The Real Reason Golfers Don’t Get Better

Let’s start with two questions:

Q1: How effectively do you think when you practice?

Q2: Have you ever considered that changing the way you think during practice could accelerate your learning?

Now and again I come across an idea that I feel is inherently important to golfers getting better. However, I worry these ideas will bore you, seem irrelevant, or the idea just won’t fly. 

So why have I still spent 4 hours writing this article for you?

I really do feel that how you think during practice is a critical chunk of why many golfers don’t get better, and why others excel.

So if you’re interested give me 5-10 minutes of your time and read on – this isn’t a quick fix, but it is actionable.

Great questioning and thinking are skills that all elite players learn, they may not be aware of the processes swirling around their minds as they hit golf balls. But, all elite players go through the same cycle before, during and after every golf shot they hit in practice.

Quick note: When I write ‘practice’ I don’t just mean hitting golf balls on the golf range. Great practice should take place on the golf range, the pitching / putting greens and on the golf course. All of your golfing time outside competition constitutes practice.

This cycle of thinking really does underpin learning. Improving how you think during your practice sessions is a simple strategy you can utilise to increase your rate of development.

Expert thinking – The background

The way you think before, during and after performing a task (hitting a golf shot) is integral to your rate of learning. It will also determine at what point you hit a ceiling in your golfing performance, and stop learning. 

There are three key steps within the thinking cycle:

  1. Performance phase – just before and during the golf shot.
  2. Self-reflection phase – after hitting a golf shot.
  3. Forethought / planning phase – planning for the next golf shot.

Excelling at these three steps has been linked to increase self-efficacy, motivation and level of expertise attained in many areas of sport, science and business.

The fancy term for this cycle of thinking is ‘the self-regulation cycle’. And many years ago I presented some research around this topic at a conference.

Below is a picture of this process:

the process golfers go through every time they hit a golf ball. performance, self-reflection and planning. Then the cycle continues.

Let us take a look at what this may look like in practice.

Poor golfer’s thinking

Imagine our golfer has a slice and has headed to the golf range to straighten out their driving.

Below is an example of how they may think and perform when hitting each shot in practice. Each stage links to our model above.

Performance phase – hitting a golf shot

  • Vague target.
  • Unclear swing thought.
  • Hasn’t set up stable learning conditions: no alignment aid.
  • No practice swing (rehearsal) or visualisation.
  • Little awareness during golf swing of body motions.
  • Limited evaluation of where the shot finished relative to their target.

Self-reflection phase – post shot thinking

  • Little thought about to what degree their shot outcome was ideal.
  • Limited / no understanding of what caused a good / poor shot.
  • Emotional reaction to poor shots, which leads to them skipping the planning phase and grabbing another ball.

Planning phase – what to do with the next shot

  • No clear goal set for their next shot.
  • No clear strategy for how to improve on their last attempt.
  • Limited reasoning for what they are about to attempt in their golf swing – a hap-hazard approach.
  • Vague understanding of what swing feeling they are going to use to hit a straighter shot. 

… and the cycle continues.

Now, the example above is quite extreme, but just imagine if half of this sequence sounds familiar to you. Imagine how much quicker you could improve if you just improve one or two of these points.

If you wish to become an elite player you need to have this cycle optimised, down to every last detail.  

I’m not saying you can flick a switch and change your thinking instantly, but being aware of this process and checking it after each practice session will quickly allow you to build some better processes.

So what would a great cycle of thinking look like?

The same three steps apply, but they are all optimised. The aim is to squeeze every ounce of learning for each shot repetition. 

How to swing a golf club

Elite golfers’ thinking

We’ll stick with the same slice scenario, but please note, current skill level is not directly linked to thinking ability – great thinking will help you become a great golfer over time.

So, feel free to consider this ‘elite thinker‘ a beginner golfer or a Tour Pro struggling with a slice – we’re interested in what the optimal process looks like.

Below is what I would consider the thinking cycle of someone who will genuinely improve their golf game when they practice:

Performance phase – hitting a golf shot

  • Clear target, club choice and rationale for choosing that shot.
  • Consistent aim and setup, which takes away variables that could affect the swing and shot outcome.
  • Simple swing thought, but with a detailed understanding of what position / feeling is optimal.
  • 1-2 practice swings exaggerating the feeling(s) they are looking for and picturing their ideal swing in their mind. 
  • Their practice swings have real purpose – they reflect on each one.
  • During the shot they have a clear focus, monitoring what their swing feels like.
  • They have ways of detecting a good / less ideal swing.
  • They can accurately say that shot finished ‘x’ yards left/right of my target.

Self-reflection phase – post shot thinking

  • They can clearly rate their shot 1-10, explain why it has that rating and what is needed to increase that rating.
  • They know what swing principle was responsible for any errors in performance.
  • Whatever the shot outcome (great / poor) they are focused on the process of learning.
  • They know errors are a useful part of the learning process, not something to get angry with.

Planning phase – what to do with the next shot

  • They create a clear goal for their next shot – I wish to hit this shot 3 yards closer to my target.
  • They have a clear strategy for how – strengthen my left hand grip and improve left wrist position at the top of my swing.
  • They have clear reasons for why they have come up with this plan.
  • They know exactly what they want to feel in their next set of practice swings and their next golf shot.

…and the cycle continues.

How this plays out over time

Changing a golfer’s thinking in this way will make no visible difference over the course of three shots on a golf range.

However, extending this new cycle of thinking out over a year’s practice (~13,000 reps) and we will see a new golfer emerge – one who is far superior in skill level.

Rough maths for reps per year of a keen club golfer

100 range balls a week = 100 cycles

80 shots on a golf course a week = 80 cycles

40 putts and chips a week = 80 cycles

Total = 260 cycles per week

50 weeks practice = 13,000 reps / year

This process is the difference between the golfer who still plays off 19 at the end of the year, despite lots of practice, and the one who is now a 13-handicap.

Or the difference between the 4-handicap golfer who keeps hovering between 4 and 5, despite some great coaching, and the 4-handicapper who gets down to scratch and shoots under par on a good day.

Great thinking conclusion

I know it’s boring, no Bryson bombs, no fancy training aids or magic driver to cure a slice, but it works. The first step in becoming a great thinker is to be aware of how you are currently thinking when you practice. 

Next time you head out to practice, take time to consider what you do before, during and after every golf shot. Take a screenshot of the process in this article if they will help. Then consider what you can do better, and how you can squeeze more out of every practice session.

I designed The Golf Insider Performance Diary to help you practice more effectively and document your progress. Again, it isn’t a magic pill, but more effective practice is the key to reaching your golfing dreams.

I hope you have found this article of use. I will be the first to admit it is a left-field golf article. However, I always appreciate your comments and feedback so feel free to leave them below.

Also, if you would like a weekly article sent to your inbox, come join the Golf Insiders weekly post.

Happy golfing – Will @ Golf Insider UK

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A PGA golf professional, with a PhD in Biomedical Science and MSc in Sports Biomechanics & Psychology. I currently spend my time lecturing part-time at Leeds Beckett University and working with elite athletes. In my spare time I build Golf Insider UK.

22 thoughts on “The Real Reason Golfers Don’t Get Better”

  1. These are like gold Will, please keep them coming!
    As many, I have set a golfing goal and with these articles feel I am progressing more efficiently. Moverover, actually seeing good progress.

    Reply
    • Cheers Paddy,

      I genuinely thought this would be a massive flop. 5,000 reads in 24 hours later – I’m wrong again – Ha.

      Delighted you’re making great progress. It isn’t rocket science when you get the basics in place. I hope you’re enjoying the process.

      Will

      Reply
      • Thanks Will – not surprised on the response, you`re articles are relevant, insightful & comprehensive – good job!
        I`m currently loving the process albeit do get frustrated at times. I`ve ripped up my previous system/processes and incorporating your suggestions – 3-4 weeks in and really starting to see significant improvements. The Hugo range test has been a revelation!
        If you`re looking for a case-study.
        Regards
        Paddy

        Reply
  2. LOVE THIS! These are the things that so, so many golfers who are otherwise pretty good at the game (4 – 8 handicappers) just never really “get.” Consequently, they never get to where many of them really want to be: the true scratch/below who can play competitively at the gross local/regional level.

    The staggering difference that you outlined between the way the “average” golfer practices and the way an “elite” golfer practices is so spot-on. Well done.

    Reply
    • Thanks for the feedback sir. I genuinely thought most were going to highly dislike this post, but I felt it was important.

      I glad you enjoyed the read and I hope it is of use.

      Will

      Reply
    • Incredible article once again Will.

      Thanks so much for this content.

      I have been for for a full new set and it’s time dial them in and get consistent. Struggling at the moment but not getting to range enough to actually practice.

      Winter goals are to be playing as close to a 18 HC as possible (currently 23.4)

      Cheers again.
      Graeme

      Reply
      • Good morning sir,

        Great to hear from you! Delighted the golf is going well. I’m just getting back to it after a few weeks of manic work. Make sure you keep on top of the basics and I’m sure you’ll make it to 18 HC over the winter. I’ll hopefully get some good content and ideas out to help you along the way.

        All the best,

        Will

        Reply
  3. Mate this is an excellent article, I have been doing this exact process the last few months and it has helped big time on the course. The book “Talent is overrated” by Geoffrey Colvin is an excellent book that will support your ideas even more.

    Reply
  4. I have figured out most of the pieces of this jigsaw myself over the last few years… but without the finished picture which this article has now provided.

    Thank you

    Reply
    • Thanks Francis,

      I hope you gave you something fresh to think about. This article is on the list for a little re-vamp, not many people tend to find it on the site.

      I hope the practice is going well.

      Will

      Reply
  5. Great article, my mental game has fallen apart since we returned to the golf course post Lockdown, time to knuckle down and work hard over the winter.

    Reply
    • Hi David,

      I hope you are well – delighted you enjoyed this one. It is a small but very important part of the journey to better golf. I’m back on golf insider work and will hopefully be spurring on your winter practice.

      Kind regards,

      Will

      Reply
  6. Amazing content! Love your tips. Working on bunker play. I am a junior golfer (3 handicap) and I love the practice schedules! Already told many people about this website (I am from Russia). Is it possible if you could email me?

    Reply
  7. Will, not sure why I haven’t come across your site before, but now having found it, I am devouring the content.

    Stuck indoors because of the COVID-19 pandemic, already started working on my conditioning and swing for 2021, season, sent for your practice book yesterday and looking forward to more great stuff.

    I really like your approach and your clear writing style. I also admire your science and research behind your site.

    Thanks.

    Reply
    • Hi Karen,

      Thanks so much for taking the time to get in touch. Comments like this really make my day! Yes, not ideal times for golf in the UK, but hopefully we’ll have a fine spring /summer of golf soon. I’ll do my best to keep some great content and ideas coming out.

      I hope the golfing prep is going well.

      Best wishes,

      Will

      Reply
  8. Great article! It is good to be reminded about how important it is to have good practice habits. The number of reps cacl is quite revealing and shows how good progress can be achieved with patience and solid learning steps.

    Reply
  9. Very insightful article. I am a regular practicer and this article has certainly given me food for thought. Luckily living in Spain i get the opportunity to practice on good facilities with decent weather. I recently bought your practice diary and have just started following your roadmap.

    Reply
  10. I can demonstrate why what you say is critical to improvement. I spent Saturdays for 8 years being a golf course starter and range manager. Following your example for the number of cycles. This was a busy public course with a large number of range hitting bays. Assuming only 100 players per day on the range I saw at least 36,000 golfers practicing over 360 Saturday mornings. Maybe, 150 -200 (1/2 of 1%) ever used any set up aids or even laid down a club. Most just hit and hit up to 4 million balls each year at this range alone!

    Alignment rods were as scarce as holes-in-one!

    Obviously, no critical thinking.

    Our joke was they were practicing to get worse!

    Reply

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