Poorly and WellLast week, I surprised Eli 11.1 by picking him up at school on a different day than usual.
"Hey, Dad," he said when he stepped out of the building. "What are you doing here?"
"Surprise pickup," I said. "And I thought we might go play a quick 9 holes on the way home."
His face lit up. "On, yeah!" he said.
He's played on two different courses now, and he's done fairly well. Pretty consistently, he'll double bogey a hole from the front tees, with an occasional bogey and an occasional "X".
The course we were playing this time was a 9-hole course, it was fairly short, and I thought it would be all kinds of fun.
It was miserably, terribly hot (Texas in September is HELL, and it was 101 that day), even in a cart. We were trying to hurry because Gloria was making dinner, and we didn't want to be late. Eli has so much to process on a real course, though, that he plays very slowly.
Plus, with a lack of rain lately, this course wasn't in good shape. On quite a few holes, I couldn't even distinguish the fairway from the rough.
With all this going on, Eli didn't play well, and he played worse as the round progressed. "Dad, what am I doing wrong?" he asked, almost desperate.
"Buddy, I'm sorry, but I'm not sure," I said. "I know we can fix it on the range in ten minutes, but this is one of the challenges of playing on a real course. It's much harder to fix things on the fly."
I felt terrible, because I wanted to give him the one swing key that he needed, but I just couldn't see precisely what he was doing. Actually, that's not true--it's not that I couldn't see. Rather, I was seeing too much. I saw lots of little things, but I wasn't seeing the bigger picture.
We did finally finish. The cart died on the last hole, which was another little bit of sunshine.
Finally, we got to the car, and I cranked up the air conditioning.
"Well, that wasn't fun," he said.
"I know," I said. "Maybe trying to fit a round in after school is just too rushed to work very well."
"And this course sucked," he said.
"Yeah, it wasn't in great shape," I said. "Although I've played here in the past and really enjoyed myself. It's just too hot and dry right now."
"And I was terrible," he said.
"Well, it wasn't your best effort," I said. "But you know what?"
"What?" he asked.
"I agree that this was totally miserable, but we need to find something positive here. Otherwise, it was just misery, and that's a waste. I know there's something positive, if we can just find it."
"Okay," he said. "That's a good idea. Let's think."
We sat and thought. I enjoy sitting and thinking about how I want to frame a subject for Eli. I take time to prepare when it's an important discussion, and it helps me see things more clearly. But this was an important discussion with no time to prepare. I needed to think of something, and it needed to be something honest, not bullshit.
After about 30 seconds, I realized something.
"I've got it," I said. "I never thought about this before, but it's the truth. You don't learn to play well by playing well. You learn how to play well by learning why you're playing poorly."
"Huh?" Eli said.
"When you're a goalie," I said, "and you're playing at your best, you're not learning anything. All the learning was done when you were playing poorly--when you were off your angle, or playing too deep, or not seeing plays develop. And every time you didn't play well, we worked on that part of your game. That's what the three keys are about."
"So when you play poorly, if you learn from it, you're building toward playing well," he said.
"That's it," I said. "But what most people do is play poorly and learn nothing from it, because they're too upset."
"So they just keep playing poorly," he said. He paused, then he laughed. "Dad, you can find something positive in ANYTHING."
"You help me do that," I said.
"Because I want to help you understand that being happy is a craft," I said. "It's not something that comes automatically. And when I think about what you need to learn, it makes me realize what I haven't learned yet. I would have never thought about today this way if you weren't with me. I would have just thought that it sucked."
He laughed. "It DID suck," he said.
"Yeah, but it won't suck on Saturday, when we go to the range and fix all this," I said. "And that will make it less likely to ever happen again."
That's one of the most surprising things I found out about being a Dad: you think you're teaching your kid, but in a lot of ways, you're teaching yourself.
When we got home, I downloaded Harvey Penick's Little Red Book, which is a classic in golf instruction, mostly because it's so straightforward. Golf swings are complex, in many ways, but thinking about them in complex ways can be ruinous. There are a few very simple things in a golf swing that are essential, and if you can do them, you'll hit the ball decently almost every time.
That's a metaphor for life, too, but I know you saw that coming.
So I read The Little Red Book, and on Saturday at the range, I gave Eli his three keys. And it worked. In ten minutes, he was hitting the ball as well as he ever has, and he had a big smile on his face.
"So when are we going to play on a course again?" he asked.