Updated: May 29, 2020
Historically set up in golf has often been referred to by some as posture, although when looking at these two phrases anatomically posture and set up have very two different definitions and functionalities.
For definition in this article, posture is referred to as a players body structure/frame and set up refers to the position the player starts the golf swing from. When looking at it this way, it starts to provide a very different understanding of the function and influence of both. Allowing for the player having no postural adaptations through being born with structural imbalances (spinal issues, bone length discrepancies etc.) the primary function of having a good frame is to provide the joints and segments with the maximum available options to work with. One could then argue that this is the main purpose of good strength and conditioning programs – the allowance of skill acquisition. In short, joints enjoy being in and moving around neutral. When they start from neutral essentially it provides the maximum amount of options they biomechanically have due to lack of restrictions in the degrees of freedom. However, when a player presents with faulty body structure this can then have a negative influence on what options are available to joints and segments, leading to a reduction in range, control and coordination. A brief way of looking at the influence body structure has on the golf swing can be discussed with this understanding – in advance of movement the brain designs two maps, the first one is called a brain map and the second one is called a road map. The brain map is effectively the body informing the brain of where all the various joints, segments etc. are in space prior to movement, a road map is then designed on where the human is attempting to move to based around the position of the joints/segments. The brain then processes this almost quicker than inflationary theory to achieve the task it is attempting. How this looks in golf is this, at set up the brain knows where the joints and segments are and what options they have available, it knows what the task is which for the purpose of this discussion is the backswing, it then computes how do I complete the task from this start position with the options available. If joints are in neutral and the segments are well matched up, anatomically and biomechanically this provides the structure for the human to move in a way with minimal compensations. However if the joints are in a less than ideal position and are sitting significantly outside of neutral, what the road map does is essentially go this is no problem, I’ll simply ask other segments and joints to do more to accommodate the dysfunction elsewhere. Therefore, the movements typically felt by players and observed by the coaching team are the compensations employed by the player to make the structure work. This relates back to the previous articles in this series which addressed never changing what you see or feel, as this is invariably the compensation you have employed to move around the problem to make it all work, however at what cost and to what level? In essence, changing what you see is invariably changing aesthetics rather than improving function. A phrase that often makes me a little nervous is when it is described that a player ‘physically can’t do it’. For me this is quite misleading and inaccurate as a better understanding is they currently do not have a structure which is able to move in the way the player would like without compensation. Often players have poor structures but can still physically complete the task, albeit with compensations therefore they physically can move however in a compromised way. Therefore it needs to be referred to as structural imbalances rather than physical restrictions as the physical restriction is also hugely influenced by many other factors, one such being neural wiring. This is often why player’s breakdown as it’s how they are attempting to move and what they are trying to achieve which is causing the problem. A way of looking at this is the misconception that good athletes don’t get injured. There is a very high profile case currently in golf where arguably the best athlete golf has had in recent times is now the most injured, therefore good athletes with excellent physical capabilities still breakdown. So to review the importance of frame and structure, one of the main priorities in most sessions is to have get the player back to zero, zero being having a frame and body structure with minimal imbalances and in absence of issues created by environmental influences such as repeated faulty loading and gravity.
Start position issues are often influenced by structural imbalances, however it is not uncommon to see good athletes with great structures still have poor start positions. Factors that can influence this are poor concepts such as how to at best maintain the three main curves in the spine when bending in to set up as well as historical misconceptions of what the purpose of the start position is, an example of this is to rotate the trail foot inwards to reduce hip rotation. Often poor movement around the pelvis is in response to dysfunction elsewhere, so rotating the trail foot inwards can reduce internal rotation around the hip joint as well as reduced foot/ankle function. Many players do not have enough hip rotation therefore rotating the foot in is one of the worse things players can do, surely they are better advised to explore why the pelvis is moving in the way it is and place the ankle and hip joints in neutral which will provide much greater options to work with. Amongst many other issues and ignoring swing function, this is one of the most common influences on low back and knee pain. A discussion I have with most players is to see swing function as a mini risk assessment. I discuss with them that they can stand and move in any position they wish, however I have a duty of care to inform them of the risks associated with these movements. Using historical case studies as evidence, we know that certain start positions and movements are high risk moves, therefore if you want to start from this position and move in this way then this is all good, however is it worth the risk?
Forgetting structural imbalances for this point of the discussion and looking at it purely from a swing function point of view, a reference I give players to help understand lower limb function and alignment is when looking face on in a mirror, knees under hip joints and approximately a golf balls width between inside of big toe and inside of heel. Although somewhat crude, this provides a good reference to work with to help place the lower limb joints in neutral and provide a frame which is happy to move as like mentioned earlier, what controls movement is the options available. These principles are applied to all joints and segments and in future articles we will discuss common structural and conceptual issues around areas such as the wrists, neck, spine, ankle and pelvis.
An area of increasing nervousness I have is when measurement devices are used in attempt to improve start position without understanding what is influencing and encouraging the joints and segments to move this way. Everything is reacting to something therefore investigating the stimulus the segment/joint is receiving is far more responsible and productive than simply attempting to change outcome values. An example of this is using force and/or pressure plates to improve a player’s start position. If the plate displays values that are either not encouraging good joint function then by simply adjusting the values in an attempt to achieve ‘expected readings’, what are we actually achieving? The challenge with most literature around force and pressure plate readings is they are invariably used in studios and laboratory’s which present the argument of how reflective and representative they are to a golfers competing environment. We know from on course 3D motion capture data that I have been collecting over the past year that players swing patterns vary hugely when environmental influences change, such as wind direction, slopes, hole shape and direction, lie and the task changes i.e hitting fades, draws, lower/higher ball flights therefore we can make a loose assumption that these pattern changes would also apply to using force/pressure plates. Pre-defined questions always need to be asked when looking at this information such as:
What shot was the player attempting to hit?
Did the player execute the shot they were attempting to hit?
What environment was the data captured in and how does it relate to the golfers competing environment?
The accuracy of the device used.
Scientific research works in such a way that when it is presented with data, the scientist will often ask themselves two questions, firstly I wonder why this is happening and secondly, how do we use this information to solve the problem. This is commonly referred to as curious vs applied (targeted) research. There are benefits and limitations to both approaches, however having this curious vs applied approach when looking at data can prove extremely advantageous and allow for some remarkable discoveries. Coaches and players need to take the same approaches to problem solving as examples of how a curious scientist and an applied scientist would work when presented with data such as force/pressure plate is:
As stated, there are benefits and limitations to both approaches, however next time you are presented with data take both the curious approach as well as the applied approach and see what observations come up. Below is an example of two players that have differing centre of pressure traces (COP). The first example is of a player that according to the literature has close to an efficient and accepted way of moving pressure throughout their swing. However this player has had multiple injuries in recent years and suffered significant reduction in driving distance. The second example shows a COP trace that the literature would suggest is not as efficient. Now, I acknowledge this is an extremely biased argument as to offer a balanced view examples of an accepted way of moving pressure alongside pain reduction and an increased driving distance would have to be presented, however for the purpose of this article the reader can look at both COP traces and apply the above example of curious vs applied science/coaching to both. It will be interesting to hear what thoughts are provoked!!
The purpose of this short article was to look at the correlation between body structures and start position. The short conclusion is that having a good frame, placing joints in positions they are happy to move from provides the player with the most options available therefore assisting the player with whatever movements they are attempting to achieve. However equally important is once the player has a good structure, knowing how to stand that allows joints and segments to move biomechanically in the most effective way is equally as valuable. The examples provided above of the two COP traces show player 1, who had a good frame and structure, a good start position but many misconceptions of how to move around the frame without cost. Although they had an accepted COP trace is came at great cost. Player two is the example of the less than ideal pressure trace which on investigation connected back to poor body structure around their neck and upper thorax along with multiple compensations and swing misconceptions leading to the COP displaying as it was. Simply trying to change this players COP to make outcome values look good would in short have achieved what?
Future articles will discuss in much greater depth common correlations between specific joint structural awareness and swing function with examples given of both good function and dysfunction, however next time you observe issues at set up, ask yourself whether it is a structural imbalance encouraging the error or a misconception leading to the set up issue?