Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Weight training principles for golf

Being a very short hitter of the ball as a kid, I was constantly obsessed with ways of making more speed. This led me down the road of experimenting with weight training as a means of getting stronger and thus creating more distance. Although I am not a long hitter of the ball by professional standards, I am certainly a longer hitter than I used to be, and I learned a lot along the way. There are many parallels that you can draw between effective weight training and golf training. Here are a few that I have identified.

WEIGHT TRAINING - You can do a lot by working on something in a synergistic fashion. Squats, for example, will improve leg, back and glute strength simultaneously, as well as a whole host of other stabilising muscles. However, powerlifters know that they can plateau in these lifts. For whatever reason (genetic, muscle firing patterns, injuries etc) there can be certain weak points during a movement. For example, a person may be exceptionally strong at the latter 2/3rds of a squat movement, but they have a sticking point at the bottom part of the squat. They are therefore limited to their weakest part, unless they decide to not go down too low, to which the weakness just becomes amplified further as they go into this range less.

One way around this, would be to isolate the part of the lift where there is a weakness, and devote some time to ‘bringing it up’. For example, the lifter may do box squats (accentuating the bottom part of a squat) or static holds at the bottom, in order to improve the weakness. Essentially, more mental and physical resources are going into improving the weakness, and as long as the other areas are at least maintained, this will result in an overall improvement.

GOLF - we may find that our weakness lie in a specific skill, for example, our ability to strike a divot after the ball. One approach I used effectively to train myself to do this skill was to put 100% of my mental resources (in Laymen’s terms – concentrate) on this alone. My only goal was to improve my ability to strike a divot after the ball. Even if the shot itself wasn’t perfect (slight toe hit or closed face), I would deem myself successful if the divot was correct. I then got specific feedback by using markers to represent where the ball lay on the ground, so I could see where my divot was in relation to this.

Progressive resistance
WEIGHT TRAINING - This is very difficult for our society to understand, as it is built on a ‘want/get now’ mindset. In weight training however, patience is a virtue, as it is in golf. We should keep the bigger picture in mind as we progress towards it; we should start out small and work our way up. In weight training, you wouldn’t take a brand new exercise and load the bar up, you will probably end up injured. The best idea is to start out with something light until you feel more comfortable, and the gradually add weight each week as the exercise seems easier.

GOLF - So, in my example of learning ball/turf strike, I started with a chip shot and progressed to a pitch, then a half swing, then a ¾ swing before finally doing a full swing. When doing it in a full swing was easy enough, I needed more resistance/weight on the bar. So I started challenging myself by changing clubs every shot, then changing both clubs and target every shot. Finally, I took it to the fairway bunker, where even the smallest of errors becomes magnified. This is pushing it into levels of difficulty not normally experienced on the golf course, as a regular shot from the fairway can be much more forgiving.

Sets and reps
In WEIGHT TRAINING, we do a certain number of sets with a certain repetition count. For example, 3 sets of 10 means doing 10 repetitions, then resting, then 10 more, then resting then 10 more. I like the idea of using sets and reps for golf training, as it can help create a mini test, and also allows time for a ‘reset’ so a person can gather themselves and their concentration ready for the next bout.

GOLF - Do 10 reps (swings) of a certain movement/skill followed by a small rest and evaluation of how you did. Do another 10 reps, trying to better the last time, and then again, another 10 reps. This is 3 sets of 10 – increases motivation/focus/concentration/learning as you are trying to better your last attempt.

Optimum rep ranges
WEIGHT TRAINING Just as there is an optimum rep range (intensity level) for certain weight training developments, there is too for golf skill learning. If you wished to improve your strength, staying in the 3-5 rep range is usually optimum. Sure, strength can be developed with higher reps, but it is much less efficient.

GOLF - Likewise, I feel the optimum range to stay within for golf is between 3 and 7 out of 10 success rate. For example, If you are trying the strike drill, and are achieving it 9 times out of 10, it is too easy and you need more of a challenge, try it with a pitch swing. On the other end, if you can only do the exercise with a full swing 3 times out of 10 successfully, then maybe you need to fall back into an easier task, such as doing it with a ¾  shot. This is not a ‘set in stone’ rule; sometimes a player is so mentally strong they need to have something borderline impossible to do to spark motivation. For most people though, a task which is too difficult can lower confidence levels quickly leading to further performance drops and a slowing of learning.

WEIGHT TRAINING - Bodybuilders use varying exercises to avoid mental boredom and physical stagnation. If all a person did was bench press, they would eventually plateau. Working the same muscle in a different way can break through the plateau and provide continuous improvement. We may throw a few decline bench presses, or incline flyes in – both are working the chest but in a different angle thus bringing up the strength of other stabilising muscles at specific angles leading to a potential breakthough on the standard bench press.

GOLF - Likewise in golf, try to find 3 or 4 different ways to work on the same skill, and rotate them every so often as to keep your concentration. For example, we could improve our ability to strike the ground in the right place through a task led exercise, such as a fairway bunker shot or paint line on the ground. We could also focus on getting the club leaning forward at impact more, or focus on our weight being on our front foot at impact. These exercises all work on the same thing, but in a new and fresh way when rotated effectively.

Compound movements
WEIGHT TRAINING - This is a kind of ‘anti – isolation’ argument; in reality, both isolation and compound theories work well together. In weight training, a compound movement is where you would work a lot of muscles together all at once, such as in a deadlift, where the legs, back, glutes, hips and arms and shoulders are used simultaneously. In golf, this would be the idea of working the isolated skill/movement into the swing as a whole.

GOLF - For example, you isolate the skill of strike through effective concentration, feedback and challenging of the skill, and then you try and incorporate your new skill alongside all the other parts of the shot, such as direction and hitting the middle of the face. So now, I would try to strike a divot after the ball, but also look to incorporate the other parts to find a nice balance between them all. If I were to strike the ball pure with a divot after the ball position, but hit slightly out of the toe, now I would direct my attention to trying to do both the ball/turf strike and centre face strike together, focusing more on whichever is causing the biggest problem.
This is a small tweak, and is usually more down to where you direct your attention, flitting to the most prominent fault at the time, whereas isolation is more about keeping your focus more on the one thing you are trying to improve. It is similar to the squat movement being the thing we are trying to constantly improve, and using isolation when necessary to improve sticking points/weaknesses. The two together creates a very powerful concoction.

Learning has a delay
Generally, there is a lag between trying to improve something and that improvement coming through. In golf, this is not always true, as sometimes a quick grip change can make an instant success. But in terms of things I would determine skills (shot to shot variables in golf such as strike and clubface control), and certain technique/movement changes, worrying about how you are improving during the session is as silly as worrying about how much stronger you are getting whilst in the gym. In actual fact, as you train your body it gets momentarily weaker due to the depleted energy sources within the muscle and also from central nervous system fatigue.

Similar things can happen in golf training. Sometimes you devote so much mental and physical energy to making a change/improvement that it gets worse during the session, especially towards the end. It’s not that you are actually no longer learning it, it’s just that you are fatiguing. You have two options when this happens, either stop and go an rest, coming back and working on it again at a later time, or you can push through the fatigue and continue. If you choose the latter, you have to be very level headed and ignore the result you are getting. This is easier to do when you understand the next part.

Just as you don’t get stronger in the gym, you get stronger during rest, a similar thing happens with a skill. The brain has been likened to a muscle, and during rest, it too regenerates, repairs and strengthens what has been learned. You then see the results either next day, or a few days time. I remember as a kid working on a specific move for about 3 hours. At the end of the session, I was so disappointed as I saw my swing on video after all the hard work and it was exactly the same. I gave up working on it, thinking that this was the way I was doomed to swing forever. By a week later, I had put my swing on video only to see that the move I had spent that time working on was now part of my swing; a delayed learning response. I have since experienced this in many other things I have learned, such as languages and musical instrument playing.
Be patient, what you are doing now is largely irrelevant. It is what you are ‘trying’ to do that is most important. The more you try to do it, it will eventually happen automatically.

Spend some time thinking about how you can apply some of these principles to your golf training. 

  • Isolate a skill you wish to improve (concentrate on it)
  • Progressively challenge it through increase in task difficulty
  • Do sets and reps and note your improvement
  • Try not to lift too heavy (too difficult a task) or too light (too easy) or you will slow down improvement
  • Have a few different ways to improve the skill - mix it up every now and again
  • Work on incorporating that new strength into the full movement
  • Understand that learning takes time, as do strength gains.

You can’t become a powerlifter overnight, it requires consistently applying the correct methods over a long period of time – just like golf.   

Monday, July 2, 2012

Creating unshakeable belief

In part 1 of internal thermostat, we talked about how the mental game, more specifically our self image, is a big determinant on our play. A big example of this is a person who sees themselves as a 90’s shooter is basically condemning themselves to a lifetime of stagnation, lack of progression and scores that are always in the 90’s. Obviously skill level does greatly influence this, but lots of 90’s shooters have the ability and the game to break that barrier, but don’t for reasons other than the way they hit the ball. Maybe you have seen a 90's shooter have a good game, only to become aware of their score close to the finish and then collapse back into their normal scoring range. Maybe this has been you? Ironically, when a freak incident happens that allows them to shoot in the 80’s for the first time (perhaps they thought they had shot some other score until they actually counted it up and see that it was a surprising 87),  it is now much easier for that person to do it again in the future.

Just like our zookeeper has a different belief system about the Tiger, this player now has a different belief system about what is possible to them. Chances are, the player didn’t do anything special or out of the ordinary that day. They just plodded along with their normal game, completely unaware that they were about to break through a new personal record. With this new belief now formed, the old symptoms they used to get when approaching the 90 mark disappear. The old player used to become aware that they could shoot an 89, and then through a jolt of adrenalin, they now see every bit of danger on the course and try to steer it down the fairway only to find they have steered it out of bounds. “If only I had relaxed and just let it happen” they say knowingly after the round. The NEW player, on the other hand, has been there done that. They have shot 87 before, so it’s no problem. They can relax in the knowledge that they have one ‘under the belt’ so to speak. This gets rid of the symptoms of nervousness.

Unfortunately, reality is one of the biggest influencers of our beliefs, and these experiences of breaking our personal barriers are hard to come by. However, we can get a step in the right direction and cheat our brain by selectively choosing which realities we wish to ingrain. You may have heard of this before, and every great sportsperson out there has done this to some extent. It’s called VISUALISATION. I am going to explain some ways of doing this that can help you develop a new belief system. This will create something much deeper than just telling yourself ‘I think I can do it’. This is going to make you feel ‘I KNOW I can do it’ - A very big difference.

How to visualize
No, you don't have to get into a lotus position and start chanting mantra's to effectively visualise. The first step is to understand that this is an ongoing process. This is like going to the gym, you have to put in a little work, and you reap the benefits in time. For beginners, or people currently low on confidence, you may get a massive leap straight away, but you have to keep working at it day by day to build it up further. And if you don’t work on it, it can atrophy like a muscle will if you stop training it. See this as two separate muscles that you are building; one is your confidence level and belief in your ability, the other is a mental toughness, a resistance to the effect of bad shots. Both together will give you your maximum chance of performing optimally more consistently.

Get a piece of paper, or better yet, a scorecard. Sit down and close your eyes (after you have read this post, otherwise you wouldn’t know what the direction are). Go through your last round of golf in your head; play it shot by shot trying to remember it in as much detail as you can. Anytime you come across a bad shot that cost you – not just an average shot, but a bad one – open your eyes and make a note of what it was. Maybe it was a fat shot, or maybe it was a poor chip. Now close your eyes again, and replace that shot with the image of a better one you have hit in a similar situation on the same hole, or even pick one you have hit on a different course or the range. For example, If you topped your 130 yard shot into the ditch on the 16th hole, replace it with the memory of a time where you flushed a 130 yarder onto the middle of the green. It doesn’t have to be a miraculous shot to 2 feet, just one that you would be pleased with. Repeat the visualization of this single shot 3 to 5 times, then finish out the imaginary hole from there and write the new score into the scorecard. Keep doing this until you have finished the round in your head and replaced almost all of the bad shots with better images.

What was your new score?

I call this exercise ‘what if’. We all kind of play this after a round of golf. “If only I had not hit it in the water on 8” people say. The problem is, they are ingraining the bad shot they hit by talking about it and visualizing. They are not actually going through the process of replacing it with a good shot, and then ingraining that image by repeating it. If you do this correctly, you should now have a list of things that you should go off and work on, and an idea of what you could have potentially shot.

There is one more important stage in this visualization process. Finish by picking your best shots for the day. You can do this by quickly skipping through the round until you get to where your good shots came. Now, go through each shot in its entirety; do this with your hands together as if you are holding an imaginary grip. Tee up the ball in your mind, stand behind the ball in your mind. Do your practice swing and get a sense for how CONFIDENT you felt during it. Imagine setting up to the ball re-creating that feeling of INVINCIBILITY and CERTAINTY you felt that the ball was going to fly onto your target. As you do this, be aware of how athletic you feel over the ball before you get ready to hit. Now, imagine the rhythm and feel of the swing as you made it, and the sound and feel of the contact as you hit the ball flush. As you visualize the ball flying in the air and you holding your balanced finish, capture the feeling that you felt watching the ball. Double it!! DOUBLE IT AGAIN. As you get that feeling that we all have after our best shots, give your hands a gentle squeeze as if you are squeezing the grip of the club. Repeat for as many of the good shots you made as you want. Try to pick the best ones you hit that day, not just any old shot.

This whole process takes about 10-30 minutes, and can be done as you are trying to get to sleep if you want; In fact, it can help you get to sleep. Some people have an ability to do this with their eyes open too, although for everyone the process is heightened when in a relaxed state and eyes closed – like hypnotherapy.
For those of you who are into new age stuff, you can attribute this to the law of attraction. For those of you who are skeptical and more scientific minded, like myself, understand that a massive amount of positive neural activity is happening in the brain when we visualize in this way. We are basically myelinating (firing, wiring and insulating) a movement pattern, and also a belief (a complex connection of multiple neurological networks in the brain). This has an unbelievable effect on our future beliefs, where our attention goes, and our physical responses to a certain situation (such as approaching a personal record) and also our movement pattern can become more consistent and pressure proofed.

This is one method of many that I teach to create a new belief system. It stemmed from a more complex version that I used to do as a teenager which helped me get from a 32 handicap to 2 in just 3 years. I will post further articles on other methods that I used as a player, and have since taught to willing pupils to good effect. I will also try to cite some of the scientific studies that support these ideas (not that I knew anything about them at the time). It's not so important to understand why these things work, but I think that a scientific understanding of what is going on can help add a good punch to spark motivation and actually do these things.

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Currently working for the World famous Turnberry Resort at the Golf Performance Academy. I am a golf coach who specialises in not only what to learn, but 'how' to learn. I am always looking to further education of myself and others, and improve knowledge and understanding so that we can be better golfers and coaches