On Learning Golf: How Circus School Can Help Your Game

Greetings! Hope your 2016 is off to a great start.

It occurred to me I only blogged once last year.  We all know how busy life gets; however, writing is such a good practice for many different reasons, so here we are.  It also occurred to me while I was riding my bike and (Mom, don’t read the rest of the sentence) was trying to see if I could go all the way around a 4-mile neighborhood with no hands, that golf is a lot like circus school.

I know what you’re thinking.  Here it is.  Back in high school, I spent time on the weekends at the local YMCA learning how to juggle and unicycle with the Providence Circus School and eventually performed with the Brown University Juggling Club.  Smart phones didn’t yet exist but I’ll throw them out there right away — the only two photos of proof.

SD Juggle

These photos also show evidence that nobody was paying attention, but if you still are reading this, here are a couple ways learning and progressing in golf are a lot like circus school.  Admittedly, I’ve dabbled in learning and motor pattern development; however, here are some real life experiences based on juggling and unicycling.

Why I like the topic of juggling and unicycling as it relates to golf is because these topics are typically not very “natural” to the average person.  I’ve never seen anyone pick up three objects and juggle them with ease on the first attempt.  For the average person, golf too, with all its variables and different aspects, is not the most natural of sports to just pick up and be great at.

(1) Building Blocks

Behind any great musical performance, work of art, completed calculus problem, winning round of golf, or watching a person unicycle across a tight-rope, are many hours of exercises building the skills in which to do so.  Would it surprise you to know that jugglers start with one ball? And unicyclists start with this?

Unicycle 1It doesn’t even move!  But this training aid promotes the feel and balance that will be inherent in all stages of learning how to ride a unicycle.

In golf, it is natural to see the end result of a professional hitting a drive 250+ yards down the middle of the fairway and want to experience that immediately as well.  However, what we don’t see are the hours he or she spent learning the movement of their golf swing.

A club champion at a club I once worked at said his teacher would not let he and the other junior golfers pitch until they were adequate chippers.  After they could pitch, they could then take half-swings, then 3/4 swings, etc.  While I personally would not employ this exact process, it is clear his teacher wanted to make sure they could feel and understand an inherent motion that would be required for the bigger swings.

As for the unicyclists, once comfortable with the initial trainer picture above, they will go on to practice on these training aids below until finally riding the unicycle.

Progression of Unicycling

Although on paper it may look quite simple, from personal experience I cannot tell you the amount of times I would feel comfortable on one trainer but not be able to successfully do the next and have to “learn” / “fail” all over again.  The same goes for golf.  We may be comfortable with a swing that allows us to hit a ball 100 yards with 15 yards of right curve, but when learning how to hit the ball 150 yards with only 5 yards of left curve, it can feel very different and uncomfortable at first.

In a nutshell, understanding golf as a process of learning and continually refining mental pictures & motions can help one understand the journey of successes and supposed “step-backs”.

(2) Block Practice & Random Practice

Not unlike other sports and activities, the type of practice employed at circus school varies between block and random practice.  Let’s talk juggling.  When learning a new trick, one must practice both the trick pattern as well as the intro and exit pattern for the trick.  Here, for instance are some juggling trick patterns:
Juggling Tricks Diagram When learning a new trick, the juggler will spend time:
(1) practicing just the isolated trick motion,
(2) just the intro and just the exit, and
(3) will finally practice doing the trick in sequence from the basic motion.

Isolating aspects like this would relate most to the idea of block practice.  In golf, this would be like hitting 7-irons repeatedly trying to learn a certain feel and/or produce a certain ball flight.

However, we know from playing golf that there is much more to the game than hitting 7-irons as described above.  The real event on the golf course includes so much variability it’s hard to quantify.  Performing on stage includes much more variety than rehearsing the motion to a particular trick.  Stringing together tricks and being able to fluidly change patterns on the fly (literally) if a ball gets out of sequence is what makes juggling appear to look so easy.  Learning to juggle under performance pressure involves a lot of both block and random practice.  Too much of one type of practice without the other would not prepare the juggler adequately.

It’s easy to see the similarities between the juggler and golfer.  It is necessary to hone individual skills and motions, but the golfer must also put them into practice “on stage”, or on the course.  In order to do this the golfer must practice “flowing the tricks together”, or hitting different shots and clubs like he or she would do on the actual course.

I hope some behind the scenes insight as to how unicyclists and jugglers acquire their skills can help you understand the process in your journey of golf.  The unicyclist would encourage you to build your skills one step at a time: make sure you can do the small pieces before jumping to a bigger one.  The juggler would encourage you to segment your practice into specific skills and clubs but to also remember to practice the variety of sequential shot-making that the course will demand.

Thanks for stopping by today.  And now, if you’d like to learn to juggle, here’s your tutorial at the Library of Juggling.  If you feel this information is useful, please feel free to share it using the buttons below.  Have a great day!


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