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Learn to become your own swing teacher

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A great golf teacher is one who imparts enough knowledge in his or her students that those students can self-correct based on knowing and feeling their OWN swing. That’s why the most important role of a teacher is to provide opportunities for discovery — those “aha” moments where real learning begins.

When students leave a lesson tee, they want to be sure they “get it.” To clarify, “it” is the true cause and effect in their swing. If they know the “it” and how to fix it, they’ve moved into self discovery, which is the key to long-term progress. I call this type of learning if this, then that and it is the most effective way of internalizing “the secret,” whatever that might be to you.

Ever wonder why you improve during a lesson but can’t take it to the golf course? It’s because you didn’t really get it. You didn’t discover enough on your own to go play.

The “how-to” lesson needs to go the way of the dinosaur if golfers are going to have real, sustained progress. Relying on your instructor during a session is fine, but at some point you need to get enough information so that you can self correct. There is a vast chasm between being told what to do and learning it on your own. I’m not saying that you don’t need guidance, but make sure to search for the essence of your feeling during the lesson, not just the teacher’s description of that feeling.

Here’s an example:

TEACHER: “On this next swing, turn more in the backswing.”

STUDENT: Why?

TEACHER: “Because it gives you a better chance of hitting more from the inside. When you see the ball slice, FOR YOU that means you did not turn properly in the backswing. Let’s do some drills to help you FEEL that.”

Investment in a lesson is more than simply financial if you, the student, want to get better. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen a false sense of improvement, which are better results based entirely on my feedback. Very often I say nothing after a few flubbed shots for a student, just to see what they have learned. Golfers on their own are in the best classroom in the world, the classroom of TRIAL and ERROR. A keep-making-mistakes-until-you-don’t approach to learning is going to create the best long-term progress you will ever have.

“What did I do on that swing, pro” should be a provisional state of confusion: a question to be answered when and only when the learner is completely at a loss. Invest yourself in the learning process deeply enough that you get your “aha” moment. Learn to embrace failure; it’s the best way to succeed. Golf is not a connect-the-dots, how-to game that you will learn by book or tape. You could learn history that way, but not golf. At least not for very long. Self discovery has a lasting effect. Being told what to do has a very fleeting effect (about an hour in most cases).

We teachers are trying to change habits — deeply ingrained muscle motions — that have been a part of your swing for a very long time. Those habits are not going to suddenly disappear by being TOLD WHAT TO DO. That’s why the instructor may say the same thing several different ways. For example, “turn your shoulders,” “get your back to the target,” “get your left shoulder under your chin” and “rotate your upper body” are all ways of saying the same thing. Which one works for you? Which one provides you with that “aha” moment where you can FEEL the new motion?

Perhaps you can relate it to something you’ve done before. Throwing a baseball or a football involves turning the upper body away in the wind up. Try every suggestion until one clicks. It will if you’re looking in the right place.

I have a building at my golf academy and often I sneak inside and watch students practice after a lesson just to see what they have actually learned. My concern is what happens when I leave. When the fear of looking foolish in front of the pro subsides, the real work of trial and error begins. You have maximized your investment if you have enough information to work you through to point of improvement on your own.

My lesson plan is simple and the diagnosis take all of a few minutes. The rest of the lesson is working with a student to provide them opportunities for self help. This takes years of experience. The subject matter — the “science” if you will — is finite, but communicating ways of self discovery are infinite.

For those of you not familiar with the work of Mike Hebron, I suggest you research him. I have learned a lot from him, but I never teach theories. His research into learning is beyond abstract because I have daily empirical evidence that it works. My lesson tee is its own trial-and-error classroom, where I implement only that which I know is effective.

Look for your own “aha” moments. They are there waiting for you.

As always, feel free to send a swing video to my Facebook page and I will do my best to give you my feedback.

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Dennis Clark is a PGA Master Professional. Clark has taught the game of golf for more than 30 years to golfers all across the country, and is recognized as one of the leading teachers in the country by all the major golf publications. He is also is a seven-time PGA award winner who has earned the following distinctions: -- Teacher of the Year, Philadelphia Section PGA -- Teacher of the Year, Golfers Journal -- Top Teacher in Pennsylvania, Golf Magazine -- Top Teacher in Mid Atlantic Region, Golf Digest -- Earned PGA Advanced Specialty certification in Teaching/Coaching Golf -- Achieved Master Professional Status (held by less than 2 percent of PGA members) -- PGA Merchandiser of the Year, Tri State Section PGA -- Golf Professional of the Year, Tri State Section PGA -- Presidents Plaque Award for Promotion and Growth of the Game of Golf -- Junior Golf Leader, Tri State section PGA -- Served on Tri State PGA Board of Directors. Clark is also former Director of Golf and Instruction at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort. He now directs his own school, The Dennis Clark Golf Academy at the JW Marriott Marco Island in Naples, Fla.. He can be reached at [email protected]

32 Comments

32 Comments

  1. Josh

    Dec 21, 2014 at 6:24 pm

  2. abman

    Oct 11, 2014 at 4:56 am

    Great article. I think thanks to Youtube, in general, the self-teaching movement is growing. I’ve been self-teaching with a highspeed video for the last five years and love going to the “lab” (practice range) to try out an idea and then see what the film says. I’m blown away by how many different feelings you can have that all produce a golf swing.

    What I want to know is when I get an “aha moment” or good feeling I go through a period from a hour to a few days where the feeling is new and I’m grooving it and all is well. Then the “newness” goes away and shots don’t go as good because I can no longer feel the move but I know through video it’s still there. So my body instinctively looks for that “newness” again and on to another feeling. Like I’m addicted to the learning or myelination part. Is this normal? Does this happen to pros over the long term? Is there a point where you should stop learning and searching for new aha moments or should I just consign myself to always be learning? I’ve heard pros have different swing keys week to week depending on what their swing is doing due to fatigue or injury. What are your thoughts?

    • Dennis Clark

      Oct 11, 2014 at 4:56 pm

      Well remember i suggested “guided practice”. I don’t mean teaching yourself without the aid of a trained eye. If you’re having trouble keeping the feeling you want to get someone to work with that can watch your motion as you develop it. There is no substitute for a trained, OBJECTIVE eye. not “how-to’ …just can you feel this type of approach.

      • ANOTHER JEFF

        Oct 12, 2014 at 8:29 pm

        Dennis,

        Can you give us your thoughts on MEGSA type of equipment? It seems to me that this type equipment could be as revolutionary to golf swing development as Video has proven to be. At this point I think it is prohibitively expensive for home use – maybe even range use.

        For those who do not know MEGSA basically allows a Teaching Pro to “dial you in” into what – to me – resembles a Proper Golf Swing Jig. It allows for both positive and negative feedback when learning the swing. It seems like it could “fast track” “digging it out of the dirt” to me.

        • Dennis Clark

          Oct 14, 2014 at 7:34 pm

          sure i like Most efficient swing…anything that helps golfers get a feel, that offers feedback based on feeling is good. It’s elaborate and expensive so not something the average golfer can use regularly but I expect some training centers will have them soon. The problem might be just that; you “feel” it there, then have to go home. His bender Stick is handy too.

    • Dennis Clark

      Oct 14, 2014 at 7:39 pm

      video in and of itself cannot offer feedback. In motor skill learning there is only one way to change a motion and that is feedback-from the golf ball, the flight of it or other stimuli the body can FEEL, not see. I’d say your experience is common, the feeling does go away, thats why we have coaches to guide you back to the feeling. Not to tell you how, simply to let you experience it yourself. And then on to another it’s just the nature of the beast. 🙂

  3. Jafar

    Oct 6, 2014 at 2:10 pm

    I’d say instructors should be clubfitters also and the student should only bring 1 club to the practice session, like a 6 or 7 iron, and get their swing path and lie angles matched up along with shaft length for better posture.

    From there you can begin other lessons on fading/drawing or high vs low trajectory shots.

  4. RobG

    Oct 6, 2014 at 9:50 am

    My best teacher has always been my shadow. If I find myself struggling I make a few swings in a position where I can see my shadow on the ground while I’m swinging. I have found it really helps me control the length of my backswing, it helps me keep the transition to the downswing nice and smooth, and keeps me in tempo and in sync.

    • Dennis Clark

      Oct 6, 2014 at 1:25 pm

      Lamont Cranston, if you’re 0ld enough to remember, “The Shadow Knows” 🙂

  5. Dennis Clark

    Oct 5, 2014 at 10:12 pm

    I’m mostly self taught, found my game in the dirt as Mr Hogan said. When I first started teaching I was at a loss to understand why my students couldn’t get “it”. I learned that I was not properly guiding them; I was merely showing them “how”. That was my LIGHT BULD TEACHING MOMENT.

  6. Max

    Oct 5, 2014 at 12:14 pm

    Geezz…that’s kinda like doing your own diagnosis when your sick and NOT going to your family doctor. Max

    • Dennis Clark

      Oct 5, 2014 at 4:08 pm

      Whoa Max…doctors deal with life/death. I teach a golf swing. A little different, no? But if you’d like that analogy, then think of it like this: If your golf swing is sick, go to a teacher. But when you do, be looking for the light bulb moment that might help you take over on your own. You may need one lesson for that, you may need several, but soon your guided trial and error process will begin to show better, long term results.
      good luck.

      • paul

        Oct 5, 2014 at 4:28 pm

        You mean the quality of my golf swing isn’t life or death!!!!???? Since when?? ????

        • Dennis Clark

          Oct 5, 2014 at 7:27 pm

          LOL. Old saying: “Golf is not life or death; it is much more important than that”!

          • Bear

            Oct 5, 2014 at 9:01 pm

            I’m a paediatrician. I love patients using the internet, the available information, involvement and engagement that it brings are fantastic. But the value is as an information source. Diagnosis of health problems is very difficult using algorithms, whether they are internet or computer based – there is a critical element of experience, human empathy and interaction, and just ‘feel’. The analogy to the golf swing is a good one. I have loved reading especially Dennis’ views, my improvement has come from some lessons from a good (golf) professional, coupled with a much deeper understanding from especially the ‘net’. In this context, loved this article in particular Dennis.

  7. Dan

    Oct 5, 2014 at 10:30 am

    Great article. I have never taken a lesson, but read all the books and watched a lot of instructional video and for me personally nobody made it click better than Brian Manzella. Anybody who is starting out on their swing and doesnt have time or money for instruction look his stuff up. I dont know what his reputation in the industry is, and frankly I couldnt care less. I went from the 90s to the 70s very quickly after studying his stuff. For the short game I liked Stan Utley. I’m still searching for the material on putting that will take me to the next level. Perhaps I will break down and see a pro for that.

    • Dennis Clark

      Oct 5, 2014 at 11:45 am

      Great. Keep up the good work. There are a lot of great teachers you just found the one that worked for you. Well done

  8. Jeff

    Oct 4, 2014 at 11:40 pm

    As a high school golf coach I preech self awareness, especially with the short game. There are many ways to get a ball up and down but the key is understanding how your club works with ball. So i have them experiment to come to their own conclusions. Amazingly, (joking) it has made some of them put the 60* away when greenside and opt for PW. I love your articles and just forwarded this one to some of my players.

    • Dennis Clark

      Oct 5, 2014 at 10:11 am

      Yes, the short game is a great place to start experimentation. They need feel, creativity ONCE they have learned a few basics. Good work

  9. Philip

    Oct 4, 2014 at 10:41 pm

    I just have to get a large mirror for the winter. It’ll help me a lot in getting the right feels.

  10. Tom Stickney

    Oct 4, 2014 at 7:28 pm

    Self-diagnosis is the key. Hebron’s stuff is great.

  11. David

    Oct 4, 2014 at 6:33 pm

    Nice article Dennis. Some words of wisdom there. I´ve had some lessons during the 10yrs or so I´ve been in the game, both online and in person, amazingly I´m yet to find a teacher that cares, and I mean really cares for my progress, out of all the teachers I remember 1 that cared and asked about my game, how I was doing ect, unfortunately he´s not around anymore. So I read all those fancy articles about this and that, good and bad. But what really matters to me is to have a teacher that I trust and cares about My progress, asks my how I´m doing and offers help if I´m in need. I think partly golf is in decline because of this, bend your knees 50$ pls stuff.
    I like your articles though, well thought out most of the time.

    My opinion “A great teacher is the one that cares”

    Unfortunately few and far between.

    Dave

    • Dennis Clark

      Oct 4, 2014 at 7:41 pm

      Dave I appreciate the comments. Send me an email id like to respond at some length.

  12. Michael Johnson

    Oct 4, 2014 at 3:16 pm

    Great Article. Love the mirror in the photo with the article. Where can I get one for myself?

    • jd

      Oct 5, 2014 at 11:26 am

      there’s a place called Bob’s mirrors and stuff in Peoria, North Dakota. No direct flights so you may have a layover.

  13. sgniwder99

    Oct 4, 2014 at 1:30 pm

    This article definitely rings true from my experience. I usually find that I actually start hitting the ball better about 2 practice sessions after a lesson with my instructor, and that has a lot to do with being left to my own to experiment a bit to see what my feel keys are to produce the moves that he tries to get me to produce. This is one reason that I think practicing on video is so helpful: so I can actually have a process of trial and error, rather than just pure guesswork.

    • Dennis Clark

      Oct 4, 2014 at 2:05 pm

      Right. You get my point. Too much Reliance on how-to from the teacher does not make for long term retention. Self discovery after guidance does. Thx

  14. Bobby Tewksbary

    Oct 4, 2014 at 1:16 pm

    Dennis – great article! I was a baseball player and now coach hitters at all levels (from 8 yr olds all the way up to MLB players.) I started playing golf last spring and got to re-enter a learning process and it has been terrific for my coaching! I have an even greater appreciation for the failure and self discovery that I’ve been going through myself. Great stuff!

    • Dennis Clark

      Oct 4, 2014 at 2:06 pm

      Bobby you’ll need direction and guidance for sure but the time between those lessons is critical. Glad you enjoyed it.

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Instruction

What you can learn from Steve Elkington

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When you think of great golf swings from the past and present time, Steve Elkington’s golf swing instantly comes to mind. His playing career has included a PGA championship, two Players Championships and more than 50 weeks inside the top-10 world golf rankings. This article will examine not only key moves you can take from Elk’s swing but learning to take your swing to the golf course.

As opposed to looking at a swing frame by frame at key positions, viewing a swing at normal speed can be just as beneficial. This can give students a look at the sequence of the swing as one dynamic motion. Research also suggests learning a motion as one movement as opposed to part-training (stopping the swing at certain points) will enhancing learning.

When viewed at full speed, the simplicity of Elk’s swing is made clear. There is minimal motion as he gets more out of less. This swing pattern can correlate to a conversation he once had with five-time British Open winner Peter Thomson.

When asking Thomson keys to his golf swing and it’s longevity, Thomson explained to Elk, “You have to have great hands and arms.” Thomson further elaborated on the arms and body relationship. “The older you get, you can’t move your body as well, but you can learn to swing your arms well.”

So what’s the best way to get the feel of this motion? Try practicing hitting drivers off your knees. This drill forces your upper body to coil in the proper direction and maintain your spine angle. If you have excess movement, tilt, or sway while doing this drill you will likely miss the ball. For more detail on this drill, read my Driver off the knees article.

Another key move you can take from Elk is in the set-up position. Note the structure of the trail arm. The arm is bent and tucked below his lead arm as well as his trail shoulder below the lead shoulder – he has angle in his trail wrist, a fixed impact position.

This position makes impact easier to find. From this position, Elk can use his right arm as a pushing motion though the ball.

A golf swing can look pretty, but it is of no use if you can’t perform when it matters, on the golf course. When Elk is playing his best, he never loses feel or awareness to the shaft or the clubface throughout the swing. This is critical to performing on the golf course. Using this awareness and a simple thought on the golf course will promote hitting shots on the course, rather than playing swing.

To enhance shaft and face awareness, next time you are on the range place an alignment stick 10 yards ahead of you down the target line. Practice shaping shots around the stick with different flights. Focus on the feel created by your hands through impact.

Twitter: @kkelley_golf

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Dennis Clark: Hitting from the turf

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I have seen as much as 4-5 MPH increase in clubhead speed when my students hit form a tee compared to hitting off the turf. Why?  Fear of FAT shots.

First question: Are you better hitting off a tee than on the turf?

Next question: When you play in a scramble and you have the option of dropping in the fairway or slightly in the first cut, do you choose the rough-especially when hitting over water or sand?

The answer to all these the same: Because the vast majority of golfers do not have a bottom of the swing arc safely in front of the golf ball consistently.

Consider a PGA Tour event, Korn Ferry, Champions Tour, LPGA Tour, whatever…You might see missed fairways, missed greens, hooks, blocks, etc. but we rarely, if ever, see a FAT shot. They simply do not hit the ground before the golf ball. Of course, there are exceptions, into the grain on short pitches, for example, but they are just that-rare exceptions. On the other hand, go to any golf course and watch average golfers for a while. Fat shots are not uncommon. In fact, they, or the fear of them, dominate most golf games.

The number one mistake I have seen on the lesson tee for over 35 years is unquestionably a player’s inability to control the bottom of the golf swing. I have seen everything from hitting 4 inches behind the ball to never reaching the bottom at all It has been my experience that that hitting fat shots is the number one flaw in most golf swings.

Let’s start with this fact: elite level players consistently reach a swing bottom (low point) some 3-4 inches in front of the golf ball-time after time after time. This happens for a variety of reasons, but the one I’d like to look at today is the position of the golf club at impact with the golf ball.

The club is leaning forward, toward the target, the hands are ahead of the club head, never straight up over it, never behind it-always, always leaning forward is the only way to consistently bottom out in front of the golf ball.   

A player cannot hit a ball consistently from the turf until he/she learns this and how to accomplish it. For every golfer I teach who gets into this position, I might teach 50 who do not. In fact, if players did not learn how to “save” a shot by bailing out on the downswing (chicken wing, pull up, raise the handle, or come over the top, (yes over the top is a fat shot avoidance technique) they would hit the ground behind the golf ball almost every time!  Hitting better shots from the fairways, particularly from tight lies, can be learned, but I’m going to be honest: The change required will NOT be easy. And to make matters worse, you can never play significantly better until you overcome the fear of hitting it fat.. Until you learn a pattern where the bottom of the swing is consistently in front of the ball, the turf game will always be an iffy proposition for you.

This starts with a perception. When first confronted with hitting a golf ball, it seems only natural that an “up” swing is the way to get the ball in the air-help it, if you will. The act of a descending blow is not, in any way, natural to the new player. In fact, it is totally counterintuitive. So the first instincts are to throw the club head at the ball and swing up to get the ball in the air; in other words, it makes perfect sense. And once that “method” is ingrained, it is very difficult to change. But change if you must, if your goal is to be a better ball striker.

The position to strive for is one where the left wrist (for a right-hander) is flat, the right is slightly dorsiflexed, and the handle of the golf club is ahead of the grip end. Do your level best to pay attention to the look and feel of what you’re doing as opposed to the flight of the golf ball. FEEL that trail wrist bent slightly back, the lead wrist flat and the hands ahead. It will seem strange at first, but it’s the very small first step in learning to hit down on your tight lies. If some degree of that is not ultimately accomplished, you will likely always be executing “fit in” moves to make up for it. It is worth the time and effort to create this habit.

My suggestion is to get on a Trackman if possible to see where you’re low point actually is, or perhaps you may just want to start paying close attention to your divots-particularly the deepest part of them. I’m sure you will get into a pattern of bottoming out consistently in front of the ball when you begin to learn to get the hands ahead and the club head behind. And best of all, when this becomes your swing, you will lose the fear of hitting the turf first and be free to go down after the ball as aggressively as you like.

Ok, so how is this accomplished? While many players are looking for a magic bullet or a training aid which might help one miraculously get into a good impact position, I dare say there is not one. It is a trial and error proposition, a learn-from-the-mistakes kind of thing achieved only through repetition with a thorough understanding of what needs to be done. The hardest thing to do is IGNORE the outcome when learning a new motor skill, but you must do it. A couple of things you might try:

  • Start with 30-50 yard pitch shots, paying close attention to the hands leading at impact. Again ignore the outcome, look only at the divot.
  • Hit a TON of fairway bunker shots. Draw a line in the sand 3-4″ in front of the ball and try to hit it.
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What you can learn from the rearview camera angle

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We often analyze the golf swing from the face-on view or down-the-line camera angle. However, we can also learn how the body moves in the swing from the rearview or backside view.

When seeing the swing from the rearview, we can easily see how the glutes work. The trail glute actually moves back and around in the backswing. This means the glute moves towards the target or towards the lead heel. Note the trail glute start point and endpoint at the top of the backswing.

To some, this may seem like it would cause a reverse weight shift. However, this glute movement can enable the upper body to get loaded behind the ball. This is where understanding the difference between pressure, and weight is critical (see: “Pressure and Weight”).

This also enhances the shape of the body in the backswing. From the rear angle, I prefer to have players with a tuck to their body in their trail side, a sign of no left-side bend.

This puts the body and trail arm into a “throwing position”, a dynamic backswing position. Note how the trailing arm has folded with the elbow pointing down. This is a sign the trailing arm moved in an efficient sequence to the top of the backswing.

Next time you throw your swing on video, take a look at the rearview camera angle. From this new angle, you may find a swing fault or matchup needed in your golf swing to produce your desired ball flight.

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