When I was a kid, there was a great little golf driving range a few miles from our house.  Nestled up to an overflow basin for the Ohio River and some gigantic creek, Green Tee Golf was the location of both the Tastee Freeze (or its equivalent) AND the place where I got to spend time with my dad.  Once I was old enough, he’d take me and my brother (and later, my punky little sister) down to the range.  When we were really young, we’d play mini-golf while he hit golf balls; once we were older, he taught us how to hold the club, and how to swing.

I liked mini-golf a lot to begin with.  It had a clear beginning and end, and a purpose I could relate to – hit the ball in that hole (which was no more than 10 feet away.)  I also enjoyed that, in Cincinnati’s soup-like humidity, I could be outside, but not have to run around and get all pink-faced like I did when I played soccer.

But most of all, I liked the fact that I got to hit things indiscriminately.  Once I actually figured out what I was doing, I wasn’t really any good at golf, but I made contact enough to like it.  I’d pick up a rental club, stand over the ball, and whack at it.  Sometimes I made contact, sometimes I didn’t. 

My dad would stand behind me (mostly, immediately behind me) and offer insruction on how I could improve.  Never shy about my personal space, I’d let him get in a few comments before telling him he could stuff it and leave me alone.  How could I know that he was trying to teach me a sport I’d play for life?  I was a snarky 11 year old who knew better.  Please.

Of course, I never really aimed for anything.  Oh, sure, there were flags out there.  But I just needed to hit.the.ball.  I didn’t care where it went, because it wasn’t a part of anything larger for me.  I wasn’t playing for money, or keeping score of how many times I hit the green.  In fact, I usually wanted to get out of there as fast as I could because I wasn’t nearly as good as those people around me, and who needs to prolong THAT kind of misery?   

Turns out, when I finally did get around to playing on a real course, I wasn’t much good.  All I had really learned to do was make contact.  I didn’t know how to avoid the trees down the right side of the fairway, or to modulate the distsance on a shot.  And I didn’t really care for the fact that it didn’t come easy to me.  I think, before I turned 18, I played only one real round of golf with my dad.  And then I didn’t play again until I was 24.

Only then, when I was getting back into the sport with some seriously fun friends, did I learn the key to practicing:  aim for something.  All the time, I’d go to the driving range at Diversey here in Chicago, and see these guys, winding up like 30-year-old versions of my punky 10-year-old self.  They’d just pound the ball wherever, and never give any thought as to where it was going.  Which is great, if you’re just angry.  But if you’re actually trying to accomplish something, you’ve got to learn how to aim.  An instructor once told me that going to the range to practice was absolutely useless, unless every single time I got over the ball, I aimed for a flag.  With golf, you can concentrate a lot, or a little.  Sometimes, you can get so wrapped up in the grip, or your stance, that you forget to aim.  You forget what you’re trying to accomplish.  And sometimes, you don’t even have the grip or the stance to blame.  Sometimes, you just stand over the ball, and fire. 

But that’s not the way to become a better golfer.  To do that, you have to aim every time.  And then you’ve got to learn finesse.  You’ve got to check your fundamentals.  You’ve got to learn what makes a ball shank to the left or slice right, and what small, simple changes can impact your entire game.  In short, you’ve got to become a student of the sport. 

That’s a lesson I think we can easily apply to training for any event, whether it’s your first 5k, or your fifth triathlon.  You see, when you first start training for triathlons (for example), you think that it’s all about getting in the miles.  You’ve just got to pound out a half mile in the pool.  Who cares if you’re efficient? You don’t want to drown.  Then, there’s the bike.  Most of us are simply concerned with making sure we don’t get a flat…and that we can actually remove a water bottle from our rack and not end up on YouTube while doing it.  Small goals, right?  Even with the run, at first, all you care about is having the legs to wrap up a 10k after a 26 mile bike, and a mile swim.  You don’t care about pacing or strategy.  You can’t focus on technique, because you’re too worried about baseline fitness, and not dying out there.

But after awhile, you realize something important:  when you’re just getting in the pool, day after day – or on your bike, because that’s what the schedule calls for, you’re not really doing yourself any favors.  Yes, you’re learning how to pound the ball (figuratively speaking), but are you learning how to aim for the flag?  Are you paying attention to the feeling in your chest when you push it too hard on your swim?  Are you doing the drills that will make you more efficient, or are you just clocking time?  Do you know whether or not you’re wasting energy as you haul yourself down the lane, day after day?  And on the bike, are you still operating on the same gear you’ve been on since day one, or have you ever figured out how to really climb a hill?  Have you learned how to change that flat so it doesn’t ruin your race?  Or are you still at the range, firing away, hoping that things will come together?  

These journeys we take are important.  They have the opportunity to let us become more aware of our bodies, our capabilities, and yes, sometimes our limits.  But they also give us the chance to expand our body of knowledge – to truly learn something more about the sports we’re trying, and to take those skills into other areas.  When I learned how to change a tire on my bike (which didn’t happen until the Chicago Endurance Sports Triathlon Training in 2003, a full FOUR years after I started doing triathlons), it rocked my world.  I went from having a panic attack every time I saw glass in the road to knowing that I would be able to help myself – and others – whenever I needed it.  It also gave me a whole new world to ride in, because I was no longer limited to taking rides with other people, in the city, where a cab or a friend could come and get me if I flatted out.  Suddenly, I was free to ride wherever I wanted.  And that meant I could ride hills, and practice my cadence, and feel what race day would feel like – and that, that was very, very cool. 

You, too have the ability to build your skills, and learn more about yourself, and your sport.   But you have to consciously think about what you want to accomplish when you go out, every day.  Yes, there will be days when you just want to pound away, with no goal in mind.  But mostly, there will be something you can learn, something you can accomplish, as you’re becoming an expert in your sport.  I call it Aiming for the Flag.  It’s a simple concept, but one that can help you sustain your enthusiasm for the sport long after your first race is done.  Because when you become an expert (and here’s the kick) it gets easier.  You can make those adjustments to stay on course, to save energy, and to hit your targets.  You just need to focus on them to get there.  

So next time you go out for a run, or a swim, or a bike ride, think about what you’re really trying to get out of the day.  Pick one thing – just one – and pay attention to it.  Think about your swimming form, or how you feel on hydration on the bike, or how you can get the most power from your ride.  Pay attention.  And pick a small goal, for every session, to keep you focused.

I promise you, the rewards you see will make that little bit of patience, that little bit of finesse, worth your while.

See you on the path…

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