Interview with Joe Plecker from Baltimore CC

December 6, 2010

In the world of instruction, there are so many great teachers. PIFG does it's best to draw knowledge out of this expansive pool of instructors. Today, we have a great one in Joe Plecker. Joe is the Director of Instruction at Baltimore Country Club in Timonium, Maryland. The club is proud to have hosted the Senior Players Championship from 2007 to 2009. In addition to being a Top-100 club, the clubs is also one of seven in the country that operates within two locations. Joe is a member of Golf Digests "Top 40 Teachers Under 40" and was the Middle Atlantic PGA Teacher of the Year in 2007. This week, Joe gives his insight to us about his background and how we can be better instructors on our path as assistant professionals.

Describe your background in the golf business. How and why did you get into it?

I got started in golf by being raised in a golf family. My father, Coleman, is a Master PGA Professional and was the head pro at Towson Golf & CC in Maryland where I learned how to play. I worked for him all through high school and then for Bob Ross at Baltusrol Golf Club, in New Jersey. All the while I was fortunate to have lessons with Bill Strausbaugh, Jr. at Columbia CC in Bethesda, MD. The exposure to great leaders in golf helped me to aspire to a career in the game. I guess I never considered doing anything else.

Something I've noticed is that there are so many great teachers, like yourself, that have ties to the Jim McLean Golf School, describe what you took away from your experience there and what it is about the JMGS that grooms such great teachers?

I think two distinct elements make Jim McLean instructors successful. The first is true apprenticeship. You start at the bottom and work your way up, observing lead instructors and learning the basics of the business. This proves invaluable as you progress as a teacher and business person. The second is using a systematic, well researched approach to teaching. Truly knowing what matters makes an instructor not only valid, but above reproach.

I understand you used to teach at Chelsea Pier in NYC, what was it like working their and what did you learn?

I jumped at the chance to teach in New York City because I thought it would be a once in a lifetime opportunity. It was! I lived in the West Village on Jane Street and could walk to work every day. I met so many different people and really gave more lessons than I ever imagined. In golf terms, I learned that players need to spend time on a course to really improve. Many players I coached were great ball strikers at the range in the city, but struggled in their occasional rounds. Because I could not get them on the course, I could not help them with situational on course lessons. Today, I spend more time on the course as a result of my teaching experience in NYC. I also learned what it means to live in a great city like New York and understand diversity in people while appreciating the differences. Mostly, I learned how to hail a cab and understand the subway system!

What have you learned during your current experience at Baltimore CC?

Baltimore Country Club is a great place to work. I have learned that a large club with many departments has to have communication and lots of coordination to make it look easy. When I plan events around instruction, I work with our golf staff, maintenance staff, housekeeping, food and beverage department, special event staff and locker room staff to make it first rate. It takes help from every department to make things go smoothly, and BCC has the best people in the club business to work with.

When you first started as Director of Instruction at Baltimore CC, what were the first few things you had to do to get your feet on the ground and get your business rolling?

First, I had to be visible! I had to meet everyone, spend time with the membership through playing rounds, walking the range and having lunch with as many people as I could. It is so important to get off of the lesson tee and connect with your membership before you can expect success. Then, it came down to giving great lessons. Word of mouth is always going to be your best way to let people know you are a good coach.

What did you do in your early years as a teaching professional to set yourself up for your current success?

I made up my mind early on to teach the game of golf as my career. I feel that this simple dedication led to a successful career path. Teaching the game of golf has to do with dedication and lots of hours on the lesson tee. The more you do it, the better you become. I also think I have done well because I really enjoy helping people.

What are some aspects of your teaching business that if you didn't do them well, it would be detrimental to your business?
  • Communication / Follow Up - Stay in touch with clients through your website, emails, newsletters, text messages, voice mails and yes, handwritten notes.
  • Stay current with technology - Invest in yourself by acquiring technologies that you can use in your daily teaching. I use V1, Casio high speed cameras and the Science & Motion PuttLab in my lessons. It has made all the difference.
  • Educate Yourself Daily – Attending summits for credits is the motivation of mediocre Professionals. Be 100% in your life to what you do and who you are! Follow the best teachers’ writings, videos and summits to learn about how to become a better teacher. Read books on learning, philosophy, kinesiology and any thing else that applies to your teaching. Never think you have learned enough.
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 well?

The golf business can be very busy, leaving little time to focus on every aspect of your job duties. Do not neglect your golf game. Practice, play and talk with your co workers about your game. Spark conversation with the better players and teachers at your club to engage in thoughtful chats which will help your teaching. Take lessons for your game as well. Being a student is a great perspective to know what it takes to communicate to your future clients. It will also give you a good idea of what you like to focus on and what you do not.

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

I focus on getting players into a neutral starting position, based upon their own physical abilities. From this ready position, a golfer’s swing plane is directly correlated to their balance and swing sequence. If players are able to start in a ready position, sequence their swings by turning their shoulders, arms and hands together, the club reacts to this turn naturally without manipulation. This is where great golf begins.

Now, if what I wrote is confusing to you at all, consider it another way. Imagine your best golf swing. Is it balanced, centered, free flowing with light grip pressure? That might best describe the feel for the swing I create with my students. If it’s still confusing, email me. After the basics of movement have been made consistent, I focus heavily on playing lessons and situational learning. I think more teachers should get on the course with their students to make a bigger impact.

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 would say, “Me too!” Every top teacher I know still has that drive and enthusiasm for teaching. Luckily, we all share together our progress and learning together at summits and conferences. I attend every one of these I can get to each year. I would have them go to as many of these as they can. I also network with the best teachers in my state. It is amazing how willing teachers are to share their best practices. Stay in touch with the people who are the best near you, too.

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

My father, Coleman who started me in the game is a life long mentor. I also was fortunate enough to know and take lessons from Bill “Coach” Strausbaugh, Jr. at Columbia Country Club. He really helped me with my game and was a great man, a true role model PGA Professional and person. Rick Martino has been a great mentor. I’ve learned more about the swing, teaching and being a full time instructor from him than anyone else.

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

“5 Lessons” by Hogan
“Little Red Book” by Harvey Penick
“7 Secrets of World Class Athletes” by Steve Yellin
“Philosophy for Dummies” by Tom Morris, Books for Dummies – I really like how this book summarizes every major and minor philosophy.
Any book by the Dali Lama is great for learning.

In your experiences as a teaching professional, I'm sure you have seen and worked with your fair share of teaching professionals. What sets the great ones apart from others?

The ability to read their students, understand their needs and diagnose their swings quickly and effortlessly. It’s hard to do! The best teachers are the most experienced, by far.

Can you give young assistants/teaching professionals any tips towards developing their teaching philosophy?

Be original! Draw on your own life’s experience and how you learned to play to develop your own original style and order. If you are just beginning to teach or have for a long time, be sure to journal your thoughts daily or weekly to have as a reference when it comes time to summarize your philosophy.

Can you tell assistant professionals that might aspire to be teaching professionals how not to begin a lesson and how not to end a lesson?

Good question! Do not assume anything when you begin. Ask questions. If it is your first lesson, ask every question. Get to know who is in front of you and then you can connect with your student better. Do not end your lesson without summarizing and asking for feedback from your client.