Friday, March 11, 2011

How to Find & Evaluate Good Golf Instruction

Do you feel vulnerable when you walk in to take a golf lesson for the first time?  That is a natural feeling for beginners and pros alike.  Here are some things you need to consider when you schedule a lesson and how you should approach your lessons.

No matter what your skill level, a great golf professional will accelerate your learning and enjoyment of the game.  Beginners will benefit from a lesson with a great professional as much as will an experienced golfer.  It is a misnomer that new golfers will benefit from any lesson.  Many will spend time later in their golfing career "unlearning" incorrect moves they learned from a poor instructor. 

First, what is the "word of mouth" on your pro?  A great pro will have happy customers who are willing to recommend him or her.  These customers should be at every level of play.  If a pro is only good for good players, there may be disinterest in teaching beginners.  If a pro doesn't work with any good players, there may be a lack of knowledge about the golf swing.  Great pros are able to help beginners learn and enjoy the game as well as guide single digit handicappers to playing better.  It might help if a pro is a good player, but this fact alone shouldn't lead you to schedule a lesson.  The title behind a pro's name also doesn't mean too much.  There are a lot of head professionals with no interest in teaching, while an assistant pro might have found his or her passion on the lesson tee.  Finally, teaching is a cumulative skill.  It takes time, study, trial and error, and good communication skills.  If you want to learn the game as efficiently as possible, find a golf professional who takes the craft very seriously. 

Okay, you have made a decision to schedule a lesson.  How should you prepare?  What should take place in the lesson?  What questions should you ask?  How should you follow-up?  What should you take away from the lesson?  What role should technology have in your lesson?  How can you evaluate the instruction you received?

First, you need to know what you want.  If you are a beginner, are you working toward playing with your spouse or friends?  If you are an avid player, what specifically do you want to improve on?  How much time will you commit to practicing what you learn?  Will you take a follow-up lesson?  If you walk into a lesson without this planning, you will be completely at the will of the professional.  This might be alright if the pro is seasoned.  He or she will guide you through these questions regardless of whether you thought them through.  However, if you don't have a plan and your pro doesn't help you make one, you might be starting a pattern of random lessons.  You will always learn from random lessons, but you won't be working on a plan with goals.  They can also become confusing, because they seem to be presenting new material each time you step on the lesson tee.  Having a plan for your learning will lessen confusion, give you an image of the finished product and keep you focused on moving forward.

Great instructors feel the need to get it right on every swing of the club.  Your set up position will probably be a starting point when you meet a new pro. 

Today is the day for your lesson.  Remember, you hired the pro and it is your lesson.  If at any time the lesson veers from what you want, you need to speak up.  Great pros quickly formulate a plan and share it, but remember, you are paying the bill.  Here is a typical itinerary for your lesson.  First, check into the shop before heading out to the lesson tee.  Get to the lesson tee early enough to do some stretching, hit a few balls, find your rhythm and get comfortable.  If today is your first lesson with the pro, be ready to answer these questions:
  1. What is your most common ball flight?
  2. What do your misses look like?
  3. How often do you play?  How often and how much do you practice?
  4. Why did you schedule a lesson?
  5. What are your goals?  What do you want to get out of today?  
  6. How can I help you?
  7. Do you have any injuries or problems that would affect your ability to make any moves?
If your pro doesn't ask these questions and/or other questions about your game, your needs and your desires for the future, you might be on the wrong lesson tee.  It is also important to address any physical limitations you might bring to the lesson tee to understand your capabilities and to avoid injury.  Many injuries that people suffer on the golf course could be avoided by understanding proper form coupled with individual abilities, instead of model swings.

This sounds like a lot of information, but this process usually takes place in the first five minutes of the lesson and usually happens as you are hitting some shots, so the pro is getting an idea of your motion at the same time.  Not all lessons happen on the lesson tee.  About 1/4 of the lessons I give happen on the putting green or the short game area.  If we equated lessons with strokes on the course, that number would be at 1/2 of the lessons given, since about 1/2 of your shots happen within 100 yards of the green.  This is also your choice, not the pros.  What part of your game would benefit from a lesson the most?

The next step is a crucial testimony to your pro's skill.  Your pro should be able to explain your swing, including what is good in it and what should be improved.  A great pro will never tell you what not to do.  Instead, any unneeded movement will be replaced by a different or correct movement.  There is no strength is telling you what not to do.  Learning is also weakened by having too many fronts.  That means a good pro will share only one or two things on which to work.  Generally, when you change one move in a swing, you must also change a second move to positively effect ball flight.  For example, if your club face is open at impact and you slice your driver, it would probably not be enough to square up your club face.  You have probably been making some sort of compensation to get the ball in play that will also need to be changed.  The pro should clearly explain how the changes you make will fit into the big picture and effect your ball flight.

During or following the lesson a good pro will help you with ways to practice, including drills, the feel of the change and what your ball flight should look like.  When you walk away from the lesson tee, you need to understand how much influence your old habits will have.  No one likes to be uncomfortable or doubtful and those are two by-products of a lesson.  The pro's job is to break your habits by replacing them with other moves and to anticipate the discomfort by giving you a preview of what you will see and feel as you make the changes.  All of us are more at ease when we see what we expected to see.  You should also have an idea of how long it will take you to get the new move off the practice tee and onto the golf course.  The pro should also let you know how today's lesson fits in with his or her plans for your overall game.  When you take a lesson, you enter a partnership whose goal is your improved golf game.  Your success will benefit both you and the pro, whose reputation is on the line each and every time he or she steps on the lesson tee.

Great teachers help you feel the proper positions needed to hit good golf shots.  This instructor is working on a proper impact position. 

The lesson is finished.  If you have any confusion, you didn't ask enough questions.  There is no such thing as a dumb question and no pro should ever give you that feeling.  The disparity in your knowledge and his or hers might be immense, so your goal should be to lessen that gap.  It is also important to understand all the vocabulary that is used on the lesson tee.  Don't be afraid to ask what is meant if you aren't clear.  I have met scratch golfers with little understanding of their motion, so I never assume that anyone on the lesson tee understands any technicality.  You should be very clear on what changes you need to effectuate change.  You should understand the practice time it will take to make the changes.  You should have a plan for how to practice.  You should know if this is all that is needed for your game or if it is a step toward your mastering the skills needed to be a good golfer.

Lines, lines, everywhere the lines.  Pros look smart when they have a computer, the ability to draw lines on your swing and the knowledge to breakdown your swing.  However, the ability to understand how and where to draw the lines is a learned skill and preferences will come into play.  It is also important to find an instructor who wants  to make you the best "you" you can be, not a clone of a model, such as Luke Donald, pictured above or Michelle Wie.

Many pros utilize technology to teach.  While I believe technology is a great aid for learning the game, it is an aid, not a primary tool.  Information gained through technology is only as good as the interpreter of the data.  Many students have no idea what to look for in a video.  Launch monitors provide a lot of meaningless numbers to most people.  K Vests are helpful when matched to individual needs.  In other words, technology is still reliant upon a great pro's guidance.  All the gadgets in the world won't help a student who is lead by an ineffective teacher.  Technology often provides too much information and a long list of needs or changes.  Students become overwhelmed by too much information and soon jump around from move to move.  This unfocused approach is confusing and slows down learning.

How can you evaluate your lesson?  That is an easy question.  Did you walk away with more knowledge about what it would take for you to be a better golfer?  Did you improve when you followed the pro's plan?  Are you gaining confidence in your game?  Would you recommend the pro to your friends?

Today's blog was concerned about a rudimentary lesson.  If you continue to take lessons, make sure that you are learning how to develop and use a pre-shot routine, how to visualize shots, how to choose and commit to targets and how to develop all parts of your game, including chipping, pitching and putting.  Make it your responsibility to learn all you can and that attitude will lead you to ask questions, move away from the lesson tee to the putting green and get as much information from your pro as is possible. Your time on the golf course should be more enjoyable because of the time you spent with your professional.

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