Smart LessonsNovember 18, 2016

Lessons are great, but are you doing them wrong?

Quit beating yourself up for mistakes. You're supposed to be making them.
How to find the right pro for you

We're suspicious of teaching pros who talk a lot. The best teachers ask—or determine quickly—how you learn. Do you learn by watching someone demonstrate? By "feeling" the motion? By analyzing and understanding it? Practiced teachers know that they may have to explain things to an accountant but simply let a painter watch them do it. A third student may "get it" with an image like Sam Snead's grip advice: Grip the club as you might a little bird. You're the patient; know thyself--and then find a person who speaks your language.  Sparingly. Golf Digest's list of Top Teachers is a great place to start. (PGA and LPGA Teachers of the Year, too.) These are the teachers that other teachers would send their friends to. Can't beat that.

You might be using "lack of natural talent" as your excuse for not improving beyond what the USGA says is the average handicap of 17.

But a combination golf instructor/university researcher says embracing the "natural talent myth" is what keeps you from breaking 80--not your clubhead speed.

Sue Shapcott's playing career got derailed by injury, so she's spent the last 20 years teaching the game while going to school to earn advanced degrees in educational psychology. Shapcott says one of the main reasons players don't get better is because they don't think they can--and because they go into lessons defensive about their level of skill.

"In the culture of golf--and sports in general--people think that some have natural ability and some don't," says Shapcott, who runs Golf Revolution, her teaching academy in Madison, Wis. "So when people try to learn something and they can't do it instantly, they think they can't do it or they don't have the talent for it. There's this resistance to trying something because you might fail."

This "self-consciousness" about the game both prevents people from getting the instruction they need and from getting the most out of the lessons they are taking. "When players come in for that first lesson and the teacher asks them about their game, they want to be seen as somebody who plays pretty well--instead of being open and getting something that would actually help them improve."

The mission? Shapcott says players need to treat golf like anything they've become good at. It's a process of repetition, acquiring skills and becoming comfortable. The roadblocks come up when you start comparing yourself to other players--which is natural in a sport that, you know, keeps score.

"If you're always trying to prove to other people that you're good, or that you're an athlete, you've made the game very exhausting for yourself--especially if you haven't been able to be open to instruction in the past," says Shapcott, who is finishing her PhD at the University of Bath, in the UK. "If you can break through that, you won't get so frustrated when you don't play well. The game will be more fun, and you're going to enjoy the process of improvement much more."

Shapcott says the best teachers break down those barriers with students by building a friendly relationship that runs parallel to the teacher-student one. "The student needs to feel like it's OK to text and say, hey, this problem we worked on is cropping up again. What do I do? without feeling like they don't want anyone to know that it's happening, or without feeling like they failed," Shapcott says. "It's OK to fail at something while you're learning it. It's OK for it to be a process. If you know how to cook, how did you learn? You made mistakes and messed things up, but you learned. Keep the game in perspective. You're learning, and you're trying to get better."