Patience is a Virtue in Every Language

Golf Lessons from Different Cultures

May 1, 2005

I have had the good fortune as a teaching professional to work with people from a variety of cultures. It is one of the best parts of my job, getting to meet so many interesting people from so many interesting places. And the one word I usually try to learn in different languages is patience.

I will not try to write some of the foreign versions of the word patience, but I learned to say the German version years ago from a group of exchange students who were studying at James Madison University. Last year, a soft-spoken, polite Korean gentleman taught me how to say it in his tongue. Interestingly, when written in Korean (much of which comes from Chinese characters), the word patience includes the character for sword. The gentleman did not explain why the character for sword is included, but I like to think it is because it takes patience to properly learn an art like the use of a sword. Or a golf club.

patience1It definitely takes a lot of patience to learn the game of golf. This is a game that often humbles standout athletes from other sports who cannot believe how tricky it is to learn the full-swing; then there is putting, and a variety of pitch and chip shots to execute as well. Very few people pick up a club for the first time and take to golf naturally. It usually takes a lot of practice and a long-term commitment for a beginner to become a decent golfer.

It also takes a lot of patience to teach the game of golf. Obviously an instructor has to have a good feel for all the techniques in golf. But working with people means working with a wide array of body types, personalities, and talent levels. Then there is communication. It is hard enough to teach something as complex as the golf swing without having to find just the right analogy, metaphor, mental image, drill, or method that will help a golfer to understand and execute a part of the swing. Teaching the finer points of a 500-year old Scottish game can be fun and rewarding, but it is not always the easiest thing to do, even when the student speaks English as his primary language.

During a lesson, there is usually a period that requires patience on the part of both the instructor and the golfer. Most of the time, swing flaws come in pairs; or there will be a swing flaw and then an equally damaging compensation.

For example, I often see a combination I call a “tilt and lift”. In the downswing, the golfer will tilt his spine to the right, which lowers the right shoulder, which usually results in a heavy shot when the club hits the ground before the ball. Over time, the golfer will instinctively start lifting his arms or shrugging his shoulders on the way through the ball so that he can make contact. With this tilt and lift combination, the player will struggle to achieve consistent contact and ball flight.

When he shows up for a lesson, we will work to stabilize his spine, removing the rightward tilt. We might do drills and practice for a half-hour until he can consistently turn through the ball with a “quiet”, untilted spine. The only problem is that he still has the habit of lifting the arms and shoulders. So, after a half hour of hard work on his swing, the student is now topping the ball, rolling these miserable little shots across the driving range; and to make it worse, I am standing there saying, “OK, great, much better,” because I am judging solely by the lack of tilting in the spine.

Most likely the golfer wants to see quick improvement in the ball flight, and most likely he does not know or understand how the various parts of his swing fit together. This is when we both need to be patient. We have fixed the root problem, but we have not yet gotten to the compensation for the problem that the golfer has built into his swing. It is my job to explain the steps as clearly as possible and convince the player to pay attention to what his body is doing rather than the ball. It is his job to believe that the swing is improving even when the shot looks worse, and to keep working at it until we get through the second part of the lesson. Sometimes it takes several lessons to make the necessary changes. Patience.

patience21Brenda Williams started a series of lessons last fall. She seemed to be a little doubtful about what we could achieve in the lessons. Her tendency was a common one—to pull her arms around her body in the backswing, too far to the inside. From there, she would leave it uncorrected, which resulted in pushed and topped shots; or she would try to force her arms through the forward swing to “re-center” them with her body, and then she would produce another set of undesirable shots.

We spent two lessons in the fall just trying to break the backswing habit. I think she was frustrated, but I told her we would keep going until it got better. Then the winter came, and Brenda did not return for over six months. When she finally came back in the spring, the first lesson was spent entirely on the backswing, the same old issue; eventually we used a drill where I would stand beside her, on her right, as she made practice swings, limiting how far around she could swing her arms and the club, because she would hit me if she went too far (which was probably very tempting).

It was half way through the fourth lesson before we finally started to break the habit. Brenda told me after the fourth lesson that she had some frustrating experiences in previous golf lessons, which is why she seemed hesitant when we started our sessions in the fall. But with her new backswing and a little better chipping technique, she started to get excited.

One language that I will not be expecting to hear at the driving range, and which I have not dealt with since my final exam sixteen years ago, is Latin. But I think I have it right when I say, vincit qui patitur. He prevails who is patient. In Brenda’s case, I have no doubt she will prevail because she has demonstrated the patience this game requires.

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