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Deliberate Practice – The Truth For Golfers

When you google ‘deliberate practice golf’ you realise that most writers have never actually read the research on deliberate practice. As a result we have many old wives tales telling you how to practice your golf. I’m sad to tell you most of these are not true. In this post I will give you a swift overview of what the deliberate practice research actually found out. I will highlight some weaknesses of the research, and will discuss what it means for you improving your golf game.

Deliberate practice – The original research

At the time of writing this, the original research by Andres Ericsson has been cites 8,693 times in scientific literature – that is insane. It means this was a key piece of research in understanding how we develop skill and become an expert performer.

In the early 90’s there was still a strong argument between whether elite performers were born or developed. “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance” was the first weighty piece of research to suggest that expert performers did not evolve from superior genes. Instead, specific types and volumes of practice could distinguish between elite, good and average performers. This type of practice that separated the levels of expertise was coined ‘deliberate practice’ by Ericsson and his team.

Deliberate practice – what most people don’t know

This research was carried out with 14 violinists in Germany. That’s right, 14 musicians. Everything you’ve heard, read or discussed about 10,000 hours was originally based on analysing 14 musicians.

Furthermore, the data was collected in two forms – interviews and diaries. Everything you have heard and read has nothing to do with experimenters forcing individual’s through 10,000 hours to test the concept of deliberate practice. It has been purely retrospective analysis.

At this point deliberate practice may be sounding not all it is cracked up to be, but bear with me. It is a highly useful piece of research, it is just commonly misunderstood, miss-applied and taken out of context.

Deliberate practice – The findings

Each musician kept a diary of all the activities they completed on a day-to-day basis. They were ask to rate the activities they completed on three scales, each ranging from 1 – 10:

  1. Effort required
  2. Relevance to improving as a musician
  3. Enjoyment

Next, interviews were conducted with each performer. The researchers asked the performers to retrospectively estimate how much of each practice activity they had completed over previous years of their career.

The last step was to add a wealth of biographical information from each performer.

What these findings showed was that there was only one clear factor that distinguished between the groups of performers. The key factor that predicted experts was the number of highly effortful, relevant hours of practice that they had accumulated. See the graph below:

Deliberate practice golf 10,000 hours
This shows the number of practice hours accumulated by each group as they matured.

As this graph above shows, good students accrued around 7,500 hours of practice by the time they were 20 years old, whereas  professionals had accumulated 10,000 hours by the same time point.

Below shows how each musician estimated their weekly practice volume as they grew up.

Deliberate practice golf - weekly practice
This shows the estimated number of hours practiced each week for each group as they matured.

Most people take away the idea that to become elite you need to do 10,000 hours. This is missing the point of what Andres Ericsson and his team found out.

What they indicate is that to become elite you have to take part in lots of highly effortful, relevant practice. It is not just practice for practice sake. This is the true finding of the research into deliberate practice.

If you want to see a wonderfully bad example of the miss-application of this research check out The Dan Plan. It’s perfect proof that throwing time, coaching and gadgets at a player is a terrible way to improve.

Instead, this research suggests that each musician would diligently practice each week in a thoughtful way. They would repeatedly invest effort into specific tasks. They often didn’t enjoy doing the effortful practice, but they did it because they knew it was useful to their progress.

This is almost the opposite of someone attempting to rack up 10,000 hours to become an elite golfer.

Deliberate practice and your golf

In one sense this research tells us something very obvious. If you continually do highly effortful practice each week that is specific to areas you need to improve you will become more skillful.

However, the real genius is when you flip the findings around. Not one other factor collected could explain or be linked to the development of expertise. Demographics and less-effortful practice did not significantly predict expertise.

Therefore, when you think about applying the findings of deliberate practice to your own golfing quest, you should think about what things you should stop doing, as well as what things you should start doing.

Many golfers waste time with practices that are not conducive to developing expertise.

There are two real take home messages from this research that you need to apply to your golfing quest. Every month you need to:

  1. Find out what factors are limiting your performance.
  2. Take part in specific, challenging practice to improve these areas.

There is a reason why most golfers don’t improve their golf at the rate they wish to.

In real life, both of these points are really tricky to nail down and execute. They are hidden behind things that we think are important.

I see many golfers worrying about their backswing position, or some head movement that doesn’t look right. They spend many hours working on these factors thinking they are doing deliberate practice, when in fact they are far removed from what is truly holding them back.

Deliberate practice – Factors limiting your performance

I spend a lot of time and effort looking at statistical data with my players. Trying to unpick what is truly limiting their performance takes time. We start by finding a broad area that appears to be limiting scores – such as their putting. Then we dig down into this area, we assess the mechanical and psychological aspects and try to work out what factor(s) are the key inhibitors.

If you are in charge of your own golfing development a starting point is for you to take a note of your broad playing stats. Use any method you like. There are many useful apps out there. Here is a free excel spreadsheet for you if you are a stats geek. Below is the golf performance diary I created to help golfers’ track their practice and play. The performance diary may be of use if you prefer visuals.

These stats should give you some insight into where you should be focusing your practice time.

Golf notebook golf practice routine
The Golf Insider Performance Diary allows you to track your practice and play in one place. It is also full of useful practice ideas.

Deliberate practice – Specific, challenging practice

This second point may also seem easy on the surface, but designing practice tasks that are specific and suitably challenging takes time and a lot of thought.

Three golfers may all discover that their putting is limiting their overall performance. However, one may need to work on reducing their club face variability at impact, another may need to improve their roll, and the third their green reading ability.

All three will need different types of putting practice that are specific to them improving their individual weaknesses. This shows the personalised aspect of deliberate practice.

There is no one type of deliberate practice. The ideal type of deliberate practice will evolve with the golfer as they progress.

My freelance work with elite players jumps back and forth between these two areas – We build tools and analyse data to find their weaknesses. We then build and refine practice games to improve the weaknesses. It is time consuming and complex work.

For you to develop your own specific and challenging practices that focus on your individual weaknesses will take time too. I can’t work with all of you, so instead I have written this piece as an overview of three different types of practice you should do each week to lower your scores.

Here is another article that fewer golfers read on practice difficulty. I feel this one is more important than people realise.

In the golf insider performance diary I’ve done my best to get you practicing in the right way. Just like the musicians in the deliberate practice research, I’ve provided a space each week to note down and reflect on your practice. This should help you really dig down into what your practice is actually achieving.

Each week you should have specific practice aims, you should also be ensuring your practice is suitably challenging. I’ve also squeezed in 11 practice ideas spread over 21 weeks to help you start practicing in a more effective way.

Deliberate practice – Conclusion

Deliberate practice is more about being really considerate and focused with what you do each week, rather than flailing towards 10,000 hours.

The research has many flaws, and has frequently been criticised by the scientific community, but in my humble opinion it is still of value. It highlights the similarity between all experts – time invested into personalised, specific, challenging practice.

Each week try to take time to work out what is truly limiting your progress. Once you have this in your mind, educate yourself, and take time to build great practices that will improve these weaknesses. Repeating this each week will lead to better golf week after week; and year after year.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this overview of deliberate practice and golf. If you would like a free weekly article like this one sent straight to your inbox, join the golf insider weekly post.

Also, if you’ve found this article useful, I would love you to share it with one of the social buttons. It really helps me grow this blog.

Many thanks and happy golfing.

For more articles on golf practice, click here to head back to the golf practice hub.

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Will Shaw, PhD, MSc, PGA Pro

Will is a PGA golf professional, with a PhD in Biomedical Science and MSc in Sports Biomechanics & Psychology. He spent 10 years lecturing part-time at Leeds Beckett University and the University of Leeds in Biomechanics and Motor Control before becoming the Head of Golf for the University of Exeter. He currently runs Golf Insider UK, Sport Science Insider around wider consulting and academic roles in sport performance and motor control.

3 thoughts on “Deliberate Practice – The Truth For Golfers”

  1. “Below is the golf performance diary I created to help golfer’s track their practice and play. The performance diary may be of use if you prefer visuals.”

    ‘golfers’ not ‘golfer’s’

    Did your editor miss it as well?

    • Thank Bob, all corrected. I love that you think I’d have an editor. This blog is something I started as a tiny project 6 months ago alongside finishing a PhD, part-time lecturing at uni and working in elite sport. I wish I had more time to spend on it each week…and maybe one day I’ll an editor.

      I hope you’re having a great golfing season. Will

  2. Hi Will, I disagree about the Dan Plan, I actually read his ebook (it was his blog compiled), in 4 1/2 years he went from beginner to a 2 hcp, then he hurt his back. I agree that 10000 hours isn’t going to make you a master, but if its the right practice you’ll definitely get pretty good.


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