How a Gymnastics Coach Became a Single-Digit Handicap Golfer in Six Years

Is athletic ability something that’s transferable? Deion Sanders was an outstanding baseball and football player, but Michael Jordan, one of the greatest basketball players of all time, struggled in his short-lived baseball career.

I spent over a decade as a nationally competitive gymnast and learned a ton about performing under pressure, overcoming fear and mastering skills. I owe much of my success to my amazing coach, Levon Karakhanyan, who trained me for the last 3 years of high school and helped me earn a spot on the US Jr. National Team. (He also is the only man I have truly feared because he was … aggressive about correcting my mistakes and making sure I finished every last rep of my strength conditioning. And yes, there were serious consequences if I cheated.)

In 2007, Levon picked up golf as a hobby but quickly made leaps and bounds in his play. He is now a single digit handicap golfer (about 7.3), which puts him in the top 16% of all golfers in the US who keep a handicap, which is even more impressive when you consider that most golfers probably don’t keep a handicap at all.

And he’s done all this while being the Head Coach for the boy’s program at NESA and raising a young son. He’s now

In the interview, Levon and I discuss:

  • How he got started as a gymnast himself
  • What differentiated him from other gymnasts
  • Why patience was a key quality of becoming a better coach
  • How he found the time to practice while holding down a full-time job
  • Why the ratio of practice to competition matters so much 
  • Jason:  Levon, let’s start with gymnastics.  You’re my gymnastics coach.  When did you start doing gymnastics?
  • Levon:  I was about six years old in Armenia.
  • Jason: Did they pick you up from a program?  How did they find you?
  • Levon: My parents were very concerned about me doing all kinds of crazy things.
  • Jason:  You were a really active as a kid so they wanted to put you in a gym.
  • Levon: Yes.  My aunt actually had a friend who worked in a gymnastics facility, after her complaining about me doing crazy things, she said,”Oh, it looks like he might be just the right person to do gymnastics.  Why don’t you bring him over so they can check it out and see if he’s good.”
  • Jason: So were you a good gymnast as a kid? Did you immediately …
  • Levon:  When I came, it was a selection process.  They wouldn’t pick anybody.  They were impressed.  They put me on the bars.  I did 10 pull-ups, and they said, “Enough,” and they were pulling me off the bars, and I was still trying to do more pull-ups.
  • Jason: You were pretty strong as a kid.
  • Levon: Yes.
  • Jason: Did you have good air sense? Were you able to pick up some of that like the skills? Did you learn skills quickly, do you feel?
  • Levon: Yes, relatively quickly. It was a long process from that point. Many years of training and everything else.
  • Jason: You liked gymnastics too.
  • Levon: Oh, yes. Absolutely. It was a lot of fun. I could do everything that I wanted to do instead of everybody telling me, “Oh, stop doing that.” Everybody was like, “Oh, yes. Do more.”
  • Jason: When did you start competing on a national level, would you say?
  • Levon: There was a national level within Armenia, and there was a national level within the Soviet Union. There was kind of like a bigger scale, so when I was about eight or nine years old, I already was competing at my level, whatever level was there.
  • Jason: In Armenia.
  • Levon: Yes. Here [in the US], we have levels four, five, six, whatever. I was moving up through the levels and competing at a national championship every year. As I was progressing through the levels, I was competing in the national championships and things like that.
  • Jason: When did you start competing internationally?
  • Levon: The international opportunities actually came through when Armenia separated from the Soviet Union, because it was extremely difficult to make it to the Soviet team to compete internationally. Even though I made it to the junior national team for the Soviet Union at the time, to make it to the team that goes to the competitions was extremely hard.Then in 1991, Armenia separated from the Soviet Union. Being a part of the national team, I was competing for Armenia so I started competing internationally.
  • Jason: How old were you then?
  • Levon: Let’s see, ’91.  I was about 18 years old.
  • Jason: How long did you stay at that level as a gymnast?
  • Levon: Approximately until I was 23, 24.  I moved out of Armenia when I was 23.
  • Jason: Is that when you moved to Brazil?
  • Levon: That’s right.
  • Jason: Okay.  Then, you were coaching gymnastics in Brazil.
  • Levon: Actually, I was originally just competing as an athlete. I was contracted as a gymnast to represent the club that I was training with.
  • Jason: That’s amazing that they actually had that kind of a system.
  • Levon: Oh, yes.  It was unbelievable.  I was getting paid.
  • Jason: Paid to do gymnastics.
  • Levon: Yes.  That was a lot of fun.
  • Jason: What gymnastics achievement are you the most proud of in your career?
  • Levon: I have a few national titles that I was all-around champion in my country in different years, different levels, and the last time I was competing as a senior with the big guys.I had a few titles with the Soviet Union as a junior athlete, and I got some event finals that I’ve gotten to the top places.  Then I had an opportunity to compete internationally in the European and world championships.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t make it to the Olympics.
  • Jason: That was the one thing you didn’t get to do.
  • Levon: I stopped there.  Still trying.
  • Jason: You hurt yourself.  That was what really ended your career.
  • Levon: It was, kind of, yes, but I was in Brazil.  The last year I was there, in the competition, I had kind of an ugly injury. I broke my forearm and I had to go through two surgeries.
  • Actually, I made it back.  I made a comeback.  I competed. But at this point, I already had some arrangement made that I had my visa to come to work in the United States and stuff.  I had a couple of competitions, then I came to U.S.
  • Jason: Got it.  The last question about gymnastics for now:  Every athlete has different strengths, right?  Some of them are just really strong, some of them can perform well under pressure, some of them learn new skills quickly.What do you feel, compared to the other athletes you were competing against or training with, do you feel that you were particularly strong?  Like learning new skills quickly?  What do you feel, compared to the other athletes you were competing against or training with, do you feel like there was something particular that you were strong at?
  • Levon: Hmm. That’s an interesting question. Growing up, I was fortunate enough to have some talent that I’ve taken advantage of. I was a really good tumbler. I had good skills. Floor and vault were really easy for me, so I was taking advantage of it, doing some crazy skills. I had some titles in that.
  • Then I kind of got hurt. My knees would start bothering me and stuff, and interestingly, I developed some other events that eventually have become some of my favorites, and I’ve gotten really strong on those events.
  • I think the one single thing that helped me the most is probably my work ethic. Throughout my career, I think that I consistently worked hard to be able to improve.
  • Jason: That consistency, like some people work hard for a little while and then they stop, but you stayed steady.  It’s always high.
  • Levon: Yes.
  • Jason: Okay.  Then you became a coach and started coaching gymnastics.  How was coaching different from competing?
  • Levon: This is real interesting, man, because now I’ve been doing this for so many years. Recently, I was the Stanford Open and met some guys that you competed with. I met Sho Nakamori [my old teammate at Stanford], who was judging.  I met Wes Haggeson who was coaching.
  • Jason: Wes Haggeson?  Oh, wow.  I didn’t know he was coaching.
  • Levon: Yes, he recently started coaching.  I met some other guys that I remember competing.  I was watching them coach the kids, and I was thinking of when I started.  The most difficult thing was that I had a lot of knowledge that I wanted to give, and I wanted to give it as fast as possible. I was so frustrated that the kids wouldn’t pick up all that knowledge that I was trying to shove into them, you know, “This is how you do it.”
  • Jason: How are you different as a coach now compared to when you first started?
  • Levon: I’m not so anxious now in terms of trying to make the kids so good so fast, because I know that it takes time.  I think I’m a little bit more patient.
  • Jason: Patience is important.
  • Levon: I don’t rush maybe to try to achieve everything at once.  Actually, at the time, I thought I was patient, because I never liked pushing the kids to do too difficult skills, and I always thought that the safety was important.  I always followed certain steps before they could do certain skills to make sure that they don’t get hurt, that they can go through the sport without injuries, and I think I’ve improved greatly in that perspective, too.
  • Jason: Okay.  Were you always interested in golf, or is that something you became more interested in once you came to America?  When did you start getting interested in golf?
  • Levon: It was actually by accident, because I never knew anything about golf growing up.  Maybe we’d see it in movies but it was always a capitalist, rich person thing to do.  When I came to the US, it always seemed like a boring thing to do.
  • Jason: So slow.
  • Levon: It didn’t seem to be interesting.  I mean, there’s no action.  There’s nothing going on.  Then, about six years ago, I was visiting my brother-in-law, and we were in their house, and they have one of those Wii games.
  • Jason: (Laughs.)
  • Levon: Then we were playing different sports on it, and we came across golf, and we tried it, and I thought it was so much fun.  I was like, “Hey, why don’t we go and try the real thing?”  Growing up as an athlete, any sport that I picked up, it always was easy for me.
  • Jason: You were pretty good at a lot of different sports.
  • Levon: Even if I never tried it before, it wouldn’t take me too long to figure it out, to be okay, decent.  So we went to the driving range, and I was amazed how difficult it was.
  • Jason: (Laughs.)
  • Levon: I couldn’t believe it.  I was like, “It’s just a little ball sitting there, and all you have to do is just hit it.”  That kind of triggered a lot of interest.  It made me mad a little bit, so I started going back to the driving range, and thinking, “Hey, a few times.  I’ll figure it out.”  I started getting better, but it wasn’t what I was expecting.
  • Jason: It’s challenging.
  • Levon: Oh, yes.  It was very challenging.
  • Jason: I remember talking to you at one point, and you were driving at NESA, and you were saying how you wished that, if you had spent all that time training for gymnastics, and you had spent it training for golf, you could be a professional golfer, all this stuff.  You really kept doing this.
  • Levon: Oh, yes.  I stuck with it.
  • Jason: When did you think that it could go further?  First, it’s like, “Okay, I’m going to figure this out.  What is this stupid game?”  Then, it must have become something more, right?  When did you feel like, “Oh, this could actually go somewhere.”
  • Levon: There’s so much into it.
  • First, you don’t even know the name of the shots, the names of the clubs, what is it for. There’s so much to learn. When you first start, everything is new. It’s kind of weird.
  • Slowly, you start getting into it, you start learning all those things, you start getting into the game. Then you start going to the golf course and playing and it becomes a competition. You can keep score, and you have a goal to reach – to play to a certain number of shots.
  • Next thing I knew, I wanted to try to break 100, and I achieved that in a year. The year after that, I wanted to break 90, and I achieved that. Every time, I had this goal, people who played golf were very skeptical. They were like, “Oh, well, you’ve got to be more patient. It doesn’t go like this.” I kept actually making improvements, finding ways, and then I broke 80. Next thing you know, I’m a single digit handicap now.
  • Jason: What does that mean?  I don’t even know what that means.  I know that that’s good, but what does that mean?
  • Levon: They have a handicap system that keeps score, and if you want to play in a tournament, you need to have a handicap.  The handicap is a complicated process.  They take the last 20 scores that you’ve played, and they select the best 10 out of them, and they give you the average of your best 10 last scores.  Whatever the number is over par, that’s what represents your handicap.
  • Jason: Par is sort of like …
  • Levon: Usually par is 72.  Some courses are 71, some courses are 70, but generally, it’s a 72.  I’m a 7.3 handicap currently, which means somewhere between 7 and 8 shots.  It means I’m supposed to be playing within 80, approximately.  If I’m playing golf, I shoot approximately 80.  That’s my good side.
  • Jason: What is that in terms of golfers?  You gave me a number before of like 20%, or how many people are …
  • Levon: Between 80 and 90% of golfers are probably above that.
  • Jason: Have higher handicaps?
  • Levon: Yes.  They’re probably worse.
  • Jason: Okay.  You said before that other sports you picked up easily, but this one wasn’t that easy.  You learned pretty quickly.  What do you think you did differently than other people who might be trying to learn how to play golf?
  • Levon: Some people don’t think that they need professional help. They think they can figure it out themselves. Me being a coach, I know how important it is to learn things properly instead of learn them incorrectly and try to fix them eventually.
  • Early on, when I started playing, I figured I need some help from somebody who knows what they’re doing. I looked for help, and I had different people helping me. I took lessons and things like that.I started learning, reading, watching videos, TV, Golf Channel, all kinds of things related to golf to improve my understanding of the game and to gain more knowledge. I think sometimes people think that they’ll figure it out.
  • Another thing is, people don’t practice. They just go golfing and they think that if they go a little bit more often, they’ll get better. Generally, yes, if you spend more time, you’ll get better. A lot of times, you need to practice, not just go competing, because if you go play, even if it’s not a tournament, you go play the course. The way I see it, it’s a competition.
  • Practice is you go to the driving range and hit balls, or you go to the practice area. You chip, you putt, you practice. That’s practicing. You go to play golf, that’s your competition.
  • Jason: What do you think your ratio of practice to competing is?
  • Levon: The time management is a difficult kind of thing.  What I try to do, especially now, it’s Winter and I can’t play golf.  I spend indoor times training and hitting balls and chipping and putting.  I use Whiffle balls and I use things that I can do at home, and things like that.  I think that my percentage gets much bigger in the winter, that I practice more.  In the summer, because my time is limited, I try to incorporate my practice into my play.
  • Jason: How do you do that?
  • Levon: If I’m playing without anybody, if I’m not playing in a foursome, it’s just me, and the course is not busy, then I can hit more than one shot.
  • Jason: You’ll do a little bit extra?
  • LevonYes.  I can hit extra shots and things like that.  That way, I kind of practice within the course already.
  • Jason: Is there anything else you feel like you’ve used from gymnastics or from your coaching to help you improve?
  • Levon: I find a lot of similarities between gymnastics and golf in terms of technique, in terms of a swing and how the fundamentals and mechanics are working. It’s a movement.
  • I think, just like in any sport, if you have the work ethic, if you understand that you need to practice certain things to get better, if you have a strategy for it, try to figure out what are the worst parts of your game, because just like in gymnastics, there are six events.
  • A lot of kids like practicing their favorite events, which they’re good at. A lot of people do that in golf. If they’re good drivers, they keep practicing that, and then, they struggle with the short game. Whatever they’re good at, that’s what they usually try to practice more. Knowing that, I try to identify the areas that I’m struggling in and spend more time practicing those areas to help me improve as an all-around player.
  • Jason: The final question is, what’s up next?  Today, you just said you got a phone call about some exciting stuff happening in Armenia with golf and you.  Tell me a little bit about that.
  • Levon: That’s right, yes.  Last year, in 2012, I had an opportunity to go and represent Armenia, and I played in a golf tournament.
  • Jason: Where?
  • Levon:In Bulgaria, in Sofia. That was an invitation for Armenia to be a part of the European Golf Association because in Armenia, we’re not officially a part of that golf association in Europe. It was a lot of fun. I could potentially be one of the players that could be playing for Armenia.
  • I just got a phone call now, that as of January 15, 2013, Armenia has created an official federation of golf, and that they’re processing the paperwork and everything to pay the dues and memberships and everything, which potentially means that we could participate in official competition. There’s a lot of amateur tournaments, European championships and world championships that I could potentially go to if I can manage to find some time and improve and be decent enough.
  • Jason: That’s exciting! I wish you the best with that.
  • Levon: Thank you very much.
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Jason Shen

Jason is a tech entrepreneur and talent expert. He is CEO of a performance hiring platform called Headlight, a Fast Company contributor, and an advocate for Asian American men. Follow him on Twitter at @jasonshen and subscribe to his private newsletter.

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