Systems vs. Methods

When it comes to golf instruction, one of the most heated debates is “swing methods”. Teachers everywhere proudly declare “I don’t have a system or a method, I teach the student in front of me. Everyone is different”. When you plant your flag, and define your views on the golf swing, on politics, or on religion, anyone who doesn’t agree with you immediately writes you off as wrong. When a coach won’t state their beliefs on the swing, they are trying to avoid being painted in to a corner as being one-dimensional in their approach. In this month’s post, I’m going to break down how a system for golf differs from a method, and how it is absolutely necessary for anyone looking to make lasting improvements.

Everywhere you look, there are systems at work. The dictionary defines a system as “a set of connected things or parts forming a complex whole”. Examples include the medical system, the mathematical system, the solar system, and the highway system. There isn’t one way of doing these things, but the system is there to accommodate different scenarios, applying logic and fact-based knowledge to help problem solve.

Take the highway system for example. We have developed a system of roads that allow traffic to flow in opposite directions, with lights and signs that indicate when each direction can proceed. There are signs indicating the maximum speed in a given area, and signs that indicate distance to a certain destination. You can use this system to get anywhere you want to go, in any kind of car. Without this system, the roads would be chaos, and traffic accidents would be unavoidable.

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When you go to the doctor, he or she is making use of a system as well. When you arrive at the doctor’s office, you fill out a questionnaire which asks you about your medical history and your current health. The physician will then perform a series of diagnostic tests based on your symptoms. The doctor will review your test results with you and either refer you for surgery, if necessary, to a specialist, or to the pharmacist to receive antibiotics. The pharmacist will prepare a particular medicine to improve your condition, with a prescribed dosage over a predetermined period of time. The antibiotics are accompanied by some literature which will outline how to take the medicine, at what time of day to take it, and any side effects you might experience while taking it.

Just as every golfer is different in their physical ability, every human being is different genetically. The medical system is there to accommodate the complexity by being able to measure those differences, and act accordingly.

The world is also full of methods. A method is defined as “a procedure or process for attaining an object or outcome”. When you bake a cake, you must follow the recipe to the letter, or you don’t get the cake you want. A method doesn’t offer flexibility, it is a “paint-by-numbers” approach to achieving a desired result. 


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When comparing systems and methods in golf, the differences are quite simple. A method would have to start at the beginning. You must learn the address position, and you can’t move from there until you get it right. Once you complete the address position, you would move to the backswing. You don’t get to hit the ball until you get the backswing correct. Naturally, this could take months. Every student would take the exact same lesson, and very few would ever improve. A method wouldn’t make allowances for different body types, physical limitations, or a variation of the desired shot shape.

I teach a system of golf based on the 3-dimensional description of the swing, explaining how we tilt, turn, and extend throughout the swing. There are defined fundamental tasks: make solid contact, hit the ball far enough to play the course and control the curve of the ball. There are mechanical assignments for the parts of the body and the club, and defined points in the swing used to measure motion and alignments. All of these pieces combine to produce different ball flights.

The most famous system for playing golf was created by Homer Kelley, when he released his first edition of The Golfing Machine. It was, and still is, the most complete text book on how to swing the golf club and the different variations available. My favorite quote from the book is below:

“Treating a complex subject or action as though it were simple, multiplies its complexity because of the difficulty in systematizing missing and unknown factors or elements. Demanding that golf instruction be kept simple does not make it simple-only incomplete and ineffective. Unless this is recognized, golf remains a vague, frustrating, infuriating form of exertion.”

I could not agree with Mr. Kelley more. This isn’t to say that every student needs a PhD in golf swing mechanics, but rather that they have an understanding of how the pieces of the swing work together, how they affect the contact with the ground and the flight of the ball, and a vocabulary that accurately describes each piece. If the medical field took a similar approach to some golf instructors, your medication would be accompanied by a piece of paper that said “take these pills”.

In a lesson, the system shortens the time it takes to make an improvement. The student will hit 15-20 balls while I observe the pattern. Much like a doctor performing an examination, I am forming a diagnosis based on the illness in the swing. Judging by the flight of the ball and the pictures on the camera, I make a recommendation to the student. The system helps identify the piece of the swing that isn’t performing and when corrected, gives me and the student an expectation as to the resulting ball flight.

With the exception of a person holding a club for the first time I don’t start teaching the swing from the beginning, I start with the piece that needs fixing. The geometry and physics of the swing are the same for everyone, however, the fixes are always tailored to the individual’s needs. With the advent of high speed video, launch monitors and 3D motion capture, we have more data at our disposal than ever before.  Without a system to organize that information, all you have are pieces of data that don’t connect.

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As a coach, I am always striving to be consistent. In my delivery, my vocabulary and in the results I help my players achieve. Each student receives a document called a lesson spectrum after the session. It maps out for them what the issue was, why it was a problem and how to improve it.  When the lesson spectrums are accumulated over time, they begin to see the big picture and how that particular piece of the swing fits. The longer a student works with me, the greater their ability to problem solve becomes. Ultimately, it is always my goal to help each student become their own coach, regardless of the level they play the game.

If your coach doesn’t have a system, it might be time to find one that does.

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