Of all the many skills you need to have to be good at golf, few are as important as a good swing. And the main aspects of a good swing are repeatability and power. Let us analyse these terms to find out how one might go about improving them.
Being able to precisely repeat one swing after another is essential to improving your game; without this, correction of faults and improvement are difficult indeed. What does this mean, though, exactly? The main aspect of repeatability is a combined physical and mental sense called proprioception, often called the ‘sixth sense’ by anatomists. This sense is the awareness of the parts of our body in time and space; together with the middle ear, proprioception tells us in minute detail what is going on in our body at any given time in terms of patterns of tension, and changes to this base state over any given time gives us our sense of movement and our memory of the feeling of movements.
When we replay a golf swing in our mind to assess its effectiveness, it is proprioception we rely on to tell us whether we hooked or sliced the shot, and tells us where in the chain of muscles (and movements) the problem originated. This sense has been heavily researched over recent years by neurobiologists the world over for what it can tell us about how we remember and experience certain aspects of being alive, and consciousness itself. As far as golf is concerned however, all we need to know is that this sixth sense can be enhanced enormously using simple techniques. Proprioception relies on receptors in the muscle spindles and tendons. Richly supplied with nerves, these organs tell the brain what states are being experienced. But to tell it in this conventional way is to miss a most important point: the brain doesn’t exist only in your head; it is in fact diffused throughout the body via its nervous system.
The brain in the body
The brain is in all the body, and the body is in the brain, manifested as sophisticated maps of one’s various capacities. A particular area of the brain, the somatosensory cortex, assesses and controls these patterns of tension in the muscles of the body. The different receptors in the spindles are either position-dependent and position-and-time-dependent, and this suggests that they can be influenced in different ways. The position-dependent ones are most easily influenced by slow stretching exercise, and can have their awareness most radically enhanced by the use of the Contract–Relax (C–R) approach to stretching. This technique is by far the most effective way to enhance proprioception. The somatosensory cortex is not amenable to conscious control (try to ‘tell’ those tight muscles in your neck to relax, and see how far you get!) but in contrast to conventional stretching the use of the C-R approach changes one’s awareness – and experience of – of held tension patterns immediately.
The significance for golfers, or any athletes or ordinary people who want to feel the joy of enhanced awareness, is that a few simple stretching exercises done in a particular way can make you aware of a tension block that is limiting your swing. When you watch an athlete perform, have you noticed how easy they make it look? That’s an enhanced sense of proprioception at work. Anyone can get it – it just takes work. And the right stretching is the easiest way to get it. The right stretching ensures that you have the requisite rotational flexibility too: watch the professionals and see what sort of rotation in the spine they display. And doing rotational stretches in the opposite direction to the direction you swing will offset one of the down sides of an asymmetrical activity like golf: the ubiquitous neck and back pain.
As far as the time-and-position sensitive receptors go, how do you improve them? By remembering the first three rules of any skill: practise, practise, practise, as the old saying goes. What happens when you practise (providing you do so with what the experts call ‘relaxed concentration’) is that you ‘groove’ the desired movement into the 660-odd muscle of the body – and the myriad nerves (recalling that the nerves are the brain’s ‘eyes and ears’ in the body) into being able to repeat the task on demand. The most practised movements of the body are the best remembered, and the best performed. When was the last time you thought about how to walk? This is one of the first-learned skills of the body yet one of the most difficult, and one on which many other skills are overlain. The point is that you learned this complex skill so long ago that you’ve forgotten how you learned it, but be assured that it took you years to learn it to the present level of performance. So, the right sort of practise is needed.
Adding strength to the mix
Once you’ve got the swing grooved, the next consideration is power: how far can you drive that ball reliably? The best swings are those that are both consistent and powerful; the iron you choose then determines the distance the ball goes. How do you get more power? Recall your school physics: power equals force times distance over time. Which of these can be most easily altered? The right stretching exercises can increase the ‘distance’ part of the equation: as you become more flexible, you are able to apply your strength (the ‘force’ part) over a greater range of movement. Accordingly, even if your absolute strength levels do not change your power will increase and this will be reflected in longer drives. And if you include a couple of exercises that increase the rotational strength of the trunk into your weekly routine your capacity to generate force will increase as well, adding to the effect.
There are many good exercises that you can do at home and others that require the use of a plate weight, found at any gym. Most strength routines contain only a token exercise for the abdominals but a far better training regimen requires the golfer to spends at least a few weeks working on the trunk muscles: the obliques and transverse abdominals in addition to the familiar rectus abdominis group (the ‘six-pack’ of the body building world), and other critical trunk muscles. After initial conditioning, progress to doing similar moves on an exercise ball: the unstable surface triggers the righting and tilting reflexes of the body and ensures that all the trunk muscles are coordinated in the task. Taken together, the right stretching and strengthening exercises will only require about twenty minutes per week to do, done in two ten minute sessions. If you do this work and spend an additional half hour per week grooving your swing, enhanced performance on the range is a certainty. Get to it!