What I taught 3 of Australia’s best coaches

Last Thursday I got to play golf with three excellent coaches. It was a social outing, but I was keen to learn as much as possible from these guys. Scott Barrow has been talked about here (and here) before, David Rath is the High Performance Manager at Hawthorn Football Club and Damian Farrow is perhaps Australia’s leading skill acquisition scientist, working from Victoria University and the Australian Institute of Sport.

This was an opportunity to chew the fat, and exchange some ideas. But mostly, it was about getting out of the office, stretching the legs and getting some fresh air.

There was some nerves on my part. Scott had talked me up a little and I didn’t want to play like a hacker. My previous outing wasn’t overly flash so I made sure I focused on playing the game and sticking to my routine. Typically, I do this by clearing my mind and swinging as freely as possible. It’s sorta like I’ve conditioned myself to “let go” the more pressure I feel.

I thumped my opening tee shot down the middle – it felt good to hit a flush shot, and it reminded me how important it is to play automatically and keep out of my own way. This is perhaps the most important skill to learn, and no matter how much I write/coach/study this line of thinking, I still can get sidetracked. Don’t we all?

I was also mindful not to be a smartarse and to dominate the day with too many questions and make it about me. I wanted these guys to enjoy the course and the day and be ready to help them if they needed it.

Here are some of the lessons that were shared:

Putting

It’s fair to say Scott is not an experienced golfer. He has only played twice this year and he was struggling quite a bit with the long game. But putting is a part of the game that we can all excel at and Scott picked up on some vital lessons.

After the 9th hole he said, “This putting thing is pretty easy. You just look at the hole, chose a line and walk into the ball and then hit it”.

“Yep, that’s really all there is to it. If you keep it that simple you’ll do just fine”, I replied.

This sounds too easy but it’s really all we can ever do. All of the analysis, worry and practice strokes rarely makes putting any better. It was also interesting to compare Scott’s putting to the rest. The others were much more deliberate but never quite got the feel for the greens. Scotty made some great putts and probably wondered what the fuss was about – if he can improve his ball striking he will be putting for 4 and 5’s, rather than having to sink good putts for 7, 8’s and 9’s.

Dave and Damian also took a lot of practice strokes before they putted. There is nothing wrong with this, but I observed that their practice strokes were way too soft for the upcoming putt. If you’re going to do a practice putt, make sure you mimic the upcoming putt – otherwise you’re going to confuse your system. The best way to rehearse it to look at the hole – it’s almost like you’re going to throw a ball to the target. The ball is sometimes an unwanted distraction – so look at the hole when taking a practice putt and I reckon you’ll get better results.

Course strategy

I spent some time with Damian and David on the 4th and 5th holes talking about strategy. Scotty by this stage was lost in the trees, but he did find some replacement balls which kept him happy. Strategy is obviously important but I think many golf coaches don’t talk about it. The main reason is there’s not enough golf coaching done on the course, with most taking place on a driving range. The driving range can be a stale and uninspiring environment – the course it where “it” happens and should be used more often.

Good strategy builds confidence and this in turn develops a better swing/game – at least that’s my theory. Here’s an example.

On the 4th hole the two D’s had similar length approaches, about 110 metres. The pin was tucked behind the front left bunker and this green is one of the hardest and fastest on the course.

Damian: How far have we got?

Me: 110 to the flag (I used my rangefinder to get the exact distance. They are a brilliant tool for any serious golfer). What club are you going to hit?

Damian: 9 iron I think. I hit my nine iron about 110.

Me: It’s too much club. You need to go back to the PW. Also, there’s no need to land the ball next to the pin. Your goal here is to land the ball short and right of the flag – the ball will bounce up onto the green.

Damian hit a great shot. The ball did exactly as planned. It landed short and then bounced up to pin high.

Dave was watching all and taking all of this in.

Dave: I’m going back to the sand iron now.

Me: Perfect. If you carry the ball all the way onto the green it will end up over the back.

Dave’s shot was a fraction thin. But because he had taken less club the ball landed short, bounced onto the green and stopped just behind the pin.

The 5th hole presented a similar situation – another hard green, but this time the pin was all the way back on the green. When I gave them a distance they immediately reached for the club that would hit it that distance.

Me: Hold on Tiger. If you hit that club you’ll land on the green and the ball will end up over the back. You need to fly the ball at least 20 metres short of the true distance and let it roll onto the green. Also, forget about the pin, aim well to the right and the contour of the green will do the rest.

Damian went first. He hit another good shot, the ball landed short and right of the pin and then trundled onto the green. David hit a carbon copy and both scored easy pars.

Strategy is important for two reasons.

1. It minimises the chances of getting into too much trouble. Golf isn’t about going for every shot and trying to make birdie on each hole. It’s just not possible.
2. It gives you a clear intention of what you want to do. It’s like you’re programming your goal into your system. It know what it has to do. Without this, there’s doubt and confusion.

Chipping

Chipping can cause golfers lots of problems. For the most part the problems are caused by not using the correct club and having the ball position too far forward. From here the golfer is fighting to make decent contact – hitting “fat” is a huge option and once you start striking the ground first you’ll do all sorts of nasty things (like lunging, sliding, flicking the wrists etc).

The solution is to take more club, stand nice and close to the ball and chip off the back foot. The chip shot almost becomes like a putt. It’s not as pretty as a spinning sand iron, but it’s just as effective and gives you way more margin for error. Confidence is a side affect.

After one of the holes I got Damian to get out his 5 wood. I positioned the ball off his back foot and got him to “putt” it. The ball came off low and then bounced onto the green.

Damian: Wow. That’s easy.

Me: Sure is.

On a later hole Damian used his 5 wood, hit the ball close, and then sank the putt for par. Perfect. This saved him at least one shot and was relatively stress free.

A free flowing swing

On the 15th tee David made a great swing. It was free flowing and the ball came off like a bullet. Unfortunately the ball had a slight draw and finished in the fairway bunker. Why the ball did this is not important – what I liked was the swing. There was no hesitation or inhibition.

Me: That was an excellent swing. Don’t worry about the fact it ended in a bunker. Sometimes we can make perfect swings and still get in trouble. It’s part of the game.

On the 16th tee Dave tried too hard to replicate his previous tee shot. The ball hooked badly to the left.

Me: Hit another one and this time let go. Don’t analyse and control your swing. Just go for it.

Dave hit the second shot perfectly. He smashed it a long way over the fairway bunkers.

By now he had a feel for it. His drive on the 17th was his best of the day. It was pure – flying off the clubface and drawing down the middle of the fairway. It was long too – highlighting the fact that one of the best ways to get extra distance is to relax and swing freely. Dave repeated this feat up 18.

The lesson here is to know when to coach and when to keep quiet. I could tell immediately on the 15th hole that Dave made a good swing. So I left it at that – I resisted any temptation to tell him how to fix the draw shot or even comment on it. I could see he was making progress and didn’t want to get in the way. Even after the hooked tee shot on 16 there was little coaching on my part. He was close and he needed clarity, not more information to digest.

His last two drives were beauties and highlighted his talent for the game. If he could play a little more he’d certainly improve his overall game. Golf certainly is a lot easier when you can smoke 265 metre drives down the middle. Fun too 🙂

My lesson

Good coaching is win-win. It’s definitely not about the teacher telling someone what to do with the pupil blindly following. So much of modern schooling and teaching is like this. There’s little chance for creativity and we’re discouraged to explore what’s possible. It’s also gotta be boring for the teacher – imagine repeating the same thing over and over, day in and day out. It can’t be good for anyone.

Coaching can’t be about obedience. Learning and enjoyment have to be right up there. Mix in some creativity and confidence and you’re almost there. From here improvement is guaranteed.

I learned that my ideas are on track and that I can help anyone improve their golf. I’m a little different from the norm but the validation I received motivates me to keep striving – to keep learning better and simpler ways of helping others play the golf of their dreams. Importantly of all, golf improvement can be fun and playing golf is way better than sitting in an office all day.

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7 Comments

  • Cam280

    Reply Reply November 20, 2012

    Not a bad read Cam, You sure have got it tough. In regards to coaching, I coach my self with a little help from yours truly. 20/20 hind sight is my only technique for improvement. I see what went wrong then adjust. Since becoming an Auto pilot student, the adjustments are minimal and really just being in the moment is the focus, imagining the shot and then trusting the execution is all I am concerned about these days. Perfect example, the other day i’m playing a par 5 with internal O.B and hazard on either side of the fairway. Wind was a breezy 25km/h. Its 210m to the corner but if you get to close to the corner the ground kicks your ball into the hazard, if you fly your ball to high the wind blows it out of bounds. You can play 7 iron to driver off the Tee but you got to know, I was feeling nervous, normally when im nervous I come out of my swing or just hit from the top to quick. I wanted to play a 6 but new it would probably float out of bounds and I felt I could swing easy style, so I played a 4 wood with a slight fade, perfect choice, even though I could crush a 4 wood well over 200m I also new my nerves were up for a cautious easy swing. I committed to the shot, the image was rock solid, felt pure, felt easy, I love this game!!!!!!!.

    • Cameron

      Reply Reply November 20, 2012

      Cam280: Always nice to sneak out for a cheeky game midweek. Don’t get to do it that often though 🙂

      Self-coaching is great. It’s almost the best way, especially when you really start to understand your game and the learning process.

      I think a level above that would be a coach who understands the mechanics and natural learning. I reckon this would take your game to the next level. You’d be pushed and challenged in ways you probably wouldn’t even consider. And another thing, you need to find an easier course!! Internal OOB and hazards on either side seems way too hard to me. Thanks for posting.

  • cam280

    Reply Reply November 20, 2012

    From a business perspective, not that I have been credited for having one, but my 2 cents worth would be, to firstly, as a coach work out your clientèle, then go from there, because for me, if I wanted to pay the big bucks for a coach I would want some guarantees.

    • Cameron

      Reply Reply November 22, 2012

      Cam280: I’ve given this some thought and I think there needs to be a commitment from both coach and pupil. This is the only way. From my experience the establishment is pretty much summed up by paying your $80, been shown a few things, and then told to go away and come back in a few weeks. I’m certain this will be ineffective for most. I also know that not every coach does this, so it’s a bit of a generalisation.

      The worst lesson I ever gave was when I guy turned up , threw some money down and said, “fix my swing”. He hadn’t bought into automatic learning. He wasn’t ready for my different ideas. Half way through he said, “I just want you to fix my swing”. I pretty much ended the lesson there, knew I wouldn’t be much help to him.

      So yes, the coach needs to understand the pupil, but the pupil needs to know the coach – from here success is almost guaranteed. I say almost because all sorts of other outside factors can come into play.

  • Andrew

    Reply Reply November 21, 2012

    I agree there is not enough coaching done on the course, this has been one of my frustations for a long time. Hitting a ball on the range and “scoring” are completely different things. One of the first things a coach/instructor should do is go out for a playing lesson and work out what area of the game can reduce the amount of strokes the most.

    Currently reading a golf psychology book “The Now Golfer” and read the following section that immediately made me think of this website.

    The only way a golfer truly knows his swing is through feeling his swing in motion. Knowing a golf swing in the Left Brain invokes swing thoughts, swing theories, and swing mechanics. Therefore, when a golfer is playing, the Left Brain is no place to go to correct the swing.

    • Cameron

      Reply Reply November 22, 2012

      Andrew: The golf course is a great place to learn all sorts of stuff. Back in the old days this was where it all happened – there were no driving ranges. Always thought it would make an interesting experiment to play some pro tournaments without a range – this sorta happens in amateur events and smaller pro events anyway.

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