Jan 29, 2015Swing Theory
Mental acuity, reflex awareness, balance, and functional muscle control are the key ingredients of a great golf swing. Are your golfers following the right recipe?
By Robert Mottram
Robert Mottram, PT, ATC, a Senior Titleist Performance Institute Advisor, works at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, Calif. He has served as a rehab and fitness specialist for the PGA Tour, Senior PGA Tour, and LPGA Tour, and can be reached at: [email protected].
One thing that sets golf apart from other sports is the imbalance between the physical and mental demands of the game. Although a round takes several hours, the amount of time a player spends utilizing his or her physical skills–the skills that strength and conditioning can influence–typically adds up to just a few minutes.
But so much happens in each split-second of the swing–both consciously and subconsciously–that golf is one of the most challenging sports for training both mind and body. Thousands of instructional programs, private coaches, training aids, books, and videos have searched for effective ways to teach the golf swing, with varying levels of success. The challenge is that with so many variables affecting each swing’s outcome, it’s difficult to know where to start the training process and which paths can optimize learning.
Although golfers have a wide array of swing styles and teaching philosophies to choose from, execution always comes down to the same basic elements: club head speed, club face angle, club path, club angle of attack, and solidness of ball impact. All these factors are affected by a player’s physical ability, so the goal for a strength coach working with golfers should be to promote optimal mechanics and movement patterns within the realm of the athlete’s capabilities, and to get results without harming the body.
To do this, you must first know what happens in both the mind and body during a golf swing. By understanding how information is collected and transmitted to the nervous system, how that information is processed and acted upon, and how an individual can take greater control of the entire process, you lay the foundation both to raise a golfer’s confidence and to improve their performance.
LEVELS OF AWARENESS
The mental and physical challenges of golf are perceived mostly in the conscious mind, but there are certain subconscious control centers and safety mechanisms that oversee the motor patterns and fine movements that occur during the swing. Exploring these below-the-surface reflex systems can open new possibilities for performance enhancement and smoother, more efficient mechanics.
The golf swing is a high speed, high range of motion activity requiring skill, precision, and control. Proper execution depends on two independent factors: First, the golfer must know how to apply effective form throughout the swing. Then, he or she must have the flexibility, strength, and coordination to perform the required moves.
Many people think the golf swing is a completely unique sport-specific activity–a movement unlike any other performed in athletics. But a closer look at anatomy and kinesiology proves otherwise. Three-dimensional electromagnetic analysis performed at the Titleist Performance Institute in Carlsbad, Calif., and by Tom House, PhD, of BioKinetics West, has compared the golf swing to the baseball swing and throwing motions, and found numerous similarities. Kinematic sequencing–the sequence of body segment movement patterns–shows how the body uses ground reaction forces and muscle activation to generate power in a golf swing. These movements occur in essentially the same pattern in most striking and throwing activities.
The body is equipped with a variety of sensory mechanisms that are vital to movement. These special protective and enhancing sensors operate by constantly communicating with the spinal column and brain in an attempt to avoid injury and facilitate movement. Of course, these critical structures are not especially concerned with the outcome of a golf swing–they exist to provide valuable information about body positions and motion. But by understanding how they work, a golfer can put them to sport-specific use.
Body awareness, also known as proprioception, is the ability to perceive body positions and movements with help from sensors throughout the body, including mechanoreceptors in the joint capsules and muscle spindles in muscles. These sensors provide proprioceptive input any time they are deformed by a shear, tension, or compression force.
In golf, they provide the athlete with instant feedback on static and dynamic conditions, movements, positions of joints, balance, equilibrium, speed and direction of movement, and stress and strain to joints and tissue. The body responds to these signals voluntarily and involuntarily by adjusting muscle activation, employing learned motor patterns, and engaging various joint and tissue reflexes.
What does all this mean during a golf swing? The complex system of nerves and muscles that regulates movement and force reacts mainly by switching the roles of certain muscles. A muscle group may behave as a stabilizer, a neutralizer, and/or a prime mover all within the same swing. Golfers who are not prepared to meet the physical demands of this high speed switching activity will experience frequent frustration. For this reason, a training program rooted in functional exercises that mimic the specific movement patterns of the golf swing will be more effective than work with fixed machines or isolated muscle training routines.
The pieces of information sent to the brain by the sensory systems during a golf swing are very brief and complex, and the conscious mind is too slow to interpret and learn from all of them effectively. Developing supportive subconscious proprioceptive systems, which can operate 10 to 15 times faster than the cognitive mind, is critical for improving both the success and safety of the swing.
There are three proprioceptive systems relevant to the demands of the golf swing:
Spinal cord. The most basic level of neuromuscular control comes from the spinal cord, which contains neuronal circuits that subconsciously mediate automatic, stereotyped reflexes. The knee jerk reflex is an example of this spinal-level control. Stretch sensors in muscles and tendons also use these reflexes to facilitate movement, such as in the stretch-shorten reflex.
When a golfer’s body turns during a swing, the stabilizing and neutralizing muscles of the legs and core are placed in a stiffened position and can recognize unexpected joint loads, thanks to sensitive mechanical receptors. The spinal-level reflexes can help an athlete identify points in the swinging motion that produce the most stress and thereby increase the risk of injury.
Having golfers practice their swing on unstable surfaces, such as instability discs, will enhance the reflex arc coming from mechanoreceptors at the spinal level. Drills in which the golfer must maintain control and avoid unwanted movement as unexpected external forces are applied will also work these reflexes. One effective example is a perturbation drill in which the coach randomly pulls at elastic tubing attached to various joints or muscle areas while the golfer is in a swinging posture. If the athlete is using sound technique, the body will not move at all in response to these external forces, because it has developed the ability to instantly match and account for their timing, direction, and intensity.
Brain stem. The brain stem and its partner, the cerebellum, play a key role in coordinating movements, posture, and balance. These components of the neurological system react more slowly than the spinal reflexes, but still faster than conscious, voluntary muscle contractions. Balance and equilibrium drills focus on this part of the reaction process.
For example, while the athlete performs swing motion drills on instability discs and other unstable surfaces, you can add an extra challenge by cueing them to open and close their eyes at various points during the movement cycle. This sudden loss of visual input forces the brain to produce more efficient, responsive muscle reactions. As a result, the golfer will experience improved balance and muscle control during a normal swing.
Cerebral cortex. This is the third motor response system, which governs conscious awareness of position and movement. Voluntary muscle contractions are executed through the cerebral cortex, so not surprisingly, this is the area that most traditional golf instruction focuses on. Because this is the body’s slowest interpretation and reaction system, static and slower movements and drills are effective. Over time, optimal movement repetitions are converted from conscious to subconscious activation.
For example, an athlete in front of a mirror can perform a basic golf “rehearsal” drill that involves address of the ball, top of the backswing, impact, and finish positions. Going through these motions statically and then slowly, while watching for inefficient or unwanted movements, provides real-time feedback and can train the conscious mind to see, feel, adjust, and then repeat correct mechanics. These movements can be broken down into small segments, and once mastered separately, they can be blended together to form the total pattern. Progressing from seeing to feeling–visual to kinesthetic–is the primary goal for perfecting a skill.
As a whole, the nervous system is highly adaptable. Thus, inefficient and injury-inducing motor programs can usually be corrected once they are identified. That process should be individualized based on a golfer’s specific mechanics, flaws, and risk factors.
Golfers who are deconditioned, have been injured, or have chronically unsound movement patterns usually require a new and improved awareness of the sensory information their body provides. After injury, some degree of reduced awareness of joint and body position, speed of movement, and coordination is likely. Joint injuries in particular often lead to decreased ability to stabilize the joint due to delayed or weakened muscle response.
To “rewire” an athlete’s system with heightened sensory awareness and better learned responses, it’s best to focus on developing functional movement without restriction or limitation. Too often, golfers (and their coaches) ignore these fundamental issues and move directly into sport-specific movements before the athlete is truly ready. Mobility, stability, and efficient motor patterns make up the foundation on which a great golf swing is built.
Often, a problem observed during the swing is just a symptom of a more fundamental biomechanical flaw that needs attention. For example, poor spine and waist flexibility may interfere with separation between pelvic rotation and upper abdominal rotation. This movement flaw limits internal and external oblique muscle stretching, thereby decreasing contractile and elastic force production. Rather than address the problem simply by attempting to fix the golf swing, the best approach is to recognize the underlying lack of flexibility, and prescribe exercises and stretches that can remedy it.
Another common example is a golfer displaying upper cross syndrome. This condition, which involves a tightening of the anterior muscles of the upper torso and a corresponding weakening of the posterior musculature, typically manifests in golfers as forward-leaning head and shoulders. It can hinder normal shoulder girdle and joint movements, leading to elevated shoulders, shoulder impingement, and various swing plane issues.
Once again, addressing the problem and improving performance requires resolving the underlying issue. In the case of upper cross syndrome, an effective approach would be to have the athlete perform stretches to reduce the anterior tightness, and strengthening exercises for the muscles of the posterior upper torso. Following that type of intervention strategy, the unwanted forward leaning during the golf swing may soon correct itself.
It is possible for some golfers to perform well even when poor form is used, but eventually, they will experience breakdown, inconsistency, fatigue, soreness, or injury. It should be the goal of every golf training program, on the course or in the training center, to create efficient movement. This will conserve energy, promote relaxation, and allow the golfer to practice more often and more effectively–all of which will help them to compete with greater success.
Sidebar: PRIMAL MOVEMENTS
Could early man have been a natural born golfer? Health and fitness specialist Paul Chek suggests that everyone is born “hard wired” with several basic movement patterns necessary for complex movement organization. Squatting, bending, lunging, pushing, pulling, and twisting, when linked together, allowed our primitive ancestors to hunt for food and defend themselves.
Following this theory, there may be similar gross patterns that can help with a golfer’s swing. Golf, like most sports, involves short bursts of complex movement, and training for golf should focus on general and specific movement patterns, rather than on individual muscles. Muscles will develop naturally as different movements are repeated.
So how can you take advantage of some basic instinctive movements to improve a golf swing? Most golfers are familiar with hitting a softball or baseball. Others may be familiar with chopping wood or cutting down trees. The basic movements in these activities combine several primal patterns–including body lunges, bends, rotations, and push patterns–that are similar to those required for swinging a golf club.
Three-dimensional biomechanical analysis has shown that certain drills are ideal for replicating these instinctive mixtures of gross movements. For example, a golfer can strike a boxing or karate body bag with a baseball bat, working to optimize weight shift, balance, and muscle activation sequences to hit the bag as hard as possible.
Next, they can begin to work their way down the bag, striking lower and lower, thus bringing the movement gradually closer and closer to that of the golf swing. They might then progress to using their clubs and hitting an impact bag designed for golfers. With some practice, the player learns how to recruit the same kinematic sequencing whether holding a bat or club.