GAME ON: 10 STEPS TO TURN INSTRUCTION INTO A GAME
gamify your instruction
A GOOD GAME is a unique way of structuring experience and provoking positive emotion. It is an extremely powerful tool for inspiring participation and motivating hard work. – Jane McGonigal
Progress is difficult to measure in golf. Even as players make incremental swing changes, the gradual improvements don’t always show up on the course as quickly as we would like. And even when they do, the inevitable peaks and valleys make it hard for golfers to ever have an objective measure of learning and progress.
Players begin to wonder whether they are working on the right thing, why their hard work is yet to pay off, and if they are actually getting any better.
That’s when coaches need to find creative ways to motivate students to stick to the improvement process. Through games, coaches can design SATISFYING WORK that will provide the energizing push students need to complete all the vital steps of skill acquisition.
MOTIVATION AND REASONABLY ASSURED PROGRESS: this is the start of satisfying work… We must be able to see the results of our efforts as directly, immediately, and vividly as possible. – Jane McGonigal
If you have participated in a frequent flyer program or if you’re currently a couple of punches away from a free carwash, you have experienced the motivational pulls of game mechanics.
These effective ‘game’ systems allow you to set a goal and then structure your experience in a way that promotes the desired behaviors and actions. Examples include:
- A frequent flyer program encourages you to fly more with an airline and allows you to track your progress toward free flights and other rewards.
- Through merit badges and ‘leveling up’ through the ranks, The Boy Scouts of America have used game mechanics to promote the development of important life skills.
- Video games provide the best example of effective game mechanics by capturing our attention for hours on end by presenting an endless supply of missions– each one escalating in difficulty as our skills improve, new rewards are achieved and the next level passed.
Inspired by Jane McGonigal’s Ted Talk, I began to experiment with game mechanics within the framework of an adult player development program and our club’s junior program. The results have been remarkable. The level of engagement from the students has increased exponentially, as has the teaching income associated with these programs.
BRIEF OVERVIEW OF THE PROGRAMS
Our club’s adult program is called the Biggest Loser. As the name implies, the Biggest Loser Program is based on the popular weight loss television show. It challenges participants to reduce their handicap as much as possible over the course of ten months. The structure of the program includes weekly supervised practices, monthly private lessons, and quarterly skills assessments.
The components of the Junior Performance Program are weekly Skill Development Sessions and monthly Skills Tests– with the kids split up into 3 different ability levels.
Jane McGonigal describes games as the ultimate flow experience: ‘challenging endeavors with a clear goal, well-established rules for action, and the potential for increased difficulty and improvement over time’. This should resonate with all coaches. These flow inducing experiences will make the improvement process more invigorating and motivating for our golfers.
Below are 10 ACTION STEPS that you can take to ‘game’ your own coaching programs. I have described how I applied each step at my club as well as an actionable example to consider implementing at your own unique facility.
1. SET GOALS
Provide a sense of purpose for golfers by establishing specific outcomes to work towards. The primary goal in the Biggest Loser program is to reduce the handicaps of all participating players. We use the USGA’s Improvement Factor to calculate equitable handicap reductions. So a 20 index going to a 10 index is the same as a 10 going to a 5.
Setting that goal creates a game like atmosphere and gives all students a clear mission. Over the course of the next ten months, every action is measured against this target. The players are reminded of their benchmark handicap constantly and it has a huge impact on their level of engagement and sustained motivation. They get fired up about reaching their goal and if they start to slip, they are motivated to work even harder.
ACTIONABLE EXAMPLE: Challenge students to reduce handicap to a target goal over the course of 10 months. After conducting skills tests, you can do the same thing with their skills handicaps or Trackman Combine scores.
2. CREATE COMPETITION
Competition is the component that really sets game-like coaching programs apart from traditional instruction– it creates a healthy sense of urgency.
All of the players in our Biggest Loser and Junior Performance Program are competing against each other. It steps up the intensity.
For the kids, they want to pass all of their Skills Tests in order to reach the next level faster than their buddies.
For the adults, they participate more actively because they know there can only be one ‘winner’ for the year. Now they view an extra range session as a way to separate from their competitors.
ACTIONABLE EXAMPLE: Coordinate group supervised practices and/or On-Course Challenges that puts all players in the same arena.
3. ADMINISTER TESTS
Through tests, students can see direct results of their efforts. They have a tangible and objective measure of what they have accomplished.
Assessments and tests have become the centerpiece of both of our programs. Players take these tests seriously and they prepare accordingly. This is their chance to show that their hard work has paid off. It goes back to the ‘satisfying work’ concept.
The results from the tests become the foundation for all future instruction. If we see a low score, we can tackle it immediately. There is never a question of what to do next.
Test Days with the juniors are always the highlight of the month. You start to see how much they CARE! The stories that I hear from parents about how excited their kids get on Test Days tell me that what we are doing is working. These kids are engaged and motivated to get to the next level.
ACTIONABLE EXAMPLE: Conduct monthly or quarterly skills tests that allow students to track progress over time in a variety of skills. There are tons of great resources for assessments and skills tests: US Kids Golf Learning Program, Cameron McCormick’s Player’s Journal, Red Zone Challenge, Trackman Combine, etc.
4. ENCOURAGE SOCIAL CONNECTIVITY
Experiencing a short burst of community in a space that previously felt uninviting or simply uninteresting can permanently change our relationship to that space. – Jane McGonigal
Our players already have a shared interest, we just have to cultivate an environment that allows them to interact and share their experience. It’s just another way to enhance the program. A golfer that is part of a group feels like he/she is part of something big. There is a unique sense of ‘belonging’ that has occurred within our groups that motivates each individual to stick with it and work hard.
With this step in mind, we conduct group Supervised Practices, On-Course Challenge Days, and group junior sessions each week. This also creates a bit of peer pressure and accountability among the players.
Over the course of the year the players get know each other and develop bonds that reach beyond the group activities. I will block off tee times a couple of times a month to invite participants to hook up and play outside of our normally scheduled sessions. It’s yet another way to keep them engaged in the improvement process and actively participating in the program.
ACTIONABLE EXAMPLE: Coordinate times other than the scheduled sessions for players in the program to play and/or practice together.
5. SET LEVELS
Levels are an indication of current ability and an effective way to convey progress. Levels also narrow the focus for our golfers. While most golfers remained confused about the direction in which they should be headed, good levels split the game into sub-skills and clearly define the next action.
We can also systematically introduce more complex concepts and skills. As soon as a player passes one level, it’s time to increase the challenge. With well-designed levels, the student should never be bored or anxious– they are attacking just the right amount of challenge relative to their current ability.
For our juniors, there are 3 levels– the structure we use is straight out of the US Kids Golf Learning Program. Each level contains a few Skills Tests and once each is passed, they advance to the next level.
Inspired by the TPI Junior model, each level is distinguished by a different colored hat. These hats have become highly coveted status symbols at the club. The juniors are SERIOUS about getting their hands on the next hat. As soon as they think they are ready, they BEG to take the next test.
ACTIONABLE EXAMPLE: Use the results of Skills Tests to create clearly defined ‘Levels’ of ability. Make each actionable step and requirement for advancement clear to all students.
6. INTRODUCE REWARDS
Rewards can be utilized in your coaching program as yet another way to promote desired behaviors and actions from your golfers. What’s a game without rewards? Do something good, get rewarded– that should be the basic structure of any game.
However, when the stakes are already so high for intrinsic rewards like improvement, accomplishment, and community—introducing extrinsic rewards can be tricky. Plenty of research has shown that when intrinsic rewards are already present for players, adding in prizes like money will actually provide less motivation.
So for our junior program, we created our own currency– JPP Chips. We use poker chips with ‘JPP’ and a denomination printed on them. The juniors can exchange the chips for various prizes in the golf shop or ‘experience’ rewards like rounds of golf with the pro, extra lessons, or re-takes for their tests. Think of the Chuck E Cheese model, but for junior golf. In the golf shop, we display a prize poster that shows everything that they can buy with their chips and the associated costs for each item. Chips are given out whenever a junior displays a behavior that the coaches hope to reinforce – good sportsmanship, winning a game, passing a test, encouraging another player, etc.
And we don’t just give chips away–sometimes we take them back. The Chip System has become a highly effective behavioral tool. The kids put plenty of value in each and every chip; they will do anything to get them and even more to hang on to the ones they have already earned. They have come to understand that poor behavior will have a negative impact on their chip stack.
ACTIONABLE EXAMPLE: Create a currency that is unique to the program. Promote all of the prizes and rewards that the currency can be used to buy.
7. DESIGN QUESTS
‘Quests’ in a coaching program can be any short-term objective that, if completed, represent an integral step towards the player’s long term goals. The challenges are actionable steps that provide each student with ongoing direction throughout the program.
Quests are a huge part of the Biggest Loser program. At the beginning of the month, players are sent a list of 5-10 Monthly Challenges. The missions are designed so that if each quest is completed, the player is GUARANTEED to make progress towards their goals.
Well-designed work leaves no doubt that progress will be made. There is a guarantee of productivity built in, and that’s what makes it so appealing. – Jane McGonigal
An alternative form of Quests are our On-Course Challenge Days. We take the players to the course and conduct what is essentially an on course skills challenge. Players compete against each other to earn points by hitting the most fairways, getting up and downs, one putting, etc. I see these days as hybrid sessions- part on-course assessment, part playing lesson, and part competition. It gives us the opportunity to introduce transfer conditions and at the same time appeal to the player’s desire to compete.
ACTIONABLE EXAMPLE: Send 5-10 monthly challenges to all students that are based on their current ability level. Use both process and outcome challenges, like attending all supervised practices in a month or shooting the lowest round of the year. As improvement occurs, increase the level of difficulty for the challenges.
8. DEVISE A POINT SYSTEM
An effective point systems gives students a more objective way to measure their progress relative to others in the program.
Players have the opportunity to earn points through all of their quests and challenges — which provide ongoing feedback on their performance.
And different quantities of points are associated with different types of actions. This way, we can put value on the program’s most valued actions. These include process goals like showing up to Supervised Practices, taking private lessons, or playing in competitive events at the club. The point system is ultimately a way for the coaches to validate the most necessary actions for improvement. If we want to make sure the student does something, we assign a high point reward for it.
ACTIONABLE EXAMPLE: Use the Skills Tests and Monthly Challenges to assign points to a student’s performance in a given month.
9. PROVIDE FEEDBACK
By providing quantitative feedback, you can communicate which skills are getting better and which are getting worse. For our programs, the most effective form of feedback is the ‘Big Board’.
When you walk in our Golf Shop, you are immediately greeted by a 6-foot tall board that lists the current standings for the Biggest Loser and Junior Performance Program.
For the Biggest Losers, it lists the top 3 Players and point totals for three categories: Handicap Reduction, On-Course Challenge points, and Monthly Challenge Points.
For the Juniors, it displays a picture of each child, their current level, and every Skills Test that they have passed. As recommended by McGonigal, it is the ultimate tangible record of their accomplishments.
Real-time data and quantitative benchmarks are the reason why gamers get consistently better at virtually any game thy play: their performance is consistently measured and reflected back to them, with advancing progress bars, points, levels, and achievements. It’s easy for players to see exactly how and when they’re making progress. This kind of positive feedback drives players to try harder and to succeed at more difficult challenges. – Jane McGonigal
It’s also been an incredible promotional tool for our programs. When members walk in and see it, they can’t help but inquire about the programs– what it includes and how to become a part of the group. Parents are especially intrigued by the Big Board — if their child’s bright and smiling face isn’t on the board, they want to know how to get it on there.
ACTIONABLE EXAMPLE: Pick any stat that you can measure for your students and display it somewhere prominently at your facility. ShotbyShot has been an excellent tool for tracking these stats. Choose a group of players that are similar in ability and measure their progress in the skill over time. This gives the student the ability to measure their progress relative to a quantitative benchmark as well as other players. It should also provide you with a way to promote proven, objective results to prospective students.
10. PROVIDE RECOGNITION
Every game needs to have a winner. The coaching program needs to incorporate methods to formally recognize the success of its players and all of their accomplishments.
An achievement alone is significant, but when coupled with some kind of token or symbol, and given in a public way, that achievement provides a deep satisfaction of our innate desire for status. – Aaron Dignan
ACTIONABLE EXAMPLE: Pick a desired behavior and find a way to reinforce it through public recognition. Use your newsletter or social media networks for recognizing a competitive success or the breaking of a scoring barrier by one of your students.
FOR FURTHER READING
If you would like to read more about how to implement game mechanics, I encourage you to start further research with Jane McGonigal’s Ted Talk. Other books on the topic include:
- McGonigal’s book, Reality is Broken
- Game Frames by Aaron Dignan
- Total Engagement by Byron Reeves and J. Leighton Read
Researching and executing these ideas were GAME CHANGERS for my coaching programs. Literally.
There is an economic impact that is too significant to ignore and bears mentioning. One-time lesson takers will not make a substantial impact on your business. Engaged students that are constantly motivated and driven through well-designed coaching programs can transform your coaching business.
These concepts work best with long term coaching programs. If you are interested in finding out how to convert individual instruction into a comprehensive coaching program, read this book and contact Dr. Rick Jensen about his Certified Golf Coaches Association.
If you are currently in the process of designing a new program, I encourage you to follow the steps listed in this post. But most will benefit from adopting just a few of the actions described and seeing how they affect business.
Questions about these steps or anything else on how to get started?
I would also love to hear how others have implemented ‘game’ features in their coaching programs. Please share below.
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