How to coach a beginner golfer

Coaching isn’t about you. It’s about your pupil. So don’t go ramming as much information/content down you pupil’s neck (replace pupil with wife, nephew, student, child etc). This is probably the number one mistake rookie coaches make when trying to help someone play better golf. It’s especially true when helping someone new to the game.

While it seems like the right thing to do, it isn’t. So please refrain from teaching your pupil about the grip, stance, backswing, downswing, power, rotation, pressure, swing plane, pivot and the follow-through all at once. It’s just not going to work.

The chances are you’ve probably tried to play golf the same way (with lots of information and instructions) and it has failed you. So if nothing else, learn from these mistakes and let’s work together to change the way our future golf champions are introduced to the game.

So what’s the best way to coach a beginner?

I want you to see yourself as a mentor rather than a teacher. A teacher tells someone what to do – a mentor’s role is different. They are there to guide, challenge and gently push those learning in the right direction. A mentor is also there to learn something too. It’s win-win. A teacher just tells you what to do (maybe this is why a lot of us didn’t like school).

Here’s one of my all-time favourite lesson stories.

A while back (about 2008) I was giving a lesson to a rank newbie. The girl had never played before (which was strange because she worked in a golf shop) but was keen to learn because her boyfriend was into the game. We started slowly by getting her to make a few swings – nothing too serious and absolutely no expectation on results, power or competing on the LPGA Tour.

Sidenote: I always try and make golf fun and lighthearted. You may not realise it but learning golf can be intimidating for many. Golf has a stuffy reputation (especially here in Australia) and some golfers are worried about doing something wrong. But not with me – I quickly make the pupil comfortable by highlighting there is no right or wrong. Just fun and learning.

Forward.

It was quickly apparent my star pupil was struggling. She couldn’t hit the ball (read: she couldn’t strike the ball with the clubhead at all. There were lots of airswings). I acted quickly as there’s no need to punish and frustrate the student further. The goal now was to change the game. Here’s what I did.

One of my best teaching aides is a block of foam. They come in handy for all sorts of things but are especially useful for helping newbies. I replaced the ball with the foam block and gave this simple instruction,

“Please hit the foam block with the club”.

That’s it. This is known as an objective lesson. I gave her a task that is easily comprehended and has a measurable outcome. By the way, telling someone to, “swing back on plane and rotate the club into an open position while shifting your weight is not an objective lesson”. Way too much going on there but it sounds impressive doesn’t it?

Her first attempt was a failure. This is not a time to panic, jump in and bombard with more instruction. I repeated my request, stood back and watched.
Her second attempt was a beauty. She smashed the foam block with the club. But I knew she could do better. I replaced the foam block and repeated my request. The third strike was successful but not overly so. She barely hit the top of the beefy block. And this my friend is where the formal lesson ended.

Why?

Because I knew there was nothing else I could tell her that would be of any help. Her homework was to take the foam block and club and practice for a few minutes each day (or for however long she could manage). At this stage of her development that’s all the coach can do. I’ve repeated this story to many a golf pro and been hounded by their feedback.

“you should have taught her a better grip”
“what about working on her posture?”
“what a waste! You should have kept her there for an hour and charged her full price”

Remember earlier how I mentioned coaching is not about you? Well this story is a case in point. I absolutely could have told her all about grip, stance and swing theory. I could have molded, prodded and forced her into uncomfortable positions and then asked her to hit the ball (has this ever happened to you?). But I didn’t. Because the lesson is not about me – it’s about her and helping her learn the game as quickly as possible.

Are you listening because this is important?

Good coaching is NOT telling the student what to do. They need to feel, learn and explore things for themselves. They need to experience golf in a way that suits their current level of ability. Modern society and schooling believes that an information dump is the only way. It isn’t. The typical way is outdated and should be replaced. It’s also boring. Boring for both the pupil and teacher (can you imaging teaching in a way where you repeat the same rules over and over again? Again, isn’t this what most school teachers do? Is there any surprise our school system is struggling?). This is the way most of the golf professionals have to teach. There’s no room for creativity or magic. Sad really.

Do you want to hear how my pupil ended up?

She came back a few weeks later and had gotten very good at hitting the sponge. By now she was able to hit it with considerable force and get it airborne. I replaced the foam block with a golf ball and asked,

“Can you hit the golf ball with that club please?”.

She took a swipe and smashed the ball. It wasn’t a perfect shot. She actually topped the ball but had successfully completed the task (she hit the silly white ball). For the next few minutes we zeroed in on the bottom of the ball and she learned to hit her first few “perfect” golf shots. It was magic.

This might not seem that remarkable to you but that lesson has stuck with me. This young woman had virtually no pattern to strike a stationary object with a stick. She had never done it and it would have been easy to destroy her with all of the swing rules and regulations that abound the golf world. But I had the courage to keep my mouth shut – to give her just enough information to let her actually learn something useful (swing a stick at the ball). Like all humans, her natural learning system took over and it wasn’t too hard for her to make significant progress.

I can hear my critics screaming, “what about her grip and her stance?”. My response? It doesn’t matter. At least not yet.

In time (if she keeps playing) she’ll develop more strength and power and will naturally adjust these things to suit. But the worse thing is to force a beginner into positions that inhibit her natural response to move the club. This is the priority and should never be compromised. Does it really matter how she holds the club in these early stages? No. Is she going to pick up bad habits that will never be corrected? Nope, not a chance. This way of coaching actually helps learners enjoy the game and stops them from getting bogged down.

The belief that ALL golfers should adopt a perfect “everything” from the first moment is archaic . Seriously outdated and needs replacing as soon as the establishment can get out of their own way long enough (I’m not holding my breath).

What happened to my pupil?

I don’t know. I stopped coaching at the facility and haven’t heard from her since. She did say the lessons were a lot of fun and she was surprised at how well and quickly she learned to hit the ball. My job was done – I did absolutely everything I could and know I helped, not hindered, her progress.

If you’re teaching (I prefer the word coaching actually) here are some guidelines,

  • It’s not about you. Coaching is not a competition about how much you know. So please don’t dump a lifetime of tips, techniques and ideas onto your pupil. (this point especially goes out to all those men out there that like teaching their wives and kids)
  • Get them to swing the club and hit the ball (or any object) first, before worrying about their grip or stance. This is an almost impossible request for the average golf pro. They feel naked without imparting this information. But it’s not about them. The only time I would ever mention the grip in the early days would be if the pupil gripped the club from the wrong end – but haven’t seen that happen yet.
  • Keep the lessons short. Don’t be afraid to stop after a few minutes. It takes courage, but I know you can do it.
  • Don’t be afraid to let them make mistakes. A few mistakes are fine. If your student can’t get anything you say to happen then it’s time to stop, or choose a simpler objective.
  • Demonstrations are not always necessary. Remember, it’s not about you. Clear and simple language is usually enough. If you can’t explain something with words then you are probably making it too complicated
  • Let them go where their instincts are telling them. E.g. most kids will use a reverse grip – there’s nothing wrong with it. Actually makes it easier for them to swing the club (which is the objective here). It kills me that most parents (or instructors) will want them to change right away.
  • Don’t expect miracles just yet. Just because you can drive it 250 yards doesn’t mean they can too. So celebrate the victories, no matter how small they may be. Getting the ball airborne can be a huge achievement for someone starting out.
  • Less really is more.
  • Know when to shut up. This is probably the hardest lesson for any coach and I’ve been saying for a long time that it takes a lot more skill and courage for a coach to say nothing than it is for them to go into motor mouth mode.

It’s not really that hard to coach but it’s easy to stuff it up. If you’re going to err do so by saying less and not more. Make things fun and don’t be afraid to let them explore the game in a way that suits them. Remember? It’s not about you.

This article appears in The Ultimate Golf website. If you like this article and want access to all of my premium content (over 150 golf lessons and counting) then check out this page.

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23 Comments

  • Scott Barrow

    Reply Reply April 26, 2012

    Outstanding.

    Outstanding message and beautifully written.

    Thanks mate,

    Scott

    • Cameron

      Reply Reply April 27, 2012

      Scott: Thanks for the kind words. When are you going to write a guest post? I’m sure the readers would be interested in hearing something from the great man.

      Cameron

  • Luke

    Reply Reply April 26, 2012

    Nice story. When myself and my friends were juniors, none of us ever went near a lesson or a pro. We just played until it got dark and took a few tips from each other when someone appeared to find a good new move. Most of them are scratch or very close to scratch players now and play for the club’s first team. I’d wager that if you ask any one of them about their swing plane, or how they start the downswing, or why they play with a slightly strong grip, half of them wouldn’t know what you’re talking about and the other half wouldn’t be able to give you any sort of useful answer. I believe this is how most of the touring pros started out as kids as well. A lucky few then went on and got guidance from a good mentor and made the tour. I could easily believe however that for every guy that made the tour, there are probably 3 or 4 others that had the talent and potential to do so but were ruined at some point in their development by a swing ‘guru’ who mananged to do nothing but destroy their game and their confidence. I’d also be interested to know exactly how many touring pros started the game by learning how to swing with Hogan’s 5 lessons or from a David Leadbetter swing school, though I think I already know the answer.

    Keep it simple and keep it fun. End of.

    • Cameron

      Reply Reply April 27, 2012

      Luke: I like these kind of stories. The basic objective of “playing the game” almost always wins out over the technical mindset. You and your mates “get it” and probably enjoy golf at an entirely different level from most. Good stuff.

      I particularly liked,

      I’d also be interested to know exactly how many touring pros started the game by learning how to swing with Hogan’s 5 lessons or from a David Leadbetter swing school, though I think I already know the answer.

      Thanks for posting and let me know how the golf is going,

      Cameron

      • Luke

        Reply Reply April 27, 2012

        Hi Cameron,

        Small correction to your reply. I used to “get it”. I was never quite as good as most of the guys and so a couple of years ago I lost faith and resorted to an ill advised bout of what I now like to call ‘Swing crack’. Finally after a nightmarish period with my game, I’m beginning to wake up and get back to just “getting it” and your blog is helping with that (I’m the guy that posted the other week with the rant about throwing away all the instruction and starting again). I’ve played a few times since my rant with mixed results. Obviously it’s going to take a while to truly loosen up and get back to just playing, but actually the first couple of rounds, I had some reasonable results. I played on Tuesday night however and after hitting a few irons shots fat, I spiralled in to swing crack again knowing that I’ve had issues with a steep over the top move and some casting/flippage and while my game got worse, my temper went downhill even more. Thankfully I’ve got back to your blog the last couple of days and my senses appear to have returned. I’m looking forward to playing automatically tomorrow morning. Have to admit it’s hard work getting started though. What would you say to a guy who’s become obsessed with faults in his swing that he still thinks in the back of his mind are going to limit his potential for improvement?

        • Cameron

          Reply Reply April 28, 2012

          Hi Luke: Thanks for the reply and the correction. “Swing crack” is certainly an apt term to describe all the garbage that us golfers go through – I like it.

          What would you say to a guy who’s become obsessed with faults in his swing that he still thinks in the back of his mind are going to limit his potential for improvement?

          You have to start somewhere and the best time is now. It’s not easy at first to leave thoughts of the swing alone – especially when you may have been obsessed by it. When you realise that you’ll play better and not worse that can be motivation enough to get yourself moving in the right direction. It’s going to take some discipline and there may be the odd awkward moment but I think the results will come in the end. You may even start playing more like your mates and less like someone on “crack”.

          Let me know how you get on.

          Cameron

          • Luke

            April 30, 2012

            Thanks for the reply Cameron. Played an am-am on Saturday in very windy & cold conditions, and I was by far the best player in our four man team. It was the closest I’ve got to playing without swing crack yet. Was pleased with how solid I hit it, especially with the short irons which have been giving me the most trouble and also due to the fact that I’m not usually a great wind player. Long and bumpy road ahead but I’m beginning to see how this could work. Good time to commit to this too – I might just be in time to save the season ahead of me!

          • Cameron

            May 2, 2012

            Luke: Good stuff mate. It can be hard but it can also be a tonne of fun. Don’t set your expectations too high – just play the game and you’ll probably surprise yourself with the results. Let us know how you go.

            Cameron

  • Steady

    Reply Reply April 26, 2012

    Great article Strachs one of your best.
    It’s amazing what ego does to both
    the learner and “coach”. Well done.
    PS THis gives an insight on How to play
    awesome golf. Simple yet profound
    grasshopper.

    • Cameron

      Reply Reply April 27, 2012

      Steady: Thanks for the message. Maybe after all these posts I’m starting to finally write better.

  • Lukey

    Reply Reply April 27, 2012

    Marvellous how true this post rings because I think back to Ian Baker-Finch after he went to Leadbetter he won the British but then after that the wheels fell off and he made some hackers look good.Why oh why did he ruin what was one of the best swings ever.And he was not the only one he ruined Nick Faldo,Charles Howell 111,Michelle Wie are a couple of others that have gone down hill.
    Cheers Lukey

    • Cameron

      Reply Reply May 12, 2012

      Good golf coaching should never destroy a person. There are plenty of examples of golfers losing the plot. It’s pretty sad really.

      Lee Westwood had it, the lost it and is now back in the game. I read somewhere he gave up on the coaching and went back to his old ways.

      It still amazes me that these really good players lack trust in their ability to hit the ball. If they had trust they wouldn’t be so quick to change.

      Cameron

  • 3 Putt

    Reply Reply May 7, 2012

    I have been playing golf with my young 3yo son and am going out of my way not to offer any ‘instruction’ (the only thing I have ever told him is to stand still as he sometimes tries to hit the ball whilst still walking) He has a great time and is developing a nice swing all of his own making. I have found though that well-meaning people will offer unsolicited advice. One day a guy called us through and whilst watching my son hit started giving him some advice( I was bl**dy annoyed) I can see this happening more and more in the future…you should get him lessons….he needs to do this….etc etc. I just want him to play and enjoy himself. To use the old cliché he is a blank canvas for automatic golf.

    We go to a Par 3 course most weekends and play 18. One Sunday there was a kids clinic on with the pro. There were about 12 kids between 5-9 doing drills and being asked if they had been working on their homework during the week. It was amazing to see everything you talk about playing out in front of me. Stances, grips, swings – they all were getting a workout. It looked like a chore. Their parents were all beside then with the coach. That type of teaching breeds fear. Fear of doing something wrong. As soon as fear is in the equation it is all over in my opinion. Fear of not holding it properly leads to fear of not hitting it straight leads to fear of not making par.

    Interesting to see that Bubba now Rickie Fowler have had big wins recently. Both are anti-drills, analysis etc. They just go out and play!

    • Cameron

      Reply Reply May 7, 2012

      3putt: I reckon your son is going to learn a to play really good golf. His swing will become natural and he’ll be free to explore the shots that feel good to him. Good on you for giving his this experience.

      Unfortunately the “do this” mindset is the most popular. As adults we think that telling someone what to do is enough – it isn’t.

      As your son gets older there will be more distractions and golfers will want to step in.

      There’s a 14 year old here in Melbourne who is amazing (plays off plus 4 and has all the shots). He could be anything and is certainly a “blank canvas”. My worry is that someone will get to him – too eager to change his game and have an impact. I hope they let the kid play and enjoy himself.

      Saw Fowler this morning and thought just that – a changing of the guard perhaps?

      Thanks for posting,

      Cameron

  • Jon Freer

    Reply Reply September 12, 2012

    Cameron
    I’m a high school teacher and golf coach in America and could use some advice if you’re willing to give it. I run a recreational golf program in the fall and a varsity team in the spring.. The fall program brings s huge range of ability. Some of my varsity players come out and I have others who are flat out beginners. I have arranged to have a few lessons with pros over the next few weeks, but much of the coaching comes down to my untrained eye observing and offering advice that I have come across in my on swing evolution. This fine for the players who are ok, but shoot offline or have a massive slice etc. Drills for those are easy to come by.

    The beginners are a trickier lot to work with. As I watch, I am taken aback by appears to be a total lack of body sense or athletic ability. Grips, stance and such hardly come into the equation because it is much as you described the girl you worked with. I have one girl who was with me last fall and has returned and still simply cannot make contact with the ball. She has amazing tenacity, but the club rarely strikes the ball.

    I could go on, but I’ll leave it there and ask you if you have any advice. I can try the sponge ‘drill’, but if you were willing I could use more tips.

    Thanks.
    Jon

    • Cameron

      Reply Reply September 12, 2012

      Jon: let me put something together for you. I’ll be back soon. In the meantime, you should read as many articles on the blog that you can. There is a tonne of info to help guide you. Talk soon.

  • Jon Freer

    Reply Reply September 12, 2012

    Cameron- Thanks in advance for any time you take to help me. i really do appreciate it. I will work through the blog as I can.

    I did find this video too and felt that it was fairly well in line with the ability of the players I mentioned. I think I will give this a shot with them today and see if we can’t make a bit of progress.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MlzeTOKuWJI

    Thanks again!
    J

  • Brendan Smith

    Reply Reply December 19, 2012

    Cam That is a wonderful example. Friend of a friend went for a lesson as he had a leg operation & was told forget it you will never be any good anymore. When he adressess the ball his right leg is stuck way out in front of him and he is off 12 (I think) and he is not young 70’s.
    Last week my friend & I invited this elderley chap to join us. 72 years young. His swing motion was so far from the “conventional” and boy could he hit a ball. His drives were gun barrell straight and 230 – 250 mteres, I wanted to run him over with the cart.

    • Cameron

      Reply Reply December 20, 2012

      Brendan: Love it. There certainly are no rules when it comes to golf. An injury doesn’t have to be a hindrance and just maybe lets you do things you’re own way. Thanks for sharing.

      Cam

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