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…

A Master Draws No Distinction Between Work and Play [quote]

A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play; his labor and his leisure; his mind and his body; his education and his recreation. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing, and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself, he always appears to be doing both.

-Francois Auguste Rene Chateaubriand (1800’s French Writer & Diplomat) via Balancing Blogging, Work, and Life | Justin Was Here.

Deliberate Practice & the 10,000 Hour Rule [link roundup]

I’m very interested in excellence and mastery. Part of this is personal – I don’t think I’m the master of anything – and part of it is intellectual – I just find it interesting to understand how the people can learn to perform amazingly difficult tasks with ease. I even wrote a post all about what gymnastics taught me about skill acquisition and mastery.

So this week’s Link Roundup isn’t focused on a piece of breaking news or industry trend – it’s focused more on the best places to learn about deliberate practice – which is the term for the special kind of training that leads to mastery – and the 10,000 hour rule – which is a rough rule of thumb noted by psychology researchers as the point in which expert level performance is typically (if ever) achieved.

We start with the mother of the all – the 44 page paper published in Psychological Review in 1993 that features the phrase “deliberate practice” and cites the decade mark as point where “many characteristics once believed to reflect innate talent are actually the result of intense practice extended for a minimum of 10 years”. Article: “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance” [PDF].


Geoff Colvin published an article called “Talent is Overrated” in Fortune Magazine which became the basis of a book by the same name. In the article, he really digs deep into the elements that make deliberate practice special, and effective.


If you want to get some perspective on how deliberate practice and excellence can be applied to the working world, check out Tony Schwartz’s post on the “Six Keys to Becoming Excellent in Anything” in the Harvard Business Review blog section.


My favorite book on this subject is actually called the Talent Code by Daniel Coyle as his features more on musicians (I played violin back in the day) and athletes (I was a gymnast for 16 years). His pre-book article is called “How to Grow a Super-Athlete” and while long, I really like this article for it’s emphasis on coaching. Deliberate practice is nearly impossible to implement alone.


If you want to see deliberate practice in action, then you’ll want to watch Ben Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, as he guides a 15 year old boy through an inspired cello lesson in front a crowd of people at the PopTech conference in 2008.


Lastly, we can look at how the 10,000 hour rule applies to research from the insights out of Cal Newport’s blog Study Hacks in his post: Beyond The 10,000 Hour Rule – Richard Hamming and the Messy Art of Becoming Great where he looks at the advice the late great digital communications innovator had for researchers looking to be more prolific and impactful.

What Gymnastics Taught Me About Acquiring and Mastering Skills

This is a three part series on what gymnastics taught me about acquiring and mastering skills, overcoming fear and delivering clutch performances.


In 1996, Men’s Health published an article where they used some ridiculous mathematical formula using variables such as fitness, skill, pain, brains, etc to figure out the toughest sport in the world. And gymnastics came up number one. Here’s what they said:

Male gymnasts may wear tights, but they score perfect 10’s for fitness and athletic skills, and near-perfect marks for injury potential, mental toughness and difficult conditions. Let’s see you spin in circles on the high bar, release, do a few flips and grab the bar again. Extra toughness points were awarded for the guy who survived a full-speed, chest-first plunge into the horse and for the Japanese Olympic medalist who dismounted from the rings with a broken leg.

I started doing gymnastics when I was six years old and trained for over 16 years. At age 11 I started competing and placing in national competitions at the junior and later the senior levels. The highest I ever placed in a national senior men’s competition was 15th – I was never Olympic material, but I trained with many who were. Previously, I wrote about how I blew out my knee and came back to win a national championship – this post is specifically about what gymnastics has taught me about acquiring and mastering skills.

Gymnastics is the perfect sport to teach these lessons because it’s one of the most demanding activities that you can do. Gymnasts have to master a large number of complex skills that require high levels of technique, strength and guts – and I think that with the intelligent application of these lessons, you’ll be able to learn skills in a variety of areas faster and more effectively.

Ok, ’nuff said. Onto the lessons!

Acquiring and Mastering Skills

Deliberate practice.

I hope this is so obvious to you that you roll your eyes. But seriously – the only real way to get better at something is to do it over and over again. There is no substitute.

However, what Malcom Gladwell said is right, the key is “deliberate practice“. This means being intently focused on every attempt and thinking carefully about how you can improve your performance on each turn. But in addition to practice, consider these other lessons: Continue reading…