Golf talent: What is it?

There’s a German proverb that says, “You will become clever through your mistakes.” Most people don’t think of this saying when it comes to the most talented people in their fields, however.

In the golf world, athletes such as Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson are thought to be gifted with a golf club like Michelangelo was with a paintbrush. When we watch golfers like Tiger and Phil play and practice, it looks as though they were born with the skills to be the best golfers in the world, and that their development must have been very easy. But according to Daniel Coyle’s book, The Talent Code, nothing comes easy for anyone. Not for Tiger, Phil or even Michelangelo.


Coyle contends that talent is acquired. It is not an innate quality or gift that is given to some chosen few, nor is it something we are born with. Talent is the result of a definite process through which the learner acquires a brain composition (a substance called myelin) that separates them from the average learner.

As a golf professional and surely not a neuroscientist, I would do Coyle’s work a disservice to elaborate. But in my role as a golf instructor, I found the book extremely beneficial to both me and my students. This article summarizes some of Coyle’s findings and offers a guide for those interested in ways to improve your game.

The first thing we learn, and probably the most eye-opening concept in the book, is this:

Learning comes from deep practice, and deep practice arises from trial and error.

There simply is no learning or talent development without trial and error. The author cites numerous examples of learners going patiently through this process; budding musicians playing a piece of music time after time until it resonates with their musical sensibilities, young Brazilian soccer players learning to move the soccer ball with their feet despite falling over it time after time, dart players, scrabble players, and so on. Regardless of the skill, the common denominator is how it is acquired.

“Struggle IS NOT an option,” Coyle says. “It is a biological requirement.

“Deep practice is built on a paradox: struggling in certain targeted ways — operating at the edges of your ability where you make mistakes — makes you smarter. Or to put it in a slightly different way, experiences where you’re forced to slow down, make errors and correct them-as you would if you were walking up an ice-covered hill, slipping and stumbling as you go — end up making you swift and graceful without your realizing it.

“The trick is to choose a goal just beyond your present abilities; to target the struggle. Thrashing blindly doesn’t help. Reaching does.”

The residual effect of this deep practice is that it actually alters brain composition. Coyle tells us that ALL great artists and accomplished professionals have an abundance of a substance called myelin in their neural structures. According to Coyle, we acquire myelin through hours and hours of deep practice, and as the practice deepens, the myelin continues to build and insulate nerve synapses (the structures that permit a neuron to send a signal to another cell, neural or not). This process is called myelination, and the effect of a profusion of myelin, is that the transfer of signals becomes much faster and more direct. And the outcome is, simply put, genius.

Coyle researched areas of the world he calls “myelin hotbeds” and found this in case after case. As I mentioned, I do want to do a disservice to this very informative work, but I do suggest a thorough reading of it.

“Skill is myelin insulation that wraps around neural circuits and that grows according to certain signals,” Coyle says. “The story of skill and talent is the story of myelin.”


So when we have deep practice, we’re building myelin. Now comes the firing of those neural cells. Just how much practice do we need? According to Coyle’s findings, 10,000 hours is a strong suggestion. If we do the math on 10,000 hours we get something like this: 50 hours a week, every week, for four years! For those of you who think you hit a lot of balls, think about just how many balls you could hit in 50 hours a week?

So how does the theory of myelin growth and 10,000 hours explain phenoms like Michelle Wie and Lydia Ko, who have competed on the LPGA Tour since their early-to-mid-teens? It’s clear from interviews with the two that they had a golf club in their hands shortly after they were out of their cribs, so they likely reached the 1o,000 hour mark before they even entered their teenage years. In any case, the trial and error repetition over and over and over again is clearly an integral part of talent development through myelination.

How does all this affect the average golfer? Well, let’s discount the 10,000 hours; that simply is not realistic for most people. But I think there is a lot to learn about the trial-and-error method of practice. When Coyle talks about deep practice, he is describing the type of work I have seen most effective in learning the game.

For example, it is beneficial for any golfer to watch new players at a driving range. See how they miss the ball, look puzzled, smash the club into the ground, look puzzled again and then out of nowhere smash one. One way or another, they solved the puzzle using the trial-and-error method simply because nothing else was available to them.

A golf lesson is, or should be nothing more than guided practice, providing opportunities for the student to problem solve and learn from their errors. If, as a student, you can embrace your errors and learn from them, you are on your way to deep practice and long-term improvement. It is only through fascination, a total awe for the subject matter, that one can practice deeply. If hitting better golf shots is your sole motivation and you put in the right kind of practice, you can improve. If your motivation is anything other than fascination, say perhaps, “to be better at golf for my job” or “to have a hobby with spouse or friends,” you may find more limited success. But the really great thing about the game of golf is that it can be enjoyed on so many levels.

I strongly recommend The Talent Code, both for it’s lively discussion of how genius develops as well as help with your own game. I’m always in search of new ways to teach and learn and this book enlightened me on both ends.

Guest Contributor: Dennis Clark, PGA