Causes vs. Effects: A Diet/Golf Analogy

      26 Comments on Causes vs. Effects: A Diet/Golf Analogy

I hope you all had a lovely Thanksgiving. And to our non-American friends, I hope you had a lovely Thursday. Now on to more important things …

I became a golf addict in my thirties. As often happens with entertainers, it was partly the result of running around with a show-business crowd. Standup comedians don’t work until evening, so a lot of them play golf during the day. Between my fellow comedians and my golf-addict dad, I got sucked in.

After we moved to Tennessee, I managed to keep the addiction at bay for nearly 10 years. I went to the recovery meetings and followed the advice: don’t watch golf on TV, don’t take practice swings with imaginary clubs, don’t hang around with your old golfing buddies because they’ll trigger the craving, etc. I was confident I’d never golf again.

Then my danged nephews (The Older Brother’s Older Sons) conspired to get me hooked again. They employed cult mind-control techniques, such as calling me up and saying, “It’s supposed to be nice weather when I visit. Maybe we can go play nine holes” or “When you guys come up for the birthday party, you should bring your clubs.”

I tried calling my sponsor, but in a near-whisper, he told me it wasn’t a good time to talk. In the background, I heard a THWACK! followed by someone yelling “Nice shot!” so I assumed he was at an archery tournament and being careful not to disturb the archers.

Stripped of any support system, I weakened and succumbed. I spent a golf-binge weekend with the nephews. Ahh, the sweet, guilty pleasure of that first good hit …

Next thing I knew, I was parked in front of my computer at 2:00 AM, wild-eyed, holding a debit card in my right (trailing-side) hand, ordering new clubs. I engaged in the typical rationalizations: my 61st birthday is coming up, I work hard and deserve a little treat, and those single-length irons everyone’s talking about couldn’t possibly cause as much emotional damage as my old Cobras.

Yup, I was hooked again.

The only thing worse than being a golf addict is being a golf addict with a lousy swing. My dad suffered from that sorry combination in his later years, and the stress triggered delusions. As he drove past pastoral settings, he imagined he saw potential golf courses that had been wasted for lesser purposes:


“Something wrong, Dad?”

“Just look at those gently rolling hills, the grassy meadows, the pretty little stream. Get rid of those headstones, you could put a good golf course there.”

I realized that to avoid the same fate, I must either give up golf again or develop a decent swing. I chose the latter. I’m happy to say I’ve already made progress. Finding a golf swing that works, as it turns out, is similar to finding a diet that works: ignore the so-called experts whose advice is technically correct but doesn’t fix the problem, and take advantage of social media to find those rare teachers who actually understand how human bodies function.

I became a so-so golfer in my standup-comedy days. I usually hit the ball when I swung at it, and even had some marginally impressive rounds. But when I started playing again this year, I kept hitting it thin. Or fat. Or I’d duck-hook it. Throw in a few curse words known only to Irish-American golfers, and I’d be my dad at my age, but with less hair.

I shot some slow-motion video of my swing and found to my horror that I had a major “chicken wing” issue, which means my left arm was pulling into my body and my hands were flipping at the ball instead of swinging through it. A chicken-wing swing looks like this:

Telling myself “don’t do that” didn’t work, so it was off to seek the wisdom of crowds on the internet – an advantage my dad never enjoyed.

I sent a video of my swing to an online teacher. He replied that the chicken-wing and flippy hands were the result of not properly shifting my weight. (You can see in the photo above that my weight is still on both feet.) You’ve got to start the downswing by rotating your hips, continue rotating them through the swing, and get your weight to your left side before impact. Do these drills to practice getting into the correct positions. Start the drills in slow motion, then gradually pick up speed.

I did the drills. I could move through the correct positions in slow motion, but that was just posing. Put a ball in front of me, and it was chicken-wing/flippy hands time again.

What the …

So I kept searching YouTube for videos on fixing a chicken-wing, preventing flippy-hands, etc. The experts – most of whom are certified PGA teaching professionals – all said pretty much the same thing: the chicken wing and the flippy hands happen because the body stops rotating. You’ve got to rotate your hips and shift your weight to the left side before impact. Try these drills …

I spent hours practicing rotating my hips and shifting my weight just before swinging at the ball. It always felt forced and awkward. I’d get out the video camera, make a very conscious effort to turn those hips … then watch the video and see my hands flipping at the ball, chicken-wing arm fully on display.  Even worse, consciously stepping onto my left foot and cranking my hips around caused my head to drop down and to the right, away from the ball.

Son of a … this can’t be so friggin’ difficult.

Back to YouTube. Since the root of the problem was (according to the certified experts) a failure to shift my weight, I ran a search on golf weight shift. I came across videos explaining the proper weight shift in minute detail: start with your weight on the balls of your feet, then as you begin taking the club back, push most of your weight back onto your right heel, then push off the ball of your right foot and into your left heel, then drop the club into the “slot” and rotate your hips toward the target … oh, and swing the club into the ball too.

Oh yeah, that’s not complicated at all. I remembered an impression I formed when I first visited a teaching pro 30 years ago: the typical golf lesson consists of a talented athlete telling some schlub how to perform a complex and precisely timed series of moves he’ll never master because he’s not a talented athlete. Something like this:

You want a one-piece takeaway, so start the backswing by moving your arms, shoulders, hips and hands all together. As you turn away from the target, push your weight to the inside of your right heel, and let your left knee will bend out towards the ball. When your hands pass your waist, cock your wrists so the club and your left arm form a 90-degree angle, then allow your arms to move across your chest, but keep the “V” of your forearms together. Continue rotating until your hips have turned about 20 degrees, your back is facing the target, your left shoulder is under your chin, and the club is pointed towards the target above your head. To begin the downswing, push off your right foot and rotate your hips, then step hard onto your left heel, straighten your left leg a bit, and turn your belt buckle towards the target. You need to avoid casting the club too early, so as your weight shifts left, just let the club drop until your right elbow is in front of your right hip. Hold the 90-degree angle until your hands pass your right leg, then release the club by rolling your right arm over your left and letting your wrists uncock. Keep your head down until the ball is gone, then come up onto your left leg for a high finish. If you can relax and do all that smoothly in about one second from start to finish, you’ll hit the ball very well.

I began thinking perhaps I should sell those clubs I just bought while they’re still shiny and new. I can just play disc golf – after all, I’m pretty decent at that game.

Then I came across a video titled GOLF WEIGHT SHIFT IS AUTOMATIC-REALLY REALLY!!

Ahh, that’s nice to know. Shifting the weight is autom – wait, WHAT?!  I’ve been trying (and mostly failing) to train myself to shift my weight while swinging a club, and this guy is telling me it’s automatic? How the @#$% can that be?

Remember how it felt the first time you read Protein Power, or Good Calories, Bad Calories, or The Primal Blueprint and realized you’d been struggling for no reason? Remember that AHA! moment when Eades or Taubes or Sisson explained that if you try starving yourself thin, you’re just fighting your own body, and that “consume fewer calories than you burn” is an effect, not a cause? Switch to a real-food diet low in carbs, and your appetite and calorie intake will regulate itself – remember how it felt to finally have someone explain that? That sense of relief … combined with a bit of anger over all the time you wasted following bad advice?

That’s how I felt when I watched the video below (and many more later) by golf instructor Shawn Clement – who reminds me a bit of Mark Sisson. If there’s anyone I’d describe as a paleo golf instructor, it’s him. He relates the swing to motions our brains have already been programmed to accomplish easily. You can watch the video below, but I’ll paraphrase what he says in this and other videos:

If you ask someone to throw a rock or a spear or a frisbee towards a target, he’ll always do the same thing, without fail: take the arm back, cock the wrist, plant the lead foot, rotate the hips, sling the arm toward the target, then release. Ask him exactly when he cocked his wrist, or planted his foot, or turned his hips, he’ll have no idea – but he’ll do it correctly every time. That’s because humans have been throwing things at predators and prey forever, and the kinematic sequence to make that happen is hard-coded into our DNA. We don’t have to learn it. Our bodies and brains already know it.

So why do you struggle to shift your weight and rotate your hips when playing golf? Because you think your task is to hit the ball, so you’re making the ball your target. Your brain doesn’t see any reason to keep rotating your body once you’re facing your target.

But if your task is to throw the clubhead toward a target that’s down the fairway, your brain will fire that hard-coded kinematic sequence, and you will plant your foot, turn your hips, and sling the club – without thinking about it. Shifting your weight and turning your hips isn’t the cause of a good swing; it’s the effect of choosing the correct task.

I felt like a bit of a doofus for not realizing this before. I play disc golf. When I sling a disc toward the basket, I do everything Clement describes: take my arm back, rotate away from the target, cock the wrist, plant my lead foot, rotate my hips towards the target, follow through with my arm and shoulder, etc. – and I never think about it. That sequence just happens. All I’m thinking about is where I want the disc to go.

To remind our bodies that we’re throwing the clubhead toward the target, Clement even has a video showing how to literally throw the club underhand and down the fairway as a drill. I watched that video and several others at night. The next day I took some foam golf balls and a 9-iron out to the front pastures. Yes, I reminded myself, the ball is there, but it’s not my target. The target is that utility pole way out there. My task is to sling the clubhead toward the target and let it pick up the ball along the way.

BOOM. Left foot planted, hips rotated, weight shifted, arms accelerated, hands released, and I ended up standing on my left leg and facing the target. Every time. Without fail. Without thinking about the sequence.

I’ve since watched dozens of Clement’s golf videos. He frequently returns to the same idea: humans suck at thinking about individual body parts – he cites research to back up that statement — but we’re geniuses at automatically moving them in sequence to accomplish a task. Too many golf instructors look at the effects of a good swing and think those are the causes.

Sound familiar? Kind of like when the so-called experts tell you to focus on calories, calories, calories, but can’t explain why most people stayed lean back when nobody knew how many calories their meals contained? Matching their calories to their energy needs wasn’t the cause of being lean – that was the effect of eating real food. It was automatic.

As I watched more of Clement’s videos, I noticed he used to be quite a bit heavier. So imagine my delight when I came across a video where he explains that he lost 50 pounds on a primal diet after reading Grain Brain and meeting a guy named Mark Sisson. I doubt Sisson had any difficulty getting him to understand that matching calorie intake to energy needs is an effect, not a cause.

Because of YouTube’s viewers of this video also watched … feature, I came across another excellent golf instructor named Mike Malaska. His voice and vocal patterns remind me a bit of Dr. Mike Eades. So does his attitude towards the so-called experts.

I’m paraphrasing here, but in one of the first videos I watched on his channel, he said something like this:

Golf is the only sport where you swing at a ball and yet most instructors tell you to forget about your hands and focus on your legs and hips. Would anyone tell a baseball player, or a tennis player, or a ping-pong player, or a hockey player that the arms and hands just go along for the ride? Of course not. But that’s what we tell golfers. We tell them to crank through with their hips and force themselves into these various positions. Those positions aren’t the cause of a good swing. They’re the effects of a good swing. You swing the club with your hands and arms. If you relax and let the arms and hands do what they’re supposed to do, the body rotation and the weight shift will happen automatically.

Can you learn to swing a golf club by focusing on body parts and positions? Yes, but you’ll be fighting against your natural instincts, you’ll probably be inconsistent, and there’s a good chance you’ll hurt yourself.

That sounds a wee bit like:

We tell people to focus on calories and force themselves to eat fewer calories than they burn. Eating fewer calories than you burn isn’t the cause of getting your weight under control, it’s the effect of adopting a good diet. Can you lose weight by focusing on calories and going hungry all the time? Yes, but you’ll be fighting your natural instincts, you’ll be miserable much of the time, and there’s a good chance you’ll screw up your metabolism in the process.

If you’ve ever taken lessons or watched YouTube videos on golf and gone bleary-eyed with all the advice about hips, legs, feet, shoulders, elbows, rotating the core, shifting the weight, holding the lag, etc., etc., compare that with the simple advice Malaska gives here:

He doesn’t specifically say to throw the clubhead toward the target, but if you watch what he’s doing as he describes the “lever system,” it’s the same idea in different words: it’s an underhand throw and release toward the target.

That’s pretty much all I think about now: using my hands and arms to sling the clubhead underhanded towards the target and letting the lever system work. The body moves in response, but I don’t have to think about it. It’s an effect of the swinging motion, not a cause.

Causes vs. effects. The effective teachers — the teachers whose advice works — understand the difference, whether we’re talking about weight loss or golf.

I’ve been practicing what I learned from Clement and Malaska, and originally planned to take those lessons (and my new clubs) to an 18-hole course on my birthday three weeks ago. An emergency situation at work delayed those plans. I finally had the free day and the pleasant weather to play 18 holes the Thursday before Thanksgiving.

When I played 18 holes with The Older Brother and his Older Sons back in August (the day we dumped my dad’s ashes in the water hazard), I shot way over 100 and had more bad swings than good ones. On Thursday, I shot 85. I only took three swings all day where I skulled the ball – because I forgot to sling the clubhead toward the target and went back to trying the hit the ball. As soon as I reminded myself of the actual task, the swing came back – effortless weight shift and all.

I’m no more athletic now than I was in August, but I looked like a completely different golfer … because I kept scouring the internet until I found teachers who understand the difference between causes and effects and followed their advice.

Just like when I finally learned how to be healthy.

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26 thoughts on “Causes vs. Effects: A Diet/Golf Analogy

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      Well, there was that work emergency too. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

      1. Walter

        That swing on the front porch has been gone for yearsl — Max Magee’s wife to him when she asked him where he had been all night.

        1. Tom Naughton Post author

          Max Magee … the who assumed he’d spend the first Super Bowl on the bench and stayed out partying all night, then ended up playing with a brutal hangover and being a star of the game.

        1. chris c

          That was pretty good, and there were a lot of mostly knowledgeable comments.

          The big factor he missed out was the malign influence of the Seventh Day Adventists. For the benefit of those who didn’t yet see them

          among others

  1. Daphne Lansdown

    Having recently tried to teach children to throw a frisbee, throwing is in no way an automatic action. It is very much a learned skill.

    Having learned an awful lot of skills in my time (picking up skills is itself something of a hobby for me), it really sounds like what you did is not to find the one teacher who has any idea of what he’s doing, but rather found the teacher who gave you cues that actually work for you. Cues are the things that a teacher tells you to do that get you to do the right thing. Stuff like “singing in the mask” for singers and “bounce into the floor” for swing dancers. I’ve got a ton of experience finding that the cues which work for most people work terribly for me. In general, I do best with an actual, literal description of what one is supposed to do, while most people don’t. So when I can find a teacher who can give me a literal description of how to move the body, it tends to click really well for me.

    The problem with the analogy you’re giving is that sport teachers, as a rule, don’t get their teaching style out of a book then have no way to see how that works. They refine their teaching over the years by working with hundreds (or even thousands) of people and getting direct immediate feedback as to how well particular cues work. Which is why one always does so much better with in-person coaching—the coach can see how you do with the standard cues and change things up until he finds the cues that work for you. In videos, they can’t see what you’re doing, so you have to do what you did—keep looking at videos showing how to do it differently until you find one that clicks.

    What you’re not seeing is the people who watch the same video and do ridiculously wrong things based on those cues—the people who are told you play the game with your hands and do it all in the wrists, or all in the elbows, etc. If you ever try to teach the public some skill (I’ve taught Lindy Hop), it’s amazing how many very different interpretations there are of the same words.

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      Throwing a frisbee may take a bit of explanation and practice, but my daughter Sara was slinging disc-golf discs straight and far about two days after picking them up. I’ve never seen anyone learn a golf swing that quickly. Throwing a rock or stick toward a target seems pretty much instinctual to me. I doubt very few humans would need an explanation first.

      I took lessons from golf instructors who were standing right there with me, watching me. Helped a bit, but only a bit. Most of them gave advice about elbows, shoulders, hips, etc. The instructor I paid for the video lesson was watching slow-motion videos of me swinging, both from the front and side. His advice was technically correct of course — I certainly wasn’t shifting my weight and rotating — but telling me to shift and rotate didn’t create the easy, automatic sequence I need.

      Clement cites research showing that humans aren’t good at thinking about various body parts while trying to move them in sequence. Or rather, if we think about one or two parts, the others tend to freeze. Explaining the swing as an under-handed throwing motion was definitely the correct cue form me.

      1. Lori Miller

        I don’t know about throwing a ball, but catching one is surely a primal motion. My dog catches balls, in mid-air, while running on the stairway. I didn’t teach him any of that.

        I’ve always found explanations focusing on tiny little steps instead of the end goal to be like trying to drive with a compass and a stopwatch and no view of the road.

        1. Tom Naughton Post author

          I can tell you from a childhood visit to a zoo that chimps instinctively know how to throw and are very good at it. We learned that when they threw their own poop at us.

  2. Martin Levac

    I know about golf. I know a lot about golf. Not bragging, well maybe a little. Anyways, here’s a “tip”, which isn’t actually a tip, it’s just a simple explanation for how things work.

    The primary and most common problem is the perceived action which must take place: We must strike the ball upward to send the ball upward. Just like we must throw the ball upward to send the ball upward. And so we try, but fail. Why?

    The bigger of the two balls is in the way. Ya know, that big giant rock floating in space, we’re standing on it. That big ball is in the way.

    So how do we send the little ball upward then? Deflection, a brush stroke, just like in tennis where we strike the ball with the racket at an angle. In fact, just like every ball game there ever was. You name it, it’s identical. Every golf stroke is a brush stroke, a deflection, even with the putter, even with the driver. Every club has an angle to the face, anywhere from 8 degrees right up to 64 degrees. That’s what produces the brush stroke and the deflection. Also, that’s what imparts spin on the ball, a backward spin, that then exploits the Magnus effect, and the ball literally, and I do mean literally, flies like an airplane.

    Aha, now we’re getting somewhere. The big ball is in the way, every stroke is a brush stroke, so what is the only logical conclusion? We strike the ball downward to send it upward. As we do, we strike the little ball first, then the big ball immediately after. As we do, the clubface brushes the little ball, deflects it upward, imparts spin, it flies. A genuinely beautiful sight to behold.

    One single drill that is literally the only drill to contain genuine actual 100% pure positive effect, and zero negative effect.

    Set the ball where you would normally set it to strike it. Now push it a bit away from you so you don’t actually hit it. Set the clubhead down exactly on the spot where the ball normally goes. Drag the clubhead forward from that spot until it leaves the ground. Repeat. And by repeat, I mean repeat until you get bored, like a hundred times or something.

    You play golf, you know exactly how this drill is gonna go down. To drag, you must pull the club forward so it doesn’t catch in the grass. Well, that’s precisely how you swing and strike, by pulling the club forward so it doesn’t catch in the grass. You gotta strike the little ball first, the big ball after. Here too, you drag from the spot where the little ball normally is, and drag the clubhead on the big ball after that spot. That’s precisely how you swing and strike, by striking the point where the little ball normally is first, then strike the big ball after that. Foot-long divots here I come.

    One drill. You’re set. But, but, what about the weight shift and the yada yada, and the whatever and the whojiwats? Everything else is up for grabs, so long as this drill is performed as is as you swing and strike. That dril isn’t a drill, it’s how things work. Told ya, it’s not a tip.

    At this point, I imagine you have a pretty good idea of the depth of my own golf addiction. See you on the course, Tom.

    Oh, good read as usual, Tom. Thanks for that.

    p.s. Learning is intemporal, we can learn at any pace. Performing however, it’s done within the confines of the physical Laws, gravity, inertia, momentum, etc. If we try to learn at a performance pace, the previously learned lesson (if there is a previously learned lesson) takes over, we’re now in performance pace. So, learn in slomo pace, intemporal, repeat the motions slowly, learn them, don’t allow performance pace to take over. A sort of bimodal machine, input mode, output mode. Either or. Then, once learned, go into performance pace. Back and forth between the two modes, until you got it down good enough.

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      Always a good idea to start slowly. Even for something as relatively simple as an underhanded throw to the target, we need practice to hone it. But the AHA! part for me was seeing how focusing on that relatively simple task brought all those other motions into the sequence automatically.

  3. Bret

    Love this post. I’m a golf addict myself (though I don’t play as often as I’d like), and I’ve struggled too over the years to get my swing in good shape.

    Your post got me thinking about how and why the instructional discrepancy exists. I’ve got a hypothesis:

    Famous golf instructors got famous, despite their complicated advice, by institutional forces after coaching star players.

    But there’s an important distinction: They were not teaching those pros how to play from scratch. They were merely making minor adjustments to an already well oiled machine.

    Starting with really talented and experienced students and making them (marginally) better is not really an impressive feat. From that perspective it is not too shocking these teachers’ hyper-detailed advice would not be helpful to high-handicappers.

    On the other hand, these YouTube content creators have likely spent thousands of hours with beginners, taking many amateurs from zero to good. They’re the ones that understand the game the best.

    Congrats on the 85! I’m optimistic that after incorporating your great finds here, I will lower my score too. I’d love to shoot in the 80s consistently.

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      Malaska makes a similar point in some of his videos. As a young pro who spent thousands of hours practicing, he could adopt some of those body-part manipulations and get some extra distance. But he warns that if you’re not planning to spend most of your life playing and practicing, you’re better off sticking with natural movements.

      He had an interesting story about hip turn and Jack Nicklaus: a reporter asked Nicklaus about his powerful hip turn, and Nicklaus replied, “I never think about turning my hips.” The reporter said something about how photos of Nicklaus show a big hip turn, and Nicklaus replied, “Yes, but like I just said, I never think about turning my hips.”

  4. Elenor

    Work on shooting the ball first, Tom. It will ‘zero-in’ your ability to “hit what you’re aiming for”!

  5. Drew @ Willpower Is For Fat People

    If you think throwing is a totally natural and instinctive movement, try doing it with your left hand. If you’re as old as me you’ll probably think, “I’m throwing like a girl!” Which really just means you’re throwing like someone who hasn’t done it enough times to be good at it.

    I agree with Daphne above that different cues work for different people. If you can cue in to a motor pattern you already do well – throwing underhand – that might be the end of it. But I suspect there are lots of people who don’t “intuitively” know how to throw a ball who won’t automatically have a good swing.

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      I look at this way: put a human in the wild, with nobody teaching him to throw, I’m sure he’d eventually figure it out on his own. I’d say it’s like walking. It’s instinctual, but we’re not very good at it when we first try it. Even instinctual movements need to be grooved a bit with practice.

      When she was a toddler, my daughter Alana decided to pick up one of her blocks and throw it at her older sister. Hit the older sister smack in the head. Nobody had shown her how to throw — no golf-lesson-like instructions along the lines of “bend your elbow this much, take your arm back, then cock your wrist, now begin the forward motion leading with your elbow first, then come over the elbow with your arm and hand, now uncock the wrist toward the target and release your grip on the object” — and yet she hit exactly what she was aiming to hit.

      Left-handed would of course be a different story for those of us born right-hand dominant. I don’t think it’s instinctive to throw with your non-dominant hand.

  6. Don

    There is something deeply satisfying about making a good shot or a good catch in any sport. My wife is ambivalent about sports and yet I have seen her face light up and say, “Ooh, did you see that!?”, when she threw an empty vitamin bottle across the room and hit the garbage can. Maybe those who don’t like sports have never made an excellent shot and felt the joy that only it can bring.
    Think of the complex calculations involved in picking up an object like a rock, unevenly shaped, unevenly weighted, measuring the distance and the force required to reach the target, possibly moving, and hitting it. Sports are nothing but a refinement of our natural instinct to throw things.
    I’ve never golfed but I was an excellent hitter at the high school baseball level. I never really concentrated on the ball and it really just always felt like I was throwing the bat, so I get what you mean. Maybe I’ll take up golf 😉.

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      I was never much of an athlete but enjoyed golf and basketball with my friends. Chareva is the opposite. She inherited her dad’s jock genes, but has no interest in sports. Some years ago, she went to play a par-3 golf course with me. She’d never swung a golf club before. We hit one bucket of balls on range first so she could get the idea. That was it. One the little course, she put five of her nine tee shots on the green. Later we played a full-length 18 hole course. She was hitting her woods off the fairway, no problem — including her driver until I told her that was for tee shots. Same goes for irons. I told her if she ever took up golf, she’d be a natural. But she simply isn’t interested.

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