I had the chance to speak with Roy Palmer about his new book - Golf Sense, Practical Tips On How To Play Golf In The Zone. It has some great tips on how to stay in the moment and really enjoy your golf. Take a listen to the interview below:
NICK: So hello and welcome to “Three Good Shots” podcast. I’m Nick Swan here with Roy Palmer, who’s released a new book called “Golf Sense,” which he was kind enough to send me a copy. Tell me Roy, how’s it going and can you tell me a little bit about yourself?
ROY: Hi Nick. Thanks for having me on the podcast. I’m a teacher of the Alexander technique, which many people still don’t know what that is. It’s about moving re-education, getting to know how your body works and getting it to work more efficiently. There’s more to it than that. It could be really useful for all sports people, but especially golfers.
NICK: Can you give us a quick elevated pitch about your book?
ROY: The subtitle really says it all: “practical tips on how to play golf in the zone.” I did a lot of work looking into this phenomena. It’s when you play your best. When it’s your peak performance and it’s not really hard work at all. That’s when you’re in the zone and I hope the book has lots of little hints and tips about how to get into the zone more often and play better, more enjoyable golf.
NICK: Quite early in the book you say you don’t play too much golf yourself. Did that help when you were working with the golfers that you used as examples in the book?
ROY: Yes, certainly the golfers I’ve worked with would say that it does help, simply because with any sport we can get the blinkers on. We can get a bit stuck in our own ways and bogged down with the technical jargon and technical advice we’ve been given. Really, a lot of it comes down to simple movements. “Basics,” as I call them, that have nothing to do with golf and more about how you move and use your body. As an outsider, I can quite often see things that a golfer’s doing that maybe wouldn’t be picked up by a coach.
NICK: The front of the book has the words “observe, think, act, and achieve.” Are these the 4 key principles that you go through in the book?
ROY: Absolutely. [For] So many people, not just golfers, but athletes that I work with, the “observe” is the bit that most people miss out. They’re not aware that they’re doing certain things. Mini golfers will lift their shoulders and tighten their necks. It does affect the whole dynamics of the shot, so you have to be more self-aware of what you’re doing. Also, the “think:” Many of us think we’re in control but in fact we can be anything BUT in control because we get stuck in our habitual way of doing things. Habits rob us of the opportunity of being fully aware of what we’re doing. Just 4 words that nicely encapsulate what we need to do, and if you do those, it can make a huge difference to your game.
NICK: You mentioned playing in the zone, which is funny because when you’ve played a really good round, you realize afterwards that you’ve been in the zone, rather than when you’re playing. How can you put effort into getting in that zone more often? It seems the harder you try, the least likely you are to make it in that zone.
ROY: That’s exactly what led me down this route: the techniques I use in the book. It got to me one day that getting in the zone is a bit like falling asleep. To fall asleep, it doesn’t happen any faster if you lie in bed trying to fall asleep. Anything you do with interfere with the process. It’s the same with the zone. It’s about being present in the moment. Enjoying what you’re doing and allowing that process to continue. Then you will suddenly slip into the zone. I achieve a lot when I’m running. Certain things I need to put into place, but not to try. To sleep, you need a quiet room, warmth, and a comfortable bed. Then you allow the process to take care of itself.
NICK: So you’ve got a few tips we could try next time we’re out on the golf course to take out mind off it?
ROY: Well it’s things that I talk about in the book about not actually focusing specifically on the golfing aspects because you’ll be doing that anyway. It’s other things that get you into the moment, which can be as simple as being aware of your feet in your socks, on the ground. My favorite is just being aware of my ribs moving against my shirt as I breathe. Other golfers I know like to be aware of the contact of their lips so they can be aware of their jaws. It’s to be aware of things that are relative to the moment, but not necessarily relative to golf. If you concentrate on your grip, for instance, you’ll be trying to do it in your golfy fashion and trying to do it too much, whereas if you could just be aware of the contact of your hand against the club, that’s another way of getting into the moment.
NICK: Is it different for different golfers? Do you have to find out what works best for you?
ROY: Yes. Everybody’s individual so there must be 20 or 30 different things that I’d use and it’s about finding the right thing for each particular golfer. Working with golfers, I will discover new ones as they will tell me what works for them. It should be related to the moment, but not directly related to the shot you’re about to play. That’s in the preparation. Just to be aware of certain things. It just helps to quiet things down. I think of it as quieting down the nervous system, reducing the amount of traffic going between your brain and your muscles. There are so many things to think about. I see a lot of golfers get completely paralyzed by trying to think or do 20 different things at once and confusing themselves.
NICK: Can you give us a few stories about people you’ve worked with and the improvements you’ve seen by practicing your techniques?
ROY: Yes, actually many fall into the category I mentioned earlier of lifting their shoulders or tightening their necks before they swing. One particular chap had good technique on the hold, but with the swing, he just didn’t achieve the distance he thought he was capable of. His practice shot looked fine, but when you bring the ball into the equation, he would do more preparation and stiffen up a fraction. We all have our little habits. As he got into his stance, he would wiggle the club a little bit. Just pull down his stance, tighten his back and do a little wiggle. He just got into feeling the contact of his lips on each other and to check he didn’t clinch his jaw. It kept him in the moment and he didn’t do any of the normal things he wanted to do. Then he could do the same sort of swing he did in his practice swing. Once he lined up the shot and was standing over the ball, it got him to almost stop thinking of the ball completely. He got 10-15 extra yards when he didn’t do his usual preparation and allowed something different to happen. It freed up his movement and made a huge difference. He was very pleased.
NICK: It’s so funny, isn’t it, when you see golfers’ practice swing is better than their actual swing.
ROY: Practically everybody, except for the top pros. Once you put the ball into the equation, as soon as they start thinking about how the shot will turn out, it stiffens them up a little. The guy with the clinching jaw realized he’d done all the work before he did his swing. He’d chosen his club, lined up the shot, he knew roughly where he wanted to go, so he just had to not have any concern about where the ball went. He knew anything he’d do then to improve the shot would be detrimental to the shot. Again, this part about being in the moment.
NICK: When a golfer hits a bad shot, they’ll be thinking “it must be my grip” and they’ll focus on their grip a bit more. How do you get around doing it? I do it, myself.
ROY: We’re all human. We all have our idea about what’s going on, but surprisingly we get it wrong on many occasions. What’s actually wrong on any particular day with our game may be nothing to do with what we think we’re doing. Once you’ve brought in that anxiety, we start to make corrections. Often, what we’re doing is adding more unnecessary movements or actions on top of something that’s already going wrong. I was thinking, rather than try doing something extra, try to do less. The more you try to do, the more there is to get wrong. We hear the term “simple golf” a lot, because those who actually worked it out realize that the simpler your golf, the better you play. Try doing less. It’s about coming back to the basics. I’m not talking golf basics, but the basics of movement. I see many golfers get into poor stances. I ask them to talk me through what they’re doing. Often they’re doing something they’re unaware of. They’re tightening their hamstrings, pulling themselves down into their stance, claiming their getting into “their stance.” You can see in their faces, they’re actually tightening their lower backs, which reduces their rotation. Try to keep it simple, and not over-analytical. Often, what’s going wrong is something you may be totally unaware of.
NICK: One thing I’ve realized since reading your book is how tense my jaw was. It’s not until you try relaxing it that you realize how tense it was before and while you’re taking your shot.
ROY: Absolutely. This is the problem with habits. There’s a reflex that connects the jaw and the hands. If you look at a young baby feeding, they grip their fists. It’s called the “babkin response.” So quite often, people will have tension in their jaw when they’re concentrating on their grip. Because it’s a habit you’ve done 20 or 30,000 times before, it’s not until you release that tension that you go “Ah! There was tension there.” But if it was business as usual, you’ll start to do that as part of your preparation. Many golfers tense themselves up purely as part of their habit, then once it’s a habit, they do it without even thinking. You jaw muscles will affect your neck muscles, which are very sensitive. They’re used to coordinate every muscle in your body. Putting the tension on your jaw could be the equivalent of putting the brake on your car.
NICK: When you see a professional golf coach and you’re working on bits of your swing, as you’re improving your grip or taking a different way in a slightly clever direction, how do you combine the advice the pros give you with the teachings from your book?
ROY: It’s about trying to give people the means to use the advice a coach could give them. Now, I’m not a golf coach. I can’t say I can do anything that a golf coach can. There’s a few I’ve worked with and it’s fascinating, the techniques some of them have devised. I teach people a “pre-technique.” So if the coach is telling you how to do something, I can help people carry that instruction more accurately. Again, I’m like a driving instructor for the body. If you can have lessons from a coach, they’ll ask you to do something. Quite often people are unable to carry that advice exactly. I used to teach karate, where I noticed that verbal instructions that you give can be interpreted by 10 different people in very different ways. That comes down to, yes, language, and how people use their bodies, the concept they have. Again, someone says to keep your back straight and you’ll see people actually tighten their lower back. People feel, “that’s how I do that particular instruction. It’s really just trying to help golfers get more from lessons from a coach. They’re more body-aware of it, if you like. To understand the body mechanics of everything you do. The technique could be used for all sports people or if you sit at a desk all day. It’s all about how you use your body.
NICK: I didn’t mean to turn this into a personal coaching lesson for me [laughs], but one thing I’m working on with my coach is my lower body in terms of my hips and my downswing. My arms and things like that. So all I’m thinking about when I swing is to stop my lower body, my legs and my hips from moving. How would you use the Alexander technique to help me there? Thinking about my legs and my hips is probably tensing them up.
ROY: You’re then probably going in the opposite direction and restricting movement. With work from the idea of the “top-down” approach, the neck muscles will coordinate every other muscle in your body. It’s really about not trying so hard. Try to get a better appreciation of the momentum. Let the club hit and do an awful lot of that work. Another golfer I worked with tried to hit the ball too hard, adding too much and completely destroying his coordination. He said he was knocking down an old brick wall in his backyard and I was asking him when he was using the sledgehammer, to not try to hit the wall and let the weight of the hammer do it. Obviously, his club doesn’t weigh that much, but it gave him the lesson that you don’t have to try and hit the ball hard to get the coordination. And again, coordination is very much a lower level brain function. If you try to keep your lower body still, you may go too far and prevent the body from coordinating whole movement. Trying to stay relaxed and free, then as the upper body swings through, then every other part will start to be engaged, as and when is necessary, but again, that’s not a function that we need to try to think about consciously. It’s something that should mostly be done at a subconscious level. It’s like the captain of a ship. The captain gives the order. He doesn’t go to the engine room to shovel coal. Part of his crew should then carry out their own particular function. Again if you’re focusing on your jaw, try to keep you neck relaxed. Keep the body free and try some practice swings. Get a sense of the head of the club coming through and let it lead the shot. See if you can let your body follow:
NICK: You said about the guy swinging the sledgehammer, not trying, but you look at the pros player swinging so fast, that in terms of their body, it looks like they’re hardly trying at all. Especially someone like Ernie Els. He swings so easily.
ROY: Also Rory McElroy. I’m a big fan of his swing. Though it was interesting watching Tiger Woods a while back, where he did have the degree of control to actually “give it some stick” if you like. You could see him accelerate that club, though he did sort of have problems with his knees. But yes the top people in any sport do tend to make it look easy. Think of Roger Federer, big chap on the tennis court, but boy does he move freely. And again, they’re at the top of their sport because they do have that natural coordination and movement, and the ability to let it happen, to let it take care of itself.
NICK: You say “natural coordination.” Is it natural, or is it something you have to teach yourself to get better at?
ROY: That’s a good question. I think a lot us do lose our natural coordination through poor habits. We can get it back. My background was running, martial arts, cricket, and I noticed, through my mid twenties, performances dropping, and it wasn’t until later when I came across this technique that I realized I’d lost my coordination, basically. It was really poor. Now, in my late 40s, I can do things better than when I was in my mid 20s. So yes, it’s possible. It’s about unlearning bad habits, to allow your natural coordination to do it for you. It’s a lesson a lot of us have to relearn because we’ve gone so far past that natural poise we had as young children. It takes a bit of practice, but it is worth it.
NICK: Unfortunately, I spend 8-10 hours a day sitting in front of a computer. Do you think these kind of work habits will affect our posture and our golf swing?
ROY: Yes it does. When you go out on the golf course, you don’t suddenly get a new body. You’re taking a body that’s been sitting in front of a computer all day, and unfortunately, a lot of people do develop very poor sitting posture. That changes the shape of your spine and it conditions your muscles in a particular way. But it is possible to learn how to sit, poised, with less tension in the body. The same skills you can learn to get into the moment in any sport, you can use for sitting at your computer. Quite often, I do go into companies and talk about sitting posture. Quite often, it’s just to get people aware that the support is coming up through the seat of the chair and they should think of it pushing up through the top of their spine to the top of their head. Quite often the people who try to sit up straight are like a golfer trying to keep his back straight. They’ll tighten their lower backs and make it worse. There are tricks and little techniques you can use throughout the day to ensure you body doesn’t get out of shape. I went out for pizza earlier. Just sitting there you see some poorly shaped spines, sitting there eating. Once you get out of shape, it could be very difficult to get it back.
NICK: Sitting here now, I’ve just kind of noticed the tension going through my jaw and my hamstrings. I’ve tried loads of different things. I’ve tried sitting on swiss balls-
ROY: Yes, they can be useful, but its like people who spend hundreds of pounds on an ergonomic chair. I still see people sitting badly on them. It’s not furniture, it’s us that needs to be aware.
NICK: So you’ve written a book on golf sense. You’ve been involved in other sports before you’ve written a book on golf?
ROY: Yes, I used to teach karate. My daughter’s not a brown belt. I still coach cricket, where there are a lot of similarities. I know a lot of cricket players who play golf, but not a lot of golf players who play cricket. It doesn’t seem to work the other way around. Running and swimming as well. I do a lot of that myself and work a lot with runners. The Alexander technique does wonders for people’s running. And once again, it’s about teaching people to try less and get more from your body.
NICK: Running does seem to be a sport that people do get injured quite a lot in.
ROY: It’s one of those things that people assume they know how to do. A lot of people who play golf, tennis and cricket will have coaching, but very few people who run will think they need coaching sessions because we assume we can do it. Again, you know, maybe when we were 10, we could run around all day to our heart’s content. But suddenly people take it up again in their late 20s or later, and they’re taking a body that’s been very poorly coordinated for many years and trying to make it do something as vigorous as running. And again, it’s clearly poor movement habits that leave to excessive stress on the joints. Again, here are a few pointers on how to reduce that stress.
NICK: So you mentioned karate, but what do you do for fun outside of work?
ROY: There’s not much time these days to do anything else [laughs]. My daughter and I were playing cricket because we couldn’t find the football. I do enjoy reading a lot. I’ve been reading quite a few golf books lately. But I enjoy science fiction, history, and Lord of the Rings. I’ve read it 3 or 4 times in my life, but not in about 15 years. It was sitting on my bookshelf the other day and I picked it up. I’m halfway through it again already.
NICK: Fantastic. So how can people find out more about the book and the Alexander technique?
ROY: There’s my website, Play-better-golf.com. It’s on Amazon. There are quite a few reviews on there now that I’m very pleased with. They’ve been saying it’s quite a different approach, a bit left of center. There’s also Simplyalexandertechnique.com. There’s a lot of information on there about the technique and how to find a teacher. I do recommend that people at least read about it and if possible, to find a teacher and find out some more for themselves.
NICK: I’m going to take a look at that about posture and golf.
ROY: Certainly they feed into each other. We play these sports, but it’s not just about the sport. There’s a lot we can learn from sport that can help feed back into our professional lives and all other aspects. It’s more than that, especially something like golf.
NICK: Especially with golf. Golf is supposed to be something you do for fun, but you see people get so wound up about it when they play badly.
ROY: I’m just as bad at some of the sports I’ve done in the past. I got so annoyed at myself, but that doesn’t help at all, does it? [laughs] It’s good to take it seriously because why do something where you don’t care if you’re any good at it or not. It’s how to take it seriously without getting frustrated with yourself. Because it can be intensely rewarding to do any sport or activity well.
NICK: Right. Thank you very much for your time. I will link to your book and your website, and that other Alexander one you mentioned. Thank you for your time.
ROY: Thank you very much, Nick.