Thursday, February 13, 2014

Skill versus technique

In my mind, there is an important distinction to be made between skill and technique. For the purposes of this article, I will define how I personally view each one.

For me, skill relates to your ability to do what you intend to do. As an example, if I intend to throw a dart at the bullseye, my skill level is higher when my ability to get closer to (or hit) my intended target increases. Technique, for me, refers more to the 'how'. Two darts players can have similar skill levels, but demonstrate that skill through massively varying techniques. Similarly, in golf, two players can have a similar ability to hit their intended target, but do so in very different ways. Also, within the same golfer, a professional golfer would have a better skill at getting the ball to the target than a 28 handicapper, regardless of what technique they used. A pro could swing right, left or even use a reverse weight shift, and still perform better than the 28 handicap player with a more orthodox technique.

Jim Furyk

Matt Kuchar

So you can see in the above two videos that, Jim and Matt exhibit completely different techniques. There are, of course, some similarities, but their styles are very different. They still both possess professional calibre skill levels.

The vast majority of golf instruction over the past century has dealt mainly with the technical side. There is the theory that as your technique improves, your skill level increases with it. Whilst there is certainly some truth to this, not many people have looked at the alternative - increasing skill levels in order to see an improvement in technique.

Performance/process skill

Under my definition of skill, it should follow that we should try to improve the skills which relate most to performance. The most direct correlation with performance would obviously be controlling BALL FLIGHT and result, so at least some of your training should be devoted to this. Whilst this statement is probably very obvious in theory, most people seriously get it wrong, or at best are inefficient in their ability to develop these skills.

The 'technique junkie' will make the mistake of never working on the result. They may be so obsessed with the look of their swing or the mechanics, that they never develop the ball control side fully. Whilst this is rare, better players tend to struggle with this, or over analytical players who think there is a 'swing secret' can fall into this trap. On the flip side, the majority players are only ever working on their ball control skills (at the cost of technical prowess). Whilst, theoretically, this can be a model which works, the way in which these players conduct their training doesn't lead to extraordinary gains in skill.

Pretty is not always functional

I am very interested in how skills are developed. I have taken a lot of ideas from other sports and skills which I have learned, and tried to apply them to golf directly. I have also studied a lot of the research, of which more and more is emerging in this field every year, and added that to my training programmes for players. I will now outline briefly some of the key elements Which I feel are important for effective skill development.


Are you on the range just beating balls, looking at how ball flies and either being happy or upset at the result? If so, it's time to make a small but simple change. Set yourself a goal in your practice. This could be as simple as creating an imaginary fairway (using two markers on the range as an outline) and trying to get as many shots as you can to hit this fairway. Doing this in sets of 10 balls and noting down your score can really increase your focus, motivation and ability to improve your ball control.

This doesn't have to just be end performance related. For example, you could also focus on and improve your ability to hit the centre of the clubface. In my lesson example a few weeks back, I showed a good example of how a player I coached improved her ability to hit the centre of the face, purely through awareness and feedback, and a little motivational nudging. No technical cues were given, other than to try and hit different parts of the face.

See this lesson example by clicking here

Other more process oriented examples may be to focus on making a divot in the right place, or to focus on hitting shots with more open/closed clubface positions at impact. Sure, there is a crossover between where these ideas become technique, but they relate more to things you control with co-ordination rather than style. For example, I can hit the middle of the clubface with many variants of a grip, and with many different types of backswing.


As an addition to the above, noting down how many shots missed left and right can help you identify consistent patterns. One of the major differences between good and poor players is their ability to recognise patterns when they are occurring. I see a lot of poor players who say "I hit the ball everywhere", when in reality they they have one major consistent pattern with a few anomalous results thrown in. Better players are able to adjust for their patterns more readily. For example, as an amateur golfer, I would miss around 95% of my shots to the left of where I was aiming. But my subconscious mind recognised this pattern and ADJUSTED MY AIM to the right of the target. This allowed my natural pattern to function better without the need for a technical change. Through better feedback, you will be able to develop this ability quicker.

Seeing the position of your divot, relative to where the ball was, is one of the
best bits of feedback you can get.

Progressive resistance

In order to develop skills, we must consistently push the boundaries of our current skill levels. Just like a strength athlete aims to add weight to the bar every week, we should do the same with our training sessions. Sticking with our example, an easy way to do this would be to make our target progressively smaller. To determine when we should progress, I usually use a 7/10 rule. When you can successfully achieve something 7 times out of 10, make it more difficult. Conversely, if you can only achieve a 3/10 success rate, it is probably best to make the task easier.

Train your skills by making the task more difficult. Your brain will respond
by increasing your co-ordination to improve your intention/reality ratio


One of the biggest paradoxes in skill development is that skills can be more efficiently progressed through conducting exercises which promote variability. The human body seems to learn best when it has lots of varying information with which to draw conclusions from, rather than sticking with one way. It seems then, that the adage of 'perfect practice makes perfect' is lacking, at best. Also, as golf requires a fair bit of adaptability (differing lies, environmental conditions etc), we can see how encouraging variability can help our playing skills beyond the range.

Adding to our example, we could do our fairway hitting exercise, but try to alternate the shape of the shot each time. This would be an example of what we call 'variable practice', as it is trying to complete the same task, but in variable ways. As a different example, we can improve our skill/ability to hit the middle of the club face by actually trying to hit the heel and the toe of the club on alternate shots. This would be an example of 'differential practice', where we are trying to improve our skills of face and path control through conducting tasks which we normally wouldn't wish to do.

Don't just try to Calibrate a perfect shot all the time.
Trying to hit different parts of the face can improve your skills and actually improve your ability
the middle.

So try to think of some of the skills that top players exhibit, and then come up with some ways of improving those skills through implementing some of the above tactics.

Take Home notes

Working on your technique is a worthwhile goal. But see this as part of the puzzle. The style in which you swing the club is very different to the skills that you possess. Impact should be the a major goal to improve, and I am not talking about improving your impact body positions, I am talking about how the club hits the ball, as my ball flight article alludes to.

I tend to work on impact skills (divot control, strike control, face and path control, speed control etc) in an attempt to improve result performance directly. As a result of this approach, I almost always see positive improvements in technique, without even having to talk about it. This organic approach to learning technique or "getting your technique for free" is a perfect example of biological systems self-organising. Or as I like to call it, reverse engineering.

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Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Massive changes, minimal information

As teachers, we are gathering more and more high quality information on what is happening in the swing of good players through the use of very highly technical equipment. We can see very detailed information on almost anything nowadays, from pressure distribution in the feet to the kinematic sequence of a player (rotational velocities/accelerations/decelerations of individual body segments). Whilst this information is great, and I use it all myself, I would exercise caution.

There can be a tendency to break big complex things (like a golf swing) down into smaller and more intricate things in the hopes of understanding them better. This, in scientific terms, is called reductionism. But there has always been one major problem with this worldview;

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts


We must understand that the golf swing is a massively complicated web of interconnected pieces, ranging from the physiological to the psychological. As we gather more and more information, we should realise that this search may raise more questions than it answers. I am all for the search, and love the information that is being produced by researchers right now. But I also understand that as the picture gets bigger, more complex and more intricate, we should revert to simplicity. In fact, I think that the picture will eventually get so big that we will be forced to go back to simple things, as trying to learn all the pieces individually may turn out to be an exercise in ‘plate spinning’.

There is also the danger that trying to imitate individual components of a good player’s swing may prove more destructive than constructive. There are many connected pieces working harmoniously together to produce a swing of a top quality player. To isolate just one thing and change that in your own swing may not produce the results you desired because this ‘new piece’ may not fit in with the other pieces of YOUR swing. They may not even fit in with the anatomy of YOUR body, or may contradict your own personal (even subconscious, or unknown to you) concept of how the club should hit the ball. Which is the point I am about to make. For more info on this idea, read my article on SUBCONSCIOUS CONCEPTS

Example Lesson

This is the first time I am going to give an example lesson. I may start to do some more of these, just to prove a point about how big a change you can make in the golf swing in a very short time. I am experienced enough to know that bigger changes are not always better, but in this case, they were. The gentleman in this example was about at the end of his tether, with a severe lack of distance, poor strikes, accuracy problems and a high weak ball flight. Looking at the data on his flightscope reading showed the below numbers.

So, the Top picture shows the angle of attack as +1 (hitting up on the ball) which we know from my article on LOW POINT, this is not a good idea if you want consistent strikes. With a driver, this is great, but with an iron on the floor this is less than optimal. Players with these numbers will tend to fat and thin shots, and even if they hit it well, the ball will just fly higher and weaker than it should. The picture underneath shows that the clubhead is swinging 13 degrees to the left of the target at impact (orange line) and the clubface is aiming 0.1 degrees right at the moment of impact (yellow). This is a massive 13.1 degrees difference between swing direction and clubface direction. With this amount of face/path variance we are basically cutting across the ball - resulting in less energy transfer into the ball (less distance) and more sidespin (slice) and effectively a smaller margin for error with hitting the sweetspot.


Now we can see that the club path has moved to the right. A massive 15.4 degree change, and much closer to neutral. the face was at 0 degrees (square tot he target) which we know from ball flight laws would produce a shot which starts pretty straight and curves left. But this was just one shot - a lot of his shots were nice little draws onto the target, this was simply the one I screenshotted.

Not only that, but his Angle of Attack improved to -1.8 - almost 2 degrees down (pretty optimal, if that even exists). I didn't capture this, but his dynamic loft changed from 60 degrees with a 7 iron, to 40 degrees. This better dynamic loft produced a lower, more penetrating flight which flew 30 yards further, even with a half swing. Let's have a look at what happened to the swing.

The swing, before and After

Before we look at the swing pics, please understand that, unfortunately, the camera angles are not exactly the same for each swing comparison. I understand that due to camera parallax (distortion) some swing changes look more pronounced. Nonetheless, any trained eye can see some real big differences here.

The set up position was relatively the same. No major changes happened here.

Halfway back, it may look a little different, but really it is a similar backswing. The differences are from the fact the camera is static, but the player has moved his feet to the right slightly.

From front on, we can see a difference start to occur. More wrist set and a bigger looking body turn (some of this attributed to the camera angle). Something he had tried to work on for years was now happening more automatically. 

Ok, now here we start to see a massive difference. This is halfway into the downswing. Whilst I don't like drawing plane lines on the screen, we can see that the position the club is relative to his body and target is massively improved for what he wants to achieve (draw shot). If anything, he has slightly over-done it.

A similar position from the front on view shows his back facing the target a little longer, more pressure under the left foot (as confirmed by our forceplate readings), a better right arm position (something he had tried to work on for years and never achieved) and more 'lag'.

Just pre-impact, we can see that the club is approaching the ball from a completely different direction, hence the massive change in the club path experienced from the flightscope readings. 

Again, from front on, much better right arm position and he has maintained more of that wrist set coming into impact. Just enough for his level to produce better quality angle of attack and dynamic loft numbers. 

The moment of truth - impact. We can see a massive improvement here, and a reason why his dynamic loft numbers came down by 20 degrees. Anyone would agree that this is a much better impact position.

Something that he had worked on removing for years was the chicken wing. unfortunately, all his attempts previously had been to try and improve that directly, but putting towels under the arms and physically trying to change the position. Not only had this put him at greater risk of injury, but it never really worked.

Other improvements noted are improved pressure under the front foot and more right arm extension. But it just looks like a position that any tour player could be proud of.

here is the same position from down the line.

Lastly, a very different clubhead and arm exit. We can see that in the new position, the arms are working more with the body in a better sequence.

Some other improvements

Some things that we cannot see on the stills are improvements in sequence (how his body rotates the segments of the hips, shoulders, arms and club). There was also a small increase in clubhead speed, and the pupil reported an overall better swing feeling, with much more fluidity and rhythm. It also just looked more athletic.

How did we do this?

First off, I don't normally make such big changes. It was only because this player was on the verge of quitting that I had free reign to make a more dramatic transformation. Bigger changes, however good, do not always equate to lower scores or better players. In this case, they did, but there will still be a lag time before the new technique can ultimately be automatic.

Normally, so many changes, and so dramatically, would take months or even years to complete. We did this in about an hour. In fact, the changes themselves took about 3 minutes to make, the first bit of the lesson was just me getting information from the pupil and seeing what they do at the moment.

It may take a pro golfer years to make subtle changes to their swings.
But sometimes, bigger changes are not always better, even when they are 'better'

In my article on SUBCONSCIOUS CONCEPTS, I talk about how the mind holds an idea of impact, and that idea will shape our technique. This player was suffering with a slice. In an attempt to make their slice work, they shifted the whole swing to the left. This tends to make the lowest point of the swing too far forwards (LOW POINT), so the player will respond by keeping more weight on their back foot through impact. This then results in the technical look they show.

Change of Concept

So I knew, if I could change this player's concept of how to hit the ball by improving their attention and awareness of what the club is doing through impact, their technique would fall into place. At worst case scenario, he would learn what causes the ball to do what it does.

So, I placed a stick on the ground where the ball would be, and aimed it slightly to the right of the target. I told him to imagine it was a massive nail, and asked him how he would use the club to deliver it to that nail. We then progressed this idea to imagining a nail through the ball, angled towards the target and slightly towards the ground, and worked it up from chip shows to full shots. Within minutes his flightscope numbers had changed dramatically, and we saw the technique improve for free.

This was what I call an 'External process' swing thought. Ideally, I would have liked to use a more 'External result' focus and progress him through a series of tasks to bring about a more organic technique change. But I knew I needed results quickly with this guy. We did end up doing the 'External results focus' in subsequent lessons in order to improve his PERCEPTION-ACTION COUPLING.

To read more about External process and External results focus, click HERE

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Take Home Notes

  • Never underestimate the power of a simple IDEA - the idea of how the club should interact with the ball at impact. There is a lot of technique in an idea.
  • We can often get our technique for free, as we allow our body to self organise, often taking into account our physical abilities instinctively.
  • Look at the true causes for most of your technical 'errors'. Often the cause is a mis-understaning of how to hit the ball, either consciously or not.
  • Big changes, even when better, will not always produce a better player. Although this article shows a big positive change, and it was positive for the performance of the player, sometimes smaller changes will be less disruptive.

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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