10 Questions with Trillium Sellers from The Chevy Chase Club

September 27, 2010

Trillium Sellers is a PGA Certified Golf Instructor, member of the LPGA, is a U.S. Kids Top 50 Instructor, and is Level 1 TPI Certified. She spends her summer months as the teaching professional at The Chevy Chase Club in Washington D.C. and her winter months as a Master Instructor at the Jim McClean Golf School at the Doral Resort in Miami, Florida. She has also spent time teaching at venerable clubs such as Quail Valley Golf Club in Vero Beach, Florida and Sleepy Hollow Golf Club in Scarsdale, New York. She has been gracious to give us her time to help us become better at our craft.

Trillium is a genus of about 40–50 species of spring ephemeral perennials, native to temperate regions of North America and Asia. Does your name have any relation to that? You have a great name, I'm sure you get comments on it all of the time.

Ha! Thanks, I was indeed named after the flower. When I was home from the hospital my father went out into the woods behind my house in Vermont and told my mother that the first flower he saw would be my name. I’m just grateful that he didn’t see dandelions or something.

I think it’s important for young assistants to hear the perspectives of other professionals. Describe your background in the golf business and why you got into it.

I learned to play golf at a young age and developed a love for it fairly early on. I didn’t grow up at a country club or in a junior golf program. I just played in tournaments and with my brother and father. I never had my sights on playing in college. I never had any dreams or aspirations to make a career out of it; I just played and enjoyed it. In fact, when I got to high school I wanted to play a team sport so I played ice hockey and lacrosse. In college I got serious with lacrosse. It wasn’t until I graduated and was a few years out of college that an opportunity arose as an assistant professional at my home course. At the time I was living in New York City working as a photographer. My father had just had a stroke and it just seemed right to make a change with my life. So I took the job and moved home to be near my family.

I was there for the summer, and took a real liking to the role and realized that I wanted to learn more about the business and carve out a career as a teacher. I didn’t have a female role model when I was young, so there is a big part of me that wants to be the person that I never had.

How are you polishing your teaching skills so that you may find the success that you wish for as an instructor down the road?

I’m always working on improving my skills not only as a teacher, but also as a player. And if you aren’t on the course living the experience that your students are, you won’t have the ability to connect as well – especially at the higher levels of play. I know it’s hard to find time to play and work on your game, but it’s part of the job. Having said that, I never teach what I’m working on myself. I just feel that if I can demonstrate well and feel what a player needs to feel to make improvements, then I can relate better.

This season I started learning to swing left handed. I take lessons from the head pro at Chevy Chase just like I was a regular student. I wanted to learn what it’s like to be a complete beginner and how difficult it is to go through the process. I found myself doing exactly the same things that my beginning students sometimes do (like hold onto the club and not want to let go because I didn’t want to lose my grip). I also wanted to experience the importance of communication and frequency of direction. All of the things that happen in a lesson are so influential to a student but when you teach a lot, you sometimes forget how important every detail is.

In my spare time I’m always interested in what other instructors have to say so I still take lessons and try to attend lots of seminars and conferences. It’s great to hear what others are doing. I also read a lot of books. Right now I’m into the old school instruction books: Mickey Wright, Lee Trevino, Percy Boomer, Bob Toski…those were the greatest.

What are some aspects of your teaching business that if you didn't do them well, it would be detrimental to your business?

If I were not able to communicate with my students then they probably wouldn’t come back to me. I think it’s important to have crystal clear communication and organize the process in stages so that it’s not a big jumble of directions and suggestions. This way they know exactly what they are doing wrong, exactly what they need to do, and know exactly what they will practice afterwards. I want my students to be able to take what we’ve done and continue working on it when the hour is up. I don’t want them to leave and think, “Hmmmm, I think I get it but not really.”

What is it like being able to migrate your teaching business to and from Chevy Chase and Doral? What have you learned during these experiences?

Migrating isn’t for everyone because it takes a lot of sacrifices. But for me it’s been rewarding. Teaching at a private club is very different than at a golf school. At the Jim McLean School there are a lot of instructors and assistants and the intensity level for self-improvement is higher than any other golf instructional environment I’ve ever been in. Sometimes it’s stressful (like the Monday meetings at 7:30 AM) because Jim likes to test that everyone is learning and getting better. But I don’t teach as many hours as I do up north. So I find that the months I spend there I’m gaining a different type of experience than when I’m teaching out on the Chevy lesson tee all by myself. I love both places, so the migration is well worth it.

I learned from the private club experience how important it is to be good with people and have very good social skills. You see the same people over and over, so the relationships you create and maintain are incredible. I’ve also learned how to get people better quickly and to do it in a very short amount of time, sometimes in 30 minutes. You just get good at seeing things and when the same things come up a lot in different players, you become better at articulating the fix. You also build up an arsenal of ways to fix the same thing. People learn so differently, so it’s good to have back up solutions and back ups for those too. At a private club I’ve learned how to be flexible with students and know that they may not be willing or able to accept certain things, so I’ve learned to work around them. My creative side is definitely in full force all the time.

In most circumstances, assistant professionals wear all of the hats (tournament operations, merchandising, personnel leadership and management, etc.), some times instruction can get lost in the whirlwind of it all. Considering all of this, how do you think assistant professionals can be better teachers and take steps to really know the craft and teach the game?

That is a great question. It’s so important to do some research. Teaching for Jim McLean has been the most influential for me but if you don’t have the opportunity to teach at an academy, try to find someone who you can learn from locally. I’ve spent a lot of time seeking out instructors to take lessons from myself and it could be the best thing that I’ve done. Be ready to pay up for a lesson and if you’re lucky, the instructor may become available to help you as a mentor.

What are the overarching principles you stand by as a teaching professional and would like other teachers/assistants to stand by?

Listen to the student. It’s not about telling them what you know, it’s about finding out what they don’t know and helping them put it together. Keep things simple. If they ask for the time, don’t tell them how the clock works. Have a system and stick to it. If you don’t have anything you believe in, then you’ll probably be teaching people different things depending on the latest thing you’ve read or learned. So do some research!

If a young apprentice comes to you and says, "I want to be the best teaching professional I can be", what would you tell him/her and how to get there?

I’d tell them to go find a top-level instructor and work for them. You won’t get there merely by teaching lessons on your own. You need to have some mentors and be ready to travel. Even if you work for someone who you don’t necessarily agree with, you’ll learn a lot anyway.

Who have been your mentors and what have you learned from them?

I keep a Personal Board of Directors that I consider mentors in different areas. These are the people who I admire for something or other and feel close enough to call on them when I come to a place in my life where I need some additional perspectives. Jim McLean is a big one for my instructional development and he’s always been very supportive in a tough love sort of way. I’ve learned a lot from him including the importance of being able to prove what you say. He has an innate ability to call bull on people and it’s made everyone around him work extra hard to really dig deep. Jim said to me the first year I worked for him, “The golf swing is really over rated,” and it turned my perspective on teaching upside down. Coming from him it was startling.

Marius Filmalter is my mentor in putting. He teaches principles based on science. He doesn’t teach theories…and as a result that has been an important distinction for my own teaching. What is style and what is physics? What matters and what doesn’t? When do you leave the motion alone and when do you really need to fix it? I find these questions critical and what should be at the heart of everyone’s research.

Do you have any books you could recommend aspiring teaching professionals to read?

I love books and recommend reading as many as possible. My personal favorites are:

Grounds for Golf: The History & Fundamentals of Course Design, Geoff Shackelford
Golf: The Art of the Mental Game, Dr. Joseph Parent
Zen in the Art of Archery, Eugen Herrigel
With Winning In Mind, Lanny Bassham
The Eight Step Swing, Jim McLean
The Inner Game of Golf, Timothy Gallwey
The Golf Swing Simplified, John Jacobs
The One Minute Golfer, Ken Blanchard
Search for the Perfect Swing, Alastair Cochran & John Stobbs
Golf: Energy In Motion, Debbie Crews Ketterling, Ph.D.
Homer Kelley's Golfing Machine, Homer Kelley (good luck with this one)
Harvey Penick's Little Red Book, Harvey Penick
My Story, Jack Nicklaus
Every Shot Must Have a Purpose, Lynn Marriott & Pia Nilsson
On the Sweet Spot, Dr. Richard Keefe
Journey to Excellence, Henry Brunton 

Trillium, thanks so much for lending us your time. You have paid it forward.