Broadly speaking, I teach golf from a motor learning, bio-mechanics, and mastery perspective. Golf, like nearly all things in life, requires a wide range of mental and physical skills that can take many years or even decades to master. My goal is to use my knowledge and experience to help each student to meet their goals. Typically, this is accomplished with a long term coaching plan created specifically for the student.
I do not teach methods, I teach golfers. My success as a teacher is dependent on my ability to connect with each student and explore avenues for long term game improvement. I guarantee positive results to all my students. If you're dissatisfied with the results you are getting (after some sincere effort), let me know. I will find a way to meet your expectations!
The learning process
When I first start working with a student my primary objective is to figure out how they think about golf and how their body moves. I firmly believe that I'm succeeding when I teach my students skills that allow them to make progress on their own. Along these lines, you might hear me say "Your golf ball is your most important coach", which means a golfer needs to learn how to read their golf ball. If the ball curves left, you need to know why. You also need to know how to fix it. If it starts to the right and flies straight, you need to know why (and how to fix it). If the ball doesn't move at all, because you missed it, you need to know why you missed it. Did you swing to high? Did you make a divot way behind the ball? How can you change your thoughts/cues and your swing to make the ball do what you want it to do? That is the main challenge of golf!
I often tell new students there are 3 things you must master to be an accomplished ball striker. These are...
Contact - You must be able to hit the ball solidly. Much of this comes down to practice. Building a repeatable motor pattern is key here. In other words, you must practice. Good swing mechanics make contact much easier, but even the best looking swing in the world is useless if you hit 2 inches behind the ball! You must learn how to practice so that contact is something you can generally count on without worrying about the pond right in front of that first tee box! I help teach these "contact" related skills, but ultimately, this is your department. No teacher can make the student hit the ball solid. Without the requisite motor skills, the ball simply will not go in the air. I can teach you how to most effectively practice, but it's your job to put in the work to ensure a solid strike!
Ball flight - Some teachers wait longer to teach ball flight than others. I prefer to teach ball flight early on (as soon as someone is hitting solid shots 70-80% of the time). I teach golfers why the ball is flying the way it is and how to change that pattern. If someone has been slicing their whole life, the first thing we do is teach them to hook shots (the other direction). Using motor learning "shortcuts" this is usually accomplished within 1-5 lessons. For many golfers, it takes less than 30 minutes to change a perpetual slice into a hook. Refining ball flight comes as the golfer masters how to work the ball both ways on command. Trackman can be incredibly useful in learning this quickly. Ball flight mastery is critical for many reasons, but here are the most important...
1. It allows a golfer to never get stuck with a bias. In other words, when you show up at the course and the ball for whatever reason wants to go right or left more than you want, you know how to fix it! This saves you the embarrassment (and golf balls) of being in the right or left trees all day.
2. It allows a golfer to shape shots at will on tee shots and approach shots. You'll be able to shape a drive down a dogleg (which effectively makes the fairway wider), curve it out of the woods (making your punch outs more effective), or get at those difficult front right or back left pins with a more effective combination of spin/trajectory.
3. It makes golf more fun. When you learn the ability to shape shots and/or understand why the ball curves it opens a whole new world of possibilities up to you. Suddenly you can see how the pros hit the amazing shots they do and you'll start to think you can pull some of them off yourself!
If you think that shot shaping if too hard for you, I encourage you to come watch some of the young kids I coach practice. I know many kids under the age of 10 that can shape shots both ways at will. They've gotten so good at it that all they need to do is "think" hook and the ball curves right to left!
Early on, not many golfers have a sophisticated knowledge of ball flight. As we progress, you'll get better and better at reading your golf ball and making the right corrections after a series of errant shots. After some time, this becomes your department!
Biomechanics - Biomechanics refers to how the order, force, and direction that body parts move to create a golf swing. This is my department. The benefit of better biomechanics is improved contact and consistency. Even for accomplished professional players, it's useful to have a pair of eyes available for making the difficult changes involving higher order biomechanics (timing accelerations).
For an advanced player, making a meaningful change to your biomechacnical patterns is difficult and can take months or years because your body already has a way it likes to move. It's my job as your coach is to help you make those changes faster while still preparing you for "playing golf".
IN YOUR OPINION, WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN GOOD TEACHERS AND GREAT TEACHERS?
I believe the separation between a good teacher and a great teacher can be broken down into 5 key areas.
Mastery of Diagnosis – Great teachers can scan, recognize, and interpret patterns of body and club movements quickly and completely. Although many of these patterns can be described explicitly, many are recognized implicitly and/or unconsciously. In other words, a great teacher can watch just a few golf swings from nearly any angle and readily recognize swing faults and inefficiencies, even if the shots appear serviceable to the casual observer may. The same process of pattern recognition is common to experts in nearly any field, whether it’s athletes, musicians, artists, physicians, etc. The ability to organize a complex amount of data into coherent patterns requires countless hours of deliberate practice (often 10,000 + hours). The diagnosis of the swing goes hand and hand with recognizing shot patterns. Whether the instructor uses Trackman or simply makes mental notes, recognizing patterns of bias and consistency is critical.
Mastery of Mechanics – Great teachers are able to use the data that they collect through diagnosis and observation and synthesize a working cognitive model that allows them to successfully suggest appropriate changes that would lead to better golf. Although some accomplished teachers suggest one basic swing model, I believe that all great teachers must have a student centered method for improvement. As mentioned earlier, this means dealing with each student’s unique physical and mental abilities as well as factors such as the student’s goals, learning style, time commitments, communication style, etc. This data must be combined with an understanding of physics and bio-mechanics to create a plan that is uniquely suited for the student. Ultimately this plan should result in a more repeatable impact and/or increased power (assuming the student is working on the full swing). If the plan is unable to predict what the student is likely to experience next, the model must be questioned.
Mastery of Communication – Great teachers use a range of communication skills appropriately throughout the lesson, fully engaging and interacting with each student. They also know that because each student is different they will need a toolbox full communication approaches. The more expert the teacher, the more quickly they are able to communicate the idea through verbal, kinesthetic, or visual means. Lastly, expert teachers understand the many subtle uses of appropriate feedback throughout the lesson. When, what, and how this feedback is applied separates great teachers from good teacher. This is critically important when it comes to junior golfers because developmental differences regarding perceptions and interpretations of feedback can range significantly across the developmental spectrum.
Mastery of Motivational Psychology/Coaching Climate – While good golf teachers are able to meet the basic needs of most students, great teachers are able to challenge the student to improve beyond what was initially considered possible. This is the difference between creating a mastery climate and simply meeting the basic goals of a student. Creating a long term relationship that allows the student to feel free to make mistakes and learn throughout the process is critical to the long term success of both the student and the teacher.
I believe the primary reason I have been able to lead a college golf team from total obscurity (ranked over 100 nationally) to 9th in the nation is the priority I have placed on creating a positive motivational climate and a culture of excellence. When the proper motivation climate is formed and students are exposed to competent instruction, success will surely follow.
Self-Motivation to improve/Thirst for knowledge – Success as a teacher in any field hinges largely on an individual’s ambition and ability to gather and synthesize knowledge from many different areas. I have committed nearly a decade to learning continually more about swing mechanics, short game mechanics, putting mechanics, sport psychology, developmental psychology, motor learning, bio-mechanics, and club fitting. And yet, I recognize that there is still so much more to learn. All great teachers must take a similar approach, not only by reading and conversing with experts in his/her field, but also parallel fields.
Because golf is a several hundred year old game played by millions of people there is an abundance of anecdotal and expert evidence available. However, we are still in the infancy stage regarding our understanding of how we best learn golf and other motor skills at different development stages. I believe that over the next 20 years we will see many new methods for developing the critical skills necessary for elite success in golf. Although traditional forms of knowledge will probably always be popular in our sport, many of the new approaches will be based on emerging motor learning research, which is still somewhat outside the mainstream of popular golf instruction. The great teachers of the next generation will recognize this trend and be at its forefront.
Describe a typical lesson. How do you begin, what comes next and how to you close your lessons?
I typically begin each lesson with a warm greeting and some small talk to put my students at ease. Building rapport begins immediately. If I have had the student before, I quickly move towards investigating what the student has been working on and how it has been going. For instance, I might ask, “After our last lesson, can you describe in your own words what you've been working on and how it’s been going?” After this, I invite them to begin hitting some shots so that I can begin the diagnosis phase of the lesson. As they warm up, I observe their swing. I typically ask several open ended questions in an attempt to get a thorough understanding of my student. The responses I get to these initial questions work in concert with my observations of the student’s golf swing. Cumulatively, I hope to assess the following 6 criteria.
- Approaches that worked (and why) – If there was one key thing that really clicked then I need to know what that key was and why it was particularly effective. This will be useful in future lessons with this and other students.
- Approaches that didn’t (and why not) – In this case, I attempt to discover what roadblocks made the previous lesson or strategy less than successful. Was it physical, conceptual, limited practice, motivation, etc.? Whatever the case, this will be useful in future lessons with this and other students.
- Students overall perceptions regarding their progress – For instance, a positive outlook and perceptions of progress will generally coincide with improved skills. This is where the rubber hits the road as a teacher. In other words, this is where you find out if you’re succeeding with the student.
- Student’s goals, level of commitment, and patience – This will obviously influence the degree to which a more significant change can be addressed. If the student hasn't practiced between lessons then it’s particularly important to move at a slow pace because you know the student’s level of commitment is low. Once an initial success has been achieved and the student has some trust in your ability as an instructor his/her commitment is likely to increase.
- Student’s level of sophistication in understanding previous material – Greater understanding generally leads to faster motor learning change.
- Student’s physical and coordination abilities – Much of this can be observed in a student’s golf swing, but I often use TPI fitness screening of various other physical screening tests (borrowed from Mike Adam’s and others) if I have questions regarding a student’s physical strengths, weakness, or movement patterns. Understanding a student’s stability and mobility strengths in limitations is important in prescribing a plan for improvement.
These 6 criteria can be gleaned through the interview/diagnosis process both directly and indirectly, but must be also be gathered through the plethora of information the teacher receives from the student throughout the lesson both verbally and non-verbally.
In my attempt to understand these 6 criteria in depth, my goal is twofold: First, to learn more about the student so that I can do a better job with the lesson; second, to increase my knowledge base and understanding regarding the learning process we all encounter.
Following the interview/status update session of the lesson, which may take 5-15 minutes, I move towards addressing a specific goal or goals for the lesson (often directed at least in part by the student). While the goal for the lesson may have a similar tone from student to student (i.e. fixing a slice), the method through which that is carried out will vary widely based on the criteria identified.
Very generally speaking, I believe in providing students a clear explanation of what must materially change about their golf swing (often with the use of video). I then provide dills, swing thoughts, etc., that can most quickly and effectively impart both short and long term benefits. To finish a lesson (especially a first lesson), I typically send the student with a short video review of what was covered in the lesson. This helps the student see and understand the changes made during the lesson. Lastly, I recap the game plan going forward. This may include TPI workouts, practice plans, etc.
Luke continues his motor learning research at the UMN. His latest research proposal can be read here.