Better Coaching Through Golf Simulators
Updated: Aug 11
Mary Ellen Burt has had one of the greatest careers of any Union College coach in her 25-year run as head women’s basketball coach. In 2010, she decided to combine her passions for golf and coaching, and proposed Union College establish a women’s golf program. She received the green light in 2011 and has led the Dutchwomen to near-continuous improvement during her tenure. In 2018-19, the team shaved nearly 10 strokes per round off the previous single-season record and recorded seven of the 10 best single-round scores in school history throughout the year.
I love golf—I play it every day if I can. One day, it occurred to me that I could marry my passion for golf and coaching young women at Union College. I now coach golf in the fall, winter, and spring. I love every moment of it.
Our golf simulator has been a fantastic recruiting tool and has given us ways to practice every aspect of the game indoors—throughout the year. I’ve discovered new ways to practice specific skills, tap into competitive natures, and found better methods to convince players to change how they play the game.
Here are a few ways I’ve used our aboutGOLF simulator to improve my athletes’ scores and their approach to golf.
Teaching the “Why”
Kids are always asking, “Why?” Why do I do this? Why do I practice this way? Why do I compete this way? Why do we train this way? Why do we do this? Why?
“Because I said so” is no longer an acceptable answer. Besides, I don’t think it’s an effective way to coach. If you can get kids to understand “why” you're doing something, they learn so much faster. They need to see the outcomes we’re hoping for and what we’re trying to do.
It’s so much easier to illustrate they “Why” in the golf simulator.
I’ll create a drill to practice our 100-yard shots. Why do we drill at that distance? Because those are the shots that we should be on the green, and hopefully close to the pin. When they start with 100-yard shots, they’re pin seeking instead of managing the course. They come up short, and now they’re in the sand trap. They waste a stroke getting out of the sand trap. Then they need two or three putts to sink the ball.
All of a sudden—when you start talking to kids about where are you aiming, what are you trying to do, what’s your swing thought—the “why” comes together. They understand that if I get this shot down, I can drastically improve my score.
When it comes to just chipping, what are you trying to do? Are you trying to get it up in the air, or are you trying to get it onto the green? The “why” is critical. They can see we've got a lot of green. Your best putt, even from the fringe, is so much better than a solid chip shot. So let’s keep score and show them they’re more successful doing it this way. All of a sudden, they get it. They want to be better. They want to lower their score. Now they finally understand why it’s important to work on the shot.
Building Confidence Through Data
When we started on a traditional driving range, players had a difficult time gauging their actual distance. When I ask one of my players how far they hit a 7-iron, they didn’t actually know. They’d tell me 150, and they were really hitting it 130.
With the golf simulator, there’s no debate over yardage. We have a record of each shot and know exactly how far they hit each club. I think that was a vital piece for them, and they carried that knowledge onto the course.
A funny thing happened when our team began working with a strength and conditioning coach. We expected their distances to change, but the kids didn’t. Instead of accepting an evident evolution in their game, the kids get it stuck in their mind that they’ve always hit a club a specific distance. They won't adjust unless you can prove they changed. With the simulator, they have data. It’s made it a whole lot easier to coach—no doubt about it.
There are always things to improve on in golf. I’m able to write drills on a whiteboard, and they write their results on the board for everyone to see. And if they did poorly, they’ll be back in that night to get a better score without fail.
Leveraging the Mulligan
I use the mulligan button a ton because, not because the kids had a bad shot, but they would try and use a pitching wedge. I tried to point out they’ve got a lot of green, why don’t try to pitch it up on the green? Of course, I let them hit the shot the way they wanted to do. Then I hit mulligan and have them try running it up.
It’s was just a different way to show kids the impact of various shots. It’s all about experiential learning. The kids have to feel it. They have to know why we’re doing this.
With a mulligan and instruction to try something different, we let them figure out what works better. They can see punch shots are landing them on the green more often than throwing it up in the air all the time.
The mulligan feature gives us more opportunities to do teach effectively. I’ve seen a huge improvement in course management. Rather than hitting balls straight out on a driving range where every ball is a great shot, they learn to adapt their game to the environment. The golf simulator gives them a better sense and feel of actually playing golf instead of just hitting balls on a range.
Creating a Competitive Environment
We have a whiteboard in our indoor training space. I’ll give them a course, and I’ll tell them you’re going to play the front nine or the back nine, play it from particular yardage, no mulligans, and count your puts. So they have to play that nine-hole course, and they have 4-5 days to play as many times as they want. Each time they play they have to post their score. They’re always trying to improve their score.
Competitive natures are an absolute asset to any sport. In the training center, they may not be competing against everyone else, but they’re trying to compete against themselves. Because they have constant access to the golf simulator, they can come and practice whenever they want. I don’t need to be there. If they’re going to practice at nine at night, we encourage them to do so. I’m empowered to say here are the tools to help you improve. Now it’s up to you. Go do it. Practice as much as you want.
They love what we call the “obstacle course.” I can set the courses up that they have to hit over a pond. They have to hit out from trees so often they learn to weigh whether to punch it out, go over the tree, or it under the tree. We don’t play the same course too many times when we’re on the golf simulator. We like to mix it up quite a bit.
Learning Course Management
I’m always amazed when kids go pin seeking for a pin that’s right behind a sand trap. I often think to myself, "Just hit for the center of the green and putt rather than trying to go for that one shot! The risk-reward isn't there."
For example, the 10th hole of Pebble Beach slopes hard from left to right. I tell them to aim for a sand trap, knowing they aren’t going to hit that sand trap. If we know everything is going to fall to the right, you need to adjust your aim. If you know it’s falling from the fairway and fail to correct, your ball goes into the ocean. That’s fun for kids to figure out.
Another example, I give them a shot from 150 yards out with a green that slopes really hard left to right. I tell them, “Let’s aim for the top of that house and see if we can bring the ball in from there.”
They internalize these lessons and practice the same techniques on the course. They understand their job is to find a target. After time on the golf simulator, the kids understand what I mean when I say, "Hey, watch the slope on the fairway. It’s headed to the left. Try to get a target line.” The golf simulator has tremendously helped with our course management skills.
Nailing the Short Game
We play a lot of courses in our division that have undulated greens. The speed early in the spring isn’t fast, but as we progress, the speed picks up. In the fall the courses are run quite quickly for us.
We teach the kids that where we set the ball to the screen is 15 feet. That’s 5 yards, and the kids pace it off. If I’m going to give them a 45-foot putt, how many screens is that? I’m going to give you a 7-foot putt. That’s halfway to the screen.
I’m going to give them a left-to-right break. What if they don’t hit it solidly? What if they don’t keep it on the line far enough off your club? It’s going to snap to the right pretty hard.
We think about those shots a lot. When we get to the course and practice, they can see a real left-to-right putt right. We tell them to use the concepts we learned in the simulator. When they use the cues from the simulator, they gain confidence. They know how to handle a left-to-right putt.
Getting Their Head in the Game
I learned something my first year the hard way. I didn’t practice having the kids going out to the first tee and being announced, then trying to hit a shot in front of everybody. Now we end a lot of practices with a driver, and we’ll announce the kids. We tell them to get in the golf simulator and start their pre-shot routine. They're going to hear their name. Start your pre-shot routine and take your swing. Get up. Set yourself up to the ball. One swing thought is all you get before you let it rip.
They really got into it.
Knowing that they practice in the simulator with their friends around them, it's easier to transfer their pre-shot routine to the course. It's helped a lot.
When they’re walking to the ball, I ask them, “What are you thinking? What’s your mindset?” It's essential to practice real-life scenarios as much as possible. They get accustomed to adjusting for a bad shot or a bad day. We all have them. It’s how you recover from them that matters. When they face a shot they’ve been working on all week on the simulator, you can tell them, “Hey, think about that one swing thought we talked about. This is that extra yardage. Let’s take more club." And they get it because they’ve done it before.
Confidence is the biggest thing you can give any athlete, but especially female athletes. I can tell them you’ve put in the time. You know the process. You know the data. Now, just trust it and hit the shot. Have fun with it.
If we were just to be at a driving range all the time and then play on a course, we wouldn't see the same level of success. Having the ability to play a course on the simulator and find holes similar to their home course—they have that experience in the back of their mind that they can use when they go out on the real course. It’s invaluable.