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Sports science and Golf coaching

Updated: May 29, 2020

As the end of another year in golf approaches, I’ve been reflecting on the advances made in technology and education within golf, the information that is now available to both players and coaching teams and how this is influencing the education and development of both. One such discipline that falls into this is the influence of sport science within golf coaching, and alternatively the role of coaching within sport science. I am extremely fortunate to spend most of my time with many outstanding coaches, educators, people, sports medicine clinicians etc. therefore I live in a somewhat biased world where it is considered the accepted approach to share ideas, evolve each other’s knowledge, constantly challenge ourselves to identify new problems and devise new solutions. Most of the dialogue below is based on anecdotal evidence, discussion with much valued friends, colleagues as well as personal reflection and it purely serves as a point of discussion, so if the reader has any views then please share, as feedback and educated views helps us all develop and expand, as I have never seen what there is to gain by keeping our views closed and to ourselves.

Science based vs. information based coaching.

One of the wonderful advantage of modern life is the plethora of information that is now available to coaches, sports scientists and all other clinicians involved in player development, much of which is accessible through online resources. Some concerns attached to sourcing any information online is the credibility, reliability and using anthropological philosophies the author’s reflexivity attached to the information. Having never met Tiger Woods it is impossible to comment, however through observation it’s been fascinating and encouraging to see he has employed a more sports science approach to his swing development with the appointment of his most recent swing consultant. One areas of nervousness this provides is at what point to we call this attitude a scientific approach to coaching? Cleary in Tiger Woods situation it is a scientific approach as his current advisor is completing a master’s degree, therefore one would assume that a critical, balanced, rationale and structured view would be applied to all conversations, as this is often the basis of most academic discussions. However my understanding is to claim to have a scientific approach to coaching requires at minimum a scientific education (as in the case of Tiger Woods current swing advisor, Dec14), as this allows the coach to apply the principles of their science to their coaching practice. In the current environment, information is available through numerous devices and mediums, and allowing for the assumption it is being used correctly it would be hard to offer an objective argument for science causing a regression in the education of coaches and development of players. However the caveat attached to this is it is only science based coaching when the clinician/coach has science based academia to support and apply to the information. Therefore if there is an absence of a scientific education, is it not better referred to as information based coaching? For me this is something very different, as this is using information available to the end user to help make more informed judgements and decisions. In short, if the user is using data, information, statistics etc. without a scientific education then this is coaching with information. Therefore science based coaching is very different to information based coaching. The whole concept of information is an almost infinite debate (in some ways it’s almost evolution or creation) as perhaps one questions we can start with who actually owns the information? Most of our information is acquired therefore how much of this can we claim to be wholly organic and truly original code? We may have evolved information we have been exposed to but who actually owns the original IPR? As per my comment in the opening paragraph regarding spending most of my time with some of the leading brains within golf, I am continuously astonished when I am asked if coaches, physios etc. can observe or attend a player’s session with me as many are surprised when I say yes, as they have often been exposed to very closed environment’s where people are protective of the information being discussed. My answer to when being asked if they can attend is invariably “why would I not want you there?” The more involved in the discussion and around the players development can only lead to one winner – the athlete or another way of seeing this is it becomes player development and coach education. A sub section attached to this is often when the comment is made by someone stating ‘they are my player’ which I have never quite understood. The player is the boss as they employ us which makes us part of their staff, so surely should it not read ‘they are my player’, ‘instead I am part of the players staff?’

For those not familiar or exposed to sports science and how it works within golf coaching teams, perhaps we can look at examples of how most sports use sports science to help develop their athletes. Purely through observation, there have been some interesting case studies this year within sports science role in athlete development. One of my philosophies is every player is an individual case study, therefore the approach taken and solutions provided are on an individual basis dictated by influences such as the player’s needs, aspirations, anatomical function, time available to invest in improvement etc... In short, many of you may have heard me discuss my model as a blank sheet of paper, on there are three questions, where are you currently, where do you want to get to and how are you/we going to get you there? This approach is reflected wonderfully well with Rugby Union where forwards and backs are exposed to different skills and training values primarily controlled by the needs of the position, despite playing the same game. On speaking with Sir Clive Woodward, he mentioned that no training would be conducted until his sports science team informed the coaching staff where the players were in their individual recovery, training, development etc. therefore the coaching staff could then set the training program based on the sport science feedback. Responsible approach to athlete development? A similar example is also used with F1, where the information obtained by race technicians and engineers are constantly being relayed in real-time to the driver, allowing for informed, accurate decision making and tactical approaches. Cycling, track and field to name a few take a similar approach – the sports science team assess the athlete and then feedback their findings to the coaching team for them to then apply. A well-known gold medallist from London 2012 produced a weekly training diary in a paper outlining their weekly schedule. Session one on Monday morning was a session with their biomehcanist to assess their field techniques, therefore the coach could work with this information over the week with the view to achieving progression in performance and avoidance of pain. Using these examples as a place to start discussion, in golf who should lead the players swing development, sport scientists or coaches? Coach is king/queen in my world as I am lucky to spend much time with some truly iconic and outstanding ones in golf, however has the role changed slightly where as well as coaching, are they now becoming project managers? Over time it has typically been the coach that has managed the players movement and swing function, therefore is some coaching simply perpetuation or is a paradigm shift now appearing due to the information now available. In addition, who actually leads the coaching, player or coaching team? Who owns the coaching/learning?

Examples of science based vs information based coaching.

To help with differentiating between science based and information based coaching, below are some considerations and understanding that can be applied when using information:

  • Understanding how the information is collected and calculated. This is vital so the user knows precisely what data is being displayed allowing for accurate interpretation. I would encourage any user of technology to ask the manufacturer of any equipment they use to supply the technical information and algorithms (where possible due to copyright etc.) as to how they calculate their data. Many manufactures are excellent as they provide full technical specifications of the hardware/software allowing for full confidence in the reliability and accuracy of the data being processed. An example of this in motion capture, knowing how a hardware/software provider calculates critical events such as address, top of backswing, impact etc. is essential otherwise how do you know what you are interpreting and discussing? This also applies to launch monitors, knowing how the data is calculated must be non-negotiable otherwise how can you have full trust in the data? Basic rule of statistics, put rubbish in, you’ll get rubbish out.

  • Often the information we are using causes the problem, not through fault of the information more so through interpretation and application of the data. This also applies to many successful players – are they good despite the information they are being given? Therefore are we guilty of becoming problem creators rather than problem finders/solvers? I had an extremely good coach visit me recently who purchased a 3D motion capture system a while ago, when asking him what we wanted to achieve in the session, they answered “to help understand my movements, feels, awareness again as working with the motion capture system has not only regressed my game but also my coaching, as I was simply attempting to change the numbers on screen” This was a very honest answer. Therefore this was an exercise in not knowing what’s behind the data and what’s the data responding to. When I asked him if he knew how he was referencing impact and how it was being collected on his 3D system, he said he didn’t know, which there lays the problem. Gratefully he gave me his permission to use this an example in this article to highlight the difference between science based coaching and information based. This could be applied to any measurement device, so a question is next time you see values on screen, ask yourself how has that variable been collected and calculated? What precisely is it reflecting? How can you add emotion to the data?

  • As an example of my own practice, often when I do presentations I start with a question to the audience, write down what biomechanics means to you. If there are 50 people in the room, invariably I get 50 different answers, therefore where do we start when it means something different to everyone? Effectively, understanding the difference between extrinsic vs intrinsic biomechanics is crucial when assessing swing function. These are fundamentally different although connected as in short – everything connects to everything therefore everything effects everything. Understanding intrinsic biomechanics and extrinsic biomechanics is a clear example of scientific based vs. information based coaching. In the last article I released titled ‘What changes when you make change- the concept of regression testing’ I referenced at the end the most important question the coach needs to ask is what’s effecting what? Exploring this in a little more depth we can look at it with regards to is it failure in intrinsic biomechanics such as articular, myofascial, neural or viscera dysfunction resulting in movement breakdown/swing imbalances/reduced performance/pain or is it more extrinsic biomechanical failure e.g. segment position/orientation/interaction, acceleration/deceleration, force production that is effecting the intrinsic biomechanics? In addition is it dynamic systems theory effecting both intrinsic and extrinsic biomechanics, e.g. the players understanding of task, concept, tool, environment etc.

  • The value of average. A reoccurring question which is often put to me in sessions is what would the average player do? What is PGA tour average? Therefore this leads to answers/questions such as define average within player development? What value is average? How is average calculated? Is the mode and median of more value? An example being, if a cricketer scores 0, 0, 0, 100, they have an average of 25, asides from the variation of scores how is an average of 25 helping answer the question? My own view is understand your own values, reoccurring numbers, data that provides the best feels, feedback, data that shows clear gains in performance without regression, data that provides pain free, efficient movement that best allows completion of the task, data that is adaptable to the environment etc. Is this of more value than what is PGA tour average? In short what’s great for one player can sometimes be very harmful for another.... Another way of looking at this is something I refer to as brain map vs road map. In advance of movement, the brain processes a brain map, in essence it locates where all segments, joints, muscles are etc... Therefore it has its reference/start position. Next, it then looks at the task, in golf for example the backswing. It then programs (designs a road map) as to how to complete the task (backswing) with the resources it has available (joint range, segment control, myofascial function, neural wiring etc...). With this resource it then successfully completes the task, therefore if most of us have a different brain map alongside a different road map, what value can we attach to average? This refers back to the previous statement, every player is an individual case study.

  • One situation I am always surprised by is the lack of players that when they first have a session, post initial discussion they fail to ask the question “what can I expect to achieve by making these improvements, what value is there to this change”. Does this relate to the point who owns the learning/information, the coaching team of the player? If we are not prepared be asked these questions and equally importantly understand the value of change, be able to offer answers to whatever guidance given is going to help resolve Is this perpetuation once more or are we making the assumption that the player in front of us want’s to learn.

This is a very in depth topic that needs much more investigation, hence the theme for this short article is to provoke questions allowing for further discussion around the difference between science and information in golf. Looking ahead, what can golf learn from other sports, businesses, structures, academia etc. and how successful organisations use the information provided to help find and solve problems as well as identifying new discoveries and solutions.

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