The real reason golfers don’t get better with practice

Let’s start with two questions:

Q1: How effectivly 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 how you think during practice is a critical chunk of getting better as a golfer. 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 these questions 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.

Golf Insider 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 work 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’. Many years ago I presented some research around this topic at a conference (page 27 on this link if you want a little geeky snippet). 

Below is a picture of this process:

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

Poor golfers’ 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. Each point links to one of the bullet points outlined in the 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 in their swing caused a good / poor shot.
  • Emotional reaction to poor shots, that leads to them skipping the forethought phase and grabbing another ball.

Forethought phase – planning for 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 attempt 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.

That is a lot of extra golfing development you’re leaving on the table at every practice session. If you are 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, but it does help to be aware of this process.

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. Also note, current skill level is depart from thinking ability (great thinking will help lead to becoming great at golf).

So feel free to consider this ‘elite thinker’ as 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:

Performance phase – hitting a golf shot

  • Clear target, club choice and rationale for choosing that shot.
  • Consistent aim and set up, 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 on what their swing feels like.
  • They have ways of detecting 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 and 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.

Forethought phase – planning for 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.

Great thinking and getting better at golf

Changing a golfer’s thinking in this way will make no visible difference over the course of three shots on a golf range. However, extend this new cycle of thinking out over a year’s practice (13,000 reps as an estimate for a golfer who practices 2 hours a week*) and we see a new golfer emerge.

*100 golf 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 cycles / year

This process is the difference between the golfer who still plays off 19 at the end of the year and the one who is now a 13 handicapper. Or the 4 handicapper who keeps hovering between 4 and 5 and the one who gets down to a 1-handicap and shoots under par on a good day.

Great thinking conclusion

I know it’s boring. It’s not sexy – no fancy training aid or magic driver to cure a slice, but it works. The first step to becoming great at thinking is to be aware of how you are currently thinking when you practice. 

Take time to 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 in reaching your golfing dreams.

I hope you have found this article of use. I will be the first to admit it is left-field golf article. However, I always appreciate your comments and feedback so feel free to leave them below. If you would like more a detail plan on how to improve check out the golf insider challenge series.

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

Happy golfing – Will @ Golf Insider

6 Replies to “The real reason golfers don’t get better with practice”

  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.

    1. 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.


      1. 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.

  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.

    1. 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.


  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.

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