"The coach has a massive role in explaining how data helps"

Words by
Dan Davies
"The coach has a massive role in explaining how data helps"

Steve Astle is a UK Top-50 Instructor with over 25 years of experience. Head of Coaching at the East Midlands Golf Academy, he works with girls in the England set-up and has taught players who have gone on to win international titles at amateur and professional level, including 60 county champions in 10 different counties.

A specialist in long-term development programmes, Steve has shared his experience at numerous international coaching conferences and in the pages of various golf publications. His latest venture, OnlineJuniorGolf.com, is the first of its kind: an online junior performance academy for elite junior players worldwide. Data collection, as Steve explains, is key to how he and the new academy works.

Among the types of players that you work with, how many would you say are diligent about tracking their performance?

Steve Astle: Percentage wise, you're not even close to 50 percent. It comes down to education and them understanding the value of what they do. There are strong arguments for automated data capture but what does that look like in the future? Could I see a player's stats live while they're playing at amateur level because the club or the ball is telling me what's going on? There's such a big gulf between PGA Tour data, which is fully loaded now, and female and amateur golf. It's just not there for them.

Automated GPS capture would be great for coaches because we know that we can capture the data. But the next stage is how you integrate the players into the processes of the data and get them to understand the value and the importance of it. I've seen players who will capture 30 rounds in a year but they've got no clue why they've captured the data, the value of it or how it can influence what they do moving forwards. The coach has a massive role in explaining how it's going to help them. If the player can get some ownership of their stats and start to dive in themselves and get excited about them, that’s when we’ll know we’re making progress as an industry.

In other sports, data collection has been built into the overall activity rather than being an unwanted add-on. Do you agree that golf is catching up but still has a way to go?

Steve Astle: Absolutely. It’s about what's right for the right person in the right place at the right time. There are some players that really get off on the stats post-round, it's a real chance for them to reflect.Whenever a girl comes into our squad, they need to be able to reflect and they need to be able to capture their stats. They're the two main things that we focus on in year one. Anything else we get is a bonus. At least I know then where they're coming from and we can measure their improvement.

To date, do you think players have understood what the data is telling them? Has the feedback been good enough and compelling enough to change narratives inside players' heads?

Steve Astle: It's about how do we get that down to something as simple as a traffic light system, which is lighting up the areas that are great or have shown recent improvement? And how can they link that to the training that they've done? I think that's one of the hardest things. I don’t think golfers really know how to train. They just hit a lot of balls. It's very much a generic thing they do. The 'Moneyball' concept needs to come into golf, there's no doubt about that. Then you almost attach the artistic side to it.Myself and Roly Hitchcock, a fellow coach, have just set up a company called OnlineJuniorGolf.com, which is an online junior golf academy for elite players aged 13-18. We asked ourselves how can we help players with issues like these. The big pain point is when a player comes into my regional coaching squad. They're 14 years old, they're off scratch but they have no data whatsoever. We have to spend time trying to up-skill them with the data and put everything in place in order to be able to help them. There's a lot of time wasted.​​​​​​​

Steve Astle with one of his players

Alternatively, what happens is a player leaves a regional squad, either they are de-selected or they move on to college in the States. Then, another stats programme comes in or their data collection just falls by the wayside. So we end up with four or five years of data on this player. but they drop it because either they've not been educated to see the value in it or they don't have a non-negotiable from a coach which says, ‘Data collection is part of what you must do.’What happened during lockdown forced us to go online, and we started to realise that we could make quicker gains with players by actually spending time on goal-setting, on stats analysis, on course mapping, nutrition, sleep, online strength and conditioning. We have six-time European Tour winner Simon Dyson working in the team helping players with strategy and tournament prep. We got to the point of making quicker gains working online with a player hitting a ball into a net rather than if they were out on the driving range for three hours on their own.

Was that because the interaction with the player was more focused and more intense?

Steve Astle: Yeah. The way the system traditionally works is the parent pays you for an hour and you'll technically try to develop that player in that time. But there's never an hour where you’re paid to sit down with a junior player and talk about what they want to achieve in the year ahead. Let's look at the tournament they've got coming up next week. Let's look at the benefits of stats, analysis and development. You end up with this big gap. I guess that gap is why we set up OnlineJuniorGolf.com.

"I don’t think golfers really know how to train. They just hit a lot of balls. It's very much a generic thing they do"

So how important is data collection within your new set-up?

Steve Astle: If we're going to work with a player from anywhere in the world online, it's got to be data-driven. So rather than asking them what's happening at the moment or a parent telling you what they're observing, the data capture can drive that conversation. Can, for example, we see there's a clear drop off in the last third of their rounds and does that tie back into nutrition or to sleep? To have the player's own reflections on what they think happened versus what the data says happened would be massive. To be able to do all this online, the data is crucial.

How many young players are you looking to be working with in the new online academy set-up?

Steve Astle: As many as we can. I've got a team of coaches that are good enough to be able to support any player in the world. We are able to work with a player in South Africa. He's still got his home coach and his technical coach but we will look after their strength and conditioning, their nutrition, the parent education, their program planning for the week, their stats review. We can jump on ProVisualizer to help map out the next tournament with them. These are the other things that a normal coach doesn't get around to unless a parent can pay for 20 hours a month. We are also working in conjunction with Robert Rock Junior Tour, Dr Golf Strength and Conditioning and ProDream USA College placement service to ensure all players needs can be met. We can look at how we get them ready for college golf and after that, I think there's a huge market when they come out of college and they suddenly have no team around them once they turn pro.