Limit teaching what golfers very rarely get the chance to do in a game and start teaching the necessary skills required to execute shots they could be faced with on the golf course. A long time ago in sunny Scotland, a small group of people and their infinite wisdom invented this incredible game. To learn it back then you had to play it, which was quite difficult. A lack of materials and golf courses provided a stumbling block for most. There was no such thing as a golf coach; the idea of instruction was still waiting to be uncovered. The ‘learning by doing’ pedagogy that you see published in many different forums today in some way came from this.
I was looking around on the Internet one evening and came across this photo. It’s an interesting look at an original set up from back in the day, which I thought was pretty cool. We do see a difference in the set up from then to now (2015), which I believe is necessary for many reasons that Ill discuss in later articles, but in this case I’m going to stick with learning ‘skills’ and how we can do it better.
Over time golf has been chopped up, categorized, grouped together and broken down into slots and segments such as putting, chipping, pitching, bunkers, full swing and my favorite… specialty shots. And from this the ‘fundamentals’ have been created i.e. grip, stance, posture, and alignment, set up and ball position etc. Albeit these are extremely important parts of executing golf shots, they are not the key ingredients for learning how to perform in the game. It’s quite understandable how and why this has happened for many reasons. Much of what we knew traditionally has been the genesis of our current beliefs driving our current behaviors – which is to teach this way. One reason that resonates with me is people generally like certainty, not too much, but more so than uncertainty. That’s not to say nobody wants uncertainty in their lives because they do. If people woke up every day knowing exactly what was going to happen the world would be a boring place. However, everybody enjoys knowing a lot. There are more reasons that can be discussed in later articles but for now we’ll stick with that one. I strongly suggest everybody listens/watches this Ted talk that was given by Tony Robins – Why We Do What We Do – and see how you interpret it in relation to the golf-coaching world.
Because of our needs many coaches have succumbed to teaching golfers by a script, a piece of information that can ‘certainly’ be remembered. This has become the norm and continues to grow the blocked/massed type of practice sessions we see today. Here is a typical example that I can vouch for having been through it and actually DOING IT myself: Today I am going to teach person ‘A’ chipping, so let’s go to the chipping green. We put 20 golf balls down on a flat surface and I go through the script – grip, stance, posture, ball position, alignment and so on. We see a great performance improvement in a short space of time, which is the 30 minute or 1-hour lesson that was paid for, but has the player learned the skills to chip? Most of the time… NO. They come back the next day, the next week, or next month with the same problems. I always figured it was just time to read the script to them again. I’m going to be completely honest and say I’m no stranger to the pitfalls I’m about to discuss. They are all examples of what I have previously done, whether I thought it was a great idea or whether I was forced. Either way. I did it.
Let’s start with pitching and how it has been separated from chipping and defined as ‘the golf ball flies more than it rolls’. As for chipping, where ‘the golf ball rolls more than it flies’ it was decided that the two were different and so had to be differentiated in some way, their title. Chipping and pitching play a part in everybody’s game, more so with the amateurs than professionals but still, it is evident everywhere.
PGA Tour professionals miss between 25% and 30% of greens in regulation leaving anywhere between 4 and 5 holes that require an up and down of some sort. With that been said its understandable to place value on learning how to play these shots. But WAIT, we missed the point, each missed green from each PGA Tour professional was on a different type of slope, from a different distance, with a different pin position, different speed of greens and more. So why do we teach one particular way of chipping and pitching from the same flat lie? A sense confidence is derived from a short-term performance improvement that ultimately doesn’t help in long term learning. It’s understandable to teach mechanics and the components each coach thinks is important but NOT from the same place consecutively. Since understanding more about key principles of learning I made a small change. I now set up multiple places to train chipping and pitching, and teach golfers (help self-discover) the mechanics from every location. I then allow the golfer to practice on his own while I observe and guide if/when necessary and I always make sure they never hit from the same place twice.
Moving on to Putting that has, over the years, evolved into its own game. Some have even called it “a game within a game” and immense amounts of importance have been placed on this particular category. It is only most recently that Mark Broadie uncovered a rather important fact about putting and its relevance to performance outcomes. For the PGA Tour, players putting typically accounts to about 39% of their score. The average amount of putting strokes in a round of golf has been the same for some time now (29) and the average score hasn’t changed either (71). For more information on the revolutionary information I suggest you buy his book called Every Shot Counts by Mark Broadie. It will certainly open your eyes and could quite possibly change your views a little. I for one am not saying that putting is less important or more important, but I do belief that its a golf shot and it counts just as much as other golf shots. Whether you have a 30 yard up and down or a 10 foot putt they’re still golf shots and so we must learn them according to how we are going to attempt to play them. Just like pitching and chipping I was the guy that put three golf balls down (or more) and had golfers hit towards one hole focusing on such attributes as stance width, posture, forearm position, eye line or something else I felt was important at the time. In my years learning and growing I advise all to LIMIT this type of behavior. It could do more damage than good in the long run. Meer repetition from the same place does not ‘imprint’ a posture skill or an ‘eye line’ skill. In the book Motor Learning and Performance by Richard A Schmidt and Timothy D Lee who, I had the pleasure of communicating with, repetition is described beautifully, “Practice is a particular type of repetition without repetition”. The book also highlights a quote from a very influential theorist called Bernstein and he says, “The process of practice towards the achievement of new motor habits essentially consists in the gradual success of a search for optimal motor solutions to the appropriate problems. Because of this, practice, when properly undertaken, does not consists of simply repeating the…solution of a motor problem time after time, but rather in the process of solving this problem again and again by techniques which we changed and perfected from repetition to repetition”. By staying in the same place, with a towel under your feet to protect the grass for long periods of time, hitting the same putt, you run the risk of influencing how the information you are gathering is encoded. This is described well by Dr Robert Bjork in a video on ‘The effect of context on memory’. Dr Bjork explains that it is beneficial to simulate the context that you will later be tested in and that this is widely approved and utilized not just in sport but in military domains too. Watch the link for a worth while 8 minutes of your life The Effect of Context on Memory. Now I have golfers play a game or a challenge with multiple places to hit from, different distances, different lines and have one focus, this could quite possibly be the ‘eye line’ position but I now test it from each DIFFERENT position. In my experience golfers do not get it right straight away, and that’s a good thing! If they did get I wouldn’t be helping them grow very much. Just like Will Smith says in one of my favorite YouTube clips, “You don’t try to build a wall. You don’t set out to build a wall. You say Im going to lay this brick as perfectly as a brick can be laid, and you do that every single day and soon you have a wall.” Will Smith – Talent, Skill, Success.
And now the mesmerizing, magnificent and monumental golf swing. Just like we did decades ago, we broke it up into smaller parts i.e. take away, hinge, top of backswing, transition, downswing, impact, post impact, finish and more. Some extremely successful coaches created methods and training systems based off of this and it’s not such a bad thing. Depending on your intentions, if it’s used to show, highlight or explain a particular part of a player’s swing or a part that may be causing injuries or could lead to a potential injury down the road then great. In fact it’s quite genius, however, it’s not quite as easy piecing the parts together when trying to actually learn these new skills. There are many subtleties and intricate variances to consider. I once did and was frequently told to place a golfer on a flat lie with a 6 iron, point out a target, place an alignment aid on the ground and have them hit whilst I took a video of their swing from different angles a hierarchy desired. This, unfortunately, is not the golf swing, nor the player, that plays in competitions. The chances of a golfer having this perfectly flat lie, full swing 6 iron into the green is highly unlikely. I know it can be difficult and in most cases not feasible but now I try to get swing videos of golfers in a situation on the golf course or in a recreated/simulated situation on the practice ground. I also try not to trim so much off of the video directing focus solely on the action itself but rather run the batteries and storage space out quicker by seeing the routine before the shot and after. I try to look more for the simple solution to what may seem a very complex problem. Often I see golfers don’t take into account a slight downslope, which could cause if not adjusted for, a heavily struck golf shot that results in a poor outcome. Was the problem the golfers slightly unorthodox swing? Or was it that he didn’t adjust for something he couldn’t control. The lie? I’ll let others answer that one.
Fortunately, I have had the pleasure and opportunity to spend time at organizations that create in-house training certifications for their golf coaches. They largely focus on what they teach in the categories we have discussed and less focus is placed on learning them. Although they are scientifically and biomechanically flawless in the mechanics, the learning of them is left more or less untouched. This is the typical style of coaching we see all over the globe and to give credit where credit is due, it can be beneficial. That, however, is another blog in the making!
What we must never get too far away from is the underlying properties of all the discussed categories, which is that they are all skills, and there are ways to learn skills more effectively. Trusting we teach and don’t tell our students what to do, it is well known that the golfers who know ‘why’ will always beat the golfers who know ‘what’, maybe not in the short, but in the long run always. Once again I give credit to where credit is due. As an industry, it is a remarkable thing to do, categorize, break down and label. We want a standard of excellence when it comes to creating golf coaches and so we must understand the same material and conform to the requirements this excellence requires. Knowledge of all the categories and experience in the field lead to the status of ‘Master’ golf coach. The intentions are pure and the intelligence behind the systems structure is remarkable. Consider the changes I made, the lessons I learned, the experience I had and bypass the pitfalls, save yourself the time and LIMIT the traditional delivery of teaching chipping, pitching, putting, swing teachings and more. LIMIT that and embark on learning and developing skills. Do this and we open the door to new and higher levels of performance.
I now Individually work and assist golfers in the process of self-discovering their ability to develop skills and I LIMIT the age old conformity of reading my scripts. I’m not where I want to be, I’m not who I want to be but thank god I’m not who I was.