Should We Give Our Players Homework?

Hindsight is a great thing. A great, great thing. Sometimes you’re so enveloped in things and in your own head that you don’t see things clearly. You become biased to your own point of view and worry less about how each individual sees things differently.

A few years back, convinced that golf can take a leaf out of other sports, particularly in relation to how we can “train” our players to improve, I began to get into tracking players performance on the course as well as how they practice. I mean, really get into it.

I asked them to write down what they did in practice. A diary of sorts. I made a variety of different scorecards depending on their level and what they needed to work on and demanded that they fill them out after the round if they were really serious about improvement. 

An example of a scorecard that I used. Not bad but maybe not suitable.

With these stats, and using my experience as a fitness instructor (long before a golf coach) I would then devise programs for them:

Ok, you’ve said you’ve got 3 days to practise:

Monday: Long game – technique (going over what we did in the last lesson) – 15 minutes

Driver – How many balls can you hit in between the red and yellow flags at the bag of the range?

Putting – gate drill – 50 balls. Box drill – target – 5

Wednesday…

Now, a few things here, partly in my defense…

This really isn’t THAT bad.

I mean, there are a few good things going on there…

  • I took into account how many days they could practise
  • I individualised it to what they are looking to improve
  • How do you know if you’re improving if you can’t track it properly? Besides, great confidence comes from seeing tangible improvements.
  • Repetition can only be helpful

A few bits are undoubtedly not great but overall, it’s ok. It’s fine.

It didn’t work, though. It didn’t work at all.

Or at least, it didn’t work with the players I was working with at the time.

The feedback I got of both the “training schedule” and the scorecards etc. was normally around the words:

Chore. Boring. Not fun. Analytical. 

What I had inadvertently done was make something inherently enjoyable not so. Interesting to mundane. Exciting to drab. In my effort to eke out top performance, a sincere and well-intentioned effort might I add, I had obliterated the components that made them fall in love with the game in the first place.

Gone were the 9 hole putting competitions against your friend for bragging rights and in came 20 putts along a string line.

No more flop shots over that one, really tall tree. It was 10 balls inside the ring.

It didn’t work. But again, it didn’t work for THEM.

For other people, the more analytical types, it would be a Godsend. Men lie, women lie, numbers don’t sort of ish. Structure gives some a clear path to improvement. 

For my students that same structure felt like a prison, the walls tightening in on them with every “failed” attempt.

• • •

And so, should you give your students homework? As ever when it comes to coaching, it depends. Analysis liberates some and suppresses others. The completion of each repetition one step closer to achieving their goal or one step further into the doldrums. If you can keep things personalised and specific to the person in front of you then hopefully you won’t have to look back with regret like I so often do.

The Pesky National Coach

“I’ve been coaching them for 10 years and all of a sudden they go to a few national trainings and this national coach gets in their ear and they leave me! I can’t believe it!”

If you’ve been coaching for long enough then undoubtedly you would have heard this from one of your coaching counterparts. A young player “leaving” the coach that they grew up with to move on with the county/state/national coach. And on paper, a logical next step. National is bigger than club. National is more prestigious than club. National level is better than club level. Point blank. 

However, it may not always be that simple. A player may feel like they have come to the end of the road with the club coach and be swayed by the prestige and allure of working with a national coach. But is it really the end of the road? Is a different set of eyes a better set of eyes for that player?

But by the same token, is it really the national coach’s fault if a player wants to listen to them? I mean, they’re doing their job, aren’t they?

I do honestly believe that as a community (even though I really hate using that word) we as coaches should look to work together. Coaching is about the player and less about us so we really should keep our player’s best interests at heart. With that in mind, a few thoughts that may be useful for both club and national coach alike when dealing with this delicate situation.

For the club coaches:

  • First and foremost, the player isn’t YOUR player. You don’t own them. They have complete liberty to work with whomever they feel will progress their golf effectively. It may sting, especially if you have known them for a long time and have created a firm bond with them, but at the end of the day, they’re in the driver’s seat and they make the choices.
  • As alluded to earlier, keep your ego out of it. You might have done what you feel is a brilliant job with the player but who’s to say that getting a different opinion might progress them even more efficiently?
  • Likewise, try not to take it to heart. Beating yourself up over it and how you could have been better isn’t necessary. It’s not about right and wrong, better or worse, It’s just different.
  • Put yourself in the shoes of the national coach; what are they supposed to do? Not work with anyone who they don’t already work with? They have a job that they are paid to do by their organisation and the player has been selected to represent it. It would effectively be malpractice if they refuse to not give their all to the players who are under their care. If the coach works ethically and doesn’t look to denigrate your own work then they are not really at fault for anything.

For the national coaches:

  • Be aware that the situation is delicate. Personal bonds with both the player and the player’s family may have been formed for years by the club coach and you’re the new coach in town. Be sensitive to that.
  • Keep the club coach informed constantly. The fact of the matter is that you have worked with this player for a much shorter time than the other coach. Likewise, they might only see you 2 weeks a year whilst the club coach will be around them for the other 50. Try to see them as an ally. Ring them up to tell them what you’ve been working on or your thoughts. Quiz them about what they think is the best way to work with the player. Two links are stronger than one.
  • Don’t criticise or contradict the other coach. This is sort of Rule Number 1 in the imaginary coach’s handbook. If you disagree with the practices of the other coach, don’t let this be known to the player:

“Yeh, basically the same thing but what about if you thought about it this way…”

“I completely agree with that. I might just put it like this…”

Quite honestly, you can say something that has very little in common with what the coach was saying or, dare I say it, completely contradict it, but if you’re clever with how you phrase it, the player does not feel that they’re getting conflicting messages. 

  • Put the player first. Yes, be sensitive to the situation. Yes, take the other coach’s thoughts on board. But fundamentally you are there to do a job. If you feel like the player could benefit from your work, whilst seemingly swimming in the same direction as the other coach, then you must do it.

• • •

It’s always a touchy one; the pesky national coach dilemma. The new chapter of working with a national coach can render the passages that took years and years to 

The writing of a new chapter can often leave the previous pages that took years and years to formulate, faded and twisted with every passing day. Out with the old and in with the new I suppose.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. It doesn’t have to be club coach vs national coach more than any other restrictive notion in golf. Rather than us vs them, I think it’s just US. Us as coaches. Us as coaches doing our best for the players that we work with. They are not OUR players but rather individuals that we are helping to overcome their own personal barriers and achieve their own potential. 

We can’t expect players to stay with us their whole lives as much as we can’t expect our children to live with us their whole lives. They must find their own way; their own path. It might mean that they leave and come back. It might mean that they leave, never to be seen again. But at the end of the day, it is their life and, in this instance, their sport.

All we can really do is try our best with them, be true to who we are and be there for them if they ever stumble along the way.

The Doctor vs The Artist

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Pleading with a stadium full of fans who were upset not to hear the classics during the performance of his newly released album, Neil Young assured them that once he was done that they would “hear songs that they have heard before!”

…so he played the same new album through again. Track by track.

Invigorated by a trip to see the renowned Fred Shoemaker, Kendal Mcwade came back to his native Scotland inspired to make a change to the way he coached golf; convinced that this was the most effective way for his players to improve.

…and in doing so he proceeded to lose every single client he had. One by one.

Los cojones.

• • •

Golf coaching is a service industry. There is no way around it. Players often come to us with a specific question about why their shots are doing what they’re doing and we do our best to help them with this. It’s a service and they pay for that service.

However, it can’t be JUST a service. It can’t be just about fixing a problem that the player has. We have to give the lessons that we want to give in a way that we want to give it as well. And, having given the lesson, that it is up to the player if they want to come back. That we value what we do. A certain laissez-faire attitude with a sprinkle of dont-give-a-f-ish-ness.

If golf is the perfect parallel of life, then, if life is about balance then golf must be about balance as well. And with it golf coaching. And to mediate the balance, let’s think about the two possible extremes; that which I very poorly describe as The Doctor or The Artist.

The Doctor fixes. They diagnose and prescribe with their value wholly determined by the quality in which they diagnose, prescribe and hopefully fix. They, like us, are in a service industry and are almost entirely reactive.

The Artist, on the other hand, is proactive. They create. They produce from nothing. They don’t waste time worrying about if everyone likes what they do and trying to get people back; they’re too busy expressing themselves and doing things the way that they want to do things.

And so the question is, which one are you? And to help you answer this, let me consider “Which one am I?”

As ever, it really isn’t one or the other. You can be both a Doctor and an Artist as much as you can do both blocked and random practice. They are not mutually exclusive.

The Artist is undoubtedly more appealing. It’s cooler. But the argument in my head is always, “Well, if it was only about expressing yourself and not caring about the opinion of others, why even produce anything for mass consumption in the first place? Why not just make it and not put it out there?” 

There must be a certain amount of YOU to combine with the I. Within my few different creations, I try to stay as true to myself as possible but I must care what YOU think as well. I mean, I’m using words like “laissez-faire” for crying out loud. I’m expressing myself but also trying to serve and maybe to impress you.

And I think the same goes for golf coaching. Just serving gets boring and only not-giving-a-f can land you in bother as well.

The starving artist is real.

The balance lies in helping the player in a way that is completely unique to you and to them. That is true balance. And that is true golf coaching. 

I want to live.
I want to give.
But done in a way that I want to.

Scott Fawcett vs Brad Faxon

A while back there was quite a heated yet interesting online argument between former PGA Tour player and current putting guru Brad Faxon and commonly referenced Scott Fawcett of Decade Golf. As the story goes, Faxon, describing a characteristic of his own putting and quite possibly in an effort to help his followers, stated,

“I do know that whenever I missed a putt it was past the hole far enough that I had to mark it; it was never a tap in”.

Fawcett, believing that the stats didn’t quite match up with this claim and highlighting how this philosophy may prove to do more harm than good for the golfing public, bit back. Cue some jostling back and forth between the two culminating with Fawcett posting the actual PGA Tour putting stats from Faxon´s career…

From there general nastiness ensued and the two would go on to have future arguments with no one coming out smelling of roses.

Now, although the general sentiment of the argument was rather distasteful, it did stir up a couple of important points in relation to statistics.

On paper, Fawcett is absolutely correct. Faxon in fact did not hit every putt past the hole long enough that he would be forced to mark it and the stats back this up. In fact,  a rather large proportion of Faxon’s total putts were actually left short.

1 up Fawcett

But, and it’s an important but, what if the stories we tell ourselves in our heads were actually more important than the stats themselves? In other words, what if what we believed to be right and wrong was more important that being actually right and wrong?

What is often lost when talking about stats is that we are dealing with human beings. Human beings who have emotions. Emotions that are assigned to our actions.

For every golf shot we hit, the vast majority of us assign an emotion to it. It might be joy. It might be disgust. Pride. Disappointment. Judgement. Anger. Indifference. It could be anything. There is a whole pastel of hues with regard to our reactions. This reaction may then carry over and affect our future shots and performance.

Stats, on the other hand, don’t deal with emotions. They deal with data. They notch up each shot coldly. Stats are black and white. Right and wrong.

It is this dissonance between using the black and white of stats with emotional, colourful players that is sometimes the point of friction for us as coaches.

Back to Fawcett and Faxon.

Yes, Fawcett is 100% correct that Faxon did not mark his ball past the hole for every missed putt. But…

What if for every putt that he left short or barely got to the hole, Faxon berated himself,

“That was weak!”
“Never had a chance!”
“You’ve been practising getting it past the hole all week and then you do that!?”

And then that emotion spilled over into the next tee shot or played on his mind the next time he had a similar length putt.

Furthermore, what if he did bash the first putt by and then missed the one coming back. There might be disappointment but there might also be…

“You gave it a chance.”
“Don’t worry about it. At least you played bravely.”

Hey, I know I’m playing Devil’s Advocate a bit here but you could then potentially have a player walk off after 2 putting feeling dejected and the same player walking off after 3 putting and feeling buoyant. The crazy thing is that these occurrences may then affect future performance.

So yes, in isolation, an analysis of a shot or group of shots may show it to be a negative BUT depending on the emotion that we apply to the shot or group of shots, the overall, longer-term effect may be a net positive. 

All Square

We know that trying to pierce a ball through a 6 feet gap in the trees from the pinestraw is statistically not the best strategy but what if the guts it takes to take on the shot or the elation experienced when the 1 out of 20 times it does come off produces a greater good?

We know that aiming at the centre of the green is probably the play but what if the idea of playing “boring golf” is destructive in the long term?

I don’t know.

But I do know that Twitter can sometimes be a nasty place.

Alejandro

It would be great to be like Klopp. Hugs. Make people feel great.
But really I want to be like Alejandro.

I Love Coaching

I love coaching

Some of my most cherished memories as a child are of me in sports teams with coaches who I liked.

My favorite teachers at school were the sports coaches.

When I was around 19 or 20 I asked myself what job wouldn’t really feel like a job. The answer was golf coach.

I’m not a massive reader but the vast majority of the books I read are about coaching directly. The others are autobiographies (coaching is about people).

If I bet on a sporting event, I’ll bet on the team whose coach I like.

I read about coaches whose sports I have never played nor have any interest in.

If there is an interview with any coach in any sport on television, I will stop what I am doing and listen.

I don’t like lazy coaching.

I like coaches who care about their craft.

My favourite movie characters are the ones who possess characteristics that I find in the coaches (and people) I like (humble, not showy, loyal, proficient etc.) Think Del Toro in Sicario. Pacino in Carlito’s Way. Ryan Gosling in Drive.

I’ve started caring about film directors because a lot of what they do is similar to what we do.

I subscribe to 9 different golf podcasts and I only listen to the episodes that cover coaching.

If I ever go to tour events, I spend the majority of time on the range watching the coaches, figuring out what they’re saying and keeping an eye on who’s working with who.

On Youtube if there is a coach that I like then I will completely rinse their channel.

A few of my dearest friends are golf coaches and we often talk about golf coaching.

 

My Dad was a teacher and a coach and I wanted to be like him.
As we unfortunately drifted apart my role models became other teachers and coaches.

Coaching is in me.

I love it.

Coaching Greats: Butch Harmon

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Coaching Greats looks to shine a light on those coaches the world over who have left and indelible mark on coaching as we know it. These pieces are not biographies but rather they look to explore what makes these coaches so revered. In this edition we’ll consider the remarkable Butch Harmon.

Butch Harmon. The Godfather of golf coaching. Or at least the fun uncle who comes to Thanksgiving dinner and tells dirty jokes.

For so many of us the truest example of what a golf coach is. The shining light in our industry for over three decades and as much built to coach golf as his biggest success story TW was built to play it. 

When you grew up loving golf between 1995 and 2005, you have images of Butch Harmon permanently etched into the memory. The stills of him working with Tiger. The vintage Titleist and Nike garb. The glasses on a string (do you call it a string?) The old instructional VHS tapes with the last line of each segment being…”and if you can do this then there’s no doubt that it will shave shots off your score” followed by the perennial disarming smile. 

The re-runs of him on Golf Academy Live with Tiger and presenter Peter Kessler.

The successes with some players.

The jokes.

But you’re not really aware of his true greatness and his place in the game.

It’s only when you take a deeper dive that you begin to truly value him and see, behind the joviality, that this is a man obsessed with coaching and deadly serious about the job that we can offer.

Here we take a closer look as to what makes Butch such a wonderful coach.

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  • The Player Whisperer – An advocate of using motivational techniques in his player’s development, Butch can get into their heads like no other. He finds out what makes them tick and then dials in on that. His words, carefully selected, cut through to the core of his players and incite a reaction that contributes towards top performance. His players, in turn, show great loyalty and would run through brick walls for him. A brilliant combo.
  • Simplicity – Often cited as trying to “teach golf at a 2nd grade level”, you could never accuse Butch of overcomplicating things. Topics? 1 or 2 tops. Concepts? Simple. Vocabulary? Basic (to the sometimes profane!). Short, sharp bursts of instruction and then it’s leave the player to it. Great stuff.
  • Funny/Authentic – “I’m just trying to relax my players” says Butch. And he does. Often funny and quintessentially Butch, he does his best to take the pressure off his players and let them be them.
  • Learns From His Predecessors – His father was the 1948 Masters champion and Head Pro at Winged Foot. He played with Hogan and would watch him up close when the great man would visit his father. A lifelong John Jacobs fan. When you listen to Butch and the stories he tells it is clear that he has been shaped from some of the best in the game. The past offers all of us experiences to learn from and Butch certainly has.

• • •

As alluded to earlier, if you asked 100 people who the best golf coaches in the world were, the name Butch Harmon would come up a lot. But I fear that a lot of people just say his name because  he has coached Tiger and Norman.

It’s only once you take a deeper look that you begin to understand his true greatness and how misunderstood he often is.

His simplicity often deemed as ignorance? His genius.
His throwaway lines? Perfectly aimed arrows.

Far from being “out of touch” as some have foolishly put forward online, he “gets it” probably more than anyone else on this planet. He is quite simply a walking, talking coaching machine honing in on the sole target of getting each player better through any means necessary. If that doesn’t demand our respect then I don’t know what will.

Not that he cares. He’s too busy still being the best. Probably smiling at how complicated we make it all.

And now as he begins to travel less his presence globally is felt through the coaches that follow him, most notably the brilliant trio of Claude, Justin Parsons and Jamie McConnell. 

Butch stays at home. But he’s still out there on the lesson tee, though. Working with anyone who wants to take steps forward in this game. Doing the work. The truest coach.

…and if you miss you have to start again

It is common in many practices and drills (particularly in putting) for there to be a certain payoff if successful but also a certain punishment if unsuccessful. This punishment will normally take the form of moving back a stage or even starting the whole exercise over again.

Proponents of this tactic (and I have been in the past) will outline how the risk of the punishment creates a certain amount of pressure and pressure is what is present out on the golf course. By practising in this environment the player is effectively practising under pressure and acclimatising themself to what they experience out on the golf course. This in theory would lead to greater transference to the course as the practice so greatly mimics what can be found out there.

This is, in my opinion, theoretically correct. Our players do feel pressure out on the golf course therefore it makes sense to also practise when feeling some sort of pressure.

However, particularly recently, I have started to ponder how adding a punishment could potentially do more harm than good in the long term.

My main problem with it is how it frames practice and how the player sees golf in general. Let me explain…

I am the father of two young girls who, as luck would have it, are particularly good eaters. They always have been. However, that doesn’t stop them from playing up from time to time. To not want to eat what is in front of them. To be, in other words, young girls.

Now, as tempting as it is to say,

“If you eat these vegetables then you get to have the yummy dessert”
or
“you can watch tv after you eat that purée”, my wife and I have decided not to say it.

We have made a concerted effort for the girls not to see food, and in particular healthy food, as a chore. A necessarily evil which is blocking them from getting to the really good stuff. We are trying our best (and trust me not always winning!) to frame food in the positive as much as possible. We do this so the girls just see eating healthy food as normal. As just something you do. As part of the culture.

Back to our example of starting over again…

What are we actually saying by forcing someone to start all over again in a drill or exercise?

We could be saying that there are consequences to actions. That success comes from getting back up after being knocked down.

However, we could also theoretically be saying…

“I am going to punish you for that missed putt by forcing you to practise more!”

How do you think they see practice if this is the case? As enthralling? As the sustenance for any improvement that they might have? As something they want to do?

Nope.

As arduous. As boring. As a chore.

What sort of behaviour do you think this will foster in the long term?

• • •

We shouldn’t necessarily be against exploring with our players that there are repercussions to our actions and that in golf you have to constantly deal with adversity. But what if we could frame things in a different way? What if, with the right exercise and the right person, instead of the line being “…and if you miss you have to start again” it was…

“if you miss then you don’t get to start again”.

Now, that really would be something.