Complexity versus simplicity – Why you don’t want to know everything about the golf swing

Complexity versus simplicity – Why you don’t want to know everything about the golf swing

If you are not interested in technical details of the golf swing, click away now.

People often believe I am not a technical teacher – this is quite true; I normally teach very simple stuff. But that is a long way from saying that I don’t understand technique.

Understand something in its complexity in order to teach it in its simplicity. 

People often underestimate the complexity of the golf swing. Even the most in depth explanations usually fall way short of what is actually happening/needs to happen.

Sometimes, something is so complex that we must revert to simplicity.


For example

I often explain to pupils that they need to hit the ground in a functional place, as shown by the image below.

Pro golfers strike the ground in the red zone

This is often met with the question “So, how do I do this?”

I usually ignore the question and just say “let’s have a go and see if you can get better at it first”, to which they inevitably can. Then, by using all of my coaching tricks, I am able to get better ground strikes out of pretty much anyone who walks onto my lesson tee.

But often people walk away with the idea that “It can’t be that simple”. They seem to want a more complicated answer to which I often refuse to give. There is a reason for that – it is often like opening up Pandora’s box.

So, let’s have a look at what is required in order to achieve this simple goal of striking the ground in the right place. Let’s open up Pandora’s box – you might find out why I don’t answer the question


Swing arc

Our swing is very circular in nature. Each circle has a lowest point to it – the part where it reaches its deepest depths before travelling back upwards again.

This low point of the circle can vary in terms of height/depth, and also position (more or less target side). See below pictures


Higher (white) or lower (red – non functional)


Low point farther back (white) or farther forwards (red – non functional)


With that in mind, let’s have a look at the variables which can affect swing low point position


Controlling low point front/back

• How late/early you release the lag

• Swing direction

• Spine axis tilt

• Hip location (further forward/back)

• Hip tilt

• Ball position (forward or back)

• Torso rotation


Wow, that’s a big list huh? That would be pretty tough to monitor constantly. But we have a bigger problem – not only is this list complex, but it gets even more complex. Controlling the low point position in itself is not enough – was also have to control the low point height (or swing arc height), in terms of depth.


The same low point position at different depths will produce different ground strikes


So, now we have to look at the things which affect swing arc height.


Controlling low point height/depth

Some of the things which control this are;

  • Ankle extension/flexion
  • Knee extension/flexion
  • Hip extension/flexion
  • Spine extension/flexion (in fact, every single vertebrae is a degree of freedom)
  • Torso rotation
  • Shoulder elevation/depression
  • Arm flexion/extension
  • Scapular protraction/retraction
  • Elbow extension/flexion
  • Wrist flexion/extension
  • Radial/ulnar deviation
  • Ball position (forward or back)


Phew, that list is even bigger. Some of it is even impossible to accurately measure with modern day equipment.


It gets worse

To top it off, there is an intricate relationship between the depth of the low point and the position of it. Both have to be matching components if you are to strike the ground effectively. The basic rule is; if your low point is deeper, it also has to be farther forward. And vice versa.

The low point is deeper and farther forwards here, resulting in a ball/turf strike


The low point is closer to the ball and not as deep here

Having one without the other (‘correct’ position without matching height/depth) would lead to an unsuccessful strike – so we have to control all of the variables relating to arc height, all the variables relating to low point position AND we have to match them perfectly.

This is going to be tough.


It gets worse still

We are not operating these variables in isolation – changing one variable also affects the others.  Some of the things which affect low point position will also have a knock on effect to the height of the arc – sometimes in a positive way, and often in a negative way.

For example, adding more forward shaft lean at impact (perhaps through a more delayed release) would tend to shift the low point of the swing farther forwards. From the above pics, we now know that a low point which is farther forward also requires a deeper swing arc height to make the ground strike effective. The problem is, releasing the club later and having more shaft lean at impact INCREASES swing arc height – not a good combo.

For this reason, you would have to add in an element(s) which lowers swing arc height to make it functional – this is (one of) the reasons many players with lots of forward shaft lean will have a big head drop; it is their way of matching components. The head drop is far from a fault, it is a necessity for them.


Even worser

Even with a low point which is exactly the same height/depth and location, this doesn’t guarantee hitting the ground in the right place, as swing direction also has an influence.

Swing the club more left and the ground contact point of the swing moves farther forwards. Swing it more right and the ground contact point moves farther back.

So we also have to add in all the variables which control swing direction, as well as noting how those variables affect the arc height and low point position.

Difficulty level – infinite


Even worserer

All of these things are changing constantly throughout the swing – e.g. Throughout the swing, the lead shoulder goes through constant changes in protraction and retraction – quite rapidly at some points. The lead shoulder also changes in height throughout the swing, as torso rotation, spine flexion/extension and side bend values are always changing.

This is true for every degree of freedom – they are constantly going through changes throughout the swing. These changes are often functional (so we don’t want to get rid of them), but it also means we have more to co-ordinate.


Even worsererer

To add to this, every single club needs a subtly different blend of forces, torques and motion planes, as each club is a different length, angle, weight, has a different moment of inertia, is swung at a different speed, requires different impact dynamics etc.

And every lie you experience on the golf course needs different combinations of variables too.


Even worserererer

We also have to take into account the ability of an individual to do certain things. Do they have the

• Strength

• Flexibility and mobility

• Understanding (e.g. matching concepts of impact)

• Injuries (known and unknown)

• Co-ordination level

• spatial awareness


We also have to try and match technical components to perceptions, such as

• Preferred ball flight

• Environmental perception/action couplings

• Club/ball PA couplings


For example, if you were to add an element which drops the arc height, the person will perceive that they are now too close to the ball and they will tend to respond by adding one or more changes in other degrees of freedom to increase the swing arc height again.


Even worsererererer

We also have other variables to co-ordinate, such as the ones which control face and swing path and strike location. It’s pointless striking the ground nicely if your clubface is 45 degrees open, or making a pro divot while presenting the hosel to the ball.

And just to add more complexity, the movement variables which affect face, path and strike location also tend to have a knock on effect to arc height/depth and low point position.


Even worserererererer

As humans, we ALWAYS have movement variability. The below picture shows expert blacksmiths who had been doing the job of hammering for thousands of hours over many years.

From trial to trial, they all showed great movement variability in the body segments, but they were able to co-ordinate all this variability into the same end-point objective (hit the nail).

We, as golfers, also display variability. While it may look on camera as if swings are similar from shot to shot (not always the case), the smaller things (micro movements) are always going through movement variability – enough to easily cause a good or bad shot.


Even worsererererer

There are an infinite amount of movement combinations which could produce a shot fault.

Change one arc height or low point variable by enough, or change a combination of those variables by a few mm and we have the difference between a fat shot and a flush shot.

Trying to lock down and control all the variables is a futile exercise, because your movement changes from shot to shot.


Knowledge is power

A good teacher knows what they are doing; they can often use the above info to their advantage and kill two (or more) birds with one stone.

For example, I had a decent player yesterday who was thumping the club into the ground early (3 inches behind). Her low point was great (in front of the ball), but her swing arc height was too deep. This meant lots of fat shots and strikes high on the clubface

The low point position is good, but it is just too deep in the ground

The wrong fix would be to shift the low point of the swing even farther forwards – sure it would create a functional strike with the ground, but it would also create a steep angle of attack and very little dynamic loft.

A potential fix – shifting the low point farther forwards would produce a functional strike, but very likely a steep angle of attack and low shots.

What I did was add in elements which allowed her to increase the height of the swing arc (decrease depth). This instantly allowed the strike with the ground to be shallower and in a more correct position, and the strikes to be lower on the face (closer to the sweet spot). By increasing swing arc height, we allowed her to maintain her dynamic loft and have a shallow but functional angle of attack.

Maintaining the low point position but changing the depth produced this

Not only this, but we added the height increasing element in a way which made the swing arc shape more consistent at the bottom – a triple positive whammy. And we did all of this with one simple task which was external in nature, meaning she didn’t have to think about any of her body positions.


Summary so far

In order to hit the ground in the right place, we need to control the

  • Height of the swing arc
  • Position of the lowest point of the swing
  • They have to match in order to produce a function strike with the ground
  • They have to match to produce desired trajectory too
  • There are a massive amount of body movement variables which contribute to this
  • They all interrelate with each other
  • They are constantly changing throughout the swing
  • They are never fully the same (movement variability)
  • They need to operate with your physical constraints
  • Every club needs a different blend of movement and forces
  • There are infinite combinations
  • Golf is so precise that, even a small error (such as clubface a degree open, or hitting 1cm off the sweet spot) can create a poor shot


Our magical brain

As well as underestimating the complexity of golf, people also underestimate the incredible power of our brain.

Given the right tasks, the right training approach and the right feedback, our brains can figure out all of this complexity. It hones in on the goal and reduces inappropriate variability, increases good variability, and makes all of your degrees of freedom work for you. It also helps to tie in the motor pattern with the other variables (physical constraints, mental correlates etc).

This is one of the premises behind self-organization.

But, unfortunately, the way most people train for golf, they inhibit the ability of the brain/body to do this, and end up in an instant gratification cycle of tips which work in the short term.


Enter Simplicity

So, you see, the reason why I teach golf in its simplicity is because I understand the complexity of it. The further down the rabbit hole you go regarding swing mechanics, body mechanics, brain function, motor learning etc, the more you realize that the simplistic approach may actually be better.

I have often heard the below phrase

So, how would I go about teaching this incredibly complex bunch of movements to a child?

As an example, one of the tasks I use with my pupils is to clip a bottle cap off a towel without disturbing the towel. In order to do this, your body has to organize the variables which control the swing arc height and depth, and blend them together into a functional end product.

If you are too low, you will hit the towel. If your low point is too far behind the ball, you will miss the bottle cap. If your low point is too far forwards, you will either miss the bottle cap or hit the cap and the towel. See images below

Too low and we hit the cap and the towel


Too high and we miss both


Too far behind and we hit the towel or go over the cap


Get it just right, and you’ve managed to co-ordinate a ton of movement pieces into something which would tend to produce a high flying golf ball


I start with easier tasks which match the player’s skill level (such as a bigger bottle cap/two on top of each other), then progress to more difficult tasks by adding on more constraints. We also gamify the practice to increase focus, feedback, intention and attention – keys to learning quickly and effectively.

This is just one of the tasks I use to create desired technique in an organic way. I have a ton of variations of tasks like this (and others) which are skill based ways of getting technique for free.

I wrote more about task led learning, constraints led learning, self-organizing, good variability (and many more concepts relating to motor learning for golf) in my book “The Practice Manual – the ultimate guide for Golfers” – available from amazon. Click the image below to learn more.

In The Strike Plan, I show you some simple drills which help to resolve all of the movement complexity and allow you to strike the ball better than ever, quicker than ever. Thousands of golfers across the World are improving their golf using the video series – click the image below to learn more about the program.

Strike plan enter

Cliff notes

Golf is incredibly difficult. Even the simple act of striking the ground in the right place requires incredible coordination of many variables which have infinite potential combinations, which are moving all the time, and must blend together harmoniously. Not only that, but we never produce the same exact movement twice.

After every bad shot, it’s tempting to say “What did I do wrong”. This is unlikely to help, as the answer to your question may change each time. A better question would be “What do I need to do, and did I do it”.

Technical changes should be done under the supervision of a teaching professional. They know what you need much more than you do, even if you believe that the recent tip from the latest issue of your favourite magazine is the ‘answer’ you have been looking for. They also know what is the one change which will have the biggest improvement for you.

If your teacher gives you something simple to do, there may be a reason for it. Don’t forget, they understand the vast complexity of this game and spend their lives researching swing mechanics to make you better. That ‘one simple thing’ will likely have a ton of positive knock on effects.

When you ask the question “so, how do I do it”, sometimes you might not want to know the answer. It might blow your mind.

Certain ways of fixing your issues will just create instant gratification – short term success which ultimately leaves you next week. Other learning approaches will give longer lasting success, and enable the brain to work more effectively to find answers. Most people enter the instant gratification cycle and spin their wheels year after year rather than work on learning approaches which stick for life.

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