If I’m honest, this is the most perceptive Amazon review of my first book, Love Over Fear:
When I was 17 years old, I was pretty good at golf. As Sussex U18 champion two years in a row, I was, arguably, in the top 50 golfers in England for my age. I played for Sussex at all levels and won several trophies.
My foursomes partner for the Sussex U23 matches was usually Jamie Spence. We’ve kept in touch tenuously over the past 40 years. I spoke to him briefly in 2017 at the British Open at Birkdale, where he was working as an on-course commentator for Sky golf. This summer I saw him at Royal Liverpool when he was commentating again at the Open. He suggested we catch up via a game of golf back at my old club, Crowborough Beacon. Unlike lots of bonhomie, that suggestion proved more than hot air, and we played together for the first time in 40 years last Friday. I invited my dear friend Lester to join us and Jamie invited his mate Mike King.
We had a blast. The thing was, Jamie beat me by about 40 shots, a shot for every year since we had last played together. He shot a score of 66, five under par, without really trying. I took about 105 to get round. It was excruciatingly embarrassing for me at times. He played effortless golf. I looked as though I had never played the game.
When we sat in the clubhouse afterwards, we laughed about my name being on the trophy board as Crowborough’s club champion in 1983. It felt like a different world. In 1983 Jamie and I were pretty much equal in terms of golfing achievements. Since then I have studied and taught for 40 years and he has played golf for 40 years. I now play twice a year; back in 1983, I was practising 7 hours a day, most days. My hands used to bleed.
Jamie has had a great career. He won three professional championships and represented England when winning the Dunhill Cup. He competed in 471 tournaments, played with some of the greatest golfers who have ever lived – including Seve Ballesteros – walked the best golf courses in the world and was taught by top class coaches. He was the Team Manager for five Ryder Cups and chaired the European Tour committee. He was golf team leader for Great Britain at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. I could have spent all day Friday just grilling him about his golfing life.
When you lay down on paper how much our lives have diverged since we led the Sussex U23 team in the early ’80s, it is no wonder he absolutely whooped me! Being someone who thinks a lot about learning and how to become expert at something, Friday’s beating at the hands of Jamie confirmed a few things for me. He has become expert for several reasons:
- He has spent over 50 years playing golf.
- He has worked supremely hard, and deliberately, at improving his game.
- He was taught by expert coaches.
- He played with other expert golfers.
- He played on great courses which were in pristine condition.
- He competed at the highest level, under the most testing circumstances.
- He told me that he knew his golf swing inside out and what to do with his swing if he wasn’t playing well.
I could go on…
When I heard Dylan Wiliam speak earlier this year, he talked about there being no such thing as muscle memory. He exemplified this by highlighting the different muscles we use when writing our signature on a piece of paper with a pen and then on a white board with a board marker. The muscle groups are completely different but the outcomes are largely the same. What we think of as muscle memory is, in fact, an ingrained instruction from the brain to our muscles.
So, in 1983, Jamie and I had ingrained an instruction from our brains that allowed us to execute expert golf swings repeatedly, no matter how much pressure we were under. In the subsequent 40 years Jamie refined that swing frequently and regularly, literally millions of times, and I didn’t. When I play golf now, I very occasionally find that swing pattern which sends the golf ball sailing gloriously towards the target – often when I just swing the club and don’t think about what I am doing, allowing my brain to instruct my golfing muscles automatically like it used to all those decades ago. On Friday, Jamie repeated his expert swing pattern 66 times in a row.
There is one key learning point from my game with Jamie: no matter how well you might master something, without continuous practice you will lose that mastery. Use it or lose it, as they say. I had golf nailed in 1983, but the moment I stopped working on improving my game, my golfing skills regressed. The lesson for teachers is clear. We have to keep working on our teaching skills deliberately if we are going to maintain high levels of classroom expertise, even when we think we have cracked it!
It was fab to spend some time with Jamie, Lester and Mike again. We laughed a lot. I was (deservedly) the butt of most of the jokes. The experience was, however, also chastening. As my acerbic book reviewer so sagely pointed out, golf was my first love. But that was a long time ago and on Friday I finally got over myself and my golfing past. Instead, I delighted in my old mate’s sublime golf game and valued, just that little bit more, my decades of work in the wonderful world of education.