How a piece of wood and a golf ball changed a boy’s life

Learning to win from losing often

Donald Bradman failed to hit a ball hundreds of times.

Feet positioned well, eyes on the target, he swung and missed, regularly.

But it was a private failure, hidden by time and space that his future fans would scarcely contemplate.

Donald failed first, many times before his aim focused.

The image of a sporting legend failing is suggested within a short treasure from Australia’s National Film and Sound Archive, shot in 1932. In one part of the film, ‘How I play cricket’, Australia’s heroic batsman Don Bradman repeats a childhood drill he’d invented and mastered.

With a thin, cylindrical piece of wood in one hand—a cricket stump normally positioned behind a batsman in cricket to protect two precariously placed knobs of wood, or ‘bails’—Donald demonstrates how he would throw a golf ball at the base of a water tank when growing up. Unable to predict the rebounding trajectory of the ball, Bradman would attempt to hit it with the thin stump with milliseconds to judge its path. The simple drill made for a powerful way to train hand-eye coordination.

Later in the film, ‘The Don’—as he later became known by an adoring world of cricket fans across the British Empire—is shown completing a similar exercise to improve his fielding.
We can assume by such a practice is that Donald frequently missed his mark. That’s the nature of a drill—one miss, one hit, another miss, another miss… until the ‘art’ is nearly perfect.

‘I was never satisfied unless I could hit it, say, three times out of four. The small bat made this no easy matter, as the ball came back at great speed, and, of course, at widely differing angles, I found I had to be pretty quick on my feet, and keep my wits about me, and in this way I developed, unconsciously, perhaps, sense of distance and pace.’

Sir Donald Bradman, quoted in The Register News Pictorial, ‘Bradman tells how he began his cricket as a child’ 1 December 1930, page 16

Bradman, who would later be knighted in the British Commonwealth, registered performances which still inspire cricketers the world over. His Test batting average of 99.94 remains an unconquered high water mark in the game, and put him ahead arguably of other sporting elites, depending on how such comparisons are measured.

For Bradman, such simple drills proved invaluable for the sportsman’s development and subsequent triumphs in cricket.

Whether athletic, vocational or mental, Bradman’s simple drill is something of an instruction for any context.

Repetition builds muscle memory

Simply practising a task over and over makes for remarkable growth. Neuroscientist Alan Pearce calls it ‘motor memory’, describing it as ‘the central nervous system, which is the brain and spinal cord, retaining motor skills and being able to memorise motor skills’. (‘Is muscle memory in your body or your mind? The experts disagree, ABC, 29 March 2019)

Whether it’s an athletic coordination or a musical practice, the principle works. And it reminds us of the importance of repeated effort over early abandonment.

Adding higher difficulty simplifies reality

Bradman didn’t begin his sporting drill with an actual cricket bat. He chose something far more difficult in the form of a thinner and rounder cricket stump. And for his target, he chose the speedier and smaller golf ball.

It was genius! Simple!

When moving to actual field of play, the translation must have appeared a lot simpler at times when facing mere human bowlers.

It’s something of a non-sporting life hack too: What is difficult in private makes for easier execution in real life. Driving through a defensive course on a race track no doubt makes for an expert in navigating a mall carpark!

Prepare for the unpredictable

Throwing a ball at a rounded water tank could never produce a predictable return path. It forced Bradman to react quicker and adapt fluidly to unexpected movements. Once on the field of play, that skill no doubt carried through in particular to his renowned fielding ability—able to move his catching hands in the path of fast returns from an English bat.

Life’s a lot more manageable and calm when we enter it assuming the unpredictable. In emergency management exercises, first responders in fact prepare for the unexpected, and build scenarios that encourage quick shifts and reactions that meet the new and emerging circumstances.

Teach what you know

The very fact this documentary exists exemplifies Bradman’s desire to educate the next generation of cricketers. Sir Donald wrote books on the ‘art’ of the game as well as ‘how to play’.

He didn’t use his skills and then park them in a storage shed. Bradman gave back, educating the players to come on what he knew would work in the game he loved.

There’s something we are all good at, something we are uniquely gifted in. And teaching it to others will have the added benefit of sharing what you know, and solidifying the truths in your mind as you share your gift with others.

Train alone

The greatest lesson of Bradman’s vision was the image of him spending time alone as a young man, perfecting and schooling himself in the skills and techniques that would one day conquer the game.

There were, no doubt, many more missed shots in the start of his verandah-based sessions than at the end. But he played and missed and missed and missed again alone—perfecting and learning all the time on how to target and execute.

Whether it’s the ‘art’ of a batsman, or the deft stroke of a master painter, your skill is only ever honed alone. Teamwork will teach you how to blend and join your gifts, but isolation will school you in the recovery from minor, repeated failures.

Whatever your gift, start using a portion of it alone, with some degree of small difficulty that will make the actual delivery easier.

Paul Gallagher is a writer, journalist, political biographer and communications specialist in Melbourne, Australia. You can also find his writing on Medium.