A PRACTICAL GUIDE FOR USING THE COURSE AS A LEARNING GROUND
4 WAYS TO USE THE COURSE TO FACILITATE DEEPER LEARNING
Golf is one of the only games practiced in an environment that the player will never perform in. Baseball? Practiced on a diamond. Hockey? On a rink. Tennis? On a court. Golf? A driving range. This puts golf coaches at a distinct disadvantage. We are coaching based on an incomplete picture of how the student actually performs. There are some essential components of performance that we remain ignorant to if we never see the player on the course.
The driving range is a very stable environment and often ideal for early stages of technical development– flat surface, perfect lies, no hazards, etc. While the benefits of the stable environment that the driving range provides are clear, the driving range as a training ground has severe limitations. Golf is a complex, multidimensional sport that requires competency in a wide array of skills. Inherent in the performance environment is a tremendous amount of noise, variability, and instability. Golfers need to develop novel and functionally adaptive movement patterns that training on the driving range often fails to develop.
To play the game effectively, golfers need to develop the tertiary skills – the ones that separate experts from novices. These skills are best cultivated in an environment that is most representative of what they will encounter during play – the golf course.
In our eyes, the usefulness of a practice activity can be graded against the following criteria:
AUTHENTIC SKILL ACQUISITION
Does this activity produce skills that are adaptive? Are the skills being developed in an environment that is representative of what the player will encounter in competition? Will the player be able to transfer these skills to a variety of conditions?
TACTICAL SKILL DEVELOPMENT
Does the activity challenge the player to consider the most effective tactical strategies for a given situation? Are richer decision-making skills being developed?
CULTIVATE PERFORMANCE STATE
Is the activity creating a desirable performance state for the athlete where technical thoughts are limited? Does the activity challenge the performer to improve and execute effective emotional/mental management?
Using our criteria, the typical rep/correct golf lesson grades awfully low–
It’s not authentic because the skill is being acquired in a repetitive, stable mode that we will never encounter on the actual course.
Unless some elaborate constraints are placed on the performer, the open space and perfect lies of the range does little to develop the tactical skills required of a player to manage their way around the course.
This is certainly not true of all range activity, but the majority of golfers are focusing on technical elements of their swing and do very little to cultivate the performance state essential for peak performance.
While it grades low, that’s not to say it doesn’t have it’s place in a player’s development. It just needs to be supplemented by activities that address the other important components of performance outside of technique. Below are 4 activities that we have enjoyed some success with and based on the aforementioned criteria, grade highly for deeper learning:
1. GAME WITHIN A GAME
During the course of a regular playing lesson, isolate a skill you would like to focus on and conduct a game within a game on each hole and keep score. So, say for Finesse Wedges, as you go about playing the hole regularly, drop an extra ball anywhere within 30 yards of the green on each hole and ask the player to play the new ball out in addition to their original ball. Keep a running tally of the number of shots it takes on each hole and have the player compete against a target score that takes into account their skill level. Be sure to pick a wide range of lies and situations for the player and limit technical feedback. This allows you manipulate the conditions that the player encounters, set an appropriate challenge point that will increase intrinsic motivation and create the opportunity to practice from any number of lies and situations. To touch on the tactical and performance state aspects, ask the player to walk you through the pre and post shot processes as they complete the various shots. The same exercise can be conducted for any skill from tee shots to putting.
2. BATTLE GOLF
Battle golf is a game wherein a player loses (or gains) clubs based on their performance on a hole. As their coach, you determine what that performance standard is. With a lower handicap player, remove one club from their bag for every stroke over par they are on a hole. If they make par– no clubs are won or lost, if they are under par on a hole– they gain a club back. You can further constrain their behavior by requiring the player to follow certain performance rules. For example, you can require the player work every tee shot with the dog leg or fade each shot into a right hand pin, etc. The possibilities (and benefits) of such exercises are endless. Given the infinite possible permutations of shots they may encounter without all clubs at their disposal, they are required to develop a ‘book’ of shots – functional solutions to a variety of problems.
3. NOODLE BOUNDARIES
This takes a bit more time and preparation to conduct, so probably can’t be done on every hole of an on-course session, but it can be a very impactful tactical training exercise. On the tee box, ask the player to identify a realistic target area that 80% of their shots would land within. You may have to help them with the ‘realistic’ part, but for a 20 handicap it may be 50 yards wide and for an elite player it may be 25 yards wide. Then drive down the fairway and, with an aim stick, stick a noodle in the ground representing the left and right boundary for their chosen area. This creates a visual that will help them identify safer targets that don’t intersect with any potential hazards or especially penal areas, as well as identify areas outside the fairway that represent an acceptable miss. It’s especially powerful when you do this for the approach shot. Obviously, with a shorter club in the Noodles are closer together, but the middle of the green becomes a lot more attractive in many cases as they avoid any bunkers or short sided areas with their noodles.
4. TWO SHAPE CHALLENGE
For every shot on a hole, challenge the player to drop an extra ball and to produce two different shot shapes, altering the curve or trajectory in some way. From a skill acquisition standpoint, this forces the player to search for imaginative solutions in order to produce distinct shapes from a variety of lies and conditions. And tactically, they may discover a solution they hadn’t previously considered as you force them to think outside the box and play shots they may not be comfortable with. Most importantly, this exercise puts the player in a state of play. The focus should be on shot shapes, feels, and the target with little thought to technical ideals that are so hard to avoid when get stuck to the range.
Hopefully, you’ll try out a few of our activities and add them to your On Course coaching toolbox. We would love to hear some of the activities that you conduct so we can develop a more expansive list for Curious Coaches readers within this post. If you have an activity that you think grades highly in Authentic Skill Acquisition, Tactical Skill Development, and Cultivate Performance State– please share them in the comment section below.
Also, for further learning related to On Course Coaching, we HIGHLY recommend attending Vision54’s Coaching for the Future Program. The program has helped us refine many of our ideas related to On-Course Coaching and I can’t think of a more immersive education experience on the topic. Lynn Marriott, Pia Nilsson, and their awesome staff of coaches outline a multitude of ways to coach their Essential Playing Skills with added emphasis on helping your players perform better ON THE COURSE. Their next program is in Florida right before the PGA Coaching Summit and Merchandise Show.
— COREY LUNDBERG & MATT WILSON
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