Knowledge vs. Physical Skills (How Top Athletes Dominate Their Sport)

The Missing Steps Blog

When we think of the ultra-elite athlete most recognize his high level of skill. These physical skills enable the athlete or team to perform at their potential in high stakes competition.  For the golfer, he is characterized by the ability to hit it far and accurately with his long game, wedge, pitch and chip it close and make a high percentages of his putts (and never, ever 3 putt!) all in the arena of high stakes competition. Think about those memorable moments: we see golfers physical abilities shine at precisely the right time at the pinnacle of the sport. However, it is important to note, that beyond the physical skill there is another trait of the ultra-elite that allows him to perform when it matters: knowledge based skill. Let’s dive into the concept of the knowledge based skill that the ultra-elite possess.

We learn from Brees and others that the ultra-elite athlete performs consistently at a high level because he can trust and commit to his skill in competition. His training has a focus on his thoughts, his skill and how he thinks about and reinforces his performance on a daily basis. In contrast to the ultra-elite your good athlete trains hard with good intentions, but ends up over trying in competition. As I have observed these high performers in the NFL, NBA, MLB and Olympic sports their training is defined, measured and timed. Many of them may not be able to articulate the detail of their systems but we would observe these consistencies if we were watching from the sidelines.

I have had conversations with coaches and athletes and observed these consistencies with the knowledge acquisition and training across sports. As a result I have built a system that incorporates both skill and knowledge acquisition specifically for golf. The system is in four phases: training for feel, training for the shot, training for the round and training for competition. Let’s dive into some details.

Coach Sean Payton
(New Orleans Saints Head Coach)

In the training for feel phase the athlete is working on his technical skill to see if he can replicate and duplicate it. For golf, we may start with 4 foots putts but for other sports it could be catching or throwing, as an example. As we do this we are also introducing a repeatable mindset program which will be used in all 4 phases. Once we see some replication (in the steps before, during and after the shot) we move to the next phase.

Phase two is training for the shot followed by training for the round (3) and then training for competition (4). In each phase the training has more consequences which if imprinted correctly, will insulate and build the athlete’s self-image. This training cultivates the part of the athlete that is rarely discussed or acknowledged: the self-image. The self-image is the area of comfort the athlete operates in. And as we go through these progressive rounds of training that are defined, measured and timed the athlete is growing his self-image so that he does not over train or over try when it really matters.

In addition to the 4 phases of training we help the athlete to standardize his thoughts before, during and after the shot. If the athlete can learn to control his thoughts the environment (conditions, fans, things outside of this control) will not overpower his ability to perform under pressure. We help the athlete to make a decision he can trust and commit to before the shot, a mindset program to control his thoughts during the shot, and finally, a reload of the shot to either reinforce that it was good, great or to put a solution in place.

In addition to the tiers of training and standardized thought processes, we continue to grow the knowledge skills by taking cues from the NFL and NBA. We use the latest technology to anticipate what game day will look like. The ultra-elite in the NFL and NBA use play books and film to imprint the way they want to perform and what game day looks like. Many golfers use their pre-tournament round to begin this process, which in my opinion is way too late in the preparation process. We have access to 3D software and course maps that help the golfer to pre-load the golf course and put together a plan he can rehearse even before showing up for the pre-tournament round.

The knowledge piece continues to grow as we use an additional tool used in Olympic performance to reinforce and unpack each day, whether it is a training session or a competitive event. Each athlete is given an Olympic Performance Analysis to accomplish growing the knowledge in this way. This daily exercise gives the athlete the opportunity to unpack what he did that day and why and what he did well, reinforcing the solutions, just like the training. There is also an opportunity to articulate a goal statement which the athlete states as if he already possesses it. All of these strategies continue to grow the self-image with a solutions based mindset.

A sample performance analysis entry may look something like this: a golfer is working on his distance putting because in competition he is 3 putting. The athlete would reinforce the change he wants to see in his game by saying, “I am looking for a solution that allows me to 2 putt or better,” in lieu of saying, “I am looking for a solution to not 3 putt.” This is a subtle but imperative difference in order to see both the skill and knowledge acquisition grow. The self-image also grows alongside the skill and knowledge using the performance analysis.

These strategies are a glimpse of what the ultra-elite are doing in their training on a consistent basis. The opportunities I have had to interview and observe these top performers has yielded consistencies across sports and have allowed me to use these concepts as building blocks for a golf specific program that can help a golf athlete move towards becoming an ultra-elite athlete. So be mindful when you flip on the television to the next major in golf of the NFL playoffs: behind the ultra-elite athlete’s skill there is a very precise commitment to knowledge that is occurring in both his training and competition.

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