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.” Continue reading…

Answering The Big Gymnastics Questions of the 2012 Olympics on Quora

Jason's Gymnastics Quora Answers

I’ve been on a tear over the past few weeks on Quora, writing a bunch of answers to questions related to gymnastics, which suddenly becomes relevant once every four years during the Olympics. This year was no exception, except now, instead of just answering questions for my friends, I can answer them for the world on Quora and my blog.

I’ve included four of my more interesting answers, which discuss the risks of competitive gymnastics for girls, the dominance of the US men’s vs women’s gymnastics teams, the experience of doing a gymnastics vault and finally a rescoring of a 10.0 vault. (This last one actually got 200+ upvotes and got reposted by the Quora team to the Huffington Post, woot woot!)

But anyway, here are my answers. Enjoy!

Q1: Why are American female gymnasts consistently dominant, whereas American male gymnasts are overall not nearly as competitive in the world stage?

Female gymnasts far out number male gymnasts.

In 2007 (most recent date I could get numbers for) there were 67,626 female gymnasts and 12,120 male gymnasts registered with USA Gymnastics, the national governing body for the US. That’s already 5.6x more girls than guys. Continue reading…

How to Overcome the Naysayers and Get People to Buy-In [art of buy-in 2/3]

This is a 3 part series on the art of buy-in. In my last post, I talked about how smart people often get great ideas shot down. In this post I share a story of how I overcame the naysayers and got buy-in for team dues.

I would venture there are few groups harder to organize than a bunch of cocky college athletes. Gymnasts especially, since we all spend the first 10+ years of training by ourselves, without much of  “team” mentality. That’s why I want to share this story of how I won over my gymnastics team and got everyone to pay team dues.

Our team’s money problem

Photo credit: JMR Photography

September 2008: fall training for the Stanford Men’s Gymnastics team was about to start.

I was meeting with the other team captains to plan for the upcoming year. We had discussed attitude in the gym, our focus during training competitions, etc. While most of the conversation was on how we were going to win the national championship, there was one logistical item on the table: team dues.

As a team, we had become close over the years – organizing annual gifts for coaches and graduating seniors, printed handbooks for freshmen, a camping retreat in the fall and a team banquet in the spring. Usually the captains or other seniors would front the money (around $1,000 total for the year) for these sorts of activities and then try to collect afterward.

Collecting money, a few dollars at a time, from 15+ guys who are usually close to broke, sucks. No one has the exact amount on them, you forget to ask, it’s hard to keep track of who paid and who hasn’t and generally speaking, this is a big hassle. Inevitably the person who fronted the money gets screwed.

The dismal history behind team dues

Now the previous year we had a captain named Dylan. This guy was brilliant – earning above a 4.0 GPA as a Stanford premed – but his ideas for the team often didn’t go anywhere, much to his frustration.

He had tried to push through the idea of team dues – where people would pay an advance to the captains which would be spent on the various team sponsored-activities. It’s a win for everyone – team members would stop getting hassled all the time, and captains would have the necessary funds to do their job.

It died. People said it wasn’t necessary, too much work, and that the current system was just fine and the conversation just fizzled. [1]

Despite this failure, I felt that team dues was still a really good idea – and I knew that once implemented, it’d become institutionalized as a part of the culture and thus worth giving another shot. My co-captains agreed hesitantly – as long as I did all the work, they would support the idea. Continue reading…

Why You Shouldn’t Worship Your Heroes

David Durante on Highbar

(One of my favorite gymnasts to watch, David Durante (2007 US National Champion & World Championship Team member) on the high bar)

I want to talk today about hero worship and why you shouldn’t do it.

Back when I was training gymnastics seriously, before college even, I was invited several times to the United States Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, CO as part of a week-long training camp.

There I was, along side a bunch of other impressionable teenagers, training with some of the best gymnasts in the country (and the world). I’d seen these guys on TV, when NBC would broadcast the US Championships (where I would later make my brief one-time cameo on national television) and the Olympics. I was ready to be blown away.

But after training with these guys for a week, I realized something:

My heroes weren’t really that special

They still struggled to learn new moves. Messed up and got mad at themselves. Nursed injuries. Argued with their coach. Even slacked off and fooled around sometimes.

Just like I did.

The biggest difference between us was the intensity of their training and their all encompassing dedication to the sport (living and breathing the sport at this training facility in the middle of nowhere for years and years). Of course there were some components of natural ability (a sense of air awareness or an ease with developing great strength) but other than that, my heros were pretty much like me and every other gymnast I knew.

I’ve taken that lesson to other areas in my life.

We got to meet and talk to some amazing founders in going through Y Combinator – which is awesome, but not something to get too hung up about it. I learn what I can from them and move on. There’s no need to assign them some mythical wisdom or god-like abilities that you can never reach.

Mark Zuckerberg? Brian Chesky? Drew Houston?

They’re mostly just passionate, hardworking and somewhat nerdy dudes who are very good at certain things and now find themselves leading influential Silicon Valley companies.

My current perspective is that with focused dedication, deliberate practice and good advice/strategy/coaching, you can, over time, get really really good at most skills. Maybe even into the 90th percentile. The last 10% is out of your hands – good genes, an early start, an exceptional mentor. And of course the multiplicative factor of great timing/luck. But again, not something you can control, so why worry about it?

Just focus on what really matters, bust your butt and stop worshipping your heros.

How Winners Are Made [video]

If you can’t see the video – click through to the post!

Nice little gymnastics montage pared with a great talk.

Get back and do it again indeed. That’s what I thought when I blew out my knee. My doctors tried to set expectations low but I had already decided my injury wasn’t going to hold me down. While you still draw breath, there are no excuses for not pushing ahead.

(hat tip to Gymnastics Coaching)


Full transcript below:

Life is tough, that’s a given. When you stand up, you’re gonna be shoved back down. When you’re down you’re gonna be stepped on. My advice to you doesn’t come with a lot of bells and whistles. It’s no secret, you’ll fall down, you’ll stumble, you’ll get pushed, you’ll land square on your face. But every time that happens, you get back on your feet. You get up just as fast as you can. No matter how many times you need to do this.

Continue reading…