Golf Balance and the Z-Axis
by Dr. T. J. Tomasi, College of Golf Senior Faculty and Director of Research
To protect you from falling down, your body has a system that integrates your posture, balance and verticality (your relationship to standing upright). Verticality is along the Z-axis, and it is the key to your balance system. When you’re standing upright, a straight line can be drawn through the top of your head down your spine and into the ground. If your center of mass drifts outside the Z-axis, which is its base of support, warning signals start so quickly that it’s difficult not to make compensating adjustments to prevent falling down. Except for reflexive responses, balance adjustments are learned in advance so the system can respond on time, which is why a major part of having a repeating golf swing involves a series of pre-installed, synchronized balance adjustments that kick in as soon as the golf swing begins.
The problem is that you must deviate from the Z-axis in order to make a good golf swing, and this deviation elicits a warning that you are falling over. Thus, you have two very different balance profiles (1) Street Balance (or Z-axis balance), which is your normal adherence to staying vertical in the gravity net as you make your way around your everyday world and (2) Golf Balance, where the body assumes an unnatural configuration that must be learned and abided by in order to possess a reliable swing. Note: Street Balance will override Golf Balance every time unless you train otherwise.
Violation of the Z-axis is the reason why toddlers fall down learning to walk and why golfers stand up straight through impact before they learn to swing correctly. New golfers and those who have never learned correct Golf Balance have a difficult time when their instructor tells them not to stand up through the golf ball, a.k.a. “don’t lose your spine angle.” But if you haven’t taken the time to install an alternate balance template for golf (Golf Balance), you won’t be able to deviate from the Z-axis without automatically straightening up through impact. What your teacher is telling you to do violates a million years of human evolution, so it’s no wonder that, sans the proper preparation, you can’t heed his/her instructions.
Takeaway: To be a good golfer you must teach your brain to ignore the Z-axis deviation while you swing. The importance can be seen watching the ceremonial tee shots of superstars such as Jack Nicklaus at the Masters. Their aging bodies no longer allow them to deviate from the vertical correctly even though they still know how to do it; thus they are straight up on the Z-axis, and their once powerful action through the ball is reduced to a mere slap.
Can you Practice Balance?
There is a popular notion that you can become an expert at something by putting in 10,000 hours of practice, but this is not the whole story – it’s not only the quantity of the practice that counts, but also the quality. Of course, to become a good golfer, you need to practice a lot, but simply completing the repetitions is not the best way to get better.
In the first place, the repetitions must be correct – obviously if you repeat a swing that is incorrect, you will learn a “perfectly incorrect” swing. In the second place, the brain must be turned on while the repetitions occur, because mindless repeating is a very inefficient way to learn.
The above is obvious when it comes to swing mechanics, but what about your balance; should you practice specifically for good balance or does it just happen as a result of good swing mechanics? The answer is you must practice specifically to learn Golf Balance, just as you do for good Street Balance.
A baby learns to balance while walking basically by falling down then learning from its mistakes. You can learn Golf Balance the same way; i.e., by repetition and self-feedback. The more you practice balance, the more you store the balance template for that movement in the brain. Once you repeat it enough, your brain gets the idea that it’s important to you and subsequently it’s placed in long-term procedural memory. In humans, balance is multi-sensorial, as your brain processes information coming from the gravity sensors all over your body – this includes information from your vision system, sensors in your feet, the balance mechanism in your inner ear and the environmental cues that allow you to anticipate any deviations from the vertical (direct up and down) – there’s a lot of computing power devoted to keeping you on the Z-axis.
Thus, you can see the importance of proper balance practice in that the more information your brain has as to what should go on while you make your golf swing, the better your brain can anticipate the requirements of balance when you tell it to make the next golf swing.
While the above is important for adult golfers it is even more so for junior golfers who should spend their junior apprenticeship laying down the balance templates in preparation for adult play. Jack Nicklaus’ book ‘Golf My Way’ features a drawing of a giant hand holding his head steady while he moved his body in perfect balance underneath it. His teacher, Jack Grout, taught Nicklaus to keep his head steady and reach for the sky with his hands on every full swing. Thus, via perfect practice, Nicklaus could make a huge coil then fire his hips and lower body faster than anyone, perhaps before or since, all while in perfect balance. Because Grout made balance a practice key, Nicklaus retained this well-rehearsed skill into his 40s and 50s.
Takeaway: It’s up to you to arrange your balance practice so that you are always challenging yourself with tests such as swinging while standing on one foot or standing on a swimming pool noodle; plus hitting balls with your eyes closed and making super slow motion swings where you pose at impact.