Post Mortem on the Dan Plan

Sadly, the Dan Plan is over. I analyze what happened and what we can learn from one man’s adventure.

Thrash TalkAs a child I can remember wanting to be a professional baseball player. My mom told me that being a professional athlete was hard. Really hard. She told me to imagine filling a football stadium full of kids my age, and then selecting the one kid who was going to be a professional baseball player. The rest of us… we were going to be doing something else.

Dear mom was merely helping me set proper expectations. I know it is unpopular now to tell your kids that they can’t achieve their dreams. I see other parents telling their children that they can do anything they put their mind to. I get it. We are supposed to be supportive. Trophies for everyone!

You can read on the TST forum around once month some young kid will come on saying he wants to be a professional golfer. Most people say “follow your dreams,” some will say “good luck,” and one or two members will say something similar to what my mom said. A few years ago someone recommended to one of these hopeful people that they read The Talent Code. So I did. The author suggests that greatness isn’t born, but rather expertise is earned through hard work. I thoroughly enjoyed the book.

So when I first heard about the The Dan Plan, I was immediately attracted to the idea. One of the main tenants of The Talent Code is the ten thousand hour theory. Dan was going to test it. Perfect.

As Dan started, I followed dutifully. I read every blog post and followed his every move. He made movies, and I watched all of them. He did an interview, and I read it. I studied him intently. In a way, he was living a dream that I myself would have loved to try.

But after a few months and watching him on his journey I began to question what he was doing. Learning the game myself I saw him making some of the mistakes that I had made when I was first learning the game. This is was extremely concerning because as anyone in golf will tell you, once you start making mistakes and ingraining them into your muscle memory it is going to take you double the time to unlearn it and put the right stuff in there.

He started bouncing around instructors and posting swings that looked like he was not progressing as I would have hoped. Then as I looked deeper I could not find any information on what he was doing for deliberate practice. Some gym work, hitting balls, but nothing specific about what his practice routine was. I began to become disenfranchised.

Dan McLaughlin

As an engineer I felt his process for improving was a mess. I began to worry that at the conclusion of the Dan Plan were not going to be able to determine anything about the ten-thousand-hour theory. No conclusion, nothing. The investment of my time to follow him was going to be wasted.

During this time I moved to the Portland area and got the chance to interview Dan. I learned a few things during that interview. One, Dan is a really nice guy. Two, Dan is an artist by trade, and views the world differently than me. He really viewed the Dan Plan as a “meta” experience. Three, he was not going to a professional golfer if he didn’t seek a knowledgeable person, and would probably not even wind up a better golfer than me. That last thing I kept to myself until just now.

Oh, Dan had the chance to surpass me. But he would have needed to do it under the watchful eye of someone smart. Someone who could, every day, teach him the things he needed to work on to get better. Sadly in golf the number of such people is pretty small. Yes, there are thousands of teaching professionals, but most of them are not the smart ones I am talking about. This is of the major problems facing golf right now. In order to grow the game it must be addressed. The golfing bodies that be want to regulate how you hold your putter, roll back the ball, these things are focused on the wrong thing. Improve golf instruction, so people get better faster. Use the knowledge of the smart people who are out there and change the way golf professionals are taught. Stop making them take classes on how to fold a shirt in the pro shop and start teaching them to make golfers get better faster.

In fairness, I see some steps in the right direction. But more progress must be made.

Now we have learned that the Dan Plan is over. Dan has moved on to selling soda. Fine. He needs to make a living. Go forth and be happy.

But if Dan leaves his “Plan” like it is now, we’ve gained nothing. We don’t know anything more about the ten-thousand-hour theory than we did before. I doubt Dan will do any kind of post-mortem as it really isn’t his style. He will say that he wants to focus on the positive and to keep looking forward. But, in failing, I believe that Dan has brought one of the major problems facing golf to the forefront. How people learn to play the game is broken and it needs to be fixed.

Photo credits: © Angus Murray

16 thoughts on “Post Mortem on the Dan Plan”

  1. Top notch writing for an engineer. Sure you’re not one of them artsy people like Dan?

    I agree with the direction you took this- not necessarily a condemnation or a statement about the “10000 Hr Theory” (as we know little more about that than when we started), because as golfers, not sure that is as relevant as where you took this piece:

    Golf instruction and how to improve.

    You are right that we seem to know no more now than when Dan started, and this could’ve been a great window into the specifics of golf improvement through solid instruction. We got small glimpses into it through the his early videos. We got some tidbits through the blog posts. But all in all, there wasn’t much there that we didn’t already experience ourselves.

    We never saw the transformation of a golfer. He seemed to be stuck on the same issues late in the plan as when he first got to be a sub-bogey golfer. The takeaway hardly changed, for example, to my eye. He never seemed to make the leap to being a golfer that I would be recognize as being a top local player, and I wanted to see what instruction and practice regimen that would have taken. Perhaps this is all just a reflection on how hard it is for all of us to find good instruction to make that leap. Interesting insight.

  2. Totally agree w/respect to the golf instruction industry. It needs a total overhaul. One of the reasons the industry gets away with it is there’s no accountability. People still stink. So what? Just keep coming and paying my rate, all is well, status quo, but lately, there are more and more instructors who are really trying to make people better, get results.

    He had access to a well regarded instructor and videos of his swings still were from all different angles, never consistent. He doesn’t write much about self diagnoses, search for ball flight laws in his blog, there’s nothing. The depth of research was shallow imho.

    Also being dependent on free equipment and services doesn’t lend to someone being able to write totally objective opinions as getting something for free implies you have to write something positive it regardless of its faults, so the blog is a part “special advertisement” like in golf magazines.

    I lost respect for many of the media outlets that covered him as they were terrible at asking follow up questions. If they couldn’t evoke any good answers, they shouldn’t have written anything at all, what is out there is a lot of mumbo jumbo. Well, he got to a 5 on the plan so that’s not bad, well there are people who work full time who do that in the same amount of time The Dan Plan did, they’re not seeking any attention.

  3. Great article. I followed The Dan Plan when I first heard of it but it quickly seemed like it wasn’t going to work. I never really though about *why* but it makes perfect sense – 10,000 or 10,000,000 hours spent practicing the wrong things is not going to make you good . .except at doing the wrong things.

    To do it right, for most of us at least, would be pretty costly. I guess, if I wanted to practice for 8 hours a day that I’d need lessons at least every couple of days to stay on track. With my current instructor – who I believe could get me there if anybody could . .it would cost over $30,000. But he wouldn’t donate the lessons for a share of my winnings . .I promise you that, lol.

  4. Also as an engineer, you probably realize Dan is just a single data point. Even if he had gone pro, it wouldn’t be enough to make a conclusion about the 10K hour plan.

  5. Well done analysis. I, too, started following Dan years ago. His abandonment of the “Plan” and months long silence has been disappointing. I detected a bit of movement on his website recently. Someone “approved” several months worth of comments. Perhaps we have not heard the last from Dan.

  6. The irony is that Ericsson mentions Dan in his new book Peak just out as an example of how ordinary people can apply deliberate practice.

  7. Michael, thanks for the update. Well written. I actually started following Dan in 2010. I even donated to his cause. I thought it was quite a cool undertaking.

    I have no problem with the abandonment of the plan nor the change in direction with the soda company, everyone must make a living.

    But a little closure to his followers would have been nice. No recent posts on his blog nor tweets in the past year. Disappointing.

  8. This was a very well written analysis.

    From my perspective as a sports psychologist, I think Dan missed one key item in his quest – natural talent for the game and course management smarts.

    Most every pro I know grew up playing a ton of golf, but that, in and of itself, won’t make you a touring professional. You have to know how to get a round a golf course. When to attack and when to play for par. You have to know where and when to attack and when to lay off. Mental management is extremely important in addition to practice.

    I will just say (with no names) that I have seen professional golfers who were the sons of other pros and they play the game far better than other top amateurs simply because they understand what to do and not do on a golf course. I have seen some of these pros who were not terrific talents, but knew the inside and outside strategies of the game and they ended up winning.

    Sadly, for the Dan guy, he just couldn’t progress much further without the head game for tournament golf. Injuries are a bitch, too.

    It doesn’t happen all that often, but I am an 11.2 index and I can beat single digit guys with course management alone.

    FYI, I would say that I am just slightly better than average as a golfer and the only reason I am is because of course management knowledge. I’m 58, overweight, pretty good health, losing strength, and suffer from all the temptations to just blast the ball as any weekender does.

    So, I carry a 5 wood, 5,7,9,SW, irons, and putter (6 clubs) and regularly shoot in the low 80’s. Why? Shot making talent?? God, no. Athletic talent? No way. Magic gizmo or golf ball? Nope (I haven’t purchased a new sleeve of balls in years. I just play with “finders” I get on the course.) A $2,000 set of custom fitted and made clubs?? Nope. I purchased my set for 25 cents per club at a yard sale. The bag was $5. Gym membership with personal trainer? Nope. Read tons of golf books? No. I have only read and still have Harvey Penick’s “Little Red Book.”

    My “answer?” Course management pure and simple. I haven’t lost a ball on the golf course since last May. I swing with about 75% effort. I win more matches than I lose and am +$235 on bets this year. I have the reputation around my home course of, “no way am I playing that old fart over there with six clubs in his bag.” Kinda fun.

    I do hope Dan is successful and doesn’t give up the game. He is a great guy and I admire him for trying. But, the comment you made about getting a “golf smart” trainer is so right on.

    I’f any of you are in Omaha, NE, look for the guy with six clubs…..Just kidding.

  9. Great respect for Dan. He tried something not a lot, if any tried before. In my opinion, the golf industry revolves around two things. The golf swing (instruction), and equipments (this 500$ driver will fix your problem of distance). Dan got caught into it. If you know what golf is about, 10 000 hours will make you a pro.

  10. Great article! I am with you 100%. As far as talent goes. I believe talent has very little to do with success in golf and I wish that cliche would die. Golf is about knowledge. The only reason people can’t hit it far or straight is because they have gaps in their knowledge(not because they lack strength, ability, or intelligence!). The golf world teaches that their is a magic bullet that they can sell you! Whether it’s a training aid, equipment and even talent. Great golf is a set of great skills. How do you develop skills??? Correct information and effort.

    Like you mention the correct information is far too difficult to find. That is the key that everyone seems to overlook. Would you hire just anyone to watch your kids? Your stock portfolio? Your health? Oh that’s right most people do. If you really want to be great at golf(or anything) start by getting the right information. How? Do research. Look up the person who will be teaching you. Look at their game, their swing, their students etc. Why are they teaching? Are they a master or a salesman? You slip this part and you end up like Dan. Injured and confused.

  11. As regards practicing the wrong things, Dan revealed this pretty early on. He originally talked about the inordinate time he devoted to putting when he first started. He talked about moving outward from the hole as his plan for getting better at the game. But as Hogan was famous for noting, golf and putting are two different games. This means his plan for ‘spending’ his 10,000 hours was misdirected from the outset, with him spending too much time on on one half of the game. That was just one example, but I seem to recall him saying upwards of 1000 hours were dedicated to putting before he even began to analyze his golf swing.

  12. I don’t know anything about golf but I’m confused about something. I read in a post-mortem of The Dan Plan that by the end he was playing at a level that was top 5% (of amateurs I asusme) and that he shot a 70 (whatever that means) but that only 1% of golfers ever do that?

    Going from never touched a club to things like that sound super impressive to my ears. What am I missing?

  13. I believe it may take 10,000 lifetimes to reach a goal do lofty. Better luck in the next life, Dan!

  14. Useful analysis of the Dan Plan. Since “experts” are so few and far between in anything, it would seem that recognizing and then developing one’s natural talents (with whatever knowledge is available and with practice) IS a useful strategy for the general population. Talent-based activities are enjoyable and internally motivating. And good performance through focused effort in development (not 10,000 hours) is reachable in my personal experience.
    For golf, one’s best strategy may be to find that one instruction book that has the best guidance of the unreachable expert. So far, I have personally found that to be The Little Red Book by Harvey Penick.

  15. I used to butcher piano music, and in so many respects, the issues that you highlighted regarding the Dan Plan were the same problems I encountered. Fate eventually enabled me to find a great teacher, but by that time I had so many ingrained faults that it was a waste having such a great teacher, since I had already developed so many bad habits. Josef Lhevinne – one of the first teachers invited to the Juilliard School – mentioned that one of the reasons why the state of Russian pianism was so high was that they put as much emphasis on establishing a good foundation, rather than a preoccupation with Master classes. Based on your insightful autopsy of the Dan Plan, it sounds like the world of golf faces the same problem as the world of music (as least in the US) ; a dearth of high quality teachers who teach beginners.

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