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The Best Players Rarely Make the Best Coaches

Why those who do can’t teach

The 92nd P.G.A Championship ended yesterday with the usual fanfare and excitement that this last major of the year typically garners. But, what this tournament may be most remembered for was the younger generation of golfers - most who had not yet won a major - that sat atop the leaderboard throughout the final days at Whistling Straits.

Seasoned players like Padraig Harrington missed the cut and, although we saw some amazing shots, Tiger Woods was never really in contention. With younger players climbing the superstar ranks, you might wonder if it is time for some of the older generation to think about retirement. But, what does a golfer do after his career on the tour is over? There is of course a long list of options. You might be interested to know, however, that sport science research suggests that coaching should NOT be one of them - especially if a player wants to keep his game at a high level.

As it happens, the best players don't make the best coaches in sports. According to Canadian gold-medal hockey player Therese Brisson, "Recently retired hockey players who played at high levels rarely make the ideal coaches for youth hockey. They know what to do, but they can't communicate how they do it!" She says that given the choice between a skilled hockey player and an experienced physical education teacher to help at the youth hockey camps she now runs, she will always take the teacher. "Teaching skating skills is one of those problem areas," Brisson says. "How exactly do you skate faster?" Being able to communicate this type of information comes from coaching experience, not from playing experience.

This sentiment applies in golf too. Take a recent study conducted by psychologists Mike Anderson and Kristin Flegal.1 The researchers asked expert golfers and beginners to take some short putts on a fairly flat, straight green. The golfers then spent several minutes describing the putts they had just taken or they worked on an unrelated task, instead. Afterwards, all the golfers were asked to perform the putts again. After spending time describing their past putts, the expert golfers needed twice as many attempts to sink their putts as experts who had not put their performances into words. Beginning golfers' performances were not affected by describing putts. These less skilled players even improved a little bit when asked to recount what they had just done.

As I have blogged about in the past, for well-learned activities like taking a free throw, hitting a simple putt, or playing a cadence that you have performed a thousand times in the past, thinking too much about the step-by-step processes of what you are doing can be detrimental. But, it's not just that trying to describe your performance can disrupt it. Skilled performers often have trouble putting their actions into words in the first place. That's why those who perform at the highest levels should think twice about teaching their skills to others. When a scratch golfer in my lab, for instance, was asked to describe a putt he just took, he replied, "I don't know, I don't think while I putt." When your performance flows largely outside of your conscious awareness, your memories of what you've done are just not that good. This makes it hard to teach what you know to someone else. Just think about the type of description you might get from Michael Jordan if he were asked how he dunks a basketball. He might invoke the Nike motto and say that he "just does it," not because he doesn't want to give away his flying secrets, but because he may not know what he does.

As you get better and better at what you do, your ability to communicate your understanding or to help others learn that skill often gets worse and worse. This communication can even screw you up. Just think about golfer Ralph Guldahl, who won the US Open in both 1937 and 1938 and then the Masters in 1939. He was, at the time, one of the best players in the world. Then he wrote, "Groove Your Golf" - a how to guide for the beginning player. Guldahl never won another championship again.

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1Flegal, K. E., & Anderson, M. C. (2008). Overthinking skilled motor performance: Or why those who teach can't do. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 15, 927-932

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