The Goldilocks Protocol

By Dr. T. J. Tomasi
Keiser University College of Golf Senior Faculty and Director of Research

goldilocks protocol
I believe that part of being a great athlete is maintaining the correct attitude about failure. Research shows that Olympic athletes fail in practice more than do normal competitors, because they are always driving themselves to run faster, throw farther or do a more intricate spinning move on the ice. The concept is to push yourself beyond your current performance level (P-level) by using a challenge level that is perfectly titrated to your current position on the performance curve; i.e., not too hard, but not too easy. The Goldilocks’ Protocol, as I call it, sits at the center of your training program, designed to drive you to a higher P-level, which then becomes your new standard – you were an 85 shooter, but with some attention to the matter, you are now an 80 shooter. Basically you have recreated yourself through intervention, and that involves a lot of failure.

But not every kind of failure is helpful – a 22 handicap who insists on playing the back tees is courting destructive failure that will teach him/her nothing more than that he/she stinks at golf. This player will grow worse as the destructive failure gobbles up every bit of talent that was waiting in the wings. This is why a wise coach brings a boxer along slowly, stepping him/her up in a challenge against incrementally tougher opponents – as dominant as Mike Tyson was, he didn’t fight for the heavyweight championship in his first fight, and neither did undefeated heavyweight champ, Rocky Marciano. My chess program has 10 levels of difficulty – it is much too easy for me set at 4, but too hard to play it at 10. I am currently at 7 and gear all my practice to being competitive at level 8.
Tiger and Michelle

Tiger was brought along perfectly, winning every division on the USGA ladder until he had won them all – three junior division age group championships and three adult Amateur titles; so when he turned pro it was just another rung on the ladder. The thing that stands out to me in Tiger’s journey is that he survived four [so far] major swing overhauls and still stayed great – four different swing models, four different teacher personalities, four different injury profiles and a fire hydrant collision that started a personal life upheaval that would have sunk even the most talented of humans.

On the other side of the ledger is Michelle Wie, who won one amateur tournament at age 13 and then, because she skipped the gradual ladder concept, found herself constantly overmatched and didn’t win again until she was 19. Her failure occurred because she didn’t learn to fail correctly. Here you have two young magical athletes; one developed perfectly with just the right balance between failure and success, while the other was a talent ruined by too much failure.

But there is another element in the anatomy of a champion – not only is there a ladder to be climbed on the public side, i.e., tournaments layered with just enough challenge to keep players interested – but there is a private side where their training routine is centered around a key concept: fail in practice to win in competition.

This introduces the concept of exploratory failure, where the golfer pushes the boundaries of performance, a protocol that features managing failure as a key element.

This means that failure is an aid that signals the approach of an optimum challenge point (OCP), a point every player who seeks improvement must find. As a coach, each training protocol I devise varies in that it contains an OCP around which the protocol is centered. However, the OCP is somewhat elusive in that (1) it is unique to the golfer, and (2) it changes as the golfer improves. Think of the OCP in this way: if your challenge is too strong, you will consistently fail both in practice and in competition. If the challenge is too easy, you will succeed in practice, but fail in competition. Either way, it is a sure sign that you have the wrong OCP.

Through my own studies here at Keiser University, I have found that you have nailed your OCP when you fail at a given task in practice ~30 percent of the time. If your goal is to hit straight drives that travel at least 280 yards, keep practicing until you can do it at least seven times out of 10.

Serious neurological sparks fly when you achieve the correct OCP. According to a professor of bio-kinesiology at the University of Southern California, challenging tasks tend to overload your short-term memory, making your long-term memory pick up the overflow. This is good because short-term memory is a temporary holding bin for information that is dumped almost as soon as it’s received/reviewed – you don’t need to remember last Monday’s shopping list.

However, you will not improve in golf if you don’t find a way to involve your long-term memory – if you use only your short-term bin, it will automatically self-erase, and the data (i.e., the swing moves you’re working on) will be lost. This explains why you kill it on the range, but the next morning hook it O.B. off the first tee. So, to make sure you overwhelm your short-term capacity in the correct fashion, you must toughen up your practice just enough to involve your long-term, permanent memory.

I have found that the magic number is 30, the percent of failure you must create to titrate your max OCP. Of course, it varies given the circumstances and the player, but your coach should be able to design a practice routine that identifies your current personal OCP – a flexible program that adjusts itself as your skill level changes.

If you do not have a coach, try different practice structures to find your OCP (your ideal level of practice difficulty). Once you get comfortable, move to a more difficult structure to cement long-term retention.

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