This article is an honest and frank look at golf coaching. While golf coaches may find this more relevant, I feel that amateur golfers will gain a lot from it – even if they don’t partake in lessons. I’m also going to share some mistakes I made as...
This article is an honest and frank look at golf coaching. While golf coaches may find this more relevant, I feel that amateur golfers will gain a lot from it – even if they don’t partake in lessons.
I’m also going to share some mistakes I made as a coach in the past – so some of this won't be easy. I hope you will appreciate the honesty and openness.
In my 2015 – 2016 teaching season, I managed to track just over 200 lesson results (using Trackman data) to gain an insight into how much improvement the students were getting.
My criteria for improvement were;
- Longer distances (while maintaining dispersion)
- Tighter dispersion (while maintaining distance)
- Longer distance and tighter dispersion combined
This “self-monitoring” was a habit I got into during my time at my first golf academy (The Cranfield academy).
My results showed that 94% of students left the lesson tee with improvements, compared to their pre-test.
However, although the results were improved, I didn’t class all of the 94% as successes. And some of the “6%” I deemed as a success.
This got me thinking – what is a successful lesson? Lets break it down:
My swing is less pretty now than it was 15 years ago. Yet I
- strike the ball better
- hit the ball longer
- can shape the ball both ways at will
- can fix any ball flight error that comes up in my game, and
- I could beat my old self to a pulp on the course.
Looks aren’t everything.
Most of those improvements were more of a result of a philosophy shift than they were a result of increased practice. In fact, I hardly practice at all anymore (due to prioritizing my time elsewhere), and haven’t done much practice over the last 10 years. The biggest change for me was shifting my focus away from swing “look”, and increasing “function” as a priority – something I think amateurs really struggle to do.
Form and Function
For that reason, in coaching, I give much less emphasis on how a swing looks, and much more on how it performs – for the most part.
The two (look and function) are obviously intertwined. And there are many cases where we have improved a look and achieved increased function concurrently. However, what most amateurs don’t realize is that you can reverse engineer this process. I will very often improve how a pupil’s swing functions and see lots of the “swing look” elements clean themselves up. Occasionally, we see an increase in performance and a detriment to the look – this is the real tough one where we have to ask ourselves a real philosophical question;
"does the look really matter that much if I am hitting it so well?"
For some golfers, the allure of a better looking swing is too much to handle, and they are not willing to veer away from the preconceived idea of ‘correct’, even the results are phenomenal. This is very telling of how deeply rooted the idea of the “perfect swing” is. I have tricks up my sleeve to convert these textbook-orexics. I will often show them images of elite golfers with multiple wins doing unorthodox moves – such as in my “myths of golf” article. Alas, often this still falls on deaf ears.
To each their own.
A Lesson Learned
I learned the hard way early on in my coaching career that “swing look” was not everything. I remember working with a scratch golfer who had a pretty solid 20 yard draw and a “home-grown” swing. By the end of a month of working together, his swing looks absolutely beautiful. It was the spitting image of the “Aaron Baddeley” model our academy used (due to it’s picturesque look, clean lines and overall purity). The player couldn’t break 80 for the next 2 months. Eventually, the player did get their game back.
They said they had been working hard on ingraining the new moves and wanted me to check they were on the right track. My ego could now rest – all they needed was more reps for the new better mechanics to become ingrained. I had to laugh when he sent me a video of his swing – he had simply reverted (unknowingly) back to his old swing.
My lesson from this taught me as a teacher to try and maintain the main essence of a player’s movement – especially in better players. There is very likely a good reason why they move like they do. What I try to do now is to “add” certain moves which match up with their movement pattern to create function.
Kinematics and Kinetics
One of the biggest reasons I don’t pay as much attention to how a swing looks (it’s still on my radar and I don’t ignore it either) is because of the difference between kinematics and kinetics.
Sounds scary, right? Don’t worry, it’s easy;
- Kinematics are the movement
- Kinetics are the forces being applied
For example, if you are losing a game of tug of war, you are kinematically moving forward, but kinetically you are pulling backwards. Force is not always correlated with movement. There are many examples in the golf swing (beyond the scope of this article) which show a discrepancy between the movement we make and the forces we used to create that movement. I see many amateurs working on movements in the swing to try and copy X professional, and are doing so in a way which is creating poor kinetics.
As a result, the outer working of the swing (the look) look great, but the inner workings (forces used) are creating issues.
As we delve deeper into the inner workings in the future (as technology improves), we will start to see we can even apply the same forces to the club using different muscle firing sequences/activation levels.
This will add another layer of complexity, and give us another reason why achieving X look is not always beneficial.
Even when we are able to look at certain kinetics, such as ground reaction forces, there can be severe issues. I have seen several times where a player’s pressure trace has been “improved” by making it more linear, under the assumption that this is better. If I didn’t know better, I might be under “pressure” to change this pattern of COP (center of pressure) movement.
The fact is, while there are certain patterns of pressure trace prevalent in the World’s best, there are many patterns which can work effectively. Trying to mold everybody into the same ideal is the kinetic version of “swing look beautification”.
What Do You Want?
To give the student what they want. One of my favorite coaches to chat with, Anthony McCarthy, often cites this as the role of a coach. I largely agree with this – and this is certainly a big part of whether I deem a lesson a success or not. However, it is not always easy.
While this one is much higher on my list of priorities, defining a lesson’s success on shot-results alone can also be problematic. In my first coaching job, I was self-employed. I quickly learned how to get results instantly with pupils, because, if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be able to eat that week.
Results were what kept people coming back.
I could push, pull, manipulate and tease out results in almost every person who stepped on my lesson tee.
“Do X”, I would say.
“Why”, they would ask.
“Just do it”, I would retort.
After a couple of booming draws and that sweet-feeling strike, they would be convinced.
However, when I saw them next week, they have broken again and needed me to fix them.
This was a great business model, but I hated it. I had to do better. Why were the results not sticking?
Concept Are Key
The issue (in most cases), I found, was that the player hadn’t conceptually grasped what we were doing. The “why” and understanding behind the changes was lacking on their part.
Why did “do X” work?
What did “do X” do that created better shots?
I’m not passing the blame – it was my own failings as a teacher as to why the student wasn’t grasping the “why” part. It led me down the path of trying to improve my communication skills, and helping players understand (in a way that is relevant to them) the reasoning behind why something worked.
This is something I now feel is a strength in my coaching.
I knew that if I could get players to understand some basic principles (or concepts) surrounding why the ball does what it does, they would have the mental tools to be able to change/fix/improve/coach themselves.
"Feed a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he will feed for a lifetime."
However, in order to get a pupil to fully grasp a concept (however basic), it takes more time, effort, and creativity on my part.
It’s much easier for me to just tell a pupil to “do X” and watch the result improve, but the real lasting improvement comes when a player has a working knowledge of
- Why the ball did what it did
- How to change that in the right direction
As a couple of examples to highlight this, an improved concept could be as simple as (for a beginner)
- Understanding (and being aware of) the fact that striking the tee will get the ball flying in the air, and low-thinned shots are a result of missing the tee.
- Understanding what they can do to effect a change in how high/low the club swings through impact
For more advanced players, this might be much more complex, such as
- A deeper understanding of how arc height/depth and low point positions combine to create a desired ground contact
- What to do to achieve effective changes in these variables
In terms of accuracy, a beginner may need a conceptual understanding of
- All else being equal, if the club face is presented more left at impact, the shot patterns will be more to the left (and vice versa)
- What options do they have to effect a change in club face presentation at impact
An an advanced player might benefit from
- An increased understanding of path and face contributions to start direction, as well as how off-center strikes can change ball flight
- An awareness of what to change when they see a ball flight that is unsatisfactory, as well as how to change it to get the ball flight as desired.
Why Is This Important?
Say a player is hitting it poor one day and I tell the player to “do X” and it solves it, but there was no understanding of
- why the ball was doing what it did
- what “X” was affecting which was improving the ball flight
Great – we both walk off happy. I walk off thinking I’m teacher of the year for being able to “fix” someone in a short amount of time, and the player leaves thinking I am performing some kind of golf voodoo.
But what happens next week?
What happens when they go through perceptual adaptation (you could think of this as acclimatizing to the strange feel of a new car). As they get used to the strange feeling that “doing X” initially brought about, they may seek that feeling of discomfort again later – resulting in over-doing “X”.
What happens if (when) a new issue pops up?
Often, players without clarity of concepts will try to do “X” even more – as if it were a “cure-all” – when, in fact, “X” has nothing to do with their new issue.
I currently run group coaching class.
The great advantage of this is that I get to see pupils far more frequently. The biggest disadvantage is that it can be tough to spend enough time with each pupil on an individual basis – the time necessary to make sure a person grasps a concept a way which fits with them.
This was highlighted to me this week, when one of the ladies (who comes maybe once every two weeks) said this, after a recent grip change.
"After the grip change we made last lesson, I was hitting it great. I had a nice week of golf where I hardly sliced it at all. But now the ball is going the other way (left) and I don’t know why.”
Curious, I prodded (to check her conceptual understanding).
“So, what causes the ball to go that direction, and what are you trying to implement to fix the newly acquired hook?”, I asked.
“The grip causes it to go offline – but I tried the grip you showed me and it doesn’t work anymore”, she said.
I took a look – all she had done was over-do the strengthening (turning to the right) of the grip. She understood it as “if turning my grip “this way” makes me hit it good, then more must be better”.
I see this as a failure on my behalf.
While I managed to get the lady to hit the ball better and straighter, I don’t deem it a success because it didn’t last, due to the initial lack of conceptual understanding.
Obviously, getting life-long concepts across in 5 minutes once every 2-3 weeks can be tough, but I am getting much better at it.
I prefer to have more time with a pupil to deeply root these concepts, but that is not always possible – and sometimes we have to settle for a quick “tune-up”. But I never walk away from a tune-up feeling successful – even if the results were incredible.
We re-balanced the grip, the results improved, and then I spent 10 minutes with her one-to-one helping her understand the concept of how the ball flight is affected by the clubface position at impact, and the grip is simply an influence on the clubface.
I then gave her a basic rule which should allow her to better correct herself. I told her
"turning the hands more to the right makes the ball pattern go more left, and vice versa”
While this rule is overly simplified, not accurate for everyone (for various reasons), and will likely bring the trolls out in their hordes to argue the point, it is;
- functional for her – allows her to better self-correct
- relevant to her, and
- will set the grounding for more advanced concepts later on
We have to layer more advanced concepts onto more fundamental ones.
Now, it’s not to say a pupil needs to know everything (far from it). There is a difference between what we need to know and what we could know.
However, if the conceptual information is relevant, fits their needs at the time and allows for good long-term growth, it is one of the most positive interventions a golf coach can make.
I have (over time) been able to filter out what a pupil needs to know for growth versus what is purely informational and intellectually stimulating. And I have become better at pitching those concepts to the pupil at the right time and in the right amount – although it is always a process of mine which is being refined.
- A beginner may first need to understand how the clubface direction at impact affects the shot pattern direction.
- A more advanced player may benefit greatly from knowing how their swing path affects their shot shapes.
- Very advanced players might benefit by knowing how the path and face combine to produce the start direction and subsequent curvature of the shot.
By introducing concepts more gradually and pitching it at a player’s current level of understanding (or, rather, bringing the answer out of them through intelligent questioning), we can dramatically improve someone’s long-term ability to self-coach.
We also have information which doesn’t really improve a player’s function – as “correct” as the information may be.
For the most part, I don’t think I ever explain on the lesson tee
- the exact percentages of face to path contributions, or
- how friction will affect those (although I have written blog posts on the topic for intellectual stimulation).
In essence, an improvement in conceptual understanding will improve a player’s problem-solving abilities.
And, as golf is the Rubix cube of sports, this ability (to a certain extent) is necessary if a player doesn’t want their game to end up a tangled mess.
This is why I wrote The Practice Manual – The Ultimate Guide for Golfers.
I wanted players to be able to improve their concepts and achieve long-term growth. But I knew that this wasn’t always easy to do in a one-off session where a player just wants to be fixed. So I wanted to be able to refer them to some written material that could help the learning process.
I wanted players to understand things in their own time – things which would have the greatest impact on their game over the years. I never thought it would become a best-seller across the globe. But, from all the emails I get, it has worked.
Players are now better problem solvers and can achieve short-term success AND life-long improvement and benefit from self-coaching. Players like Pat Raymond
If you want to learn more about The Practice Manual (available on amazon – subtle plug), CLICK HERE
Better problem solving capabilities allows the player to “self-organize” better (although true self-organisation is a non-conscious process in some schools of thought).
As a simple example that anyone watching a beginner golfer can relate to.
Imagine the player is hitting a pitch shot with a sand wedge and they blade the ball 50 yards too far. The beginner will believe they used too much force/too big a golf swing.
So the next swing, they use a softer swing and either;
- blade it (hit the equator of the ball) again, but due to the lower swing speed, the ball now trundles up to the hole. However, the combination of too little swing speed and bladed shot, this is not a repeatable method.
- strike the ball correctly, but due to the lower swing speed the ball flies only half of the distance. The player then gets incredibly confused and may complain that they lack “feel”.
If this player had a better conceptual understanding – namely the fact that they need to brush the grass in the correct place to get the ball to fly and land with control and spin – they would have self-organized a better solution to the initial bladed shot.
Obviously, for many readers here, the above example is mind-numbingly obvious.
However, if 12K hours of coaching has taught me anything, it’s this
"One of the biggest reasons for a player’s inability to fix themselves is their lack of conceptual clarity."
Often times, this lack of clarity is something very simple. But, I guess, if you don’t know, you don’t know.
Which leads us to….
The Expert Problem
As coaches, we are deeply entrenched in the workings of the golf swing.
We have been studying it for years, looking at and analyzing movement patterns every single day for hours on end and seeing the cause and effects.
We are now looking at forces and torques and hand paths and club paths and planes and pressure shifts and kinematic sequences……
I think you get the picture.
Therefore, the expert problem (and I think golf is where this is most prevalent) is that we often take for granted that the player in front of us has certain concepts (which are second nature to us as coaches) understood already.
imagine a coach is watching a player who is shanking the ball. It’s very likely that most coaches will jump in an immediately try to change the movement pattern. But, what if the player doesn’t even realize where they are hitting in the face?
Sounds ludicrous, I know, but that’s the expert problem.
Let’s put it this way – I've encountered many golfers who have had lessons with other coaches in an attempt to fix their shank.
They have come to me in distress because they have tried “everything” with a bunch of coaches. They tell me how they are shanking it because of their over the top move, or because they don’t start the swing with their hips or what-have-you.
Then I show them a high speed video of their impact.
The amount times these players then gasp and say “I didn’t realize I was doing that”.
That’s right, coaches. Never take for granted that your pupil can truly visualize what just happened at impact to create that awful ball flight.
One of the biggest and most powerful tools I have as a coach is that slow motion video of impact. For whatever reason, it allows the pupil to fully understand/visualize/conceptualize what went on.
Even with pupils who had a logical understanding of what a shank is (it’s hitting the shank of the club, dummy), often nothing changes until they can see…. I mean REALLY visualize….. it.
And they can then fix it with so much more ease.
A Great Lesson
You can give/have what looks like the best lesson in the world from the outside.
- The swing might look better on camera
- It might please the 3D devices by lighting up the numbers in the right way
- The ball flight could be straighter, longer and more consistent
- The pupil could walk away happy
But, if there is a lack of conceptual understanding, the lesson and improvements are often short-lived and, in some cases, can even be detrimental.
Imagine a player who
- slices the ball and
- happens to also hit frequent shanks.
During the lesson, the player works on their swing path (making it less out to in). This works a treat for the slice, and also seems to eliminate the shank shot during the lesson.
Then, next week, the player has a nice, neutral swing path, but (for whatever reason) is hitting 50% of their shots as shanks.
And yes, you can hit shanks with a neutral swing path.
What is this player going to be thinking?
“Hmm, I must be swinging too much to the left again. I had better feel an even more in-to-out swing to stop this shank”
Cue negative Self-Organization.
The player starts to swing the club 5, 10, then 20 degrees to the right, but they still keep shanking it.
As a result of the swing direction going too far to the right, they encounter more issues. Fats, thins, drop-kick hooks.
And they are STILL shanking it.
The player arrives on the lesson tee next week in “stressed-out mode”.
“I don’t understand, I am swinging less to the left like before when we fixed the shank, but it’s just not working”.
The problem is, the shank was never caused by the swing path (hitting a shank and hitting a slice are two separate issues). The player didn’t grasp this (the coach is to blame, in most cases), and now they are a mess.
That brilliant lesson has now gone down the toilet.
Welcome to how I used to teach golf in my first year. I quickly learned that conceptual understanding is vital if we want to see long-term growth and increased retention of learning. 12K hours later, I feel I am pretty good at this – although always improving and finding unique ways of getting messages across.
Unfortunately, many coaches who have have been teaching for years may glance over the conceptual part, trying to get to the glitzy mechanical part.
Like I said, the expert problem.
And coaches are not the only ones to suffer from this. Any amateur that has picked up a magazine, swing technique book or watched The Golf Channel usually suffers from the Dunning-Kruger effect. They will often skip over, or miss completely, the low-hanging-fruit of the golf swing, going straight to more complex (and usually irrelevant) things.
Retention Is Key
Retention of performance is huge. In fact, it’s how learning would be defined.
There is no point achieving a 50% improvement in your shots if you retain 0% of that. You would be better of retaining 50% of a 10% improvement.
Again, this is where conceptual clarity comes in.
When a player leaves a lesson and they haven’t understood certain concepts, they might leave hitting like a God, but the retention of that performance is going to be poor.
In fact, if a player has misinterpreted the information, it can often lead to making the player worse a week later.
On the other hand, I have seen many examples of people leaving a lesson with only a small improvement in performance. Yet, due to their full-understanding, they come back a couple of weeks better with increased growth.
Now THAT’S what I’m talking about!
Coach Vs Pupil
One of the issues with instruction has sometimes been the disparity between the pupil’s goals and the goals of the coach.
For example, the vast majority of pupils simply want to see instant results – even if they tell you otherwise.
However, the goal of most coaches is to gain the long-term improvement – improvement that will last.
As a result, the pro may often sacrifice their goals for you in order to appease your instant gratification needs. Again, this can lead to great in-lesson performances, but much poorer long-term results than if you had both committed to something with more vision.
There are obvious workarounds – giving the player a nice blend of better results, while at the same time working towards longer-term goals.
However, it is important to note (from a personal perspective) that some of the things which gave me most long-term value as a golfer actually caused detriment to my game in the short term.
I don’t care how great the information is, sometimes it takes time and reps to get comfortable and regain coordination with that new movement pattern. Our brains and bodies have to re-organize and stabilize the new movement pattern.
So, not every lesson with “bad results” is a bad lesson. I make sure I keep these ones to a minimum, but some of those 6% in my “did not improve” lessons showed some awesome longer-term changes.
One of the greatest improvements in my own teaching was the introduction of skill building (as opposed to pure technical changes).
It’s one of the things that I have found not only gives the short-term boost in performance but actually improves players in the long term too.
Yet, most players golfers have no clue about how to build skills/coordination – a topic I talk about in-depth in The Practice Manual – The Ultimate Guide for Golfers.
This is a shame, as much can be gained from taking this approach – which is ironic that the vast majority of other sports are predominantly skill-building based (and not so technique oriented).
Also, while not directly linked, I have managed to combine skill-building with concept building for a double-whammy effect. This was an art I have learned through many years of teaching and has really allowed me to sow the seeds for long-term improvement with pupils.
What Is A Successful Lesson?
Everyone defines a successful lesson differently. But, for me, after many years of self-reflection, my main goals now are that the pupil;
- Understands the concept – Is there clarity between what they need to do to effect a desired change in ball flight, and why (this, for the most part, relates to CONCEPTS OF IMPACT). Can they repeat it back to me – can they identify the issue in others? I often hit shots in front of the pupil and ask them to “coach me” through what I need to do to improve the shot.
- Understands what feedback they need and how to interpret it – For example, if the strike mark is high on the face, what does this mean they did?
- Has a process for improvement – For example, when a fault pops up, what are their options to change this positively?
- Is able to retain it and transfer it to the course, where it matters – I would rather see a pupil improve 10% and retain it fully than to improve 50% and retain none of it.
And, to lesser extent;
- Sees some instant success – this is not vital, but it helps that the pupil has some in-lesson success. As I said at the start of the article, I achieved this in 94% of students. However, this alone is not enough (for me).
When I achieve the above criteria in the pupil (particularly the first 3 points), in my experience, the player is much more likely to have long-term success. Therefore, I deem this as the best-golf lesson ever.
When the above criteria are not in place after a lesson, I see it as a failure – even if the shot results were out of this world.
In most cases, if the first 3 points are not in place, the player will just enter the fixed-broken-fixed cycle. The last thing I want is to create coach reliance – and while this might be necessary in the early stages of concept building (when a player can't-do it themselves), I eventually want my pupils to spread their wings and fly the nest.
I want my pupils to become their own best coaches. I want them to become great problem solvers.
Thus, the programs I create are designed with these points in mind. This is why The Strike Plan has modules on
- skill building exercises
When I can get concepts across, players see that instant success and long-term growth combined.