Our guest this episode is physical therapist Jeremy Smith. Jeremy works at the Athletico Elgin clinic, and is a golf performance expert, working with golfers of all skill levels to improve their body’s movement within the golf swing.
In this interview with Jeremy, we learn:
- How identifying his own physical limitations led to a career in physical therapy
- The importance of a whole-body assessment in determining mobility and stability
- The physical limitation that most golfers suffer from and how to improve it
- The major differences between working with PGA Tour players and amateur golfers
- A simple exercise that can help improve your body movement and performance on the golf course
Interviewer: Walter Lis. Running Time: 22:40
CHICAGO GOLF REPORT: Can you give us some background of what you do, where you work right now, and the type of people that you help?
JEREMY SMITH Sure, I’m currently a physical therapist with Athletico Physical Therapy. I manage and work out of the Elgin facility. I work with all sorts of different patients, anywhere from neck pain to back pain, to knee pain. Anybody from high school athletes to professional athletes, to the nine-year-old that just has some balance deficits and everything in between.
CHICAGO GOLF REPORT: And you have a pretty good connection with the world of golf. Can you talk about how you found this connection and what you’re doing with golfers?
JEREMY SMITH I started playing golf when I was about 12. I was small as a kid. I was only about five foot one when I got into high school, so it was pretty easy decision for me on what sport to play between football and golf.
I started getting really into golf about my sophomore year in high school and started getting competitive. I had a pretty good junior year, so my dad and I started looking at schools where I could get a good education as well as continue to play golf.
I ended up at a Division III school, where I could play some golf, but mostly went for education. Augustana has really good biology and science programs, so that’s where I landed.
My love of golf has always kind of driven of what I’m going to do. As I got into physical therapy school and my graduate studies, I really started looking at how the body moved, and a lot of that was attributed to where I went to school.
We did an assessment of my back because I was having some back pains during the golf swing, and the instructor actually found a hip limitation that was restricting the amount that I could rotate, and creating my back pain. So we just did a minor tweak to the swing, and it decreased my pain and that actually improved my ball striking, and it was just a light bulb at that moment in time. There’s a lot of things that could be taught to the amateur, as well as the professional golfer about how the body moves, to help prevent injury as well as improve performance.
As I got out of school, I started looking into some of the courses; Nike had one for a while I think that’s gone. Titleist is known for their Titleist Performance Institute, so that’s where I started. I came out and just started working with patients, and I got into the golf stuff and it just kind of took off from there.
CHICAGO GOLF REPORT: Tell me a little bit about your relationship with local instructor Jake Thurm and what it’s like working with him and some of his students.
JEREMY SMITH About a year and a half after that I got the opportunity to take over the golf program at our Athletico facility, the golf program was very strong for a while. Then it just kind of fell off the map a little bit. And I wanted to bring it back to its original strong sense, when Athletico was known for the place to go for golf.
I just went out like I would as any other physician or referral service and went into their offices. I went to multiple different clubs, and talked to multiple different professionals and teaching professionals, and just kind of told them what I was doing and what I wanted to do for them.
And I got a lot of backlash from that, from a lot of the instructors, because some of my predecessors would kind of step over the line and try to teach. You know they would try to teach a swing, which is not our job as a physical therapist and as a fitness instructor.
I was trying to get them to give me another chance, and Jake Thurm, I walked into his office and spoke with him, and he told me that he already had a guy. I was like, okay do you mind me asking who it was? And it was a guy from downtown who a lot of people use.
I told Jake, I’d love for you to come over to Athletico, it’s literally ten minutes away. I could do a full assessment on you for free and we’ll take a look at how you’re moving and that way you can have a better sense to what I’m offering.
After giving Jake my card, I walked out thinking I got beat down again. I was afraid I wasn’t going to make any connections, and it was going to be a lot harder than I thought. However, by the time I got back to my office I had an email from Jake, who said “I’ll take you up on that offer, you know I’ll give you a shot.”
We then did the assessment, and it wasn’t until after I was done that he told me that he had been TPI certified as an instructor. He mentioned that some of the things in our assessment were different to what TPI does.
This initial assessment developed into a friendship, and eventually he started sending clients to me to get assessed. He also realized the amount of information that I could give him would make his job easier.
By telling Jake how the patient moves, Jake knows whether that person can get into the position that he wants them in. If they can’t reach a position in the swing because of limitations in their body, then there is no point in trying to focus on that position. If your body can’t create that motion, you’re never going to get the club there.
CHICAGO GOLF REPORT: Can you talk a little bit about the assessment because that seems like the foundation of everything that you do. What are you looking for, what are you trying to identify within the assessment that you gave Jake?
JEREMY SMITH It’s a whole-body assessment. We look at mobility and stability of simply every different body part and joint. The major moving muscles and joints in the swing are going to be your thoracic spine, your hip, and a little bit in your ankles. You want to assess how those are moving specifically to functional motion.
You can do range of motion assessments like we would doing physical therapy, but that’s not going to tell you how they move during the swing. You want to look at functional assessment.
One of the biggest steps that I look at and it’s done in the FMS, it’s done in SFMA (Selective Functional Movement Assessment), and it’s done in the TPI program, is the overhead deep squat. We can get a lot from how a person moves just with that one motion because you can see the ankles, the knees, the hips, the torso, and the shoulders, and how all of those work in congruence to one another. Once I get a good look at that from different angles, then I target what areas I want to assess, because if your knees are moving okay, then there’s really no need for me to assess anything else besides that deep squat.
If you have an ankle flare, or you go up on your toes, then we need to take a look at ankle mobility and how much flexibility you have there. If you come forward in your torso, then I know there’s probably another muscular walk, of your core contracting during functional motion. It’s not necessarily weakness, as much as your neuromuscular control isn’t there. Then we take a look at how those things are moving and whether you can disassociate appropriately.
A lot of people will say you need to be systematic about it and look at specific things, but I’m just not that way. I look at the overhead deep squat. I look at balance, and I address what I think the problem areas maybe, and I develop a program from there.
CHICAGO GOLF REPORT: What’s the next step after that? Are you prescribing specific movements that they should be doing or what typically comes after the assessment?
JEREMY SMITH The next step for me is to I educate the patient or the client. I let them know their deficits in overall functional motion that might be affecting their golf swing as well as their everyday life.
Education is one of the most important aspects of not only my everyday job, but especially when I talk to the golfer because they have so many different thoughts that are going through their heads. If we can just get the body to move appropriately some of those thoughts can go away.
Then I put together a full program for them. I kind of leave it to the client as to when they will do what. I just give them a list of exercises with the amount of rest and steps and let them kind of go after it on their own.
The majority of golfers that end up in my room are the people that want to get better. They want to move better, so you just give them enough information, and they’re going to take it upon themselves. And that’s what I want. They shouldn’t have to come to me every day to get better. You should be able to take a lot of this information, and the exercises and implement it. And then in four to six weeks, we’ll do a reevaluation.
I have a really good junior that we’re actually trying to work with this week and next week because it’s been six weeks since I did his initial evaluation. We want to double check to see where he’s at and making sure he’s been doing the right things and going in the right direction so that he can get in the positions that he needs to get into.
Again, it’s not too structured. I leave it open to the client, so they know, if you want to get better these are the things you need to do. You need to focus on these ones, and here are some higher level exercises once you get those down.
CHICAGO GOLF REPORT: Since most people that you work with are motivated to get better, is there a common theme that you seem to encounter in terms a typical tightness here or limited mobility here, or does it really run the gamut? I would think if you’re a passionate golfer, obviously, it’s such a repetitive motion, are there specific things reoccur with those types of faults?
JEREMY SMITH Yeah, it’s a good question. Jake and I want to look at how people move. And then look at what their BodiTrak and their foot position and their weight bearing looks like. Then we can identify some areas that they can improve upon as far as their body is concerned.
But for most golfers that I see, there is always limitation in thoracic mobility which is your upper back. It’s kind of between your shoulder blades, that goes from the base of your neck all the way down to what people consider the lumbar spine or the lower back, essentially your entire rib cage.
I’ve heard that some of the most respected physical therapists state that as an industry as physical therapy is concerned, we undertreat the thoracic spine. And I think that’s the case in all functional movements because the amount of rotation that you can get from the thoracic spine is huge.
Therefore, we need to utilize that to decrease the amount of rotation that there is in the lower back. People complain a lot about their lower back golf because they’re rotating from the wrong segments.
Thoracic rotation is huge, and then hips, mobility, and stability. Some people are too flexible in the hips, so we must strengthen everything up. Some people aren’t flexible enough. Then it’s about identifying the hip mobility and stability in order to determine what that person needs.
There’s some similarities in males and females as well. Typically, females have looser hips. They can move a little bit better, so we’ve got to do more strengthening around those areas. Males tend to have a little bit tighter hips, so those are generally the target areas.
But for the most part, what I’m trying to do is get people rotating. Because it’s such a rotary sport, you want to rotate in the right areas, which is your thoracic spine, and your hips. Your lumbar spine should remain mostly stable. There shouldn’t be a whole lot of motion there because you should be able to get a ninety degree turn that you want out of the other two segments that are rotating.
CHICAGO GOLF REPORT: How does that differ for your typical client versus a high-level elite like a PGA Tour caliber golfer? What are the issues that you typically will work on or look for with a person that’s at that elite level?
JEREMY SMITH It’s usually the same thing, thoracic mobility and any type of hip issues. I’ve worked with a few really high-level golfers. The big difference between the elite-level golfer and the person who’s just starting out is the high-level golfer has had so many different lessons and so many people telling them different things that they have an idea of how they should move and what they should be doing. But the challenge is getting through to them that “you’re moving this way, but I don’t think that that’s optimal for you.” I’ll tell them, “I think that we need to change it a little bit and do this instead because it’ll make your swing a lot easier and a more fluid.”
The approach for education is completely different, and as far as limitations and mobility, generally the professional has good muscular control. They can isolate segments. They can move their upper body without moving their lower body. They have pretty good strength. It’s finding the small things, while the areas of my focus and the areas where they need to improve in might be the same as the amateur golfer. The differences and the change is much smaller.
It takes a keen eye to find the faults in a professional swing compared to an amateur swing when it comes to movement.
CHICAGO GOLF REPORT: Can you give me one specific drill or exercise that you think would apply to a pretty wide subsection of amateur golfers that could probably help their game?
JEREMY SMITH It’s tough because everybody’s so individual, so it’s hard to give one specific exercise. However, most people are struggle with their external locators, such as their gluteus medius in a flex position of the hip.
In English, that’s the backside of your butt that rotates the entire torso. I had a gym study a while ago about what we felt was the most important muscle in golf was, and we agreed it was your gluteus medius. So, strengthening that muscle would generally help just about everybody.
And the easy way to do that is just a single leg bridge where you’re on your back and knees are bent, and you lift your hips up off the table. And then you kick one leg straight out, so your thighs are level. One foot is in the air. The other one’s still stable on the floor or on the table whichever you’re on. And then you’re going to hold that for five seconds and then you’re going to switch legs.
The issues that people run into with this is they’ll over recruit their hamstring, so it’s really important that you pay attention to the heal. You don’t want to dig your heal into the table or into the floor. You want that foot to be flat and the pressure to be going through the middle of the foot. If you’re over recruiting with the hamstring, then we’re going the wrong direction.
But that’s a good starting point, and as it gets easier, you can hold it for longer. But that muscle, in my opinion, is one of the most important and forgotten muscles from a strength and conditioning perspective.
CHICAGO GOLF REPORT: Since you have a background as a golfer, how do you think having this wealth of knowledge about body movement affects you as a golfer? Do you look at things a little bit differently in terms of “I can feel like my hips aren’t firing or my gluteus medius is not firing?” Are you thinking about your body when you’re making a swing, or are you like most golfers where you’re thinking position?
JEREMY SMITH Yes and no. Once I get out there it’s just like in poker, you’re going to play the hand that you have. If you’re hitting a ball and if you have a little bit of a drop that day, you’re going to play that drop. I don’t get to play as much as I should, so I’m not nearly as consistent as I used to be.
I definitely think about whether I am moving in the right position or turning the right way or engaging the right muscles right now. And if I’m not, then on the range I will do some muscular reeducation exercises and try to get things moving a little bit better.
But at the same time, I’m just an amateur golfer. So if I’m really struggling, I’ll have my playing partner take a video of me. And I’ll send it to Jake and say, what have you got for me because I can’t figure it out.
In that sense, I’m just the same as every other amateur golfer. When I get out there I’m focused on how can I play to the best of my ability today. I try to develop the body in the off season as well so that when I’m not on the course, it can move in the way that it should and the way that I want it to so that I don’t have to think about how the body moves.
CHICAGO GOLF REPORT: Give me your favorite two or three golf courses? They could be public or private in the Chicagoland area. What are your favorites?
JEREMY SMITH That’s a hard question. There’s so many good courses to try. I didn’t grow up here, so I’m still getting to know a lot of the courses in the area.
I’ve been lucky enough to play some of the top courses in Chicago private, and public. I’ve gotten to play Butler a couple of times, and I played Chicago Golf Club once. Obviously, those two are gorgeous, and I absolutely love them.
I love Butler. I would put Butler up there obviously. I really enjoyed Chicago Highlands as well. I’m kind of a links style player. I really like the links style, so I really like the Highlands of Elgin too. I got to play that course last summer. It’s affordable and I was really impressed when I got out there and played it.