A common question golfers ask is – Should I practice on the golf range or the golf course? The swift answer is both, but there are two more interesting questions to answer that can really speed up your golfing development:
Q1: Why are these two environments different in developing your golfing skill?
Q2: How can you make your driving range practice more effective, and how can you make your on-course practice more effective?
Let me explain why the driving range and golf course are different from a motor learning perspective.
The science of learning
To develop golfing skill we need to practice in a deliberate way. Two key factors that underpin how much skill we gain from practice are:
- The volume of practice (how many golf shots we hit).
- Specificity (how close our practice is to our performance environment).
Think about the golf course and the driving range in terms of practice volume and specificity. Straight away we can see a glaring issue with both.
Golf practice on the range
Practicing on the golf range offers us many repetitions within a short period of time: 50 – 70 shots within an hour if we are effective in how we hit balls.
However, it is quite unlike the environment that we perform in – the golf course.
On the golf range there is little consequence for a bad shot and the structure is highly dis-similar. Unless you’re having a very bad day on the golf course I wouldn’t expect you to frequently hit 10 7-irons in a row… (insert sarcastic comment from Reddit/Golf).
The golf driving range gives you great practice volume, but low specificity. It also gives you a great opportunity to test, re-test and refine your swing solutions in a stable environment.
Golf practice on the course
Practicing on the golf course, is obviously, highly specific, but think about your practice volume. If you shoot 80, you’re unlikely to hit more than 40 long shots in a round. Besides your Driver, you are unlikely to hit the same club more than 2-3 times in a 4-hour period. 2-3 repetitions with a 9-iron isn’t going to make you much better with a 9-iron.
This practice is highly specific but doesn’t have enough volume to see your golf improve.
The real problem in golf practice
So here we have our problem. If you practice on the range, you get good at hitting balls on the range, but it doesn’t transfer to the golf course, because it isn’t specific. Practice on the golf course and you just don’t execute enough repetitions to improve.
Most golfers think – “I do both of the above, so I’m fine”. In fact, neither of these setups lead to practice that will optimally transfer into golfing performance. Take a look at the image below to consider what is going on.
Golfers’ standard practices are coloured in pink. You can see that these are equally ineffective and far away from optimal.
Hence why many players go to the golf range once a week, play once a week and struggle to improve.
The solution for golf practice
I have two key points that I would like to explicitly layout before I lie and tell you there is a perfect solution to this problem:
- The practices in pink are still useful. Use them, just don’t solely rely on them.
- I haven’t come across an optimal practice structure that would sit in the top-right corner. I don’t think one exists, but we can get closer than the two pink boxes.
I have a solution, that from my past seven-year experience of tinkering, appears to be the best way of developing golfing skill and performing on the golf course.
First, let me explain two new types of golf practice. These are both coloured in green above.
Solution 1: Skills games on the golf range
In essence, skills games add a small amount of consequence and practice variability into your range session. You will lose a little practice volume compared to hitting ball after ball on the range, but you will gain a good chunk of practice specificity.
Solution 2: Golf course practice with multiple balls
I’m sorry if you’re at some big fancy golf course that won’t allow this. But for the rest of you, this will be wildly useful.
Pick a quiet time, head out for 9 holes and aim to hit a few extra shots from key areas (please don’t hold up the whole world behind you). Hitting extra 3 mid-iron shots on each hole x 9 holes leads to almost 30 reps in a really specific environment.
It would take you almost a month to accumulate that during 18-hole games played once a week.
How to optimise your golf practice
If you really want to get good at golf, your should aim to combine all four of these types of golf practice.
When you make a swing change, aim for the following order of practice. Begin with step one, then progress towards steps four as you make progress:
- Blocked practice on the range
- Skills games on the range
- Multiple balls on the course
- Competitive play on the course
I know it is very simple, but this little sequence is really effective for making the most out of the golf range and the golf course for practice.
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Golf practice: Driving range vs golf course – Summary
None of this is rocket science. I’m sure you’ve all taken part in the practices I’ve laid out above. In this article, I wanted to explain them in terms of practice volume and practice specificity.
These are the two underlying variables that truly affect your rate of learning.
So next time you’re considering the driving range or the golf course. Consider how much volume and specificity you need. Hopefully, this post has given you a few ways to make the range more like the golf course (adding specificity) and the course more like the range (adding volume).
If you would like a golfing article like this one sent to your inbox each Monday, come join the Golf Insider weekly post. Or to keep reading, check out this article on how to use a golf journal, this piece to dive deeper into practice difficulty and finally, this link to learn more about how to practice golf in three different ways.
Happy golfing – Will @ Golf Insider
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