Tiger Woods: Model Learner

Tiger Woods
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I know nothing about Tiger Woods as a person. Well, that’s not entirely true. I actually know much more than I want to know.

But that’s not what this is about. This is about learning. And when it comes to his craft, Tiger Woods is the model learner.

He became a professional golfer in 1996 at the ripe old age of 20. He was probably the most hyped golfer ever, yet he somehow managed to exceed expectations. He won The Masters in 1997, breaking the previous course record and becoming the youngest winner ever. He won three more PGA Tour events that year and became the fastest to ascend to the number one ranking.

Then he began a remarkable pattern that he would repeat two more times in his career, and that he seems to be repeating again. He decided he needed to improve. And in order to improve, he realized that he would have to struggle.

Beginning in 1997, Tiger began to struggle. He won “only” one Tour event in 1998, and critics wondered whether the hype had caught up to him. Tiger’s explanation was that he was working on some swing changes with his coach.

Golf is a game of mechanics. You have to train your entire body to move consistently in perfect harmony. The only way to do that is through endless repetitions. Even the slightest hitch in your mechanics will result in failure. As a result, the golfer’s mindset is, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” and there are good reasons for that.

Then there’s the challenge of fixed mindset. Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck showed that people who believe that intelligence is innate (fixed mindset) tend to be demotivated by success, since future failure might cast doubts on their natural abilities. Fixed mindset is a barrier to learning, and it’s amplified by the level of success.

Tiger Woods had many good reasons not to change anything, but he chose to ignore them. After his first “slump,” he went on to win three consecutive majors, breaking countless records along the way.

In 2003, he began to slump again. Once again, he explained that he had switched coaches and was working on changing his swing. And once again, he went on to dominate the Tour.

Tiger has obviously been undergoing a lot of physical and personal adversity recently, and clearly, his game has suffered. Today, ESPN reported that Tiger’s been working with a new coach. In describing his mindset with his new coach, Tiger said:

I needed to understand the whole concept before I committed to what I was doing. It’s nice when you get rewarded with results, and the shots that I’m hitting now, it’s been a long time since I’ve been able to do that. That’s always a good sign.

I’ve committed to the concepts, and more than anything, I understand what he’s trying to reach. So that’s the biggest thing.”

Needing to understand the whole concept?! What golf concepts could Tiger possibly not understand?! It feels impossible to fathom that the best golfer that the universe has ever seen has anything to learn about the game of golf, but that’s obviously not true.

Tiger is obviously a remarkable golfer, but he is an even more remarkable learner. We could all learn from his example.