Take a good look at the picture (taken from the BBC website). This is a top of the swing look at Dustin Johnson’s swing. Unorthodox right? Yet this is a golfer who has won millions on the course. As a sport psychologist interested in helping competitors develop skill it opens up the question – what is skill? Here are some thoughts.

So this photo got me into a keen debate on Twitter last night with great coaches Hugh Marr and Robbie Cannon. My tweet related to this picture was as follows:

“Dustin Johnson demonstrating the difference between ‘technique’ and ‘skill’. Average technique…incredible skill”

Now hindsight is a great thing, but following a lively exchange of viewpoints I would definitely change my use of the word ‘average’. I think ‘unorthodox’ is a better, more appropriate choice.

Dustin Johnson clearly has an unorthodox swing. He has a swing technique that is away from the norm. Does it make it average or bad technique? Maybe it’s just semantics – clearly he gets tremendous outcomes, but are those outcomes due to his technqiue or is there something else at large here? And where does this word ‘skill’ come in?

Enter 4 words – ability, technique, mindset and skill. Let’s define each of them in turn (a more difficult task than you might think)

Ability – an aptitude to execute technique that contributes to skill. Ability is both in-born and can be developed. When you practice you are essentially practicing your ability. Ability is influenced by technique and mindset

Technique – the execution of a physical task – this can be deemed orthodox or unorthodox. It is related to ability, mindset and to skill.

Mindset – a variety of mental attributes that impact your motor skills e.g. confidence, focus, emotion, decision making etc etc (insert the mental skills you feel are applicable here)

Skill – The execution of a physical task in a game setting. It is related to ability, mindset and technique.

So let’s introduce some equations here:to see how these four attributes relate to each other. This is my take on the relationships (imho of course!)

Ability + technique (mindset) = an outcome

This outcome can be ball flight, ball control, and any outcomes related to putting, chipping and pitching.

Rory Mcilroy has incredible ability and great technique. So his outcomes are superb.

Dan Abrahams had very average ability, great backswing technique but lousy down and throughswing technique…so his (my) outcomes were very average!!! (and heavily below average at times for a golf pro!)

As you will notice I have put the term mindset in brackets after technique. This is because mindset is an important mediator of how well we learn technique – for example speed of technical acquisition is heavily determined by how well you focus when practicing. There could also be an argument made for the importance of optimism – the pessimistic golfer is less likely to build technique as effectively as the pessimist (this is largely hypothesis on my part!)

Ability + technique + mindset = skill

Now golf isn’t played on the range or the practice putting green. It’s played on the course, and is played under pressure. And that is where mindset comes into the mix. Mindset contributes to our ability and technique with all three combining to ultimately result in skill.

The skill of executing a tee shot to a tight fairway with wind howling left to right is influenced by ability, technique and mindset. All these come together to produce a result.

The skill of holing a 5 foot left to right putt to win a tournament is mediated by ability, technique and mindset.

I could go on….

So what does this all mean? Several things for coaches and players:

1. Coaches shouldn’t automatically lean towards working on technique. Use skills tests to develop ability and mindset

2. Players shouldn’t be too hung up on technique. Your ability counts. Your mindset counts.

People may agree or disagree with my definitions and my viewpoint on the relationships between the terms outlined above. Either way it’s a complex landscape…and it’s important for PGA golf coaches to get a grasp on their own opinion on the relationship.