Dr Ed Coughlan: The science of golf takes us back to its roots — simplify not stupefy

Growing up in a golf-mad house, where at one point, all five kids had joined the local golf club along with our parents, it was always about swinging easy and not over-thinking it. 

Prompts of ‘keep your eye on the ball’ and ‘swing through to the target’ were probably dismissed as pointless statements of the obvious. But little did I know that such simple advice back then would form the bedrock of the work I do today.

Sport science has untangled some of the most challenging questions that face golfers of all levels. Such as, where should I focus my attention as I approach a golf shot? Where should I look when I putt, and for how long? And where is the best place to practise my golf?

The field of sport science and in particular, skill acquisition, has an important relationship with golf that has developed at pace over the last 20 years. The work of some of the world’s leading sport scientists informs the day-to- day practices of coaches and practitioners who work in golf now. Of course, there are the wacky inventions that crop up now and again. For example the golf swing shirt, pertaining to be the cure-all for any swing ailments one might have by simply contorting oneself into a garment more closely related to a straight-jacket, suggesting that everyone’s stance and posture over a ball is the same!

It’s worth acknowledging that nobody loves a gadget more than a golfer, and the pros are just as susceptible to a punchy sales pitch as the hacker in your local club. But sooner or later the realisation that the gadget does not work beyond a brief change-effect, resulting in it joining the previous ‘latest’ on the scrap heap. The number one reason why gadgets don’t work is because they often direct your focus of attention inward, which is the opposite from where it should be.

Most, if not all, gadgets in golf encourage the user to increase their awareness of their body, their alignment, their set-up, their takeaway, their elbow angle, their head position, their hips... the list is endless. When in fact, the scientific evidence strongly suggests that the focus of your attention should be on the target, not your body. This external focus of attention has a profound impact on how the body self-aligns with the target. It is also one of the more straightforward training tools to learn and not a gadget in sight.

At the very elite level of golf, like in other sports, the players are able to exist in a split consciousness of being able to focus on the target and be consumed by it, yet immediately be able to assess what was good, bad, or indifferent of the shot afterwards. This learned skill of dual-task awareness is often the difference between a golfer breaking through to a new ceiling of progression or staying on a frustrated plateau of underachievement. This self-analysis is often misunderstood as an innate ability. But it is in fact, the result of a cycle of controlled self-regulation that elite athletes learn to engage in continually to identify where and how they can exploit the marginal gains on offer in every swing on every hole in every round.

The Ryder Cup this week in Hazeltine, Minnesota, is an opportunity like no other to watch how some of the world’s top professionals focus on the task at hand. Amid the bedlam of a partisan crowd, the players have to narrow their focus in order to stay in control of their game. They do this, not by becoming inward with their thoughts, but outward with their focus. One place in particular where the destination of the Ryder Cup will be decided is on the greens. Yet, even here, in a skill so reliant on touch and feel, elite golfers once again stand apart from mere mortals on some basic elements that anyone can learn. For instance, they look at the back of the golf ball for at least half a second longer than sub-elite golfers before commencing their backswing and remain looking at the same spot long after the ball has been sent on its way.

This phenomenon is known as ‘the quiet eye’ and this trainable skill has been repeatedly shown to significantly improve putting performance. When sport scientists measured where golfers were looking as they address a putt, they found a consistent position that strongly correlated with the best putters, which was at the back of the ball. In addition, the time spent looking at this part of the ball before initiating the putting stroke was consistently longer by at least half a second and in some cases over a second.

Several golfers, Jordan Spieth being the most prominent, choose to look at the other target involved in a putt — the hole. As the world of golf watched in amazement at his strange routine over short to mid-range putts, and questioned why he does it, the world of skill acquisition questioned why more golfers do not do it. The evidence supports his unusual approach, again outward rather than inward.

Staying with Spieth; where and how he practises is also worthy of mention. He is one of a fast-growing number of players to reduce their time on the practice ground so as to increase their time on the course. Preferring to engage in greater quality of practice than measuring his effort by the quantity of shots hit on a sedate, lifeless practice ground. The measure of good practice is how it transfers to competition time. So the greater assimilation between practice environment and the competitive environment, the greater the transfer can be expected on the weekend.

And what a weekend to look forward to. Low scores normally result in money in the bank, but the Ryder Cup is about points on the board.


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