I started my golfing career coaching at Aldeburgh, a great links golf course overlooking the North Sea. Back then I was already fascinated with the science of how we learn and optimise performance.
I clearly remember one wintry day a member marched into the pro shop and announced, “I’ve hit 50 balls every week for the past 6 weeks and I’m still not getting better.”
I asked him: “What do you want to get better at?”
He replied: “Hitting the golf ball, of course!”
This really made me smile, at that time he didn’t want an answer to his lack of progress, but to me it was obvious why he wasn’t getting better.
So let us take a peek under the lid of practice, and find out what makes it work.
What is practice?
Most amateurs tend to think of practice just as hitting balls on a golf range, but this really limits your potential to improve. Instead, view practice as any activity that may impact on your golfing performance and learning. Playing, hitting balls, practice swings, putting competitions with your mates, even visualising your golf swing all constitutes practice.
As humans we are not purpose-built to swing a golf club. However, we have a wonderful ability to adapt and refine a skill when our body deems it necessary. For example, if you continually ask your body to lift a heavy weight, you will get stronger, and find the most efficient technique to lift that weight. Think of golf practice as training for developing golfing skill.
If you follow the points below, you won’t instantly become great, but these points will super-charge your rate of progress.
Practice needs to be specific
If you go to the gym and do bicep curls, your legs don’t magically get stronger. Similarly golf practice needs to be specific to your goals. There are many layers to this one point, but take the example below to get you started – If you wish to become great at driving a golf ball into a narrow fairway, lined with trees in a medal competition. Does it make sense to stand on a golf range hitting 40 balls towards the 250-yard sign?
Although this practice may help, it is not the optimal environment to develop this skill. Some skill will be transferred, but don’t be surprised when your range progress doesn’t reflect your ability to perform when it counts.
Volume is still important
If your practice is specific, then the number of repetitions you perform is the next most critical factor for development. There is no getting around the fact that the more high quality repetitions you do, the better you will become. Here is one of the biggest issues all golfers face when trying to improve – practicing on a golf course provides a more specific practice environment, but with fewer repetitions. Hitting balls on a golf range provides many more repetitions, but with much less specificity to our playing environment.
You need to find a balance between course and range time, but also consider how you can make the golf range more like the course environment, and find ways to get more repetitions whilst playing on a golf course.
Feedback is critical
Your body subconsciously processes a staggering amount of feedback during every golf shot. However, many golfers stop getting better because their practice doesn’t focus on the right pieces of feedback needed for them to improve.
If you practice wedge shots, being able to view where your 40 balls finish around your target (short, right, left or long) and by what distance is highly valuable. In the same vein, hitting 10 chip shots to a target and looking at the spread gives you more detailed feedback than hitting 1-2 shots at a time.
The section above focuses on where the shot finished, this is known as knowledge of results. To improve, you also need to know how you swung the golf club to get the ball there. You naturally receive lots of information, for your balance, vision and proprioception systems. However, to really speed up your learning, find ways to highlight key pieces of feedback.
This can be done in many ways, from using a high-tech launch monitor, to placing a towel or practice stick in the right place to give you extra feedback on your technique. A good coach should really be able to help here and make practice simple and fun.
Practice should be difficult
Here we have two points to end on. Firstly, measure stuff by making practice into fun games, with scores and tallies so you can see your progress and stay motivated. Secondly, you should continually make practice more challenging. Once you can hit 10 balls in a row through a 20-yard gap with a Driver, reduce it to a 15-yard gap. Similar to our gym analogy we used earlier, image lifting the same 10kg weight every day for a year and wondering why you stopped getting stronger?
It is very simple, and yet so many amateur and elite players stop getting better because they disobey these simple rules.
To summarise make sure your practice:
- Is specific as it can be to how it will be performed.
- Has many high quality repetitions.
- Provides detailed feedback on the outcome and movement.
- Is continually made more difficult as you progress.