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The appliance of science - biomechanical theory and practise for golfers

As the finest athletes on the planet prepare to pack their bags for London 2012, Gi’s Jonathan Yarwood takes us behind the scenes at Loughborough University, where biomechanical theory is being turned into best practice for golfers looking for the ultimate edge

As buzzwords go, ‘biomechanics’ may be the most over-used and misunderstood in golf’s modern lexicon. For the unequivocal definition look no further than the Oxford English Dictionary:“...the study of mechanical laws and their application to living organisms, especially the human body and its locomotor system”. biomechanic, biomechanical, adj.

For a practical demonstration of all this encapsulates, however, you need look no further than the world renowned Sports Technology Institute at Loughborough University (where Team GB will be completing its final preparations immediately prior to the Olympics).

As a coach who has always believed in the vital importance of understanding the body’s physical limitations before prescribing any programme of instruction – the only logical way of teaching – the opportunity to get involved as a consultant to the Provantage project at this leading centre of excellence was one I grabbed with both hands. In my formative years as a PGA professional I was lucky enough to train under David Leadbetter at his academy headquarters in Florida, where an endless stream of the world’s most talented golfers opened my eyes to the importance of physical conditioning to maximise performance.

That, in a nutshell, is what the team at Loughborough deliver – and they have all the latest analytical tools and software to substantiate their findings and back up their recommendations. From a golfers point of view, a day here offers a glimpse of what is the cutting edge in golf instruction. Using the same sophisticated Vicon cameras that are used to create the ever-more realistic avatars you may have seen in computer games by EA Sports and the like, this is as good as it gets in terms of the analytical study of dynamic biomechanical movement.

The programme is based on the premise that in order to establish the optimum course of action for an athlete (including the golfer!), you must first establish his or her physical capabilities – i.e. flexibility, range of motion, strength, stamina, coordination and so on. With multiple sensors strategically positioned on the body, the player is invited to stand and hit shots upon a mat that conceals various force plates, and in a matter of minutes vital data revealing the performance of individual muscle groups tracking under load (recorded via what is called an EMG kit) along with weight shift and dynamic balance is collected for analysis.

Throughout this practical session, we also use TrackMan to record all of the key ball-flight data relating to the quality of impact – i.e. path angle, clubhead speed, launch angle and spin. Once all of this information has been fed into the computers, the result is a virtual X-ray not only of a player’s golf swing but – more importantly – of his or her physical capabilities and limitations. And based on the quality of this research the assembled team of experts are able to piece together an improvement programme based on fact – nothing is a guess.

The practical benefits of this are chiefly that a work-out regimen is designed not for purposes of vanity but targeted directly at improving those areas we know will make a difference to that individual’s swing requirements; to make movement patterns consistently better, and to improve the efficiency of energy transfer and interaction with the ground in the process of winding and unwinding the swing.

This is not to say we press all golfers into the same mold. If we have learned anything through the study it is that respecting individuality is one of the secrets to effecting long-term and sustained improvement. In fact, we encourage the elite amateurs and professionals who visit the facility to explore the concepts of Provantage to bring their own golf coach so that as a team they are able to collect facts and data on where they are right now in order to formulate a clear plan to take them forward.

IT MAY SURPRISE MANY OF GOLF’S current generation of young players to discover that much of this is actually nothing new at the highest levels of the game. Take a look at the accompanying image of Nick Faldo being put through his paces at the British Olympic Medical Centre on Jan 1, 1990 (how’s that for a New Year’s resolution!). Britain’s greatest golfer was somewhat ahead of the curve when it came to identifying his own physical limits and pushing himself to stretch them (in fact, he was found to have the respiratory stamina of an Olympic downhill skier). In my days working at Leadbetter’s HQ at Lake Nona in the 1990s I saw at first hand the dedication and attention to detail the sixtime major champion applied to every single aspect of his game – work-outs with former Olympian Pat Etcheberry being just one of many elements involved in the overall package. The key today is that the developments in analytical technology are more widely accessible, and as more of the game’s top coaches familiarise themselves with the possibilities that exist in training and fitness for golf, so that knowledge filters to a wider audience.

The bottom line is that in order to compete at the highest level, golfers have to be fitter and stronger. They are athletes. How often did we hear it mentioned during recent coverage of the US Open that more and more of the top players are wearing athletic footwear designed to improve their traction with the ground and so benefit the natural kinetic motion that begins and ends with the way you interact with the turf upon which you are standing.

The Provantage Consultancy is based at The Sports Technology Institute on Loughborough’s campus – the applied research arm of the University. The service is aimed at elite amateurs and professionals alike. It is a biomechanics and fitness service based on screening and data collection that involves a series of tests to establish areas of strength and weakness and physical limitations.

So how does it work?

On arrival at the Institute all players are interviewed so that the team is able to glean a little background and ascertain goals and objectives. After that comes an intensive physical screening programme in which all manner of tests are conducted by a sports physiotherapist. A players aerobic fitness is also measured and then comes the biomechanical swing assessment, including 3D motion analysis, weight distribution, highspeed video, muscle activity, etc.

The whole process takes about about half a day. Having collated all the data, the team of experts in the fields of biomechanics, physiotherapy and strength and conditioning consult and give their findings. The bottom line is that a bespoke workout programme is created based on these findings to address identified limitations in performance.

Speaking as a coach with over 20 years of experience – and with a fascination for analytical research that enables us to better understand the way a modern golf swing works – I have never seen a better set up in operation. Loughborough is applying the standards that have earned a reputation for excellence in so many sports to golf. The service is run by qualified biomechanists conducting world leading sports biomechanics research and the recommendations from the service are based on the best scientific evidence and knowledge available today.

The technology used to capture and analyse a player’s physical abilities in the golf swing are particularly impressive. The Vicon motion cameras – which are completely wireless – have the ability to track individual muscle groups during a swing using an EMG system. This can be used to monitor when specific muscles are ‘firing’ during the swing and the order in which they are used.

The 'markers' that you can see being positioned on the body of one of our students on the opening page are placed at precise locations to define movement of all the main body segments. They are attached to the skin to minimise any movement which reduces the accuracy of data (placing sensors on clothing or using straps to hold them in place creates errors in the data).

[One of the many benefits of this type of analysis is that it allows a player to archive a swing when he is playing well. If they lose form, they can then go back to the data on what they were doing when they were playing at their best.]

From a coaching perspective, the depth of the information that is so gathered is invaluable, as it enables you to pinpoint the weakest links in the chain of motion – and provide a clear reason why there is a problem. Think about it in relation to your own game: if you have regular lessons and the same problems keeps cropping up, faults you don’t seem to be able to fix no matter what, the chances are you have physical limitations that are simply holding you back. You can work with your pro from dawn til dusk but it will not fix the issue, as it is physiological. What you need is a prescribed stretching or strengthening programme along with the lessons from your pro. You have to enable your body to achieve what you are asking it to achieve. The same rules apply to tour players.

To the layman, Rory McIlroy has a perfect golf swing. And yet to Rory, his coach and his physical trainer, it is a work in progress. The biomechanical side of things quantifies performance issues – and this is not opinion, it is based on scientific evidence. [How good would Hogan have been with that information?] A lot of golfers follow a generic workout. The problem with this is that the exercises you are doing may be strengthening an area where you are already strong, or losing range of motion in an area where you had it. This in turn can affect the ‘signature’ of your swing. More and more, the players on tour are learning to only follow a workout which is specific to them and their own swing.

ULTIMATELY, IT’S PERFORMANCE BY design. Sports Science and scientifically correct biomechanics can be of great benefit to an individual’s performance. Talent is being enhanced and superseded to create clinical super athletes trying to shave off that split second here and there.

From Formula One to athletics, cycling to football, rugby and just about every other sport you can name, players are engaged in a programme to optimise their body, their techniques, their mind and their performance. By not doing so, you are left in the dust. In many respects, Tiger’s recordbreaking victory in the 1997 Masters at Augusta – when he effectively reduced Alister MacKenzie’s creation to pitch-and-putt status – can be pinpointed as the moment the world of golf sat up and took notice.

Here was a young and gifted golfer who was also an athlete, and who displayed a work ethic that shook the foundations of the professional tours.

Embracing this “Total Athlete” approach, golf has dusted off it’s traditional image to become a sport in which the leading protagonists fine-tune their abilities – both physical and technical – to the nth degree. If you are a player with ambition in the professional game today, by definition you need a regimen of fitness and expert advice on nutrition in order to optimise your performance and make the most of your technical abilities. England’s Lee Westwood is perhaps the finest example in the game of just how effective that combination can be.

Lee has a fantastic coach in Pete Cowen, and to maximise the benefits of Pete’s knowledge of the golf swing, Lee has committed himself to a training programme that is up there with Olympic athletes. There is no better driver of the golf ball in world golf, and those 300+ yard drives are not all down to a combination of club and ball technology – it is all down to the guy at the other end being fitter, stronger, faster. Greater speed, improved efficiency and energy transfer. Achieved through biomechanical studies. Worksop’s finest is not alone in his quest to be the best. Other disciples who are keen exponents of biomechanics are Rory McIlroy (see his Twitter feed) and Padraig Harrington to name just two. Indeed it has gone relatively unnoticed that Harrington attended the TPI (Titleist Performance Institute) facility in Carlsbad on numerous occasions during his major-winning years. The drills we saw him rehearsing on the range were all prescribed by Dr Greg Rose and Dave Phillips from the TPI. [Harrington got so into the biomechanics that he bought one of their machines to take home!]

Golf is part art, part science. And the formula that works is a blend of the two. Lee Westwood woke up one day and realised he was at a certain level and that the only way forward was to get fitter, stronger and apply the knowledge only biomechanics provides. In fact, Westwood teamed up with Loughborough Graduate Steve McGregor who introduced a scientific analysis of Lee’s swing – and a training programme to help him improve it – which Lee himself credits as being the key to the quality and consistency of his striking. For all of us who love and follow this game it is increasingly obvious that there is really not much difference in talent levels at the pinnacle of world golf.... and it is research such as this as Loughborough that is providing a real advantage for golfers looking for that ‘edge’.

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine

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