It’s counterintuitive, but a coaching approach allows people to discover their own brilliance

Pictured above: Fred Shoemaker, founder of Extraordinary Golf

Fred Shoemaker doesn’t sugar-coat his opinion about faults-and-fixes-and-tips-and-techniques golf instruction.

Fred says that 99 percent of the instruction that most golfers encounter is what he calls “doing instruction. And it’s my experience that it doesn’t work.”

His approach is the polar opposite of what most aspiring golfers encounter online. Fred doesn’t do social media, and he doesn’t portray himself as a guru. He knows his approach is counterintuitive. Well into a podcast with Karl Morris, he once jokingly asked his host if he thought anyone would still be listening.

Through his four decades of coaching experience, Fred believes that golfers make the gains they are seeking much faster and they will find great satisfaction when they are learning from their own experience.

“A golfer doesn’t improve because of anything brilliant I might say,” Fred once said. “It’s from discovering their own brilliance.”

I agree 100 percent. Both as a coach, a player, and a facilitator.

I have been conducting a little experiment recently in my own coaching sessions.

At the beginning of a lesson, I have used the same opening line that Fred uses: “Where do you think we should start?”

The response is almost always the same; Fred hears it and I have heard it too:

“Well, you’re the pro. You tell me.” *

Almost every new client expects that a lesson starts this way: they’ll hit a few shots, I’ll tell them what they are doing wrong, and then I’ll prescribe drills to fix their faults.

I don’t.

My follow-up is usually to ask the golfer what he or she wants to happen. The golfer will most often describe a swing problem.

My job, at this stage, however, is not to swoop in, save the day, and tell them what to do. My job is not to solve their issues with information in an effort to guarantee that they leave the lesson having “fixed” their problem. Fixing doesn’t fix.

Rather, my job is to empower the student. According to Shoemaker’s model, this is done by asking questions, acting as a guide and support, creating a non-judgmental learning environment, and providing coaching that will draw out their innate brilliance. (Essentially, I coach business leaders the same things in my Commit to Freedom workshops.)

It’s my experience with traditional instruction that the student assumes he’s deficient and ignorant in the ways of the experts or gifted. I sure did.

Empowering the student allows the player to feel safe. Students get the important message that their experience is valued and honoured, rather than they are broken and need to be fixed. Or that they depend on the expert to divulge precious secret information that will unlock the keys to nirvana for them.

Fred’s approach—like Michael Hebron’s, Bungay Stainer’s and others—works from the premise that people learn best from their own experience. They can obviously ask the coach whatever they want, and coaches will attempt to guide the student, but usually in a context where the student is discovering, experimenting and observing.

Most golfers who struggle with parts of their game, especially driving or iron play, will say that each swing is a mystery, even if they’ve seen their swing on video or their friends have told them, for example, that they are “coming over the top” or “too fast” or the other usual pronouncements.

However, through a coaching approach, it’s not unusual that golfers observe and feel what they are actually doing while swinging a golf club—often for the first time.

I’ll certainly lead the witness by suggesting options and asking them about their intention for a shot, but I’ve noticed that most people develop their own sound mechanics and fundamentals without expressly being told “do this.” They may even appear unorthodox, such as Brooke Henderson, Lexi Thompson, Bubba Watson, Jim Furyk, and Jordan Spieth, but they’ve developed what works for them.

As Karl Morris has said, rather than learn the way, this allows students to learn their way.

Of course, many people will ask: How does this approach help a golfer who is hitting bad shots with obviously poor mechanics?

From watching online instruction, most avid golfers already know that a slice is caused by an outside-to-inside swing path with an open clubface. But most slicers have never actually experienced what they actually do. They haven’t felt it. It’s in their blindspot.

If I tell the golfer to swing from the inside and square the clubface, she may experience something differently and hit the ball more solidly, but she’ll soon revert to her old way—what her brain has experienced.

Rather than try to fix her slice with information, I’ll often ask the person to hit slices, the bigger, the better. It’s not unusual for someone to say, ‘You mean you want me to intentionally hit a bad shot?’ Yes. I learned this from the late George McNamara, one of Fred’s best friends. (Scroll down in the blog for the slice story.)

Through this approach, the student will invariably discover what’s in her blind spot; that is, the critical variables that are causing her to slice. This personal and tactile experience with the club will allow her to experiment with try different ways, for example, of moving the club that eventually lead her to hitting the ball more solidly.

Here’s another example. I had a student last week who is a former stand-out softball player. He defaulted to a wide stance that made it almost impossible for him to both rotate and move his body laterally toward the target. He nearly fell over after every swing.

I asked him to pay attention to his sense of balance during the swing. After a few swings, I suggested he experiment by varying the width of his stance. He eventually moved his feet slightly outside his shoulders with a short iron.

Now when he swung, he finished in balance on his lead foot. He also hit the ball far more solidly, and his dispersion decreased dramatically. He was delighted.

Yes, I was a guide but he discovered this through his own experience.

It also underscored to me that when I refrain from being the “advice monster or “the answer man,” I’m a better coach and the student learns to discover and self-coach, which is a path to mastery.

* I am not a PGA of Canada member. Through my own experience, research as a golf writer and a golf nerd, and coaching from people such as Shoemaker and Morris, I’ve developed my own coaching approach. These days, I’m coaching indoors at The Golf House in Guelph, Ontario and in summer at Blue Springs GC in Acton.

Read more about Tim O’Connor’s coaching HERE.

Tim O'Connor
Tim O'Connor is a golf coach, an award-winning writer, and speaker. Tim takes a holistic approach, coaching golfers in the physical and mental aspects of golf. He co-hosts the Swing Thoughts podcast, and is the author of The Feeling of Greatness: The Moe Norman Story. He plays bass in CID — a Guelph punk band!

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