Technical Advances?

Technology has altered the way all golf pros teach – mostly for the better – but some caution is required, writes Sue Shapcott.

Over the past 20 years, golf coaching has become more scientific. Most obviously, technology has helped coaches understand the science of why the ball does what it does. Thankfully, the ball flight laws of old have been replaced by ball flight laws informed by science, not tradition. These scientific advances should be celebrated.

Technology has also become more readily available and affordable. A basic smartphone has the capacity to capture high-speed video on the range, and provide analysis of it with an app. One by-product of these technological advances is that many golf coaches have become dependent on video to teach golf.

Videoing a student’s swing has many advantages for the golf coach. A video can document the swing before a series of lessons – therefore providing a benchmark from which improvement can be measured. And by watching a swing being replayed in slow motion, coaches can see technical imperfections that may be missed by the naked eye. Furthermore, by drawing the shaft plane, or a line through a player’s posture, a coach can form a theory about the shots a player is hitting. In my opinion, modern video technology has been a great asset to golf coaches. With one caveat: if it is used correctly.

As golf coaches, we have embraced the science and technology that informs ball flight laws and biomechanics. We study the angle of attack, swing plane, spin rates and clubhead speed. However, we have not embraced social science in the same way. This is to the detriment of how we coach, especially how we get the most out of technology. There are three basic considerations that can help coaches merge hard science (golf’s physics) and soft science (social science) when using video technology to teach.

Video is distracting. Players like to watch their swing on video. It is exciting! But it is also distracting. Unless coaches narrow players’ focus of attention, they will notice everything that is good, bad and indifferent about their swings. As it is not possible to focus on more than a couple of things at a time, this can be confusing for players. Therefore, it is up to the coach to be very specific about the one or two areas that players should apply their focus when watching a video of their swing.

Reconsider role models: Comparing a player’s swing to a tour professional’s swing is fun, but rarely is it beneficial. Unless the player is high performing and shares the tour professional’s body-type and gender, the comparison will rarely serve educational purposes. For example, comparing my golf swing to Dustin Johnson’s swing may be interesting, but not helpful to my game. This is because the physical differences between me and DJ are so great, the comparison becomes meaningless. Furthermore, by setting up unrealistic expectations for what I may be able to achieve in my swing sets me up for failure.

In the short-term at least, the chances of recreational golfers changing their techniques to look like tour players is unlikely. Therefore, coaches should use the library of tour players’ swings provided with analysis software cautiously. Instead, golf coaches should consider applying the research of educational psychologists. Their work demonstrates that coping models are often more useful than role models. This means that watching someone ‘like you’ performing a task well is more helpful than watching an expert. In my case, comparing my swing to that of an LPGA Legends Tour player is more helpful than to DJ.

For recreational golfers, it may even be most effective to use self-modeling when using video analysis. This means that coaches should show players a comparison of their correct and incorrect swings. If golfers can watch themselves making a correct technical adjustment, it can be a very powerful tool for increasing learning and motivation.

Sometimes, just don’t use video: For beginner golfers, coaches should consider not using video at all during lessons. At this stage of the learning process, beginner golfers do not understand what they are looking at, or what they are looking for. They have yet to develop a mental representation, or schema, for what the golf swing should look like. In simple terms, this means that new golfers do not know what to do with the information a video gives them. Using video for beginner golfers may be insightful for the golf coach, but not for the golfer.

There is no doubt, technology has changed what we know and the way we coach. However, unless we combine its use with social science, it is arguable whether the information we have gained makes us more effective coaches.