Golf Practice: How difficult should it be?

We all want to get better at golf. As a result we all practice our golf, this may be on a golf range, putting green, or the golf course; but how difficult should our golf practice be? And why should practice difficulty matter?

Many golfers ask us golf coaches “How can I get better at golf?” However, a better question to ask yourself is “Why should I be getting better at golf?” Many golfers assume that by practicing their golf they’ll earn a god-given right to improve, but think for a second, why would you get any better at golf just by practicing?

golf practice difficult

Why do we develop skill

The first point to consider is that we weren’t designed to play golf. A few hundred years ago a few mad-men in Scotland decided to start swinging lumps of wood and metal around their heads and decided to call it a sport. Hence, the game golf was invented.

To understand how we get better at golf, we have to understand the system we are all working with – the human body.

The human body is still the most complex machine on this planet. Its most incredible asset is it’s ability to adapt. This ability to adapt has seen us survive for many thousands of years, and now we used it to learn to hit a little white ball.

golf practice mindset

The ability to adapt and learn is based on a negative feedback system. This means if we repeatedly perform a task that is challenging, our body will adapt to make us more efficient at that task. If you lift heavy weights with your arms and your biceps will develop ways to create more force. You spend hours typing on a computer, and your body turns hitting the correct keys and coordinating your many digits into a precise, quick and effortless action. It is truly incredible.

Stress underpins learning

The short answer of how we learn to be more skilful is simple. To get better at something you have to continually do it in a way that ‘stresses your body’. This stress tells our body that it needs to make adaptations to help us get better at that precise task. However, learning is a very costly process, your body will not make these adaptations unless it really has to.

Keep lifting heavier and heavier weights, your strength will continue to increase. Use a smaller keyboard to type with and your ability to accurately jab the correct key will refine. Stop stressing your body and these abilities soon regress.

Golf practice should be difficult

Now we’ve understood the biological basic of homeostasis we should probably move back onto golf practice and ask how you are going to become epic at golf.

Developing golfing skill

So how do we get better at golf? For this you need to think deeper than making a golf swing. To execute a golf shot we go through the following process:

  1. Take in perceptual information through all of our senses. Visually process the target position and distance, terrain. We sense the weight-length-balance of the golf club we’re about to swing… and so much more. A staggering amount of information is taken in subconsciously.
  2. We then use this information and compare it with all of our previous experience of similar situations (swinging stuff). Based on this we come up with a plan, a movement, or swing that we think will be optimal.
  3. We produce a movement, based on our plan. As we are swinging we compare what we are feeling, with what we are expecting to feel. If the two match up it will feel  like an effortless action. If they don’t we subconsciously make tweaks.

This is what we should class as ‘golfing skill’.

Although I’ve laid these out in three logical steps, it is far more like a messy soup, with no clear beginning or end. Just these three processes continually interacting.

To improve our ability we need to stress this process during our golf practice. Sometimes we may need to place more stress on accurately perceiving information, other times we may wish to emphasise improving our club face angle through impact.  As much as we can, and should, have different focuses for practice, we can never truly separate this messy soup of perceiving, planning and executing.

Stressful golf practice

Golf practice stress

Now really think about the last time you practiced your golf? Was your golf practice really effortful? Did your golf practice really stress a certain area of your performance? Did you even know what specific thing you were trying to adapt and improve?

If your answer is ‘no’ to any of the questions above then I have some great news for you. Congratulations you have potential to improve your golf at a much faster rate than you currently are.

“Golf practice doesn’t make you better. Highly effortful and specific practice makes you better at golf”

 

A new way to approach golf practice

Based on this, I propose a few thoughts that can help you improve your golf practice and rate of learning.

The first is obvious, but important. Ensure you have a specific purpose for every practice session. This may be to improve your distance control for 10-20ft putts, or to reduce your slice with a driver.

Once you have this aim, really understand what factors at impact, and in your golf swing cause good and less desirable outcomes. Now, from here the traditional coaching approach is to continually focus on these ‘swing thoughts’ until you improve. This is important, but I propose adding a new layer.

Use your practice environment to help you improve

Next, think how your practice can be turned into a game that gives you specific feedback on your outcome. If you are working on distance control in putting, place some tee pegs just past the hole and come up with a points scoring system.

For improving your slice, create a 20-yard fairway and play the following game.

These are both very simple but effective ways to create a start point for practice difficultly. Any games you build should be very specific to your desired outcome, and give you clear, precise feedback.

What most golfers get wrong with golf practice

Once you have these games, the key point is to make them more difficult as you improve. This is obvious when we consider how we structure gym session or how our education system works. Yet, we tend to neglect this aspect in golf practice.

Many golf professional perform the same practice week after week and wonder why they become stagnant.  If you wish to continually get better at golf, you have to continually perform in a challenging practice environment.

A hypothetical diagram of how practice difficulty should increase. Note the levels of practice success from beginner and experts as difficulty increases
A hypothetical diagram of how practice difficulty should increase. Note the levels of practice success from beginner and experts as difficulty increases.

Once you can get 8/10 into your fairway, make the fairway smaller. If you have a high score on your putting distance control, add in more variability to the putting distances (ie. 10ft, 10, 10ft adapted to 10ft, 18ft, 12ft).

The two changes stated above may sound like the same thing – making practice more difficult. However, they are actually very different progressions of practice difficulty.

Making the fairway smaller places greater stress, and emphasis, on developing a squarer club face at impact. Whereas, adding more variability to putting distances places more stress on  taking in the correct perceptual information and improving your decision making process.

They both make practice more difficult, but both will lead to very different changes to your golfing skill.

How should I make my golf practice more difficult?

This is a great question – that I don’t have an answer to. The golf pros I have worked with have made great progress when we’ve got this right, but I will be the first to say there is no perfect way to diagnose what practice should focus on, and which aspects to make incrementally more difficult.

Optimal practice involves finding the one thing that is limiting your performance. Then creating a great/fun way to practice refining this attribute, with clear feedback on what you are doing in your golf swing and where the golf ball is finishing.

Sometimes your focus should be more on a mechanical aspect, other times it might be on decision making. There are a few ideas on how to test which parts of your golfing skill are limiting performance, but I shall have to leave that for another ‘lengthy’ post.

To help you begin tweaking your golf practice difficulty remember the following:

  • Skills games with smaller targets and more repetitions focus more on mechanical refinement.
  • Practice games that have more variability and changes between shots challenge the player to take in the correct information, and correctly plan their shots.

However, as we discussed before the planning and execution elements can never be truly separated. You are always working on both to some degree.

Wrapping up practice difficulty

The key take home messages from this piece are simple in theory, but take some work to successfully implement into your golf practice. Here is a summary:

  1. Think of golfing skill as taking in information, planning and executing a movement, not just a golf swing. A poor golf swing may be the result of a limited ability to take in the correct information and/or plan.
  2. Your golf practice should stress perceiving, planning and executing attributes of your golfing skill. Not just practicing a golf swing.
  3. A challenging practice environment is needed to improve any specific attribute.
  4. As you improve, continually make practice more difficult. This can be done in many ways, but to start with consider slightly tweaking one of the following – target sizes, repetitions or shot variability.

Taking in this information and deciding that tomorrow you will make your practice infinitely more difficult is not sensible. It is on par with an obese man deciding to get fit by running a marathon tomorrow. You are looking for your optimal practice difficulty.

From my attempts implementing this in to practice I would suggest minor changes dramatically alter practice difficultly and success rates.  Also note that practice should not always be difficult. Golf practice difficulty should vary and be periodised throughout the golfing season. Sometimes you want to create highly challenging sessions, other times you will benefit from easy sessions.

Final thing I promise

In the coming weeks I will be sending out a little something to help golfers practice more effectively. It won’t be perfect, and I will need golfers feedback to refine it. However, if you would like to help me improve this tool, and grab a freebie to improve your golf practice sign up to golf insider weekly post.

Happy Golfing.

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