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Redefining Ability

Updated: Aug 25, 2017

To maintain their enjoyment, golfers with disabilities may be forced to change the context of their game. It's a lesson many able-bodied players could learn from, says PGA professional Alex Nicolson. (Article first published in Golf Monthly, 2014)

The underlying theme throughout my series of articles for Golf Monthly has been enjoyment of the game. The quest for performance and results is natural for many, but if it’s at the cost of pleasure, it’s worth some self reflection. This is seldom more evident than when you play golf with someone who has a disability.

I've learnt more about golf and humanity teaching my mother than any other pupil. Jill was a superb golfer in her day, winning the Scottish and British Girls Championships in 1966 and subsequently being capped for Scotland several times. I learnt a lot from her growing up, as the game seemed to come to her so easily.

Although her game lost some its former glory as she entered her 50s, Mum was a creditable 12 handicapper until a few years ago. It was then that things started to become much more challenging. She was diagnosed with a form of Alzheimer’s called Posterior Cortical Atrophy (PCA). PCA is a degenerative brain condition which specifically impairs visual and spatial awareness. Difficulty judging distances and distinguishing between stationary and moving objects are common symptoms. As you can imagine this was a game changer, in its most literal sense, for her golf.

Readers who have, or know of someone who has, a disability, injury or condition that hinders ‘performance’ will empathise with the frustration Mum felt when the game she loved progressively became considerably harder.

Two invaluable lessons for enjoyable golf

Why are you out there?

The first thing I learnt from watching my mum continue to play was how she gradually changed the context for her golf. Her condition made the short game disproportionately difficult, so scoring was a joyless pursuit. So, where previously competition was a strong motivation, when her context changed to fresh air and exercise, socialising and simply striking it well, a giant weight was lifted from her game.

She also shifted her standards. In previous articles I've referred to the “Enjoyment Gap” – the difference between what you wanted and what you got. Whilst initially the gap for Mum was very large (imagine the standards of an ex-International!), she lowered them to a level that was attainable. I’m not saying this was a painless process, but once she’d accepted it, it meant it was possible for golf to be enjoyable again. Ironically, this also made it easier to hit the ball well.

Many former low handicappers never get their heads around their diminished golfing abilities, and lose their appetite for the game. In my view, Mum has one up on those who would rather suffer than change their context or shift their standards.

The human body is amazing

The other remarkable lesson I’ve learnt is simply how versatile and adaptive the human brain and body can be. I’ve watched a one-armed golfer hit a 7 iron 170 yards, a blind golfer play par golf and, recently, was sent a link to a video of one-legged golfer, Manuel De Los Santos. See the video below, - it’s inspiring stuff.

My mum’s ability to connect with the ball with her driver is staggering. Like a blind golfer she needs someone to put her in position, but on her day she can still make a great contact that produces a soft draw. However, the hypothetical “coaching manual” is of little use to players like her. They have to find another way - a way that taps into their instincts, the innate ability to adapt and solve problems - and is perhaps very different to your own strategies for improvement.

There are many ways to skin a cat

The video of the aforementioned Manuel De Los Santos is the perfect illustration of what is possible. Golfers free from impediment who continually hit the same bad slice have just forgotten how to let their instincts solve problems. When coaching a golfer with this sort of affliction, I’ll wake up their problem solving abilities by challenging them to hit the ball using just one arm, standing on one leg, or with their eyes closed.

Usually, people perform above their expectations when faced with these challenges. We sometimes need a jolt to the system to remind us that we are not captive to ‘that swing fault’, and can find good shots more easily than it might appear.

Adopting the right attitude

Whilst I’m a keen advocate of trying to learn from mistakes, if this becomes agonising self-scrutiny, and tension that could support the Forth Road Bridge, then ease up. Whatever your motivation for playing golf, your journey will be more rewarding if your attitude takes account of the game’s inherent challenges and the many elements beyond your control. Self-implosion awaits those who can’t find a way to deal with these things.

So, if you’re a golfer with all your faculties, you can learn considerably from those who have to overcome tougher physiological challenges, and do so with a spirit that is rich in learning and enjoyment. This kind of attitude is best summed up when the issue of driving distance comes up in a lesson with Mum. A good shot barely carries 100 yards, but as she jokes, “It’s out of sight, so who cares?”

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