2006/2

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Scratch Golfer

Ground-breaking researcher and Teacher Bob Christina '62 helps golfers find their best game.



Robert “Bob” W. Christina ’62, officially retired in 2001 from an illustrious academic career, but he has not stopped working at the things he most enjoyed in academe: teaching, research and writing. As a bonus, he now focuses his research on a favorite personal sport: golf.


Now dean emeritus of the School of Health and Human Performance and professor emeritus of exercise and sport science at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Bob was recently honored by the National Association for Kinesiology and Physical Education in Higher Education with its 2006 Distinguished Scholar Award. And the groundbreaking kinesiologist’s latest book, A Multilevel Approach to the Study of Motor Control and Learning, was published in 2005.


In 1992, while still at UNC, Bob became an educational consultant at the Pinehurst Golf Advantage School in North Carolina. Drawing from his own experiments with motor skill learning, he shows the school’s instructors the most effective ways to teach critical golf skills and make the learned motor behavior stick with students. Bob also teaches some of the Pinehurst students himself and finds it immensely rewarding to see them improve. Like masters of other disciplines, he stresses the importance of practice. “The way we practice,” he says, “determines what and how well we learn.”



Photos courtesy of Bob Christina '62


Pinehurst, says its director, Eric Alpenfels, is a natural venue for Bob’s applied research. “Our history is full of innovation, and Pinehurst should be at the forefront of golf instruction,” he says. “Bob’s experience in other sports makes him the perfect person to run tests and analyze data to figure out the best way to perform.”


It’s not unusual for the two men to brainstorm and develop projects to test various training regimens, and they publish many of the results in Golf Magazine. One recent experiment proved that while putting, keeping an eye on the hole or line of putt was more effective in sinking shots than keeping the eye on the ball. The next published article will report on a study of driving performance with tee height as variable. The two men are also working on an instructional video.


Golf is not just work for Bob: he has played competitively at the amateur level since 1970, winning various club championships. He now gets out on the course around three times a week, three seasons a year, and has a handicap that fluctuates between two and four. Age, he says, has improved various aspects of his game—such as patience, emotional control, mental skills, knowledge of his own swing, and the resulting improved consistency in play. Golf also plays a role in Bob’s fund-raising activities at UNC. He serves on committees that organize and run the annual golf tournaments as fund-raisers for student-athletes’ scholarships, female students who golf, and breast cancer survivors.



Bob tests a golfer's swing (top); analyzing data with Pinehurst director Eric Alphenfels (bottom)

Bob first got hooked on the game while at IC, around the time that three of his mentors encouraged him to pursue research and its application to sports performance. “I just wanted to play sports or teach physical education,” he remembers, “and at that point I didn’t know what research or scholarship was. But I had so many great teachers at IC who turned on the light bulb in my head.”


Bob assisted Homer “Herc” Merrifield, who taught anatomy and kinesiology, on special projects, analyzing data that measured human performance. The legendary physiology professor and baseball coach James “Bucky” Freeman, for whom Bob played varsity baseball (he was a catcher) from 1960 to 1962, was a role model who connected sports and academics. “First he would coach,” says Bob, “then he’d put on the white lab coat and teach physiology.”


In his senior year, as a student teacher of physical education, Bob pounded his supervisor, former IC professor John Spurgeon, with questions about the reasons for performing certain drills, such as push-ups, that had no obvious positive effect on playing football. “He told me I’d have to go to graduate school and get involved in answering those questions through research,” Bob says. “I’m still asking, Is this the most effective way to teach and coach sports?”

 

Bob spent several years teaching and coaching at high schools and community colleges, and eventually followed Spurgeon’s advice: he entered the University of Maryland, receiving his Ph.D. in 1970. His subsequent career at universities across the country allowed him to research his persistent questions, as well as teach other kinesiology students to ask—and answer—their own questions.

 

“Prior to Bob Christina, the field was theoretical; researchers had no interest in applying what they learned to coaches and athletes,” says Daniel Landers, Regents’ Professor in Kinesiology at Arizona State University. In the early 1990s Landers served with Bob on the National Research Council Committee of the National Academy of Sciences. “Bob set the trend that wasn’t in vogue in those days,” Landers says, “finding direct applications of research that coaches and athletes could use successfully. He did it first, and he did it better than anyone else.”


Rainer Martens, president of Human Kinetics in Champaign, Illinois, and Bob’s coauthor of two seminal 1980s books on coaching (Coaching Young Athletes and Coaches’ Guide to Teaching Sport Skills), is equally strong in his praise: “Bob built the technological bridge from research to its application in sport. He was a pioneer. For example, he taught—long before it was widely accepted—that you must  practice the actual movements that a specific sport calls for.” Bob likens this principle to military basic training, in which future soldiers learn skills in a simulated battle situation. In sport, improvement occurs when the player has the fundamental techniques down and starts to integrate the practice movements into a context he or she will experience in the actual game.

 

He elaborates: “In baseball, instead of just taking batting practice, you re-create an actual game condition: one out, with runners on first and third bases. In golf, if you know the course you’ll be playing on, you imagine the conditions of a specific hole, so many yards and a dogleg on the right, and practice your shot with that in mind.”

 

Carol Mann, World Golf Hall of Fame member and one of its special ambassadors, heard Bob speak at various conferences. During the early 1990s, when she consulted for the golf division of Wilson Sporting Goods and had to assess new training products, Bob showed her how to examine products to determine if they would work as promised. Mann says, “He told me what to look for and to ask if they had any proof that players would retain what they had learned while using it and for how long.” Mann quickly saw that one particular product was “seductive, full of tricks [and] bells and whistles,” so she felt confident in rejecting it as a Wilson product. Now PGA/LPGA teaching professional at the Woodlands Country Club near Houston, Mann still relies on Bob Christina’s applied research.

 

Bob likens his training approach to medication the doctor prescribes: you start out taking it to improve your health, but gradually get weaned off it. “A large part of it is mental,” he points out.

 

His work has had wide-ranging influence. “Bob’s knowledge, based on science, has filtered down to hundreds of teachers,” Mann says, “so when you multiply it, he has had a powerful effect on golf learning and teaching.”

 

Bob Christina’s lifelong partnership with golf has given his retirement an added zest that goes well beyond a regular round of 18 holes. “I have a passion for playing and studying golf, but I have even more of a passion for understanding how people learn and perform all movement skills, determining the most effective conditions for performing them, and applying theory and research to teaching and coaching,” he says. “Having a passion for working on these things makes work like play. It’s exciting to get up every morning and do it all over again.”



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