Hank Haney coaches Tiger Woods. On the new Golf Channel reality show The Haney Project: Charles Barkley, the swing guru puts his reputation on the line in an attempt to fix the worst golf swing in the world. As a matter of fact, as Haney correctly assesses, Barkley’s swing (see below or check it out on YouTube) is so bad that it has become the most recognizable and famous in the world. That’s not the kind of recognition any golfer desires.
What struck me in watching the first two episodes was that Haney smoothly transitions from coach to teacher. And, he has no illusions about the difficult road ahead of him. After watching a video of Barkley’s swing over the course of a long day of practice, Haney explains, “As a teacher, you always think you’re going to perform some miracle.” However, he knows that big challenges require hard work and sweat, not divine intervention, and praises Barkley for putting in a “Tiger day” workout, basically 12 hours of golf and workouts.
Haney’s thoughts about teaching set off an internal buzzer in my head. I immediately thought of my public relations students at USF. They could learn a great deal from watching Haney and Barkley attempt to rebuild his game.
To be fair, one should keep in mind that Barkley was once a single-digit handicap golfer. Much of his problem is overthinking. As golf legend Bobby Jones once said, “Golf is a game that is played on a five-inch course — the distance between your ears.”
Teaching PR (all of teaching, though, really) is much like the challenge that Haney faces with Barkley. Students possess the abilities they need to be successful, those skills just got flabby through misuse or bad instruction. In addition, many students lose their confidence or never had it to begin with, so they really want to be great, they just do not know the path to get there.
Take writing for example. There is no skill more necessary for a communications professional. Walking into “Writing for Public Relations,” students have been learning to write for 12 to 16 years. They use the language everyday. However, along the way, they pick up bad habits or face the unfortunate situation of having an average teacher.
As a result, students are in the awkward position that Barkley faces. They do not know how to compensate for their own errors and some become so self-conscious that they are too embarassed to know where to turn. When they turn in assignments — like the swing videos Haney evaluates — they finally begin to recognize the myriad of challenges ahead.
Where professors become even more like Haney is in transitioning between coach and teacher. About half my daily effort comes in fixing the hitches, slices, hooks, and misalignment students have in their writing. This is conducted through a variety of in-class assignments, longer pieces, and discussions of what professionals do when confronted with similar challenges.
The “coach” aspect of the job is revealed in the amount of time professors spend building up the confidence of undergrads being forced to cram a lifetime’s worth of work into 15-week timeframes. In the writing class, I coach them on the “a-ha” moment when they will realize that they have professional-level skills, but let them know that might not happen within the confines of the course. It may take 20-weeks, 6 months, or years, in fact, before the lightbulb goes off. Believe me, this is extremely disconcerting to today’s undergrads, who have been taught to follow explicit directions and come up with the single correct answer.
Where the rubber really meets the road for me in watching The Haney Project, however, is in the dedication and effort Barkley is willing to exert. This is the primary difference. I find that even many really talented students are often unwilling or unable to understand the level of commitment it takes to be outstanding. Too many students simply go through the motions to get a good grade without acquiring the wisdom that goes along with learning.
For example, all students that go into communications need to understand social media from a strategic standpoint. Yet, few of them blog because they want to (though my colleagues and I force them to blog for our classes) or use newer tools, like Twitter. Facebook is nearly universal among college students, but the vast majority cannot intelligently explain the pros and cons of a company using it.
For better or worse, a great deal of this learning process falls directly in the lap of students themselves. In that regard, professors are more like coaches or facilitators. We talk about the “big picture,” then expect that bright students will handle the tools on their own to really get a feel for them.
One way students can pick up this kind of experience is through internships, but that takes time and resources that many of today’s struggling students do not have. However, any student can start a blog and begin building “Brand You” a topic I discussed here.
I have several goals in teaching: create a learning environment that facilitates critical thinking, enable students to understand the necessity of hard work and determination, and get them prepared for the first day they hit the seat in their cube or office. As you may notice, none of these aspirations involve rote memorizaton, simple recall, or where and when to use commas.
Watching Haney work with Barkley, I realize that he shares similar goals. But, at the end of the day, it is the student’s response that determines one’s success. That’s why we cannot hope for miracles. Instead we need to let students know that what seems like a miracle evolves from hard work. Acquiring a foundation centered on hard work places the budding professional in a good place for the communications world that is constantly in flux.