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5 Hidden Skills of Great Practice

The general consensus is that practice makes you better at golf, or any given skill. However, seasoned golfers will know this isn’t necessarily true – you can put in hours of work every week and not get better, or in some cases get worse…

If this sounds familiar then you need to start by checking your practice habits against the list below:

  • Are you practicing core skills and those that have the biggest impact on your scoring?
  • Are you spending suitable time on technique, skill development and on-course practice?
  • Are you working on technical moves that will actually improve your shot outcomes?

Break X Golf will really help you with these 1st two areas, giving you a simple plan to follow, but you’ll need to find a great local coach to help you with the third point.

After this list, why or how practice actually helps you get better becomes quite mystical – why do some players seemingly excel with practice, whereas others stand still? We quite often call this natural talent, but I feel this natural talent can be broken down into a sub-set of skills that can be learned to a high degree with some awareness and training.

The list below are the hidden skills I see in those players who really excel when developing their golfing skills. Like many things in life, these skills are simple, but that doesn’t make them easy to execute week in, week out.

If you want to get the most out of your golf practice I would read each, give yourself a score 1-10, train this aspect next time practice, then return to this article and re-mark yourself in 4 weeks’ time.

Enjoy.

#1 Clear Intention

Great players have an incredibly clear intention when they go to practice.

A club player might say “I need to practice my approach, my irons sucked today!”. They grab 50 balls and start hitting iron shots.

An elite player would have the same emotional reaction “My iron play sucked today” but they would follow this with a set of follow-up questions to better understand how and where their shots miss.

Shot dispersion

They would also consider if their poor outcomes were due to a miss strike, poor club face control or tactical errors. They would also reflect on whether this was a general iron-play issue or just with specific clubs – short, mid or long iron shots.

They would then take this information into their practice session. You would see them arrive on the range with one clear intention for their practice – “I need to stop my short iron shots finishing left”, “I need to improve my strike and distance control with mid-irons”…

They may not know exactly how to fix it, but every ball and swing is made with a clear intention for that practice session.

Score yourself 1-10 for intention

#2 Focus on feedback, not emotion

Elite players also process shots differently during practice. I’m smiling as I write this as I’ve been spending more time on golf ranges lately practicing next to club golfers of all standards. I won’t lie, I’ve seen many emotional responses from club players who are hooking or topping a golf shot on the golf range.

This emotion clouds the most important factor in learning…feedback. If you finish a shot in anger you lose two important bits of feedback:

  1. Where exactly did the golf ball end up, and what was the exact shot shape? (Knowledge of results)
  2. What exactly did that golf swing and impact feel like that caused the shot outcome? (Knowledge of performance)

Learning any sports skill can be boiled down to learning how points one and two above link. Motor learning is essentially learning this link and then getting better at producing the ideal swing to produce the outcome.

A club player will often turn away from a bad shot before it is halfway through its flight. The swear words may begin to flow and they will quickly get angry and such a bad swing.

Elite players suffer just as much when they hit a bad shot, but their reaction is far less emotional. There’s 40% frustration combined with 60% curiosity “Why did that just happen?”. They will watch their shot all the way down, and consider how much did it hook? Did it start left, or right of their target?

There is also an acute awareness of how it felt “It was struck out of the toe, the club felt stuck behind me as I reached impact…was this from the top of my swing, or only half-way down”.

This analysis leads to questioning their technique “Did I move too much off the ball? Should I keep my width and pull my arms down?” The technical points above are irrelevant, it is their focus and process that are important, they are straight into problem-solving and working out what they should do on their next swing.

Here is the ideal process boiled down to 3 steps:

  1. Shot outcome
  2. Feelings at impact and during swing
  3. Technical decision-making

Score yourself 1-10 for feedback focus vs emotion

#3 Mastering the reps between reps

One of the clearest differences between golfers who improve quickly and those who don’t is what they do between each golf ball.

For club golfers, this is often barely visible. They rake another ball in front of them and repeat.

Watch Tour players on the LPGA and PGA Tour when they are practicing, not warming up (practicing and warming up are very different concepts). Between shots, you’ll see them step away and clean their club with a towel. They often think about the shot they just hit, reinforcing where it went (knowledge of results) and how the swing felt (knowledge of performance).

They then take all of the information above and make some practice movements and swings. They really work on improving the movement and gaining a clear feeling before stepping over the golf ball for their next attempt.

For elite players, the next rep is often markedly better and executed with less thought, and a much clearer feeling of the desired movement due to what they have just done between shots – the result is a better shot and a better understanding of how to repeat that movement.

Whereas, amateur players without this process between shots, are stood back over the golf ball with lots of words running through their heads and a far less clear feeling of what they need to do – the result is often another poor golf shot and more thoughts added to their list of things to remember in the next 1.5-second golf swing.

Score yourself 1-10 for mastering reps between reps

#4 Acceptance of the process

Acceptance of errors builds on what we have discussed above. Practice performance isn’t indicative of learning. Re-read this sentence as it is important. Mistakes are an integral part of learning and all golfers should hit bad shots during practice sessions. They should also have some practice sessions where they struggle, along with those wonderful practice sessions that feel effortless.

Practice performance isn’t indicative of learning

The funny thing is that any learning requires errors and feedback, so without bad golf shots, there is little learning going on. Many of you might be familiar with the book The Obstacle is the Way, in a similar vein, the most proactive learners will view a challenging practice session as a brilliant opportunity to learn and develop as a player.

In bad practice sessions can you learn valuable skills about how to control your golf ball as best you can when your full swing or putting stroke leaves you on the golf course.

You can learn to manage your reaction to poor shots in a way that better prepares you for your next shot, as you should respond on the golf course.

You can become acutely aware of your self-talk after a bad shot and evaluate if it is helpful to you as a golfer.

Score yourself 1-10 for using poor shots and struggling in practice as a learning opportunity

#5 Mapping practice performance onto play

I need to thank my friend Connor for this last one. Connor is a great coach and a great golf pro, working his way towards the PGA Tour. In Connor’s words, “Club golfers never realise how many errors they hit on the range and are shocked when they emerge on the golf course”.

This really resonates with me. Club golfers often watch their ball sail roughly in the direction of the target and consider it to be a good shot. However, that same shot on the golf course would have missed the green wide, or wouldn’t have made the green.

Lateral error is one consideration, but club golfers are even worse when it comes to distance control. Many golfers don’t even pay attention to how far shots travel in practice, as long as the shot is well-struck they are happy. However, two well-struck shots from a club golfer can range by as much as 30 yards in carry distance.

Good golfers are more aware of distance control in practice and great golfers practice down to the yard – without exception. You can moan about the state of the golf balls, that mats aren’t realistic to hit off, but why on earth would you hit golf balls in practice without this being a priority – golf is a target sport with distance from the target as the key factor to success.

Great players map the demands of the golf course onto their practice facilities. They hit to realistic fairways, they give themselves 5-10 yards of depth to land iron shots in. When chipping and pitching they use a measure of 1-club length (~3 feet) and 2-club lengths (~6 feet) from the hole to know how many shots they are really hitting close.

Kevin Kirk (PGA Coach of the year 2019 & coach to Major winners) coaches his players to practice to targets that are 10% smaller than the golf course, and this is a great idea to implement as you work towards a single-figure handicap and beyond.

Learn more about practice difficulty in golf

In the world of skill acquisition what we’re talking about here is representative design. This concept spans much wider than what we have covered above but if you can implement the points above you will be above 99.9% of golfers who are on a journey to get better.

Score yourself 1-10 for mapping practice performance onto play

Summary

Let’s be clear, mastering these skills won’t change you from a 24 handicapper to a scratch golfer overnight. Sound technique, understanding how to play and how to score are still the visible aspects that are needed.

However, the hidden skills listed in this article are the ones that decide your rate of change ∆ from each practice session. Do you get 0.1%, or 0.5% better from each practice session, or do you get worse?

You can’t flick a switch and turn on these skills. Each skill listed here requires action and reflection to master. However, in my opinion, these are skills that are critical for getting better at golf.

In my humble opinion, being great at the skills above makes up some percentage of what we often describe as ‘naturally talented individuals’. I am not saying they wholly explain natural talent, but I would wager getting better at these skills will seriously help you accelerate the rate at which you improve as a golfer.

I hope this has been of use, it’s a bit of a left-field golf performance article, thanks as always for reading. If you want to take action i) score yourself for each attribute above, ii) leave a comment with your name, current handicap and current ratings, and iii) set a reminder to come back in a month and update your ratings.

If you’ve enjoyed this, please give it a share, and feel free to tag me in @golfinsideruk on any socials. For more like this come join the free weekly newsletter.

Happy golfing – Will @ Golf Insider

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Will Shaw, PhD, MSc, PGA Pro

Will is a PGA golf professional, with a PhD in Biomedical Science and MSc in Sports Biomechanics & Psychology. He spent 10 years lecturing part-time at Leeds Beckett University and the University of Leeds in Biomechanics and Motor Control before becoming the Head of Golf for the University of Exeter. He currently runs Golf Insider UK, Sport Science Insider around wider consulting and academic roles in sport performance and motor control.

2 thoughts on “5 Hidden Skills of Great Practice”

  1. Another very interesting article. Thank you and thanks for all the other very useful content you have put together.
    I have been playing for about 10 years, since I retired (I am now 68, h/c 6.4) and have always tried to follow a purposeful practice approach. So, I am keen to self rate on these hidden practice skills. However, even though I have read it through a few times I don’t get what is being rated in section 4. What does a 1 rated player do or not do compared to 10?
    As for the others I rated myself
    1. 6
    2. 7
    3. 5
    4. ?
    5. 9

    Reply
    • Glad it’s been of use Geoff and thanks for the kind words.

      Thanks for the feedback. These are all woven into the same fabric of learning, so at some points I have struggled to separate them cleanly.

      I’ve re-phrased 4 as:

      Score yourself 1-10 for using poor shots and struggling in practice as a learning opportunity

      Hopefully that helps.

      Keep up the fine practice.

      Kind regards,

      Will

      Reply

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