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Interview with golf performance coach Dave Alred

The man credited with helping Jonny Wilkinson perfect his ability to focus when it mattered most has been quietly making an impact in golf. Sarah Stirk caught up with Dave Alred, the RFU’s performance coach who has proved his skills apply every bit as much to golf

You have a PHD from Loughborough on Performing under Pressure, you’re known in rugby and now golf, but what is your title – performance coach?
I’m not really sure! When I travelled with Luke [Donald] to the USPGA Championship at Whistling Straits in 2010 I was termed ‘Mental Coach’ which I interpreted as a coach who’s lost the plot! So I didn’t like that. I think performance coach is a bit overused, but I do try and look at the person as a holistic entity and analyse everything they do. I also like to challenge all of the people in a player’s support group – the swing coach, the fitness guy, and so on – to make sure the player is getting better and create that vibe of continual improvement. I look at it this way: I am simply an ingredient in a blender, along with the guy that does the fitness, the nutrition, the swing, the masseuse, etc. As a group we produce a blend of things for the player which creates the environment that allows them to operate effectively.

What similarities do you recognise between rugby and golf?
Mentally, the biggest similarity is there’s one-shot, one opportunity. When a golfer is standing over a ball, there’s no one else, it’s just you. You pull the trigger and go, which is very similar to goal kicking. The interesting thing is, the golf swing is actually an upside down goal kick. With the golf swing you need a stable body from the waist down, and the upper body creates the torque. With goal kicking (and this is why I work so hard on posture) the upper body stays still and the hips lag behind and work against a very stable upper body. So they are both actions where one bit is stable and the other lags to create torque and speed through.

Jonny Wilkinson’s pre-shot kicking routine became his trademark – was that your doing?
I’d looked at the issue of ‘centering’ in baseball and how the impact position with the guys who hit the most Home Runs tended to be opposite the centre of gravity. In kicking, that’s one of the areas where a lot of groin strains happen because the impact position is way beyond the centre of gravity, so there’s not much body weight through the ball. So we looked at the issue of centering and understanding where the centre is and how that moves, and it was from there that the routine took shape. Jonny really found his own way of making sure the feeling of where the centre was going to go was paramount in his preparation before he kicked.

When Luke approached you what did he say he specifically wanted help with?
It was a broad request to help with his approach to practising and his mental game generally. Mentality is a mind-set and all about behaviour, it’s not something you can just have a chat about 5 minutes before your tee-time and say ‘wow I feel good’. That is short lived. I subscribe to the model that focuses on changing patterns of behaviour – and one that recognises the fact that a player is constantly working under pressure and so must practise in an environment that makes his actions and performance accountable. You have to be specific about what you want to do and how you match your intention with your shots. You’ve got to be specific about discipline in the gym, attitude to training, and so on. All of that makes for a better model to help you perform well under pressure. You need to have matched the behaviour you’re going to have to adopt in a tournament, many, many times before and that’s why I have to see and observe everything the player does.

What are the key elements of your coaching style that have worked so well with Luke?
I think, first up, that coming in from the outside – from another discipline – can be a good thing. I had a taste of golf, having worked briefly with Melissa Reid [as part of her team with the Clive Woodward project] but a fresh approach to things often works well. The number one philosophical starting point, irrespective of the sport and the player’s ranking, is that you can always improve. So rather than saying ‘I need to work on this or that part of my game’, my view is that a player should work on everything, every single component, be it physical, technical, mental etc. My message to all of my clients is ‘what you’re doing is brilliant – but you can still get better’. I then look to involve the whole team to create a model that will help that player get better.

How do you balance your relationship with the swing coach?
The issue with a swing coach is they are obviously focussed on working on the technique. One of the things I look at is how things are being learnt, and sometimes you can help reframe a particular lesson to make it more palatable for the player. One of the weaknesses in coaching is we tend to get carried away with being an expert and you end up drowning the person with too much information. You need to work out the players’ map of reality and start moving within that map, so the learning is more effective. Sometimes you have to say very little, if you have to be explicit with everything the learner is going to struggle. If you can be more implicit, they are more likely to be able to perform under pressure, and that is the end result we are trying to achieve. Luke really has become a complete golfer – and a much tougher competitor.

You must be delighted with his performances of late?
Yes, but it’s not just me. A lot of the credit must go to his caddy, John McClaren. As a result of the work we have done he is communicating more effectively with him now. Just as important, Luke’s swing coach, Pat Goss, has seen a lot of what’s been going on. We’ve created a performance bubble and one of my roles is to challenge everybody in the bubble to get better, we can all get better. You should never sit back and think ‘I’ve got it’. And if you have that synergy between four people then you’ve actually got a great vibe – and Luke feeds off that.

After the success he had in 2011, the question everybody asks is when is he going to win a major?
It’s interesting because that is a direct outcome question, which on the face of it is what everybody wants, because it’s a result. However, I would turn that around and say, has he still got improvement left in him? The answer to that is yes. Is he still enthusiastic about making those changes to give him those marginal benefits? Again, the answer is yes, so is he in a better position to win a major than last year? Yes, and for me, that’s really where it ends. Whatever happens I just want the facts that can be verified in every tournament to indicate improvement. That’s all the matters. If you can immerse yourself in the process the outcome looks after itself. If you look at anything to do with pressure as soon as you start focusing on the outcome, which I know is the end goal, the process suffers. I’m not interested in results per se, I’m only interested in getting better, from where we are right here right now. If you keep doing that and working on the process, whatever will happen will happen.

You also work with Padraig Harrington. What specific improvements Padraig is looking to make?
Initially, looking at his practice regimen, Padraig was totally open with me in explaining his methods. He gave me a lot of notes about his thoughts and how he goes about things, which was most revealing. It helped me to make an impact relatively quickly. By the time we got together in Abu Dhabi in January, I already had a clear idea of the way Padraig worked. Ronan, his caddy, was great, and I talked to him on his own and got his thoughts about where he thought he could improve. Then it was about the strike of the ball and how we can integrate that into preparation and how to make practice more effective. When you start thinking in terms of practice being more effective, what you’re really doing is making your practice relevant to the way you are going to perform in a tournament. It’s all about mental attitude and mind set. So it’s the same components, making everything a little bit better and although it’s only early days it’s been really enjoyable. It’s a fascinating challenge, I love being pushed and Padraig really does that.

Has Padraig spoken to you about why he feels he’s struggled since winning his three majors?
We’ve had a couple of conversations. It’s not something I would divulge publicly but he’s certainly got an objective assessment as to why things didn’t feel as good as they had previously. You know, sometimes you have to go down a particular route to know it’s not the right route for you. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and it’s always the people who sit on the side and don’t do anything who are the greatest critics. But Padraig’s obsession is something that should be congratulated. Having won three majors and then having a dip where things haven’t gone as well, to still be that hungry, that committed and with a great work ethic, you’ve got to take your hat off to somebody like that.

Based on what you’ve seen of Padraig so far this season, is he close to winning again?
I just think he’s getting better – and I’m not fudging the question! I’m saying that winning comes as a result of getting better. If someone says they want to win, I say hang on, are we getting better at the fundamentals first. The danger with golf – like rugby where there are so many facets of performance – is we’re very good at ticking boxes and saying ‘I’ve got that I don’t need to work on it anymore.’ Well, as far as my clients are concerned, I’m that nagging conscience that taps them on the shoulder and says you have to do it, because you have to get better at absolutely everthing.

You’re a keen golfer – how does your game shape up?
I play off a handicap of 3 and share all the angst and frustration of the game! The reason I wanted to play golf seriously was actually to help me to become a better rugby coach. The realisation dawned on me that I was losing the empathy with frustration when I was coaching kicking, because I had almost forgotten what it was like to learn. The empathy with the learner is the most important part of coaching. If you want to to be a great coach you have to understand the suffering involved in learning.

For amateurs reading this what are some key points for performing under pressure?
Fundamentally, go out and put yourself under real pressure in practice and get used to the feeling of being accountable. Make sure you score in practice, set yourself real targets, so you’re not just hitting random balls. Also, try and isolate what you feel comfortable doing and work on it, don’t think ‘I’m great hitting wedges from 100 yards so I’ll leave it’ – go and improve it. Success breed’s success. Enjoy angst, too. It’s a sign of strength, don’t avoid it, get used to that ugly feeling of pressure. The more you keep putting yourself under pressure in practice, the more that experience will help when you play in tournaments.

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine


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