Our strong reflexes to maintain balance prevent us from swinging properly

September 13, 2019- by Steven E. Greer, MD

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I am heading to Palm Beach Gardens for another session with Warren Bottke. I think that I have finally figured out the feel for getting to the left side and posting up at impact. I have been a lifelong flipper sticking to my right side.

But Coach Bottke told me how to swing like Brooks Koepka, his student, on the first session we had back in June, or three-months ago. Why am I just now figuring out what he was telling me? Likewise, back in March, Ryan Crysler at the Harmon school told me the importance of extending the right elbow in the downswing to maintain proper spine angles. I only recently saw the light there too.

Our innate reflexes to maintain balance are some of the strongest forces our brains have. Toddlers learn to walk right away because, if they fail to do so, predators will eat them or they will starve.

Evolution has created complex super-computers in our brainstems called the vestibular system. It collects input from the eyes, inner-ear, and tiny proprioception nodules in our limbs, to maintain balance. It overrides any conscious thoughts our higher cerebrum has.

(example of the vestibular system at work in the bird: it stares at the target and the rest of the body is controlled by autopilot)

A golf teacher can show you till the cows come home how to swing. But if those movements make the player feel as if they are losing balance, the vestibular system will override the brain’s intentions and keep the player doing the wrong moves.

As a case example, my inability to make consistent ball contact has been due to me aborting the downswing, releasing the extended right wrist, and flipping the club at the ball rather than turning through with my shoulders. This all happens because I have been deadly afraid of shifting my weight to the left leg. I have been unable to do that because the left-lean of the pelvis that is required will topple my torso, trigger the vestibular system, and emergency measure reflexes kick in.

To me, shifting the pelvis to the left triggers a reflex as strong as those triggered by water-boarding. It is utterly terrifying. My spinal cord says, “no way, man.”

The player must figure out, usually indoors without the anxiety of a golf ball in front of them, how to make these body movements and feel safe by maintaining balance. In my case, I finally realized what the top teachers mean when they talk about the importance of the ankles. I had to feel my right ankle buckle to the inside arch as my left ankles rolled onto a flat planted foot. I had been playing golf all of my life from the inner arch of my left foot as I pushed in fear to prevent the left weight transition.

Once I realized that I could make these extreme turns in the hips and still maintain balance by extending the right arm, my vestibular system emergency reflexes quieted. I now have to ingrain these new moves and reflexes with practice.

My suggestion to any golf instructor reading this is to be more hands-on and forceful. The student has to feel these positions to grasp them. Consciously explaining them will not work. The spinal cord overrides the brain until it feels safe and balanced.

Jack Grout held Nicklaus’ hair. I am a big believer in that. Sadly, he did not do that for me when I was getting lesson from in the 1980’s. Times had changed since the 1950’s when he taught Nicklaus. One high school golf coach told me that there is a legal risk to touching students. I think we need to go back to the days of Grout, Sneed, and Hogan when instructors were more hands-on.

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