The Sacramento Bee recently published an article about Will Robins and his golf program. Here is the link: http://www.sacbee.com/sports/golf/article126282994.html
What follows is my response to the piece. We obviously have some disagreements about the best way to improve and to maintain passion for the game for a lifetime. Let me know what you think.
A Better Path
The Will Robins story is a wonderful reminder of the human spirit, overcoming hardship and persevering. It is inspirational and a testament to our ability to not only survive but flourish following tragedy in our lives. Will is tough-minded and a terrific self-promoter but his ideas for a golf revolution are wrong-headed. His approach to golf instruction focusing on a golfing mindset, fun, the short game, all while “keeping the swing you were born with” is a significantly flawed approach.
Enjoyment of the Game
Fun is an important aspect of the game to keep children of any age engaged with the game of golf and motivated to continue playing. However, fun cannot be the primary objective. Children respond far better to improvement and a sense of competence. Seeking fun for the sake of fun may keep kids coming back to the golf course a handful of times but it won’t sustain their motivation for long as there are too many other ways to have fun.
Instead, sound instruction ought to help develop students' games so that they evoke a sense of competence in the game. The knowledge that they can play the game well will in fact bring more joy and sustain motivation during arduous practice as they strive for excellence. This approach is far more beneficial to child development than simply "having fun" which could easily be achieved by any number of diversions.
Feelings of competence are more likely than “fun” to benefit children as they “accept that the path is paved with failure.” Without competence and the recognition that they can play the game well, developing discipline and perseverance is unlikely.
How can we develop competence in young players? Focusing on the short game as Will suggests again cannot sustain a child's motivation long enough to develop long term golf skills. The short game is important but it is far less critical than the long game in developing true proficiency and excellence that persists. The ability to control the golf ball is what leads to lower scores. You cannot chip and putt yourself to consistently great scores. To move from a mid-handicap player to a scratch golfer it is imperative that one improve the long game. Similarly, to keep children interested in the game they too must strive to develop the long game to lower their scores significantly. Watch a child new to the game hit the golf ball, their first concern is to simply make contact with the golf ball, then to get it airborne, then to see how far they can hit it. That’s far more exciting than making a 10 inch putt.
The short game is essential but in and of itself it is not the path to exceptional performance. The differences between an 18 handicapper and a pro are much greater in the long game than in the short game. Think about this: what format would lead to lower scores, playing a pro's ball tee to green and letting the 18 handicapper play out or alternatively, playing the 18 handicapper's ball tee to green and allowing the pro to play out? It is clear that the former format would generally lead to far lower scoring.
Statistically, the elevated import of the long game is supported as well. Mark Broadie, one of the statisticians credited with developing the new measure of “strokes gained” on the PGA Tour, points out that of the top 20 players in strokes gained, seven of them lose strokes on the putting green but not a single one of these players loses even a fraction of a stroke in the long game. Why is this the case? It’s because the best way to separate players is in the long game not the short game. Would you bet a PGA Tour player on an 8 foot putt? Not a bad idea. Everyone has a pretty good chance of making an 8-foot putt and it's quite possible for the PGA Tour player to miss (about half the time actually). But now put yourself up against the pro from 220 yards out. I’d bet on the pro every time! The biggest differences between excellent players and average players lie in the long game. To obscure that fact is to deny players their best opportunity to achieve excellence in the long-run.
My rule of thumb is that if you want to improve in the short-run, for example if you have a tournament tomorrow and want to score your best, focus today's practice on the short game. If however, you want to improve dramatically in the long-run, you must improve your long game.
Improving the Long Game
Now, how does a golfer develop the long game? It is only through the golf swing that you can hit the ball differently and better than you are now. While I agree that a sea change in how the golf swing is taught is much needed throughout the world, you don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. The golf ball will not move until you do. If you want to control how the ball moves, you must control your club, and if you want to control your club, control your swing. The golf swing is still the only way to change how you hit the golf ball. Simply put, scoring and the golf swing are absolutely inseparable.
What is missed in conventional golf instruction, in my opinion, is that conventional instruction is not sufficiently skill based and frequently the purpose and context of the swing are wholly overlooked. I believe in a scaffolding-type of skill development where players begin with foundational skills and progressively build on those skills adding greater stability to their motion while increasing their ability to adapt to different contexts.
Instructors also typically overlook the purpose of what the golf swing needs to accomplish. Players need to control the ball which means they need to control the clubhead and apply it to the ball. Trying to get the elbow in a different position, for example, is generally unhelpful to the struggling golfer. Players need to understand that getting the elbow in a position has a purpose and an effect on the clubhead and their control of the golf ball. That is to say that getting the elbow in a particular position is not an end in and of itself but rather a means to an end. Additionally, the context of the shot cannot be separated from the swing. Instruction typically assumes there is a right way and a wrong way to swing the golf club. In fact, there are many ways to swing a club and attain exceptional results but those ways depend on the context of players' unique attributes and conditions of the shot. Your best swing will be different from mine and both of our fairway swings are different from our swings off the tee. Unique individuals and unique shot conditions mean we need to consider context carefully in determining effective swings. Understating the purpose and failing to consider the context hampers player development but ignoring the golf swing altogether denies players the opportunity to improve and develop their games altogether.
The only reason to allow a player to "use the swing he was born with" is to make it automatic. I believe this is the logic behind Robins' thinking: players use "the swing they were born with" instead of spending time adjusting the swing and preventing the swing from automatizing (swinging without thought). Players should, instead, get on with automatizing and quit tinkering. This enables the player to go play golf with little regard for the swing, or so the thinking goes. But it's very shallow thinking. When you dive into the premise of this thinking you can see many potential problems but there are two crucial mistakes. The first is that no one is born with a golf swing. A golf swing is a very specialized skill developed to accomplish a specific goal that we don't experience unless we seek it out. We don't even have a language we are born with, much less a golf swing. Even outstanding junior players need to practice to develop their swings. Secondly, the idea of automatizing a player's swing prematurely leads to arrested development. Arrested development occurs when the swing becomes automatic yet not optimal. Every 15 handicap player, for instance, at one point in his or her development whether they knew it or not became satisfied with playing to a 15. They accepted the swing and the outcomes of being a 15 handicapper and consequently automated that level of play. In order to continue to improve players need a “burr” in their side, if you will. They need to be challenged to improve and not allowed to become complacent.
So while every player keeps components of the swing that are natural to them, they should also be encouraged to discard those components that hold them back developmentally. Retaining "the swing you’re born" with will take a child to automation early, before he or she develops competence. Making the swing “automatic” is NOT the goal. In fact, Robins' objective should be to prevent players from making their swings automatic prematurely before attaining the desired level of play.
Children develop through natural learning and maturation processes and sound instruction can play a supplemental role. Quality instruction can support the young player progressing into a competent and proficient player but ignoring the fundamentals of the golf swing will inevitably lead to arrested development. By continuing to develop the golf swing via sound golf instruction, we can prevent arrested development and can facilitate a sense of competence which is likely to foster a love of the game.
Scoring Versus Skill
One last thing with regards to the golf swing. "Scoring" to Robins is tactical in nature, or the ability to devise a game plan and to make effective decisions during the round. To be sure, this is important for getting the most out of your game. However, tactical know-how is based on relevant knowledge. Knowledge is not, especially for children, as important as concrete skills. Do you want your pilot to have read a book about how to fly a plane or do you want him to "be able" to fly a plane? It's a question of theoretical know-how versus tangible skill. Skill-based activities depend on the development of skills not the acquisition of knowledge. To improve a child's golf game you want to focus on relevant skills not relevant knowledge.
Will and I both agree that the objective is to get kids to love the game of golf. A successful approach would focus on developing competence and skill while allowing the fun to follow as a consequence of seeking excellence. Focusing on the primacy of fun does not necessarily guarantee competence, but competence almost always leads to experiencing more joy. The short game is important but it is less critical than the long game - in the long run. If your goal is to foster a love of the game that lasts a lifetime, striving to develop the long game is more productive to that end than tinkering with the short game. Assist young players to develop their ability to control the golf ball from tee to green and you will develop their ability to enjoy the game for decades to come. To improve the long game (and short game) you must improve technique. You need to change your technique if you want to change how you control your golf ball and consequently, score better. While there are limitations with conventional teaching, throwing out the importance of the golf swing is foolish. To facilitate long-term development it should be a priority to prevent arrested development which ignoring the swing ensures. Instructional goals should seek to replace the primacy of fun with the primacy of the golf swing. This is the cornerstone of true golf competency and its legacy is a lifelong enjoyment of the game of golf.
While the Robins’ story of overcoming odds is certainly inspirational, a “revolution” in golf instruction needs a foundation that benefits players, develops games, and can deliver on the important objective of loving the game for a lifetime. Robins should rethink his "revolution" and focus on the needs of his students.