EAST MEETS WEST

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By Kevin Smetlz, BGGA Director of Instruction
How to bridge the Gap between East and West in developing Junior Golfers
There are so many differences between the cultures, belief systems and paradigms of the West and the East. As a golf coach with many year’s experience teaching in Asia and working with top Asian players such as Na Yeon Choi, Chie Arimura, Amy Yang, Song-Hee Kim, Yoon Ji Cho, Jungmin Lee, Jennifer Song, Haeji Kang and many others, I believe these cultural factors play an important role in coaching players effectively, and helping them find their way, as a golfer and as a person.
The starting point is to truly understand the difference and the challenges they bring, without judgement and bias, so that as a coach you can find the leverage with each individual player that will help them stretch their comfort zone and reach their potential. Adopting a “one size fits all” approach does not work in developing players, and even more so when you factor in the cultural aspects that have existed for hundreds of years. Understanding is the first step, then you develop the actions, habits and strategies to overcome these challenges.
Questions are always the most powerful tool for understanding what drives or motivates someone, and you can learn just as much from the type of questions that players and parents ask their coach, as you learn from asking questions. Some typical questions I have heard many times from players from the West are:

  • How can we compete with the Asian players?
  • How can I make my son/daughter practice harder like the Asian players?
  • What are the Asian players doing that we aren’t?
  • Should we withdraw our son/ daughter from school so that they have more time for golf?

These questions are prompted by the success the Korean players have had over the last 20 years, to a place of dominance in women’s golf. Let’s take a look at the realities, and how East and West differ in their approach.
The Pros and Cons of Players from the East:
Pros:

  • An incredibly strong work ethic
  • Externally very even keel and in control
  • Isolated to some degree
  • High level of focus on the results
  • Highly disciplined and driven
  • Teachable and obedient, quick to follow direction

Cons:

  • Primarily outcome focused
  • Very dependent on coaches, lacking in autonomy
  • Little balance in their lives, all activities focused on golf
  • Always do what they are told, at the detriment of self-direction
  • Early specialization which has mental and physical implications
  • More is better

Pros and Cons of Players from the West
Pros

  • Strong self-belief and self esteem
  • More exposure to other activities and sports
  • Taught to be more process focused
  • Enjoy the game and have more fun
  • Tend to be more intrinsically or internally motivated to play
  • Practice more effectively by default of lifestyle

Cons

  • Can lack discipline, focus and intensity
  • More options and less “desirable difficulties” (as per Dr. Bjork)
  • Not as detailed oriented
  • More defensive, less willing to take advice from parents
  • More emotional, react negatively to bad shots and bad situations
  • Research on practice — Block, random, interleaved, massing, spacing, etc.
  • Feedback
  • Training Aids
  • Sweet spot for learning

In reflecting on the pros and cons of both cultures, it is clear that we have a lot to learn from each other.  If we can take the work ethic, intensity and commitment of the East, and blend it with the self-directed, intrinsically motivated tendencies of the West, then our student athletes will be well-rounded and well adjusted. But this is easier said than done.
The story of Se Ri Pak is one of the greatest examples of this. Some have said she impacted the game more than Tiger Woods and blazed a trail in women’s golf that has not been seen since. But in an introspective and candid interview about her life, the truth of Se Ri’s story hits deep.
“I’ve done everything I can do as a professional, as a golfer,” Pak said in a press conference in 2016. But Pak, 38, said when she looks back at her career with ruthless honesty, she sees something else too.  She sees an incomplete person. “I took care of my golf,” Pak said, “I didn’t take care of myself. My golf, its good. As a person, I don’t think I’m good, or good enough.”
This is profound, coming from someone who changed the landscape of women’s golf in Korea and had a significant impact on the sport. In 1998, Pak’s rookie year on the LPGA Tour, she was the only Korean player. She retired in 2016 with 39 professional wins and five major LPGA championships to her credit, but even more importantly she was the driving force behind the emergence of Korean players who started playing the game. Ten years after Pak joined the LPGA, there was an astounding 45 Korean’s on the tour.  With this track record and impact to women’s golf, some might expect her to retire with a sense of accomplishment and contentment.
Golf Channel’s Randell Mell went on to report, “Pak says the next part of her life is about addressing this deficiency she feels. It’s about completing herself. But she believes the best way to do this is by addressing the deficiencies she sees in the monster she created back in her homeland. It’s by helping young players make sure they work on completing themselves, too. Pak would like to open a school to train athletes, but not just train them for sport. She wants to train hearts, minds and souls, too.”
I admire Se Ri for her openness and vulnerability and I too want to take on the challenge. We have an amazing opportunity as coaches, parents and mentors to promote the work ethic, spirit and drive that we find in the East and combine it with the intrinsic motivation and practice protocols that are becoming the norm in the West. What would the future look like if we learned from each other, and took the best of both worlds? It would create more complete athletes and human beings and it would promote more longevity in the game that we all love.
I will leave you with these thoughts as we contemplate this challenge and strive to improve on both sides of the world:

  • Educate students and parents on the strengths and drawbacks of both cultures for more understanding
  • Learn about the research on elite performers and practice across many different fields
  • Adopt a growth mindset to continually learn and develop throughout your journey (C. Dweck)
  • Seek to understand others and find the leverage that will move them forward, versus trying to convince them of your beliefs
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