What Did Leo Learn?

In Psychology, there is a behavior modification technique called the Method of Successive Approximations. Essentially, the method involves gradually changing, modifying, or altering a behavior by reinforcing other behaviors that closely resemble, or approximate, the ultimate behavior you are trying to create. Think about learning to swing a golf club. There are many behaviors you have to learn along the way that when put together lead to a fully functional swing. Reinforcing those smaller behaviors that culminate into the intended more complex behavior is how most of our behaviors are shaped. 
The idea of gradually reinforcing simpler behaviors that build into more complex ones also helps to explain how we are socialized and the process starts when we are very young and junior golfers are no exception. There’s a lyric in the Cat Stevens song, Father and Son, that reminds me of this idea every time I hear it. In the third verse, Stevens laments, “From the moment I could talk, I was ordered to listen.” I think Stevens is right. It’s pretty incredible to think that as soon as we are able to communicate, the socialization process begins and we start to lose ourselves in the demands and expectations of others. I think this happens a lot in golf, and like in the real world, it’s not always a good thing.
Unfortunately, the culture of golf is filled with demands and expectations of others. Whether it’s friends, family, coaches, or just your playing partner for the day, the culture of golf is constantly reinforcing the idea that a golfer’s identity and self-worth are tied to your score. You’re okay if you play well relative to your abilities, and you’re not okay if you play poorly. If you don’t believe me, just listen to what golfers say to each other during your next round. Most of what I hear is about reassurance. 
Watching coverage of the Par 3 Tournament at the Masters yesterday, I happened to catch a moment that stood out to me as a perfect example of how the socialization process for young golfers works and the potential negative impact it could have on them. After hitting the green on one of the holes, Justin Rose let his 13 year old son, Leo, hit the birdie putt. Leo’s attempt came up short and like any nurturing well intended crowd would do they offered up a cascade of sympathetic “aws” to soothe Leo’s visual disappointment. Even though the crowd was trying to make Leo feel better, I couldn’t help but think they were sending him a louder message that it wasn’t okay that he missed the putt and that he needed their reassurance to feel better. Then, with some encouragement from his father, Leo tapped in the subsequent par putt. The crowd roared with excitement reinforcing his success and letting him know all is well. But what did Leo learn in that moment? It seems to me that what Leo learned was “people pity me when I miss, and approve of me when I make”. Now, as psychologists are prone to do, I have no doubt that I’m overthinking things a bit, however, I also think I might be right. 
From a very early age, golfers get bombarded with feedback from the social world that how they perform determines their self-worth. The reinforcement of this idea comes from everywhere and as well intended as the social world might be, the social world is getting in the way of development one seemingly innocent comment at a time.