When a highly skilled instructor begins working with a new student, particularly one who hasn’t taken golf lessons in a very long time—or never before—only the coach and the golfer know what transpires during their initial session.
But we’re pulling back the curtain to give readers a clear look at the first-lesson experience. And we’re going straight to the top of the profession to do so, interviewing three GOLF Channel Academy lead coaches who have won National Teacher of the Year awards from the PGA or LPGA—Mike Bender (2009, PGA), Hank Johnson (2004, PGA) and Lynn Marriott (1992, LPGA). Here’s what you should come to expect from a lesson, as told by these three world-class coaches.
When a golfer first arrives at your lesson tee, what should they expect?
Hank Johnson: The first lesson is of critical importance to the development of a productive relationship between the instructor and the student. In our program we use a student information sheet to assure that we have the basic information before the initial lesson begins. The instructor can then use this information to guide the initial interview with the new student in an effort to answer four basic questions:
1) What do you want from your golf game (i.e., Qualify for the school team? Qualify or win a particular tournament? Bring your handicap down to a certain number? Beat your buddies? etc.)?
2.) What's keeping you from realizing your goals (i.e., more distance, a better short game, more consistency, better course management, etc.)?
3.) What do you need to change to achieve your goals (i.e., better physical conditioning, more practice, more rounds of golf, better focus on the course, a more productive practice plan, professional instruction, etc.)?
4.) Are you willing to do the things that are necessary to change (i.e., Can you find more time to practice/play? Do you need more properly fit equipment? Do you need a better practice environment and practice plan? etc.)?
Mike Bender: The student should expect their teacher to engage with them from the start. In general an instructor will want to know where you’ve been as a golfer and where you feel you want to go. You may have played golf for three years or for 30 years—we will want to know that. If you’ve had an injury or a surgery or there’s a medical issue, obviously the professional should be checking into that. Most important from my perspective is, what would you like to accomplish?
Lynn Marriott: The more experienced teacher will ask you lots of questions. One service the coach can provide is to help you formulate goals. The teacher may see potential in you as a golfer that you didn’t know you had. If you come for a first lesson and you’re feeling inadequate or guilty because you aren’t a big practicer, you should expect the coach to relieve you of that guilt. Even if you can’t manage much range time between lessons, we can help you get better. It’s what we do.
How should the new student prepare for their lesson so that they get the most value from it?
Mike Bender: The best way to prepare is to reflect on your experiences and your patterns out on the course and be able to describe them. That includes situations that make you nervous, particular shots that psych you out, that sort of thing. But, as Lynn said earlier, don’t show up expecting to be critiqued about how much you’re willing to practice or how much you exercise or you don’t exercise. Our job as coaches is to get results, without telling a student they need to be constantly stretching or doing yoga or beating balls all day.
Lynn Marriott: The best way to prepare for a first session at our VISION54™ schools is to get into a positive frame of mind and feel as open and coachable as possible. If you can get into your creative mode, that’s ideal. There are techniques and procedures we’ll be putting you through that may surprise you. Part of that is getting you on the golf course as soon as possible. There’s a chance that we’ll find five or six strokes in your typical round that can be eliminated quickly, just by changing how you prepare for a shot and then execute it. So, be open to that.
Hank Johnson: A good teacher is going to take plenty of time during the first lesson to get to know you. In order to communicate at the highest level the teacher will want to determine how you best learn. Are you a verbal, visual or feel learner? How much information will work best with you? Do you need to be fed with a teaspoon or a snow shovel? What kind of feedback are you most likely to respond to, positive or negative? Some players need a pat on the back, others need a kick in the pants and some need both.
How should the student square their expectations with what actually happens? In other words, how will they know a successful first lesson when they see it?
Mike Bender: The new student is naturally going to ask: Can I relate well to this instructor? That’s what most students are evaluating. Does what he or she says make sense to them? Does it click? If you can answer yes, that indicates a positive first experience. Someone who has a first lesson with me will go away with specific exercises and drills, which they should feel confidence in. I want them to feel these will be good tools, and to understand why.
Hank Johnson: The teacher is certainly going to want to know what your goals for your game are. He or she will want to know how much time you can and will devote to putting into practice the things that are identified as areas that need improvement. A good improvement plan will only be effective if you can and will put in the time to do the practice and training required. Golf is not a game of knowing something, it's a game of doing something. The only tool you have to use to change your physical habits is a large number of correct repetitions. How large a number? That depends on how good you are at coaching yourself. I recently heard a coach say, “Don't do it until you can do it right, do it until you can’t do it wrong.” You have to make the new mechanics a habit.
Lynn Marriott: Success on a first lesson usually means that we’ve made this whole proposition simpler. We’ve made it about golf, by going beyond the swing and by getting the golfer out to the course right away. New students figure out that we can very quickly help them enjoy the game a lot more. We had a 14-handicap gentleman come to one of our three-day programs recently. In the analysis we use, he was a high-handicapper in playing skills and a fairly low-handicapper in his physical technique. That first day, we played an 18-hole round in the afternoon and this gentleman made five birdies. He said, “I’m leaving now, thank you very much.”
What does a student need to do as a follow-up, so that they stay on a path of sustained improvement?
Lynn Marriott: Again, it’s about the individual golfer and what’s important to them. A lot of what we do as coaches is solve a particular problem and help people get out of their own way. At one point we took on a student who was extremely overweight and didn’t like to exercise. He had a big slice with a deep divot and at the same time, he played golf and he could get himself around the course at about a 16-handicap. We gave him a Fred Shoemaker exercise, the one where the person stands on an empty part of the range and throws golf clubs as far and as straight down the range as they can. We were trying to show him that his body was actually capable of producing quite a bit of power and remaining in balance throughout the athletic motion. In a fairly short amount of time he got down from a 16- to a 5-handicap. So, was this on a path of sustained improvement? He had a problem, it got solved, he was happy and off he went.
Hank Johnson: In other sports your coach is present for the majority of your practice and all of your games. Not so in golf. Your teacher will no doubt depend on you for complete and accurate feedback. Just like a good doctor, your coach will want to determine how well your treatment plan is working and determine whether any adjustments need to be made as you go along. Plan to be open and honest with your teacher. This is the only way this partnership can produce the positive results that you both desire.
Mike Bender: The No. 1 question I get at the end of a first lesson is, “When should I come back?” The answer is:
1: It depends on how much you expect to practice; and 2: never longer than a month. Many of my longer-term students take 12 lessons a year from me—one per month. Over time, they’re seeing progress, so they maintain their enthusiasm. At a certain point they will see the before-and-after video of their swing and usually as I put that up on the monitor I’m telling them, “You’re going to be shocked at the difference.” What’s great is that improvement opens the door for further improvement, if that’s what they want. We often compare our work to giving the student a road map of this long journey they can take, if they choose to. The map can take shape pretty quickly, and once it’s established they’ve got something they can rely on.