking and hitting so many more good shots than bad.

Whether your reference point may be Ben Hogan, or perhaps Jiro Ono (the great sushi chef and master of Ikigai), Michael Jordan, Katie Ledecky, Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hours” hypothesis, or others, all speak to the power of deliberate practice.

Now, in closing, as a business leader, how deliberate are you and those in your business in what you do and what you focus upon? Are you “busy” or are you deliberate? Do you focus on “hitting the numbers” each year, or while you do that necessary work, are you always also looking at what comes next?

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