This is an evolving set of notes, ideas and concepts surrounding golf practice, golf coaching and golf performance.
- Your success formula
- Marginal gains in golf
- Debugging your golf swing
- Practice like a kid
- 1º of change
- World’s wost caddy
Your success formula
As we recently saw in our analysis of PGA players, all players have a unique profile for playing great golf. If we dug deeper into each player we would also see that each player on tour exhibits key differences between when they are playing well and when they are missing cuts.
Understanding these differences in your own game gives you a great insight into what is needed for you to play your best golf. Here we’ll look at a simple strategy you can use to understand what happens when you play your best and worst golf.
How to calculate your own success formula
Take your stats data (strokes gained, FIR, greens hit, putts…) and grab your best 5 rounds and worst 5 rounds for the season. Now take one set of data away from the other and look for the largest differences.
|SG Driving||SG Approach||SG Short Game||SG putting|
|Best 5 Rounds (avg)||0.10||-0.50||1.25||1.10|
|Worst 5 Rounds (avg)||-2.00||-3.81||2.10||-0.54|
Here is an example from my own game. When I drive the ball and hit my irons well I can easily score. However, in my worst rounds, you can clearly see my long game is at fault and my short game steps in to save me from shooting a horrific score.
What is interesting is that I always blame my driving, but this analysis suggests my approach play is costing me far more shots.
Strokes gained data tells us what is happening. However, we need directional data to work out the why for each area.
Below we have an example shot distribution pattern for one of my best and worst rounds. In the best round, the scatter plot is pretty neutral, possibly slightly right. Whereas for the worst round there is a strong left bias.
I can use this data to inform me on what I should work on in my golf swing. Also, how I should adjust my strategy and aim when I’m playing badly.
This same approach can be used for every area of the game. For example, if off the tee is your weakness, note down the direction of misses and club used. For putting, note the i) direction of missed putts, ii) poor pace or pulls/pushes and iii) your conversion rates from inside 5ft, 5-10ft…
You can use an app, like the Upgame app above, or scribble notes in a notebook, like the Golf Insider Performance Diary. This type of analysis is pretty similar to the work we do with elite players and it doesn’t take too much work to create a basic, helpful analysis.
Just follow the two steps above:
- Find the key area(s) to work on.
- Add context: direction of misses, club used…
These two simple steps then inform you of how to practice. For ideas on relevant skills games check out the list below:
Aim to update your analysis every 4-6 months as your game evolves.
Marginal Gains in Golf – How to Become Great
The journey to becoming a great golfer can seem complex. There are no hidden secrets, rather great players follow a systematic process that leads to small gains being made day-after-day, week-after-week.
Over a period of time these small gains add up. To the outside world, the player flipped a switch and jumped from an 18 handicap to a 12 handicap, or from a pro that shoots level par, to one who is capable of shooting 8 under.
However, this ‘jump’ was actually an accumulation of marginal gains. Week-after-week that player trained in a way that pushed their ability in the right direction.
1% gain a week
If you can find a way to make a 1% gain a week, you will be 50% better 12-months time. Over two years you will become twice as good at golf as you are right now.
In the rest of this article we’ll cover a couple of issues that make following this process a challenge, before introducing strategies and tools you can use to start making marginal gains in your own golf game.
Diminishing returns with practice
In reality this ‘1% a week’ approach is over-simplifying golfing performance and motor learning. All human learning is under-pinned by a concept called diminishing returns. To begin with, a small amount of diligent practice leads to big returns in performance. However, as you progress in skill level you will see less and less return for the same level of input (practice). You will still progress, just at a slower rate.
If we zoom into any part on this line we can see another key problem with tracking your progress. We, as ‘rationale’ humans expect a logical relationship between our practice volume and performance gains. When we practice, we should immediately get better.
Unfortunately, learning is a complex blend of cognitive, perceptual and behavioural changes, these adaptations take time. As a result, our performance gains are non-linear and lag behind our expectations.
We experience many dips where we have practiced, but are not yet better. If you stick with the process long enough you will then see one of these steep climbs in performance, back in line with your expectations… that is before you experience the following dip.
Where should I focus my efforts?
As a result of the two issues above, it becomes very challenging to stay focused on the right aspect as a golfer. Knowing the limiting factor in developing as a player is tricky when you don’t keep track of every shot and stat.
I put together the Golf Insider Performance Diary to help with this issue. It isn’t perfect, but it helps you build a simple picture of your play and practice.
From time to time is also helpful to grab a clear snapshot of every aspect your game – Driving, Iron-play, short-game…The key goal in golf is to get the ball to your target, or as close as possible. However, knowing where you miss shots and what is causing your errant play is challenging.
To help with this, and to help you track your ‘marginal gains’, I’m putting together a set of practice tools. These are simple practice structures you can play once a month – if you are obsessed with golf or it is your career. Or every 3 months, if you are a keen player, wanting to improve.
After you have completed each challenge, sit down, look at your numbers and start building a practice and coaching plan to refine your key weakness. Your improvement plan should have one clear focus for the next month or 3-months. No more tinkering or changing swing thoughts every range session, just one clear area to improve over a month or 3-month period.
Marginal gains in golf – Summary
If you wish to improve your golf game stop searching for magic training aids, or new golf clubs, and instead put some systems together with the aim of getting 1% better each and every week.
You now know that as you get better, you will experience less return for the practice you put in. You should also be aware of the lag between your expected improvement your actual performance gains as a result of practice. We can’t change these aspects, but it helps to be aware of them. Just keep focused on getting 1% better each and every week.
Debugging Your Golf Swing
We’ve all been there – you arrive at the golf club excited to play, only to find your golf game has deserted you. It can feel like you’ve never picked up a club before. In this article I’ll run through the simple steps you can take to debug your golf swing and get your game back on track.
When your golf game leaves you it is very easy to over-complicate things and get lost. Just remember poor play comes down to the following reason(s):
- Poor strike – you’re not striking the centre of the golf club.
- Poor accuracy – the club face is pointing in the wrong direction at impact.
- Both of the above.
There is no need to make golf performance any more complicated – strike the ball out of the centre, get the clubface square and you’ll be playing great again. Below are the five steps I use during coaching to get a player back on track.
Step 1 – Check posture & balance
The first checkpoint is your posture and balance. A great golf swing is a simple golf swing – you should start with the ball positioned in the centre of your clubface and feel as though you’re balanced as you set up (your weight running through the mid-point of your feet). As long as you stay balanced throughout your swing, the clubface will return back to strike the golf ball beautifully out of the centre.
A common problem with struggling golfers is poor posture at set-up, resulting in their weight being positioned too far back towards their heel. The result is a golf swing where weight shifts forwards and back throughout their backswing and downswing as they try to stay balanced. This makes it a real challenge to consistently find the middle of the clubface and leads to many shots being hit out of the toe or the heel.
The fix – check your posture and weight distribution in a mirror or by videoing your swing. Once your posture and stance look correct, try to make 10 swings in a row, holding a balanced finish until the ball lands and stops rolling.
Step 2 – Check ball position
Step two is to check your ball position. This affects players of all levels but is the most common cause of poor form in pros and single figure golfers. It seems harmless, but if your ball is positioned too far back in your stance, your downswing mechanics collapse as your body tries to find a way of still making good contact. This can cause a loss of distance; tops; fats; pushes; hooks and all sorts of unpleasant results.
If you want to check this issue, place two golf clubs on the ground in an ‘X’ as shown above, then correct your ball position and make 10 swings in a row, generating a positive swing through into a balanced finish.
Step 3 – Check alignment
In my humble opinion, poor alignment is always a consequence, never a root cause. For example, I have never seen a slicer who naturally aims right. Poor alignment is your inner athlete trying to get you around the golf course. You keep slicing it into the righthand bush, so your inner athlete will aim left and lie to you. In your head you’ll hear ‘yes that’s right we’re aiming straight down the middle of the fairway, now swing’.
This is actually a positive attribute, but over a period of time alignment can go get too far offline. The result is a golfer who struggles with their strike and in some cases the shanks.
The fix – place a club on the ground along your toe-line (pictured above) and then attempt to hit 10 shots towards your target. If this new alignment feels alien to you, then this is an area to debug and fix. Your new ‘corrected alignment’ will take a few shots to get used to, but good shots will begin to follow.
Step 4 – Check sequencing/timing/tempo
The golf swing can feel effortless when timed well, but what does ‘great timing’ actually mean? I like to think of timing/tempo as the sequencing of your body parts – the relative position and speed that each body segment moves during the swing. The graph above shows a sequence from an elite pro where the lower body, upper body, then lead arm harmonise to produce peak speed at impact.
If you’ve passed the first three checkpoints, the next step is to test your sequencing. Begin by hitting a little chip shot with an 8-iron, then a pitch and gradually increase your swing length to hit shots at 50, 60, 70, 80, 90% of full speed.
At what stage does your performance break down? This is generally the point where your sequencing begins to change. It could be that some additional movements creep in as you try to wind up during your backswing. Or simply, you’re trying to kill the golf ball, rather than swinging through and allowing the golf ball to get in the way.
Either way, find the sweet spot just before your sequencing breaks down and practice at this level. Slowly increase your backswing and through-swing length whilst trying to maintain your sequencing/timing/tempo.
To transfer this fix to the golf course select an extra club for all of your shots, this prevents you from over-swinging and allows you to maintain consistent sequencing.
Step 5 – Club face control
The last step in debugging your game is to work on your clubface control. By this point in the checklist, you should be flushing your golf shots with all clubs, but you’re left with a consistent bad shot (left or right). If this sounds like your issue, then it’s time to look at your clubface control.
Around 80% of your shot direction is a result of your clubface angle at impact if you’re striking the ball well. Great players are masters at controlling their clubface through impact, but sometimes your body can forget how to create a square clubface through impact.
If your errant ball flight resembles one of the blue or yellow lines above, you need to focus on your clubface control. Firstly, check your golf grip, as this is a common cause of poor clubface control. If all seems well with your grip, move on to trying out the drill below:
Hitting the opposite shape drill
- Try to hit the opposite shape of your poor shot. If you slice, try to get the ball hooking. If you hook, try to hit a slice. I don’t care where it finishes, focus on changing the shot shape.
- With your next shot repeat the process, but try to get the ball finishing closer to your target with your new shot shape. If you succeed, repeat again trying to get your shot to finish closer to your target.
- As soon as you hit your problematic shot, jump back to step 1.
This simple drill gives you an awareness of how your clubface is affecting your ball flight. Over exaggerating your first attempt helps to re-set what the body feels is natural and helps you to return to a squarer impact position. It may also be useful to read this article on swing drills that relate to clubface control.
Again, this feeling can easily be transferred onto the golf course. I’ve experienced far too many rounds where I hook my drives and iron shots. A simple fix, for me, is to try and hit a 10-yard fade with every shot. The result – a straight shot. This is a classic case of the body forgetting how the club should be orientated at impact.
So there we have it – the five simple steps I use with players, and for my own golf game, when things don’t go to plan. I know they are simple steps, but rarely is the root cause of a drop in a player’s form any more than one of the components above. I hope it helps you in a time of need.
Practice Like A Kid
If you’ve ever watched a toddler learning to walk you’ll know exactly where this article is going. After 5 minutes of falls, tumbles and scrapes she / he will stand up and give it another – no fear of getting it wrong or who is watching.
In stark contrast we have golfers on the range trying to get better. Fixated on how parts of their body are moving, concerned with who is watching them, worried about hitting another bad shot.
In golf, mistakes are seen as incorrect moves, they need to be eradicated and golfers fear making mistakes. When learning to walk mistakes are part of the learning process – falling forwards – towards your goal.
Coaching versus learning
What we’re talking about here is where coaching meets how we naturally learn.
How we learn to walk exemplifies our most natural way of learning – goal driven, problem solving and with little care or understanding for how we are solving the task (implicit learning). We just explore what we can do and stick with the most successful solution. None of us visit a walking coach once a month to tell us how to walk more effectively.
Then we have coaching, theory driving, often with instruction, hopefully leading to a deeper understanding and better performance. It is fair to say this is a less natural way for the human body to learn, however, it can provide a much shorter path to a useful solution.
Which is best for learning golf?
As a golf coach, I’m sure I carry some bias, but I feel golfers need both approaches to optimise their skill development and performance.
Coaching can be extremely useful, and golf coaching doesn’t have to be technical. Coaches can set tasks, use analogies and ask questions – these are all ways to adapt a player’s technique without coaching swing positions or using technical jargon.
What I feel many adult golfers lack is a slice of time each week where they learn like a kid. Messing around, seeing what they are capable of, making mistakes and not caring. I feel this approach leads to a much deeper learning experience and a better ability to play golf on any given day.
This is something coaching and technical practice rarely achieves. It may even be one of the reasons many adults feel they don’t learn as effectively as children.
What does learning like a kid look like?
There’s a certain irony in writing out how to learn in a natural way, but here we go:
- Set a goal: holing a chip, crunching your iron shots, hitting the highest bunker shot you can…
- Throw down some golf balls and play, see what you can create, don’t worry about how you achieve it, explore, learn, create.
- Don’t care what people watching think of you.
- View bad shots as learning experiences, helping you become better.
- Enjoy and have fun.
Applying this to your golf game
As you plan your next week or month of practice consider an area of your game you want to develop. Please do consider coaching and trying to improve your technique, but also set aside 20-30 minutes a week to practice like a kid.
Set your goal, have fun, explore and care very little about bad shots, smile and enjoy the good ones.
There is a growing body of evidence behind learning in this way. In science, we call this concept expanding the perceptual-motor landscape of a performer, click on this link if you want a deep dive into the theory.
There are no big secrets in golf – rather a thousand tiny lessons a golfer needs to learn on their journey to becoming the best version of them. I feel this type of practice and mindset is one of those small lessons that many great players have learned. I hope it gives you a new tool for developing your own game.
1º of change
We’ve all heard of the notion that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert, but walking this journey feels very different to looking retrospectively at how someone became an elite golfer. Here we’ll cover a key concept on the journey to becoming a better golfer, 1º of change.
Small changes in weekly habits
There are no big secrets involved in getting better at golf, instead there are one thousand mini lessons to be learned. Getting better at golf involves collecting all the small pieces of information and strategies that mould you into the best player you can be.
As a player you need to find these golden nuggets and turn them into weekly tasks and strategies that you can fit into your routine. You may fit in some extra putting practice, start a golf specific workout, keep better stats, or focus more on your target over every golf shot. The key is to ensure these changes stick.
Each change nudges your performance trajectory by 1º, you are now on a new path.
Walking your new path
The funny thing is that as a player walking this path you can’t always see the big picture. If you perform this new routine for 1 day you feel no different. One week or even a month later you won’t feel that you’re much different as a golfer.
However, if you can keep walking along this new path for long enough you’ll end up in a very different place as a player. It just takes time. Looking from a birds eye view it is clear to see that small changes will lead you to a very different place down the road, but it won’t feel like that when you’re the one walking along the path.
Lesson – 1º of change
What are the 1-2 things you could implement this week to make yourself a better golfer? How will you ensure that you can carry these tasks out consistently over a long period of time?
World’s worst caddy
Imagine turning up for a round at The Old Course at St Andrews to find someone has kindly hired you a caddy – it would be a dream start to what can only be a great day ahead.
You have a couple of practice swings to loosen up, but as you do so you hear your caddy quietly murmur “there are few people watching today, I sure hope she/he doesn’t fluff this tee shot”. You think nothing of it and proceed to stripe the ball down the centre of the vast fairway.
On the second tee, a gust of wind picks up, blowing left to right towards the sea. Again, you hear your caddy comment “Well this isn’t ideal for their slice, they could be in trouble here”. You do your best to re-focus and with a tight, anxious swing manage to hit the ball into the right rough.
On the 4th green you are presented with a dead straight 6ft putt for par. Yet again your caddy snarks, “The last three putts have all been pulls, this is probably going to miss left”. Despite your best efforts to block out this voice, you make a poor stroke and do indeed pull the putt left.
By the end of the round you’re tired and exhausted – how is it possible to play a decent round with a caddy like this one.
Yes, you’ve guessed it, the world’s worst caddy in the world is in fact you. This is the way most golfers talk to themselves during a round of golf.
You wouldn’t put up with anyone else talking to you in such a negative way, but this can often become the norm for many golfers’ self-talk. Your inner-caddy makes playing your best golf a real challenge and consistently bullies you into negative thinking.
The issue is you’ve caddied for yourself since you first picked up a golf club, consequently you are rarely aware of how damaging this self-talk can be to your performance.
The solution is not an easy one, just like retraining the habits of our imaginary caddy in this story, re-training your inner-caddy takes time. Below are the simple steps to take. Unfortunately, just because they are simple steps does not make them easy to change, it will take time and practice to train your inner-caddy.
Step 1: Increase awareness
The first step is becoming aware of when these negative thoughts occur (1st tee nerves, over short, downhill putts). Make notes of when they crop up and what specific thoughts, images or feelings are associated with these moments.
Step 2: Reframing & building strategies
The second step is to work out how you can reframe negative thoughts and images into positive ones. Again, this takes time, but there are a few solutions – the ultimate source of confidence comes from already solving the problem at hand.
For example, if you’ve already won the British Open, you’ll be quite confident you can do it again. Sadly, sport rarely offers us this get out of jail free card. Instead, we have to generate success in associated areas and use this as a source of confidence.
One such solution is to create memories of successful shots you’ve had with the golf club you are currently holding. Every time you hit a great shot under pressure with your Driver, 7-iron, Pitching Wedge…, or hole a clutch putt make a note of it. Write down the the situation and the resulting shot you hit. Replay these successful scenarios again and again in your head, remember how easy the swing felt, how pure the strike was.
Another solution is to document practice achievements and reflect on these when you are fact with negative self-talk. For example, if you know you consistently hole 19 out of 20 putts from 4-feet, why would you fear this one you face on the golf course – it is highly likely to go in (95% chance of success).
Re-training your inner-caddy
Once you are back on the golf course you can start the process of re-training your caddy. When she/he pipes up with an unhelpful remark you can replay your brilliant previous shots you’ve hit with the club you’re holding and use your practice stats to logically argue against any negative thoughts.
This isn’t a magic cure, but over time you can build up a large vault of previous successful shots and practice achievements that help you manage negative self-talk.
The aim is not to banish negative thoughts from your head, even elite golfers still exhibit negative thoughts. Instead, aim to become great at dealing with these thoughts when they occur under pressure. The strategies in this article are two great ways to do so.
I hope this article has given you some simple strategies to improve your performance. For more reading on golf psychology, you can check out this draft copy of a future book. Also, if you would a golf performance article like this one emailed to you every Monday come join the Golf Insider weekly post.
Happy golfing – Will @ Golf Insider UK
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