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Opinion & Analysis

Have you taught a golf “Einstein?”

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MY BACKGROUND:

I have been active as a professional educator for approximately 14 years. In that time, I have engaged in teaching at a lot of different levels. I started out as a public school music educator in Maine, where I taught grades K-12 (including instrumental, general/classroom, and sometimes choral methods). I have also been a college instructor – lecturing at the University of Maine at Presque Isle and the University of Maine at Fort Kent I was also an instructional assistant at Florida State University and the University of Wisconsin at Madison. A large component of my university teaching experience involves pre-teacher education (mentoring and instructing undergraduate education majors how to be teachers).

I am an admitted degree “ho,” having earned four degrees in music and professional education (including a school administrative certification), and am now earning a fifth degree; a PhD in Curriculum and Instruction; curriculum and instruction being the “what and how” of the educational sphere. A current research interest for me is how issues and considerations in public school education transfer over into golf instruction, which serves as the premise for this writing. This interest comes from a very new experience for me – becoming the golf coach for Hampden Academy in Maine while I finish my doctorate.

Please note: this article is geared mostly for those involved in golf pedagogy and instruction, including golf coaches, PGA professionals, golf educators, students and even parents. That said, I feel there is content here that may be relevant for a wide range of individual interest. Feel free to comment and I will respond to any and all questions to the best of my ability.

Click here for more discussion in the “Instruction & Academy” forum. 

MY QUESTION:

Let me begin by asking all the golf educators a simple question, “Have you ever taught an Einstein?” Maybe not a literal golfing Einstein like a Tiger Woods or Jack Nicklaus, but maybe a player you would put up against the best in their category, or even one who exceeds everyone else in that category. Some of you might say yes, others no. For those who answered in the affirmative, how did you qualify such a determination? Were you thinking about a particular student and the qualities he/she displayed? Did these qualities include any of the following (?):

  • That student was the best player you ever had.
  • Exhibited personal maturity above and beyond his/her peers.
  • Appeared to learn quickly/was easy or fun to instruct.
  • You liked him/her and maybe that student’s parents.
  • That student showed great enthusiasm for your instruction.
  • He/she beat everyone who played against them.

If any or all of these were your reasons for describing your student as an “Einstein,” then…you might actually be wrong. Sorry!

SOME CONTEXT:

Let me share an old rumor with you about Mr. Einstein when he was in grade school. As the rumor goes, young Albert was labeled by his teachers as only average or even a slightly below average student, was somewhat defiant, and unengaged and rather quiet (yet another rumor was that he began speaking relatively late). Hardly genius material here, many might think.

Okay, this was just a rumor, and Einstein later clarified how it came about. Despite being the most gifted mind in the room (my words) Einstein found it difficult to work within the rote instruction process that characterized education of his period. Unfortunately, it also characterizes our period as well, but I digress.

Rote learning is a concept nearly all of you know well, even if you are unfamiliar with the term itself. The short of it as it pertains to education is: everyone showing up on time, sitting in orderly rows, silently listening to the teacher, remaining constantly focused (no talking!), “open your books and do examples 1-40 till the bell, and 40-70 for homework due tomorrow” … wash/rinse/repeat. Essentially, many of the things you might have hated about school are directly related to a rote approach. This highly structured (perhaps mundane) paradigm was an old European staple and made its way to the United States as it was looking for international recognition as a valid power prior to the second World War — kind of like OEM competitors copying the technology of whichever brand is leading the industry at the time.

While I taught public school, I was approached by a number of parents to take on their children as private students instead of enrolling them in band classes; their reasons including that the mainstream music program was not appealing to the child, though musical instruction, in and of itself, was highly desirable. Kind of crazy when you come to think about it, because I was also the music educator at the school! What these parents were actually telling me is that there was something about the structure I used when teaching many children was not right when it came to teaching their child.

There was no elitist mentality coming from these parents either; they weren’t the richest, they weren’t the most highly educated, etc. They simply realized that the traditional (rote) learning structure of the school was not what their child needed, despite his/her interest in music. I submit that the same kind of thing can happen in golf instruction.

Here is an interesting fact: the most accomplished music students I have ever taught never participated in my regular school music program. There was nothing about the approach I was forced to use in school that appealed to them. Of the students I am thinking of, one had her own solo recording career by age 14, and the other was a former Miss Maine, having competed in the Miss USA pageant. A number of other students went on to have successful (though minor) careers in New York and Nashville.

To further elaborate on this idea, nearly all of those private students had issues in school. They ranged from fighting with classmates, disrespecting teachers and other adults, truancy and below average academic performance. When they came to me for after school lessons, however, I rarely saw any of this. They were focused, almost always on time, and were upbeat and conversant; in stark contrast to how their other teachers described them. I am not taking credit for this change, rather I am pointing out that these students were ALWAYS that pleasant – it was the structure forced upon them that promoted the negative behavior and lack of motivation … most of the time. They were “diamonds in the rough,” or “Einstein’s in disguise,” if you will.

*2012 Masters champ Bubba Watson has a unique learning style — he’s never taken a lesson.

Click here for more discussion in the “Instruction & Academy” forum. 

FIRST HALF SUMMARY – YOU HAVE REACHED THE MID-WAY POINT!

Here is the thing: the best minds and talents in golf, music or any other endeavor think and perform differently from their peers as a matter of course. It is logical to conclude that they might learn differently as well. Why then, do most instructors use one general methodology to teach ALL students? If you want a “different” result (discovering those rare talents who might simply be hidden behind a “misfit” image, like in the Einstein example), you can’t keep on with the status quo, expecting that different result to magically manifest.

Whew! That is a lot, right? This is where we bring it back to golf instruction…

AT THE TURN – HOW TO THINK DIFFERENTLY:

Here are some thoughts for the golf coaches and educators to consider based on the experiences I just shared:

Be prepared for the “best and brightest” to not always look the part

I see it all the time. “We” like teaching the students who are the easiest to teach and who are the most fun to be around – subconsciously recognizing them as being most consistent with our own personal standards. This doesn’t make you a bad person; it is just human nature to enjoy the company of, and interactions with, those who we view to be most like ourselves. However, it may make you a better golf educator to realize that the students you feel yourself naturally gravitating toward (while worthy of your time as well), may or may not have the most potential in the game of golf, apart from being no more worthy of your attention than any other student. Don’t be one of the teachers who fall easily into this trap.

We must never look for the “easy button” when it comes to teaching others, especially the young ones. Look for the best qualities every member of the group displays and take time to get to know every student in your charge personally, as appropriate. Sometimes (many times) all that it takes for a student to come out of their shell and step up their performance is for someone important to take an interest in them. Further, if there is one student who is not fitting in with the rest of your students (like on a golf team or junior practice), what might change that is you showing the group that you “accept” him/her by showing equal interest. The group followers the leader, which is you. Set the best possible example.

You won’t always find who you are looking for. Rare talent is … rare!

I want you all to know that I am NOT saying that every “ugly duck” will turn into a swan (or Einstein golfer) with a little love and attention. I am also NOT saying that every underperforming or unmotivated student is a victim of an educational structure or mismatched instructional model. Sometimes children just act like punks, even older ones – I just think these children represent a minority viewpoint. A good teacher learns to take the good with the bad and keep offering opportunities despite a lukewarm reception or occasional middle finger. Regret is an awful thing, and anyone who has been teaching for any period of time can look back on at least one situation and say,

“Man, I wish I had done more for that kid.”

We don’t mean for things to turn out poorly, but sometimes it’s hard to keep working with a kid who never responds to what we are saying, or wants to think they know better than us, or may just appear to “not get it.” Our frustration comes from the subconscious notion that this is a reflection on us, when it may not actually be so.

The best instructors will keep trying, ask for help, research solutions, talk with parents, talk with the student, talk to your deity of choice; whatever it takes to get through to a kid. Poor behavior reflects on the student, but a lack of effort just because things are tougher than we would like reflects on you. Strive to have a teaching career with as few regrets as possible – they get worse with time, trust me. Even if you don’t find that one super student that comes around once a career, you will help a lot of others who might not have otherwise had the same attention.

It may be beneficial to reevaluate the instructional models you teach with

Some students DO actually need the rote learning approach; it isn’t totally irrelevant. In golf, there has to be a degree of repetition as a matter of course, and that isn’t likely to change soon. I just want to clarify that this repetition should focus on the performance of the golf swing, and not as much as it pertains to a golf educator’s analytical teaching presentations.

That said, there are a number of recent studies that show growing numbers of students are better served with mixed approaches as pertains to instruction. The good news is, early research is showing that greater numbers of students are displaying tactile learning preferences – those that learn from a more hands-on approach and by “doing.” This makes a bit of sense, if you consider all of the handheld “gadgets” children are using these days (iPods, phones, tablets, Xbox, etc.). All of these promote tactile expectations from learners, and to a lesser degree, visual ones. It is certainly good news for us, because golf itself is a tactile endeavor requiring implements (clubs), and greater numbers of students appreciating this quality of our sport is a very good thing, as it can be used as a selling point to bring more to the game.

What does this mean specifically for instructors? It means that you should be prepared to vary your methods and move away from lecturing students as a core, teacher-centered approach. Yes, there needs to be a certain amount of information conveyed verbally during lessons, but you should be willing to keep this to as bare a minimum as a given student needs, especially in-group lessons, junior golf practices and golf team practices. This is hard to do, because the measure of a “good” teacher has traditionally been judged by the accuracy and depth of their content knowledge, often expressed verbally. It is hard for those of us who have been trained in traditional methods to move away from a teacher-centered model (“Do what I say”) to a student-centered model (“What do you need?”).

Private lessons don’t mitigate the effects of rote instruction

Again, rote instruction is not inherently bad (for our purposes), but not knowing the appropriate time to use such an approach will cause problems for newer generations who learn in increasingly diverse ways.

Are your lessons simply “smaller” classroom situations? As a golf educator, do you spell out every aspect of a lesson and nothing happens without you prompting it? Do you tell a student to put in “X” number of hours of practice per week or to make specific changes to his/her gear specs?

-Or-

Do you ask a student what you both should work on that day, or ask what they are feeling when their swing reaches a certain point, present a couple different options to correct an error and let them choose or ask them which kind of swing “model” appeals the most to them?

The former example is closer to the rote approach, and the latter is more student-centered. Either approach can be used one-on-one, but will only work well for certain groups of students. If you are sincerely interested in addressing the needs of all of your students (and yes, even discover a hidden Einstein golfer), you must be able to identify which model is going to work for a given student, and have the pedagogical skill to switch modes as needed.

The really hard part comes when you are teaching groups of students and need to change modes constantly. This is called differentiating instruction, and is a concept that many public and private schools are having difficulty implementing, but is a hurdle you have to overcome in your own teaching studio/school if you want to avoid the inconsistent results that currently plague our school systems.

The easy part in all of this is that it can be fairly easy to identify which mode of instruction might work best for a student. In most cases, you simply have to ask. Think about it: you probably have already said to yourself, “Yep that’s how I learn best” after I listed some of the differences in approach. Older students will identify with a certain approach if you describe some of the ideas and differences I described above. I have also found that speaking with parents can identify the preferences of younger students – no one knows their child better, after all.

To close, I want remind you that this writing is intended primarily as a self-reflection piece for golf educators, though I feel the content is also relevant for golf students, and/or parents of students. I write from the perspective of someone who has realized that there is a LOT of hidden talent out there in any field that goes unrecognized because it doesn’t fit into the “bins” that are created by schools and instructors in an effort to teach to the middle (or majority). None of what I am suggesting is easy, especially if you have grooved a particular teaching approach.

I suggest a good starting point might be taking advantage of local resources: asking around at local universities or public schools about conferences including specific educational content. Also, use your local library (and reference librarian!) to gain access to research articles addressing the subjects I mentioned. Those of you who are PGA Professionals might look for opportunities for professional development through your organization that deal with instructional delivery.

If you have any further questions regarding the content of this writing, please leave your comments below – I will be happy to discuss!

Click here for more discussion in the “Instruction & Academy” forum. 

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I am a professional musician, educator and researcher, in addition to being a golf coach for Hampden Academy in Maine. Currently, I am pursuing a Ph.D., in curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. My past academic achievements include a Bachelor's degree (in music performance) from the University of Maine, a Master's degree (in jazz performance) from Florida State University, a second Master's degree (in education) from the University of Maine, and K-12 teacher and school administrator certifications in Maine. My current research interests include overlapping content points between music and golf, as well as studying/comparing/contrasting how people learn in both endeavors. I have worked in education for 12 years, including public school education and university instruction. I have taught in the Maine public school system, and at the University of Maine at Presque Isle, the University of Maine at Fort Kent, Florida State University, and the University of Wisconsin at Madison. My main area of musical endeavor is drumset performance with an emphasis in jazz, where I have performed with Chuck Winfield (of Blood Sweat and Tears), Dr. Billy Taylor (of the Kennedy Center), Yusef Lateef (jazz legend), and numerous local and regional groups in the New England area.

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Opinion & Analysis

Have you got Golfzheimers?

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While it has taken more than a quarter century of teaching golf to arrive at this point, I have come to the conclusion that there is an as-yet-unnamed epidemic condition afflicting a great majority of players. This condition is so prevalent that I think it is high time it was given a name. So let me be the first to navigate those uncharted waters and give it one in hopes that, once formally recognized, it will begin to be more seriously studied in search for a cure. I will call this condition “Golfzheimers,” as it is the complete inability most golfers have to remember the vast majority of good shots they have ever hit (even those hit only moments before), while having the uncanny ability to instantly recall every chunk, shank, skull, and chili-dip they’ve hit since sometime back around when balls were still covered with balata.

Now trust me, I’m not making light of a very troubling and serious disease. My grandmother suffered from Alzheimer’s, and it is a heartbreaking condition.  n truth, I could have just as easily named this “A Golfer’s Senior Moment,” since the term is ubiquitous enough, if I really believed someone would actually take offense (and I am truly sorry if you do).  I didn’t, though, because it was after a conversation with my late grandmother one day that I was suddenly struck with how oddly similar her lack of short-term memory, combined with her ability to vividly remember things that happened 40 or 50 years ago, was in some ways to how most golfers tend to think.

As long as I have been playing and teaching, I’ve been searching for different ways to learn to accept bad shots, keep them in perspective, and move on without letting them affect the next shot, hole, or round. When it comes to swinging the golf club, I can generally teach someone how to hit pretty good shots in a fairly short period of time, but teaching them to remember them with the same level of clarity as those of the more wayward variety often seems like trying to teach a blind man to see. Despite a general awareness of this phenomenon by most players and its detrimental effect upon their golf game, little has been suggested until now as to why it exists and what if anything golfers can do about it. And while research in the field of neuroscience suggests that our brains are hard-wired from the caveman days to catalogue and assign more importance to events that are considered dangerous or threatening, what about the game can have become so dangerous (other than to our egos) that we all seem to be fighting such an uphill battle?

Numerous psychological studies have found that the majority of people can remember five bad experiences more readily than five good ones, and assuming this is true, it speaks a great deal about how we have been conditioned to think since an early age.  The concept of scarcity, a term popularized in the self-help world, essentially describes a lens through which many of us have been conditioned to look upon our world, our lives, and apparently our games, with far too much regularity. It is through the use of this concept that many of our parents kept us at the dinner table as children, far beyond our wishes and long after our dinners were cold. We were guilt-ridden, not because we might be unappreciative of the time and money that went into providing us with that dinner, but because there were millions of starving children in China or some other far-off country that would have been tripping over themselves for even the remnants of that liver and onions our mothers had beset upon us.

As a proud parent, I’m embarrassed to say I’ve used the scarcity tactic a time or two myself during moments of desperation. Being naturally an optimist, though, I try to avoid succumbing to its siren song because I prefer to teach my daughters a far better lesson. At the same time, my girls are proof positive of these same studies and our ability to recall, as evidenced by another thing we do at that very same dinner table — we play a game called high and low. I’m sure you’ve heard of it; it’s where you ask your kids what their high and low moments were during the day. With my kids, I ask them to tell me the low first, preferring to close their day’s reflection with something positive, but it’s uncanny how often recalling something positive makes them really pause and reflect, while if something negative occurred, their recall of it is nearly instant and typically very descriptive.

The good news for both my daughters and the general golfing public, however, is there is a very effective way to short-circuit this type of thinking, and it comes from the field of hypnosis. From this moment forward, make a point not only to remember every good thing that happens to you, but to stop and savor it. If you are paid a compliment, don’t just brush it off. Stop to relish it for a moment and recognize the responsible person with more than just the perfunctory, “Thanks.” If you accomplish a goal, regardless of how small, reward yourself in at least some small way, all the while reminding yourself how good it feels to follow through on your intentions. And if you actually hit a golf shot well, reflect a moment, make a point to enjoy it and remember the moment vividly, and actually thank your partners when they say, “Nice shot” rather than blowing it off with some sort of, “Even a blind squirrel finds an acorn once in a while” type of comment.

Hitting the golf ball well is actually a near miraculous achievement when you consider the complexity of the swing and the incredible timing and hand-eye coordination it requires. Enjoy it (or anything else for that matter) when it actually comes off right. Do it several times a day for a month or more and there will be subtle changes in your brain chemistry, how you feel, and your outlook on life. You will notice, and so will those closest to you.  Make it a long-term habit and you might even be able to avoid ever having your playing partners ask this unfortunate question: “Have you got Golfzheimers?”

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Opinion & Analysis

The History of Course Design is Yours to Play at Oglebay

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There is a much-talked about “New Golden Age” of golf course design underway that is driven by demand for ever-more spectacular courses at the top end of the resort golf market. Destinations such as Streamsong, Bandon Dunes, Cabot Links, Sand Valley and others provide the traveling golfer a spectacular golf experience; unfortunately, it comes at a price tag that is equally spectacular. When a week playing golf in Florida can cost as much as a week in Scotland, where do you go for a golf getaway that doesn’t require a second mortgage?

Oglebay Golf Resort in Wheeling, West Virginia, doesn’t just provide an affordable golf vacation option; with its three golf courses, it provides players the chance to experience a condensed history of American golf course design through its three courses. The resort sits on land that was once owned by a wealthy industrialist and is now a part of the city park system. Located about an hour from Pittsburgh, Oglebay draws the majority of its golfers from Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia. It’s kind of cool that when you drive to Oglebay from the Washington, D.C., you hit all of those states except Ohio, which is just a few minutes away from Wheeling. The area is especially picturesque in the autumn months when the changing colors of the leaves are at their peak.

The property has a rich history in the business and sporting history of West Virginia, but the three golf courses, Crispin, are a special prize that taken together form a primer on the history of golf design in the past 90 years. The 5,670-yard Crispin course is a one-off design by local golf enthusiast Robert Biery that was completed in 1930 and is a fascinating study of design techniques of that era. The slopes and elevation are severe and extreme by today’s standards. A clue was the raised eyebrow of the assistant pro when I said that I would walk the course. Uneven lies are the order of the day, the product of a time when there was neither the money nor equipment readily available to create gentle slopes and even surfaces; the course is true to the original contours of the West Virginia hillside.  There is little relief on the greens, which run a little slower than typical greens but make up for it in size and slope. It is by far the shortest of the three courses but the par-4 8th hole and par-5 9th holes are a thousand yards of joy and pain.

Hole No. 6 at the Klieves course

The Klieves Course is a 6,800-yard, par-71 Arnold Palmer design that was completed in 2000. The design features broad fairways, mildly undulating greens and opportunities for heroics on short par-4’s, all the prototypical characteristics of modern resort golf courses. While some architects choose to torture and torment, Palmer courses put a premium on fun and this one is no exception. The par-5, 515 yard 6th is a great example of the risk/reward available without that challenges the resort golfer without the need to humiliate. The course is very well maintained tee to green, and you’ll want to keep a fully charged battery to take photos of the vistas from the elevated tee boxes.

Hole No. 13 at the Jones course

In my humble opinion, the true gem is the Robert Trent Jones course. The 7,004-yard, par-72 Course carries a healthy 75.1 rating/141 slope from the back tees. It utilizes a gorgeous piece of land that meanders across the West Virginia hills to give a mesmerizing collection of holes that are equal parts scenery and challenge. Both nines start from elevated tee boxes hitting down into valleys that offer classic risk/reward propositions. Usually I have no problem identifying a favorite hole or two, but on this course it’s difficult. Having said that, the stretch of No. 4 (par 3, 193 yards), No. 5 (par-5, 511 yards) and No. 6 (par-4, 420 yards) are among the best I have played anywhere as a show of nature’s beauty and the at of laying out a golf hole. And the four par 3’s are not the place to pic up an easy birdie. The only one less that 190 yards from the tips is the 158-yard 15th, which is protected by a small, undulating green. All in all, it’s a perfect representation of the genius of Robert Trent Jones.

The golf is good at Oglebay and the prices are better. You can get in 18 at the Oglebay courses for as little as $32…on the weekend. And when you’re not playing golf, you can take advantage of the myriad of outdoor sports activities, tour the Oglebay mansion, hit the spa or visit the Glass Museum on the property (I promise it’s a lot more interesting than it sounds). There’s a lot of great new golf resorts out there and that’s a good thing for the golf industry, but destinations like Oglebay prove that there’s a lot of life left in the old classics as well.

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Podcasts

Two Guys Talkin’ Golf: “Are pro golfers actually underpaid?”

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Equipment expert Brian Knudson and GolfWRX editor Andrew Tursky argue whether PGA Tour players are actually underpaid or not. They also discuss Blades vs. Cavity backs, Jordan Spieth vs. Justin Thomas and John Daly’s ridiculous 142 mph clubhead speed.

Click here to listen on iTunes.

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