A Balm that turned into a Bomb

TJ Tomasi

A Balm that turned into a Bomb – Jim Gets Worse
By Dr. TJ Tomasi

This is the sad but true story of Jim, a decent player with a problem his teachers could not cure him of – the shank. His practice swing was great, but as soon as a ball was introduced and the swing meant something, Jim was the CEO of Shanks, Inc.

He shanked his way through two competitive rounds of club golf a week, and the upsetting thing about the shank was that he didn’t know when it was coming – in the beginning, he never did it in practice or while playing short shots or putting, but with any of his long clubs, it was always lurking in the background, like a Damoclean sword, one slim thread away from embarrassment.

Until he agreed to undergo therapy for what the doctors called his ‘psychomotor disability.’ Poor Jim, now what he had (or better, what had him), was given the empowerment of a name ‘motormental retardation.’

After months of attention using a battery of interventions that made him focus on his disability by doing drills such as hitting with his eyes closed, the affliction spread to every phase of his game, including practice, and finally into the last bastion of defense – his putting.

Sometimes the Cure is Worse than the Disease.

During his therapy, Jim used three sure-fire ways to immortalize an unwanted motor behavior:

  1. Label the behavior as bad (very bad) every time it happens to you. Jim did plenty of this, and the more he did it, the more he feared it.
  2. Emotionalize the bad behavior. The more he did it, the more upset he became, and the more upset he became, the more he did it.
  3. Focus on preventing the behavior to the exclusion of all rival ideas. The more you pay attention to something, the more you lock that something into the system. Of course that’s a good way to learn, but the danger is that if you wipe out competing strategies, you could give yourself a phobia – an out-of-control mega-fear that can cause avoidance and panic.

The Takeaway: If you follow the three rules of embedding, (1) Repeat (2) Emotionalize (3) Focus-to-exclusion, you can learn anything. But be careful what you expose your brain to; it learns the bad as easily as it does the good.

What Cured Jim

Every golf story should have a happy ending, and Jim’s story is no exception – it begins with something called paradoxical intention – sounds like the perfect fix for ‘motormental retardation’ – and it was.

Paradoxical Intention: How ‘Perfectly Wrong Golf’ can help your Game

My thinking on shanking is that once you learn to shank on command, you’ll never shank without the command.

This is based on the premise that any particular behavior is just a piece of learning, so you can relearn or unlearn anything you don’t like about yourself simply by paying attention to the opposite behavior.

Once you learn the opposite behavior, you have a choice – and choice leads to better plans, which leads to better outcomes, etc.

This I learned, not in graduate school, but by watching the Seinfeld skit where George did just the opposite of what he thought he should – and suddenly the life of a loser was a grand success.

In more systematic form, a technique by psychologist Victor Frankel can be a powerful, albeit counter-intuitive, intervention.

The thrust of the technique is that you deliberately and repeatedly perform an unwanted behavior with the aim of gaining control of it.

It’s called Paradoxical Intention (PI), and in golf it involves practicing the bad outcomes you want to eradicate until you can do them perfectly and at will.

And as you may know, you have to learn a lot about something to do it on call.

Thus, instead of avoiding the slice (or the shank in Jim’s case) you must practice it until you can hit it deliberately.

The key here is the word “deliberately,” because this affixes a special meaning to the process.

Instead of learning the good to replace the bad, a process that creates a disruptive tension between the two, in PI you treat the bad as a member of the team over which you have complete control – thus fear has been defanged.

The great shot maker Tommy Bolt once shanked a ball onto the green from the trees on purpose, and when asked about hitting a shank he said “It was the only shot I had.” In this view the bad, which was once the feared master, now becomes the docile servant.

No one who can shank on purpose fears the shank. In the mind of a shot maker there are no bad shots per se – a bad shot is one that doesn’t fit the circumstance – a 200 yard five iron can be good or bad depending….and, per Mr. Bolt, so can a shank.

Here is How to Proceed

So you learn to hit the shot you fear on purpose on the range until you understand exactly how you do it.

If it’s a slice, try to make the slice even bigger by opening your stance and weakening your grip.

Exaggerate a cut-across swing path and do this for about 20 balls then begin to adjust back to a closed stance with a stronger grip and the inside swing out path of a hook.

If you approach it correctly, deliberately doing the bad can lead to deliberately doing the good – if you know how to do the bad perfectly and on call, then you have the control to stop doing it and do something else – you can shank it around a tree or top it perfectly under a low hanging branch.

The Takeaway

In this dynamic, understanding exactly how you fail at something is the harbinger of success.

Most people are so busy trying to learn to make perfect swings that they never take the time to learn how they make bad swings, so their failure is an ongoing mystery never under control – it’s always lurking in their repertoire.

I know a teacher who, when asked by the student ‘what did I do wrong?’ responds ‘why – do you want to do it again?’ The student of PI responds ‘I want to know my failure so perfectly that I can turn it off/on whenever I want!’

Post Script: While this post is not an instructional article on shanking, it should be stated that Jim finally learned why he couldn’t stop the shanks.

The instructors he had thought all shanks were hosel shanks but there are two kinds of shanks (toe and heel) with two different causes and two different cures.

Jim, although he had the toe shank, was told he had the heel shank so he should swing more inside out exposing the toe – a balm that turned into a bomb for someone who already had an exposed toe.  Once Jim stopped trying to swing so dramatically inside-out, his center contact improved, proving once again that control comes with correct knowledge and practice!

Jim now has such complete control over the shank that he can shank it high or low, long or short – or  most importantly – not at all.