Constraints led approach to golf

constraints led approach

What on earth is Constraints Led Approach and how does it relate to golf? If you’re really serious about playing your best golf  (or becoming a better coach) and gaining an advantage over all your golfing friends, then I reckon you’ll get a lot from this article.

But first a story.

One of the best lessons I ever gave was in 1997. It was to a guy named Geoff and he turned out to be a really interesting bloke. He was a writer and helped coach me to become interested in writing (something I’m very grateful for). Geoff was also a lateral thinker, he saw things differently and encouraged me to buck the system and follow my heart (and my gut). This is also something I’m thankful for.

Geoff also happened to be quite a good golfer. He played purely for fun. He never bothered too much about score and just loved hitting the shots that interested him. When he was on he was amazing, and when he wasn’t quite on the money, he could look a bit ordinary. But none of this bothered Geoff.

Geoff’s real weakness was chipping/pitching. He never devoted anytime to it because he loved smashing the ball. The rest of the game was almost an inconvenience to him but on this day he asked for some advice.

“Strachan, my chipping is a debacle! How can I improve?”

Geoff was a “handsy” player. And when it came to these shorter shots he flicked his wrists and attempted to loft the ball into the air. It would have been easy for me to tell him about solid wrist position, keeping hands in front of the ball, hitting down on the ball and having his weight forward.

This would have been solid advice but I knew it wasn’t enough. I wanted him to experience better shots without overloading him with technical advice. I might add, Geoff had been told all this regular stuff before and it obviously hadn’t worked. He needed something more powerful.

So here’s what I did…

I grabbed my driver out of my bag and stood a few metres in from of him. I hovered the club horizontally, around 3 feet above the ground and then asked him to chip the ball under the shaft. There were some nerves on my part because Geoff often took a big swipe at the ball and hit the odd shank. There was no shank but the flight of the ball saw it fly well over the hovering shaft.

“Have another go, but this time you need to get the ball to go under the shaft”, I replied, emphasising the shaft by waving it around.

Geoff got set again and this time there was a shift. I could see his mind turning as he tried to figure out how to get the ball to go lower. On the next attempt he buried the club into the ground behind the ball.

“Brilliant!” was my response. He had nearly got it. His hands went way forward and the club almost struck the ball cleanly. “Go again. Have another go!”, was my request.

At this point you may be thinking that hitting the ball fat isn’t a good thing. I disagree. Mistakes are a huge part of learning. They are essential. Too many golfers are so afraid of doing something wrong that they are playing with a straitjacket on. They don’t leap. They don’t explore. These golfers are stuck because they’ve been conditioned from an early age NOT to make mistakes. This mindset holds many back in all walks of life.

After a few more attempts Geoff was able to hit a low and spinning pitch shot. His technique was ideal. The hands stayed forward and there was no flicking or lifting. And he did this without lots of technical advice from me. For a long time I’ve called this natural learning. This approach came to me almost instinctively as I explored better ways to play the game. I got to the point where the easiest way for me to lose the plot was to get too technical. After 10+ years of writing about this stuff, I know there are thousands of golfers who struggle the same way too.

I now know that what I did this day can also be called a Constraints Led Approach to coaching. It comes right out of the sports science world, and like a lot of science, the name isn’t overly intuitive. I still like to think of it as natural learning. Maybe we can refer to it as the science of learning from this point on. No matter what you call it, it has been found to be a more effective way of learning golf (or most things for that matter).

A constraints led approach – a better way to coach golf

Constraints are boundaries that help shape a learner’s movement patterns, decisions and thoughts. And there are three categories of constraints that can be used.

1. Performer constraints: these include physical and mental factors such as height, weight, strength, skill, motivation and attention. A performer constraint could be asking a learner to hit shots and become aware of their feelings and emotions when they’re in the act of hitting.

2. Environmental constraints: from a golf perspective these could include the wind, the type of golf course, humidity and condition of the golf course. There is a story that Greg Norman hit thousands of balls with the ball above his feet. The idea was that this helped flatten his swing and remove tension from his back.

3. Task constraints: task constraints include the goal of the task, rules of the game, equipment available and the relative state of the game. An example of a task restraint would be to ask someone to “hit the ball over that tree” or perhaps you could ask the golfer to hit a long drive with their 6 iron.

This is where I think this way of coaching needs some better definition. It’s a little confusing and not overly intuitive (unless you’re a sports scientist). But here’s how I can best explain it.

In normal coaching (I say teaching) you get “told” what to do…

“Hold the club this way”
“Swing like this”
“You’re swinging too quickly”
“You need to swing flatter”
“Cock your wrists”
“Rotate your shoulders”
“Hit with the big muscles”

The list goes on and on.

But with a constraints led approach you shape the coaching environment by allowing the student to perform the problem solving. In the example above I didn’t tell Geoff to shift his weight or cock his wrists. NO!! But I chose a task constraint that I knew would help his chipping but got Geoff to do the heavy lifting.

He figured out all by himself HOW to chip the ball under the shaft. This is known as intrinsic learning and is mighty powerful.

Explicit learning is when we’re told what to do. It all seems nice and normal but it doesn’t have science on its side. It’s also the way most of us are taught but is it the best way? I think not and it’s not surprising to me that a huge percentage of the population don’t look back fondly on our years in the classroom.

But this is how we’re conditioned to learn. Hardly a week goes by where I don’t talk to a golfer who is only interested in being told what to do.

“Cameron, this natural learning stuff is all very interesting, but can’t you just tell me what I’m doing wrong?”.

If only learning and improvement were so easy. If being told what was wrong or what to do was the way forward, then we’d all be better players. But learning is NEVER this straight forward. The breakthrough for both coach and pupil is to understand (really understand and appreciate) that the student has the solution inside of them. The coach’s role is to guide and inspire. It’s almost like the coach is a Puzzle Master, giving all sorts of objectives to the client, and the client then embracing the challenge.

I know this is a firm departure from the norm. But what is the alternative? You can fumble around and jump from tip to tip, looking for the next theory and continually bypass your learning system, or you can embrace what science has shown to be the most effective learning methodology. The choice is yours.

Constraints Led Approach Goes Deeper

Hiding under the cover of this thinking are deeper insights. For starters, when the client does the problem solving without unnecessary input from the coach, the learning is more profound and permanent. Things might not be instantaneously obvious, but learning and insight and improvement and satisfaction (for both parties) will present. It’s at this point that golf becomes more fun and will appear easier.

A popular mantra in the golf world is “practice makes perfect”. In a constraints led approach the saying has become “repetition without repetition”. This is because there really is no exact ideal technique for anything. There will always be variations and it’s the variations that lead to greater learning and improvement.

This is why I dislike driving ranges so much. For the most part, we go to the range and hit a bucket of balls from a dead flat lie and attempt to hone our swing through repetition. The belief is that we can memorise a swing and then take this swing to the course. But alas, this is false thinking.

During the telecast of the 2014 Australian Masters, I heard Wayne Grady talk about how the only way to improve golf was by rote learning – where the golfer hits lots of balls on the practice fairway and hopes the technique is ingrained into memory. Once you’re past the very early beginner stages, you’ll do far better by hitting lots of different shots, with different clubs and in different environments. You’re getting repetition, but you’re not hitting the same shot time after time.

When a golfer is able to self organise and adjust to different lies, weather conditions, distances and mental obstacles they’ll become a much better golfer. There will always be minor differences between each attempt, but it is these differences that allow you to truly find YOUR game. And mistakes are just part of the process. Mistakes are KEY to learning and are embraced and not feared. If only more of us would forget perfection and accept that mistakes are just a part of learning.

This is why I’m such a big believer in getting outside and playing golf. The golf course is where the magic lives and I reckon a lot of coaches would do better work there. Yep, it’s easy to coach behind a camera and a TV screen from a driving range booth, but I don’t believe this really helps the golf student become the best they can be.

With a focus on constraints the coach is more likely going to give the student a complete motion. The thought that you’re able to do part practice – say work on your backswing at the expense of the downswing (very popular by the way) – and then piece the swing together is foolhardy. If you’ve ever tried this you’ll know how hard it really is.

Go to any range and you’ll see all sorts of golfers doing all sorts of drills. But most of these aren’t much good. Your best drill is a complete golf swing where you’re changing club, target and objective often. Remember? Repetition without repetition.

A constraints led approach can be challenging for both the learner and the coach. The coach must come up with new ways (puzzles) to coach for an outcome and the learner has to be brave enough to accept the challenge and enjoy the process.

The biggest restraint with the constraints led approach

The most important breakthroughs with a constraints led approach need to come from the coaches. It’s my opinion the learners will do what they’re told. The coaches need to be more patient and move away from explicit instructions. It’s no longer good enough for any coach to overload with outdated instructions. Coaches need to become coaches, not teachers. A teacher tells you what to do. A coach will bring out YOUR best golf game without all the typical bullshit.

Coaches need to learn to become more quiet, provide the least amount of instruction and wait for the feedback they get from the pupil. Coaches have to check out their ego at the door and believe that the student already has the talent and skill inside. The coach’s role is to motivate, inspire and get that talent to shine through. And you do this with implicit learning techniques, not just telling someone what they did wrong. Golf coaches need to restrain themselves from sharing all of their knowledge all of the time. Sometimes less really is more.

In his great book, Extraordinary Golf, Fred Shoemaker, shares a great story to highlight his coaching ideals.

He asks you to pretend you’re a school teacher of Albert Einstein and then poses this interesting question.

If you knew Einstein was going to be brilliant and change the world would you do your best to challenge, inspire and motivate him or would you force him to read text books and fill his head with theories and mumbo jumbo?

For most the answer is easy.

It’s a great way to approach a constraints led approach for golf (all things for that matter). Best the coach starts out thinking that everyone is gifted and everyone can do great things. If you wouldn’t overload Albert Einstein then why would you do it to you (or anyone else)? At the very least, it’s a perfect starting point to understand what constraints led coaching is all about.

My latest work on golf learning

I’ve spent most of the last two years creating my version of a constraints led approach for golf. I’ll be (hopefully) launching it by the end of the year and it’s my hope it helps many golfers learn to practice golf better but also enjoy the game. Learning is instinctive to us all, and when it’s done right, you can’t NOT improve. And when you’re learning and improving you’re also having fun. And it’s then that golf becomes truly rewarding and satisfying.

If you can’t wait for the new book to come out then check out my current works (here and here) that share the story so far.


Scott Barrow – Scott first educated me about constraints led approach to coaching. He’s one of the best coaches in Australia and is brilliant at helping anyone see how good they really can become.

Damian Farrow – I meet him a few years ago, played golf with him and have read some of his papers. He is perhaps Australia’s leading skill acquisition scientist and knows as much about learning skills as anyone.

Ian Renshaw – Iain is also a renowned sports scientist and has a blog dedicated to the constraints led approach and cricket. If you’re a coach or interested in the subject you’ll find his articles more than helpful. I also think it’s fantastic that he has shared his ideas on a website.

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  • John

    Reply Reply August 31, 2015

    Hi Cam
    The education system has a long way to go in this constraints led approach to teaching/coaching.
    We still have an antiquated system which is slowly changing for the better.
    Great article. I encourage you to keep exploring,writing and coaching. Well done Cameron.
    Ta John Stead

  • Grayden Provis

    Reply Reply August 31, 2015

    “Mistakes are KEY to learning and are embraced and not feared. If only more of us would forget perfection and accept that mistakes are just a part of learning.”

    Was just now talking to a guy about “inhibitive perfectionism” – ie when the desire for perfection actually inhibits your performance rather than enhances it. This seems to be a pivotal concept to grasp in order to move forward – at least it has been in my case 🙂

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