Maximise your body’s potential and become a better player. An interview with golf performance specialist Sam Vickers, by Dan from GolfBubble
I was recently lucky enough to spend some time catching up with Sam Vickers, a golf performance specialist based at the National Performance Centre at Woodhall Spa Golf Club, the home of England Golf. Sam has a huge wealth of expertise and experience and it was a real privilege to talk all things golf with him.
Sam offers both in person and online coaching with the aim of helping golfers of all levels, ages and injury backgrounds to maximise their body’s potential and become a better player.
It was immediately apparent from talking with Sam how knowledgeable he is in this area, but also how passionate he is about helping any golfer improve and enjoy golf more.
Sam is currently offering a 4-week online coaching package for just £50 (RRP £80), which includes a needs analysis, a physical movement screening and biomechanical swing analysis, an individualised 4-week programme and online support via the CoachNow platform. At a similar cost to a typical one-hour lesson this really feels like something any golfer serious about improving should think about investing in.
Why work with a golf performance coach?
Working on my own strength and flexibility has made a huge difference to my golf game in recent years, both in terms of scoring and preventing a recurring pain in my lower back.
I really believe it could help any golfer who would like to improve or play pain free. Your body is the most important tool you have, so it makes sense to get the most out of it.
The picture below from Sam shows just how important it is to understand and improve what your body can do. Understanding this will help you work towards swing techniques you can actually achieve, and improving what your body can do will help maximise your potential.
If nothing else though, it can also help you play the game pain free, which would be a game changer for so many golfers.
Here’s some of our favourite questions and answers from when we caught up with Sam
Sam’s tips and advice for golfers
Dan: Straight to the point, what is the single best bit of advice you would give to all golfers?
Sam: Set out a clear plan to your development. Regardless of your level, if you are genuinely investing your time and resources into being the best player you can be, you need to be able to identify what your ‘low hanging fruit’ is for improvement. As in, what areas can be enhanced that offer the most return. This is where working alongside a coach or team of specialist’s is often vital, as they can help you identify where you really need to put your focus. Too many players waste time and money with coaches working on things that typically do not offer much return.
Dan: What areas of improvement have you seen help golfers the most?
Sam: Most golfers will hit a level where their handicap and scores start to plateau. Someone’s natural ability and learning process often sees them improve quite quickly through simply playing regularly but overtime this will stall, and typically this is where the majority of golfers start to get very frustrated… resulting in them changing coaches, completely altering their swing and going down ‘rabbit holes’ searching for the next level.
Perhaps biasedly, from my experience, nearly all golfers make their next level break through by focusing on the basics and consistency of routines. Looking at the physical side to move better with more freedom, decrease pain and injury, reduce general fatigue levels both on and off the course, preparing better before a round with a physical warm-up and developing mental skills that maximises their course-management and ability to focus and accept the shot outcome / score.
Nearly all golfers – even at the highest level – have an ingrained swing technique. The golf swing is meant to alter day to day, because this is how human movement works, which is what makes golf so difficult. Therefore, focusing more on what impacts this is essential. If your body is physically limited, or if it is injured and in pain, then your engine needs developing, not your swing positions and feels. If your body is fatigued and your neuromuscular system is not working efficiently, then your nutrition, hydration, lifestyle, and training routines need developing. Whereas most will just hit more balls and have more coaching sessions which often compounds the issue. The point is, the main thing that is limiting progress is rarely as simple as technical faults.
Dan: It is becoming more and more apparent how important it is to warm up before playing golf, both for performance and injury prevention. Do you have any tips or advice about how to warm up?
Sam: In virtually every other sport played – even at a low amateur level – you warm-up physically before participating. In golf, traditionally the warm-up is in the clubhouse over breakfast or a beverage. This links back to preparation and having a plan.
Applying a simple routine that takes 5 minutes each time before you play and practise has been scientifically shown to reduce the risk of injury, increase clubhead and ball speed, thus helping you hit the ball further, improve quality of strike and mentally prepare you better. That seems like a lot of big performance benefits for minimal input to me.
Those who do apply a warm-up though often focus on static stretching which can have negative effects on the golf swing. It is essential to focus on a dynamic routine that gets the whole body moving in a manner that will benefit your golf swing. Here is a free example routine to start applying:
Dan: What have you learnt from your time working with so many top professional players that could benefit the average golfer?
Sam: Control the controllable and consistency is King!
1 – Control ruthlessly what can be controlled. These are things such as sticking to a plan, honest communication with your coach(es), being coachable and open-minded to learning, staying focused and committed long term, training and looking after yourself generally, and remembering to have fun with it all… otherwise you must question why you really bother. I could add many more, but I am sure those reading understand the principle.
2 – Then being consistent in your routines. The best players are amazing at repeating and sticking to routines. There is nothing fancy about their work, its often remarkably simple, very precise, and reliable. Going through a clear process every day and every time you tee off is what creates consistent and improved performances. It is what allows a player to perform under extreme pressure. Doing the same pre-shot routine, same pre-round routines, same warm-up, same swing reminders, same messages until they are cemented and performed on autopilot.
Fundamentally I am probably repeating myself in answer to these questions, and that is not by accident. I have seen so many talented golfers achieve little in the game and that is because they have no clear understanding of what truly got them there in the first place or clarity on why they have played well in the past. A personal framework to your performance is what I like to help develop. History always leaves clues, and those who reflect, assess and plan, continue to develop and progress. Everyone is looking for a magic answer and that is it right there to a certain degree. It is super simple, yet applying it over lengthy periods of time, making it become natural and part of your lifestyle, is extremely difficult and complex. Yet, you must start somewhere!
What to expect from working with Sam
Dan: What could a golfer expect to gain from working with you?
Sam: My primary role is to help people move better, become more robust, reduce injury risk, and pain, and generally improve overall athletic qualities for health, golf, and performance. Everyone is approached individually by considering their age, sex, playing level, injury history, lifestyle, and unique body type (anthropometrics). All these factors are unique to the individual and by understanding how these impact someone’s time and energy, a physical training programme can be created that achieves their goals in the most efficient manner.
Then it is about hitting that ‘low hanging fruit’ principle. This is identified through a physical profiling assessment to pinpoint what the individual needs to develop. Although good training incorporates all key physical components (strength, speed, power, mobility, stability etc.), some require a heavier starting focus on certain areas above others. For example, someone may have a long-standing lower back injury which is limiting their rotation, therefore, we would look to improve stability in key areas to protect the back so they can increase their freedom to move more how they want. Another individual may have lost speed with age from living a sedentary lifestyle working behind a computer desk 40+ hours a week, so we would look to increase hip and thoracic mobility and assess postural imbalances coupled with education on managing their lifestyle habits better. Another example, and the most common one, would be someone looking to hit the ball further through more clubhead speed. This would require a combination of mobility, strength, and power training built up over time alongside support with swing mechanics and speed training.
Dan: What would a golfer cover with you if they took up your 4-week coaching package?
Sam: Firstly, we would undertake a needs analysis, identifying your goals and unique individual background. Then a movement assessment to identify your physical limitations and how this impacts your swing mechanics, speed capacity and injuries/pain.
I then look at videos of your golf swing and link back your physical limitations to your swing mechanics. I like to discuss what you are working on and trying to achieve, whether personally or with your golf coach, so I can highlight whether a movement is just natural to the golfer, a lack of understanding from the player or a physical restriction whereby they cannot move in a certain manner that they desire.
Through this information, a clearer understanding of what the player needs to do to improve is highlighted. This links back to having a clear plan of what needs to be done to progress and takes a lot of guess work out of the equation from player and golf coach.
From there a programme is devised with video demonstrations of select exercises that have been chosen for you to develop the key physical areas that are limiting your progress. I use an App called Coach Now which is a private training space between me and the golfer where they can ask questions, upload videos of exercises for feedback and link to their coach.
Dan: What sort of changes, gains or improvements have you seen with some of the golfers you’ve worked with? And then this will definitely be of interest to some of our readers, what is the biggest yardage or swing speed gain you have helped someone achieve?
Sam: This is a tough answer to pinpoint, as I have worked with people who have undergone serious surgery from injury, or recovered from chronic pain that has deliberated their life, make a recovery and progress to play golf in a manner they never expected. As all can appreciate, this has a significant impact on their overall life.
But from purely a performance perspective, a professional golfer who started with me 3 years ago playing on the Euro Pro Tour has added over 30 yards in driving distance which has coincided with them gaining their European Tour status over this period. Naturally, there are multiple factors as to why this happened, but anyone who understands the importance of driving distance and strokes gained off the tee will grasp that there is a big correlation between these factors and scoring performance.
I also had someone who wanted to compete in professional long drive, and anyone who has watched this will understand that these athletes are speed machines. They can achieve numbers that are almost unfathomable. This person was already naturally fast – which is essential if wanting to become a long driver (good genetics) – swinging a normal driver at 128mph clubhead speed. Through strength and conditioning, speed specific training and technical support from a long drive specialist swing coach, they are now clocking upwards of 147mph… and when your speed is already so high, it is not ‘low hanging fruit’, so adding virtually 20mph is so impressive.
Dan: How do you work with golfers when offering online coaching vs in person coaching?
Sam: The process is similar, however, like with any form of coaching, in person communication will always differ too online. They both have their pros and cons and with having to do more online coaching since the start of covid, it has really opened my eyes to how great online coaching can be.
Other than the communication/rapport building, I am also able to measure certain physical capabilities on force plates and look closer at swing data using a radar. The information allows me to understand much more accurately an individual’s strength and power capacity which links to force production capabilities, and thus clubhead speed, as well as the opportunity to inspect swing mechanics closer. Typically, these areas of coaching are used with those who have longer experience with training and are at a certain playing level (single-digit handicap).
Dan: Time is one of the biggest barriers to people playing and practicing. Can people make improvements from working with you even with limited time to work on things?
Sam: For many club golfers, free time is the number one reason they say they do not do any physical training, both for general health and to aid their golf. However, research shows that just x2 30mins sessions a week of resistance/strength-based training is the minimum dosage required for the body to adapt. Therefore, I always explain this to people and highlight a programme that follows this principle into their weekly routine. Throw in a 5–10-minute daily mobility routine that can be done with minimal space and no equipment, as well as educating them to undertake a dynamic warm-up each time they play, the accumulation of these methods really does result in clear improvements. This is the perfect example of understanding how the body works and adapts to exercise/training and creating an individualised plan that fits in line with the persons goals and barriers.
Dan: With limited time available I rarely visit a gym but do try to do some fitness work at home. Are you able to provide programmes that people can work on from home?
Sam: Yes, the first question I ask every new client is what their preferred training environment is and what equipment they have available. Naturally, depending on what your training experience and physical qualities starting out are, will determine where your training focus needs to start. For a substantial percentage of golfers, they can make clear progress with truly little equipment such as dumbbells and resistance bands.
Some golfers like to be in the gym but struggle with time, so we create a programme that is flexible and utilises both environments depending on their weekly availability. Being flexible in the plan is essential, and once the individual understands what this truly means for them, they see the biggest improvements.
Dan: It sounds as though you work hard to tailor your programmes to the person you are working with?
Sam: My approach and expertise with all athletes are very much about improving sporting performance through integrated sports science methods. So, with the discipline of strength and conditioning, the primary aim is to get the individual to physiologically adapt to a stress stimulus in the form of a training session. The objective is to provide the minimum doss of stress for the maximum adaptation. Naturally, how much someone adapts to the stress will depend on their age, training experience and general well-being. Accumulating sessions over a period results in their body becoming stronger, more mobile, more robust, and more resistant to fatigue.
When we take this key principle to training, for the body to adapt efficiently, other areas of performance such as recovery time, sleep, nutrition, hydration, practise and playing volume, general lifestyle factors and training intensity and volume all impact adaptation. Therefore, it is part of my role to be able to educate and provide tools to the individual to develop each of these areas. I could write the best training programme in the world but if they are only getting 5 hours sleep a night and are consuming 1200 calories a day due to life stresses and no free time, the training will have a negative impact, leaving them sore, more fatigued, and often leading to injury, pain and/or illness. Consequently, this integrated approach is essential, and I often find with many individuals, helping them plan their time better to factor in family commitments, work balance, better nutrition etc., is where the focus can be. Then their training can blossom, and they yield all the great benefits of it. Overall, it is a viscous circle with looking after our health and well-being, so it takes a nuanced approach.
Additionally, I am in the process of starting a PhD this year which will be researching how an individual’s performance in sports is impacted by physical, mental, and environmental factors holistically, helping to identify better frameworks for performance enhancements. These same principles will extend so a weekend golfer, a junior all the way through to an experienced tour player, as in essence, we are looking to maximise our unique individualised lifestyle.
Dan: Finally, I’ve seen you post some great stuff on statistics and other performance areas; do you help golfers with these areas as well as their physical training? I imagine some objective help analysing their game could really help some golfers improve.
Sam: I also work as a freelance data research analyst for the StatsZone specialising in golf and consequently, I am a big believer in golfers of all levels keeping stats on their rounds. Recording strokes-gained data is the best way a player can understand where they are dropping strokes and allows them to practise more effectively and put their time into the areas that is the ‘lowest hanging fruit.’ As a result, I often support players with understanding their stats clearer and consult with them on how different experts help them develop the most, such as a putting specialist or psychologist.
Furthermore, I am in the process of becoming a certified DECADE instructor, something I have found brilliant for my own game and an area of performance that I feel integrates the physical, strokes-gained, strategy and mental side of the game in a more integrated fashion. I recommend signing up to a DECADE account to learn the basics as it will help all golfers in my experience.
The GolfBubble quickfire
Dan: Favourite course you’ve played?
Sam: Either Carnoustie, Scotland or Hardelot Les Pins, France. Both exceptional but for vastly different reasons.
Dan: What course is top of your bucket list?
Sam: Pebble Beach no question
Dan: Who’s in your dream fourball?
Sam: Tiger (obviously), Tom Watson and Rory McIlroy
Dan: Favourite club (putter etc)?
Dan: Worst ever shot?
Sam: Most recent, Woodhall Spa Hotchkin, 2nd tee. Perfect, scorching summer day, no wind, games in great shape, hit driver out of bounds right. For anyone who knows that hole, will know that is quite the shot!
Dan: Best ever shot?
Sam: Quinta North, Par 5 3rd, 285yards to pin uphill, 3 wood that never left the flag and finish 2ft from the pin in its own pitch-mark. Did not even think I could reach!
Dan: It was a real privilege catching up with Sam, hopefully you found it useful. If you want to know more about working with Sam, or would like to take up his current 4-week online coaching offer, the full details of the offer can be found here, along with all of Sam’s contact details.
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