I love playing golf! I also like watching golf pros competing against each other at the highest level of the game. During the most recent TPC Sawgrass tournament in Florida, my eyes were trained on Aaron Baddeley, a talented Australian who has been in the PGA circuit for a while. He was about to tee off on the 119 metre island green on the 17th hole. As Aaron completed his pre-shot routine (a set of activities that every Pro goes through to get themselves into the groove ahead of a shot), I saw him close his eyes for a good ten seconds. The commentator and I blurted out together, “He is visualizing the shot”. Unless Aaron was dozing off (which he obviously was not) I am quite sure that the commentator and I were both right!

I have written in the past about the power of visualization, the exercise of mentally viewing an action before it is physically executed. When visualized with sincerity, the human nervous and muscular systems prepare themselves by firing precisely in a similar manner to what they do when the physical action actually happens. Medical tests were conducted on Olympic athletes where they were asked to run races in their minds by visualizing themselves doing so. While they sat absolutely stationary, it was incredible that the same nerve cells and muscular tissues fired up that would have if they were actually running the race!
What is Competency?
A lot has been spoken and written about Visualization. Now let me set your expectations right. Hand a 3- iron club (a longer and more difficult club) to a high handicapped weekend golfer. Ask him to stand on the fairway and strike a golf ball 200 metres straight at the pin across water. Allow him do all the visualization exercises that he cares to do and then fire the shot. This guy will be lucky to get the ball on the green one out of ten times – a Pro could possibly do it eight out of ten times. So what is the difference? It is the level of ‘Competency’. Competency is a critical forerunner, a necessary dependency for Visualization to work!
Competency is fortunately quite easy to determine and is spelled out in four very prominent stages. Think of every skill that you have accomplished in your life or have not accomplished – you will be able to immediately recall how you went through the stages. Let me explain the stages through a bicycle analogy that most of us can relate to
Stage One: Unconscious Incompetence – This is when you are in la-la land, a zone of zero awareness – like when you first rode a bike. You were not aware of what it takes to ride the bicycle, why balance is important and what happens when balance fails. When you had the first fall, you did not know how to prevent the fall or what to do if you are falling anyway. In other words you are unaware of the techniques related to the competency or have just been introduced to them and have obviously not had enough hours in practicing them. This is the most frustrating phase in mastering any skill – most people drop off right here!
Stage Two: Conscious Incompetence – If you are able to labor past phase one, things start to get a little better. As you continue learning the competency, you become more conscious and aware of what you ‘do not’ know. This in itself is a progression towards mastering the skill. On the bicycle, you realize that balance is crucial or increasing the speed improves the balance; therefore you need to be aware where the brakes are… You get the idea? Once you are conscious of the areas that you need to master, attention flows, you start to take the necessary actions, and results show. As your incompetence starts to wear away little by little – you start to get excited by the possibilities of gaining competence.
Stage Three: Conscious Competence – By this stage you are beginning to enjoy learning the competency, upgrading your skills, and practicing it with intensity. Your commitment and interest continues to grow through this process. This is a stage where you are conscious of what you ‘know’ and are able to execute the ability with confidence. On the bicycle, you start to move around while being consciously optimistic – ‘conscious’ of your learning and past practice, keeping the balance in-center, keeping to the speed that delivers the balance, being wary of where the brakes are and ready to extend your leg to brace a fall if that were to happen, ‘optimistic’ of pulling it off with the knowledge and practice that you have acquired through your hard work and commitment. Most people peak at this stage – the rewards are adequate. Very few have the desire, dedication and commitment to move to stage four!
Stage Four: Unconscious Competence – This is when you ‘have truly arrived’ as the Master of your Craft! You are like a seasoned bicyclist – pedaling away joyfully on two wheels without being aware of the motion and balance involved. This is the stage where knowledge and practice have intertwined, been internally programmed, and manifested to such a level of ability where you are able to demonstrate competence without having to be aware of it! While all this sounds quite magical, very few (the immortal practitioners of their respective crafts) really get to attain this stage! You wonder what next after this level of attainment? Well that’s why stage four is for very special people. They keep vacillating between stages three and four – learning, experimenting, discovering, and re-mastering the art as a lifetime pursuit!
Linking the two…
Now that we understand what ‘competence’ is and how it evolves, let’s link it to the power of ‘visualization’. For visualization to do what it does, the subject needs to possess a level of competency in terms of knowledge and practice to be able to know what to visualize accurately in the first place. I believe that it is in stage three that this level of ‘awareness’ actually kicks in! See it this way … effective visualization requires the ability to visualize the ‘right action’ and the ‘right outcome’. Both need knowledge and the practice of that knowledge a.k.a ‘Competence’– without this, visualization is a futile exercise! ‘Competence’ is the biggest differentiator in odds between a high handicap weekend golfer and a professional tour golfer as they stand 200m from the green with a 3-iron in their hands and a golf ball on the fairway!
To conclude Aaron Baddeley’s story after his visualization exercise – he steps into the tee box and launches into a smooth, confident and languid swing. The club hits down on the ball accurately, picks a healthy divot as the ball soars towards the green. Halfway into the flight, the ball continues to climb! As all eyes followed the ball, it overshoots the pin, lands on the far end of the island green and trickles into the water! Aaron is a great user of visualization, an excellent golfer and a disciplined professional … instances like this one on the 17th is the reason why like many others, he continues the vacillations between ‘Competency stages’ three and four in the quest for perfection in his chosen profession!

[The article has been contributed by Deb DuttaHe is a senior technology executive with over 20 years of experience in business and operations. Deb has a true passion for mentoring rising talent and is a frequent contributor and speaker at technology,business and educational forums. ]

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