Michael Hebron has helped push golf instruction to pay more attention to the brain, how we learn, and improving the practice of golfers all around the world. To back it all up, he’s been a PGA NATIONAL TEACHER OF THE YEAR and TOP 50 INSTRUCTOR GOLF DIGEST AND GOLF MAGAZINE.
Cordie Walker: First of all, I just want to say thank you. You’re one of the first people who introduced this whole idea of learning and practice, and you’re one of the people who have been championing that for a long, long time. You kind of introduced that topic and piqued my curiosity and sent me down all the rabbit trails that I’ve gone down since then, so thank you.
Michael Hebron: The way it happened for me was that I was supposed to be this “mucky muck” teacher, this golf instructor, and I wasn’t pleased with the pace of progress with some of the students I was spending time with. I was pretty comfortable with the information I was sharing and what I realized, what my “aha” moment was, was that I didn’t know anything about learning. The old saying “it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it,” is really profound. Whether it’s a parent, an employer, or a coach, what they share with people is probably more powerful than the actual information. Anything the coach is saying is available on the internet.
The other factor is, we work with thousands of people and maybe a couple excel. It’s always the student; it’s not necessarily the coach. We’re here at the Golf Magazine Top Teacher Summit and if we put a swing up on the screen, everybody there would have their point of view, which is fine, but there’s really only one common denominator. That common denominator is that every coach wants somebody to learn and make progress.
I spent 90 hours of classes at Harvard. Harvard has a graduate school of education that has an institute that’s called Learning With The Brain and Mind Institute. I learned how the brain is actually doing it before we do it, whatever it is, speak or move. So, we’re actually coaching the students’ brains. We’re not putting, we’re not driving the car, our memory is. Some ways information is shared embellishes learning and some ways information is shared suppresses learning.
I think a pretty recognizable example would be a 30 handicapper in a learning environment. The 30 handicapper has nothing wrong with their swing, they just have things that aren’t developed yet. There’s nothing to fix. If I drop a glass of water, I’ve done everything perfect to drop the glass of water. I haven’t done anything wrong. When people are hitting shots they don’t like, they’ve done everything perfect to hit that shot. That was a big transition for students to understand that there’s nothing to fix; there’s opportunities they have to develop.The way you go about that is either brain compatible or it’s not. It was a big paradigm shift for me.
Cordie Walker: What does brain compatible mean?
Michael Hebron: Brain compatible means the way the brain registers information, it accepts the information and doesn’t set it aside. It has to make sense and have meaning. One of the rules of learning is it has to make sense and have meaning for it to be encoded and travel past short-term memory and move into long-term memory. That’s why metaphors and stories are very important when you coach or share information. If I was in business, I would say, you know, the contract we had last year, well, this one’s gonna be about the same. If you’re tossing a set of keys that may be similar to feeling your putting stroke. You always try to present what you are sharing with people based on a past experience.
There really is no new learning; new learning doesn’t exist. If, when information comes in, it’s attached to something we previously know, it doesn’t even have to be from the same topic, but it just has to be similar. When it’s attached to something we already know, it makes sense. We’ve all said to people “could you please repeat that? I didn’t quite understand it”. The reason we said that is because the way it was shared or what was shared, didn’t make sense to us. It didn’t attach to anything we already know. But when the information attaches to what we already know, “Oh, the greens today are kind of the same as
yesterday” or “the greens today are not quite as fast as yesterday”. That’s just the way you have to share information, if you want it to move on to learning.
Better Doesn’t Exist
Michael Hebron: One of the things I’ve come up with is “better doesn’t exist”. If you miss a putt, if you’re on the range, practicing putting, and you miss the putt and you make the next one, it was different. It wasn’t better; it was shorter, or it was longer, it was left, it was right. That unworkable, I used to call them unwanted outcomes, but learning is based on past experiences that didn’t work. When the putt missed, it really told us what to do different the next time. It’s a different way of looking at it, but it’s true. Better, really doesn’t exist. It’s a different sweater. It’s a different feel.
The brain needs information that it can relate to, going forward. I’m not standing on the tee trying to be better. I’m standing on the tee trying to be different. I might have somebody flip the club past their wrist. If that was one of the things that were showing up in their golf swing, and I will have them practice that. I’ll say, let’s see, do it different. That’s the way they become their own best teacher.
What I tried to do with folks is get them to understand some things or change their insights. I’m not necessarily trying to change a habit. Habits can’t be changed. There’s a lot of research on that. You want to hire a new employee? Sometimes the habits, like the boss’s son, can’t be fired. But I don’t think Jack Nicklaus has a new, bad habit. He probably has the same tendency he had when he was a youngster, or me or anybody listening to this. So you don’t work on fixing something. You don’t work on what’s wrong. You work on what to do different. You work in a positive way.
Cordie Walker: We’ve talked a lot about this idea that learning is found in the errors a lot of times, and in the difficulty and the challenge. You just talked about that with a little bit of different terminology. How do you get someone to go from, or how do you help someone understand, this idea of avoiding the mistakes or just seeing mistakes as mistakes and something to be avoided, to something that there’s learning in there?
Michael Hebron: I think a pretty straightforward example is, if I burn a pie, can I fix it? If I miss a putt, can I fix it? No, it’s over. That’s over. If he shot 80, it’s 80 separate situations. If you shot a hundred, it’s a hundred separate situations, you shot 70, it’s 70 separate situations.
One of the things I try to share with people is when they bring up the topic of a consistent golf swing. I will ask them, “Are the greatest companies, or the most successful companies, consistent?” They tend to want to say yes, and I say, no, they’re not. Nothing is consistent. What happens is the best companies and the best performers handle inconsistency better than their competitors. A champion is not consistent. He has bad holes, good holes, etc. The champions and the great companies adjust to the inconsistency of the day or the year better than their competitors. You don’t want a consistent golf swing, because every shot is different. Every environment is different. You want a flexible and portable way of presenting your technique.
For great players, there’s always many shots in the round of golf they don’t care for, but they adjust to it. Tiger’s absolutely the best at that, and Jack Nicklaus, because they adjusted better than anybody else. When I got to spend time with Mr. Hogan, he suggested to me that his strength was not his golf swing, but if he had caddied for somebody that won a tournament, they would have won by five or six more shots, that his strength was his management of the round of golf. If he was warming up and the ball was going a little left, that’s what he paid for. If it was going a little right, that’s what he paid for. That was his management skills, and it was very interesting for me to hear him say that.
Cordie Walker: One of my favorite quotes is we’re looking to build durable and flexible skills. I think it just sums it up.
Michael Hebron: Yeah, flexible and portable skills. This is what you need whether you’re raising children or running a company or playing golf. Everything is based on emotions.
Problem-Solving Our Environment
Cordie Walker: One of the core beliefs that I have, and I just am curious if what you’re saying, is that golf is a problem-solving activity?
Michael Hebron: Absolutely. There’s only one swing model and that’s the golf course. The golf course is telling me it’s an eight iron. The golf course is telling me to hit it left to right. It’s not somebody else’s golf swing. Everything works backwards from the environment. Every company works backwards from the company needs. The golf course is talking to golfers. When you move at it, from my perspective, the golf course is saying let’s hit it left to right off this tee, etc. To take in the environment and adjust to the environment is what great champions do. They’re not trying to out-maneuver the golf course.
The other thing I talk about is that every shot we have has no past, it has no beginning. It’s just in the now. There was a great book called “Golf from Point A”, by a great teacher, Susan Myers. It’s a different way of saying one shot at a time. Each shot has its own place. Each is a separate apple pie you’re baking. It has no past; it has no future. If you’re thinking about the past, you won’t be in the present. If you’re thinking about the future, you won’t be in the present.
You can’t control the golf ball. You can only control yourself. If we could control the golf ball, every player on tour would be hitting every green and every fairway. That’s an absolute wrong way of thinking about it. Before the swing, you make your plan, then you go up and you swing and you take what it gives you. It might be right down the fairway, it might be left of the rock, but standing there thinking you can control the outcome is not possible.
Cordie Walker: You talked about the golf course dictates the shot. Then you think about Tiger and you think about his game over the years. Was it Hoylake, where he was all burned out and he just hit irons, right? Then you think of him at Augusta, or you think of him anywhere else and if you watched him play, you’d think this is a different golfer, right? So, there’s a level of skill there that’s highly flexible and highly portable.
Michael Hebron: We play golf. We don’t play golf swing. Players win tournaments, not golf swings. There’s about 60 million golfers in the world, maybe a million professional players. That might be ambitious, but it might be close. Several hundred thousand people play professionally all over the world. Most of those men and women will never win a golf tournament. People who win, or people who perform best, are different.
If an accomplished player had a very good front nine and they didn’t really care for their back nine, and they’re starting to worry about that golf swing, it’s the wrong approach. It’s not that golf swing. They’ve been a great golfer for a number of years. They just played nine good holes, so something happened inside them emotionally for the shot to not come off. If you’re working with a player and then they hit several good shots and then they hit a poor one, I might say, well, why do you think that happened? “Well, this happened”. I said, no, it happened because you’re human and it can’t be the same every time. There’s nothing to fix. Just go back to whatever you were trying to do.
It’s interesting to me, when these accomplished players have a bad week, they go home to work on their golf swing. That doesn’t make sense to me. It wasn’t their golf swing. They were emotionally in a different place than they normally are. Everything’s based on emotions and the insights and the way you’re thinking. Everything we do is organized in the brain first. So, you want to present it in a way that’s positive, not negative. There’s nothing to fix. Fixing is negative. There’s things to develop.
I’ll sometimes say to somebody, how old are you when you get out of college? “21, maybe 22”. When did you really get good at something? “Maybe by the time I was 40”. So, 20 years to get really good at something you did 40-50 hours a week, and you’re giving yourself a hard time. You play on the weekends. It’s just part of the process.
In a learning environment, you take what the game is giving you. You don’t try to fix anything. You just go back to what you’re trying to do. Never think about how to do it. If you toss something on your desk or you toss something under your desk, you wouldn’t think how to do it, you would just do it. I make a big deal out of that. We didn’t learn to cut a steak. We didn’t learn to steer a car. We didn’t learn to paint a wall. We learned the rules of the knife, of the paintbrush, of the buckle, of the steering wheel, so learn the rules of the golf club. Realize what the golf club does depends on the shot you want to hit. I talk about one, two, three, four.
First one is past experiences. Look at the course. The course tells you what shot to hit, and then you pick the club and what to do with the club. Somebody with a lot of experience may see the golf course different than somebody with a little experience, but everything works backwards from past experiences, what it felt like to do something, how you accomplished something. The brain is always retrieving past experiences to lead us to the next step.
Strategies on Building Flexible and Portable Skills
Cordie Walker: We’ve talked about the importance of learning differently. Give us some real tactics or strategies or things we can go do. How do you help people build those flexible and portable skills?
Michael Hebron: By first getting them to understand it’s going to be inconsistent. In putting, for instance, if somebody was practicing putting to a hole, I would ask them to turn around and look at the edge of the green. The edge of the green, normally has some sort of a curve. There might be 75 putts there. You putt to this edge; you putt to that edge. I might ask somebody to putt the ball past the hole, to putt the ball short of the hole, so the brain knows the feel of long and short. Now putt it to the middle. With their golf clubs, make the ball go left, make the ball go right, make it go straight. Now, hit it short. Now, hit it long. Develop an inventory.
It’s similar to going on a basketball court. If you went on a basketball court by yourself, the ball would rebound to a different place every time. You wouldn’t be standing in the same place over and over again, which some golfers do. When you go to build your game, I don’t want people to practice. I want them to train. A doctor has a practice. A lawyer has a practice after they train. If you go down to train, what you’re going to put into practice on the golf course, when you’re down there training, you’re going to be less difficult on yourself. You’re going to be in an accepting mode for yourself. You’re going to accept what goes on. When you put down to train, you’re developing and you’re always developing your skills, in a training mindset.
I like to say everything worked backwards from mindset. Mindsets before skill sets. What you’re thinking about, what you’re feeling emotionally allows those moments to happen.
Cordie Walker: So, you’re going to get people to start training versus practicing? We’re doing mindsets before skill sets. When someone is training in that manner where you’ve got all these different kinds of shots you’re doing, you’re kind of doing this differential learning. Short, long, in the middle, to try to get them new experiences. What kind of mindsets do you want them to have during that, or what kind of emotions?
Michael Hebron: Accepting. Accept it and learn from it, whether it’s good. I often tell somebody, I am not your teacher. I’m your coach. That shot was your teacher. No teacher knows what you’re feeling and no teacher knows exactly what you did. Because we have golf vocabulary, we could try to explain it, but we really do not know. Some other coaches don’t like me to say this, but we really don’t know how you did it. So, you remember it. It’s your deal. It’s your game.
I want you to be aware that that’s your teacher. The shot’s your teacher. I’m just your coach.
Cordie Walker: Shots are the teacher. You’re just the coach. I like that. It fits so well with this idea that golf’s a problem-solving sport. You view the shot as the teacher and then reflect on that. That was what kind of happened. I mean, that’s a really interesting, really exciting approach. Do you just take that during training or do you take that to performance as well?
Michael Hebron: Absolutely, to performance. Where you stand behind the shot. I think Chuck Hogan was the first to come up with this idea, and then Lynn Marriott and Peter Nielson. Chuck called it a thought box. So, you’re standing behind the shot. You decide it’s an eight iron and you decide what you want to do. Then when you go up to play, you’re in your playbox, and you just play it. A little bit as if you’re running a business and you had a meeting before the doors opened. Then when the door is open, anything could happen and it’s completely out of your control. So, you need flexible and portable skills to adapt to the ever-changing environment of that business, or the golf course. The golf course is always changing.
I make a big deal out of swinging the weight of the club with a sense of balance. I’m not very much of a technical coach to the student. I may have some technical things going on in my head, and then I try to translate them into an everyday experience. For instance, when you go bowling, does the ball stop in your backswing exactly the way you put it or does it drift a little bit? Well, it drifts a little bit. That would try to get people to understand that part of their back backswing is momentum and freedom. If I throw a football, why is my wrist cocked? Well, for leverage, yes. But the reason it’s cocked is because the football weighs something. So, the golf club weighs something, and some of the angles that happen in golf are just because we’re swinging the weight of the club. My whole approach is a learning approach based on how we learn, which is based on creating examples that they’ve already experienced. You have to create it to something they are familiar with, for it to work.
Making Your Training Effective
Cordie Walker: If someone’s reading this and they’re thinking about their current state of practice, and they’ve kind of heard what you said about training, what would be some of the check boxes they want to make sure that they include during their training to make sure it’s most effective? What are some of the characteristics that you want people to be doing when they think about their practice?
Michael Hebron: Well, number one, I don’t call it a lesson. It’s a session. The lesson is what people take away. When the kids leave school, at the end of June, what they’ve taken away is the lesson, not what they went on for six months. That’s just perking up their own. What they take away, and when they’re playing in training, is to accept without self criticism. I tend to coach the club. The club has three employees. It has a shaft, a head, and a face. Where do I want those three employees at impact? It depends on the golf course, not some description of the golf swing. So they’re always paying attention to, did you swing that club or did you hit the ball?
When I coach, we’re not learning to hit golf balls. We’re learning what to do with the golf club. You’re learning what to do with the stick. If I drop a basketball and it comes straight up, did the floor move it or compress it? Well, no, it didn’t move it; it compressed it. So, learning to compress the ball and it goes in the direction, or starting direction to where you’re facing. And the golf club is swinging in its circle. Croquet is a vertical game because the stick is vertical. Pool is a horizontal game because the tables are flat. Golf is a game played on the roof of a house or an inclined plane, because of the design of the club. Everything happens because of the design on the golf club. The golf club is built with the handle slightly in front of the face and the reason putters don’t go up is because of the angle. Everything is responsible to the golf club.
Cordie Walker: Michael, thank you so much. I appreciate your time. It’s been fun. It’s always good to chat with you. Thank you, sir.