Is My Practice Working?

One of the toughest aspects of golf is knowing if you are on the right path. We all have good and bad days, and times where our swing just leaves us. So when do you stick to your guns and at what point should you try something else?

Here we’re going to look at that question. I can’t promise a perfect answer, but I hope I can provide some useful tools and insight to help you evaluate your situation.

Why are you practicing?

The first step is to ask yourself why you are practicing? Are you hitting balls because you want to play better this afternoon? Or are you wanting to be a profoundly different player in 6-months time?

Interestingly, these two goals require different types of practice. In motor learning, we call these two scenarios the acute and chronic effects of practice.

Practice – Acute effects

  • Measuring the short term effect of practice (1 – 12 hours post practice).
  • Easy/medium difficultly, blocked practice, with a focus on the outcome is likely the best structure.

Practice – Chronic effects

  • Measuring the long term effect of practice (1 week – 1 year post practice).
  • Progressive difficultly, progressive blocked to random practice, with a focus on swing changes as well as shot outcome.

Answering if your practice is working if you are looking at the short term effects is simple – did you play well or not? However, knowing if you are on the right path for long term gains is much more difficult and below I’ll explain why.

How we measure learning

Motor learning is described as “a relatively permanent improvement in performance as a result of practice or experience”. This means we have very little idea how much learning is taking place during practice.

We can only measure true learning when we test at a later date (retention) and when we try performing a similar but slightly different task at a later date (transfer).

As golfers, and coaches, we should be optimising for retention and transfer:

  • Practice performance (how well we hit our driver in this practice session)
  • Retention (how well we hit our driver in next week’s practice session)
  • Transfer (how well we hit our driver on the course next week)

Read this section again, as it is really important to drill in these three concepts: i) practice performance, ii) retention and iii) transfer – unless you want to become the greatest 28-handicapper to ever grace the range, you need to focus on retention and transfer more than practice performance.

Above is a simple graphic showing what we see in every learning study conducted with novices. The same is true with experts, but the differences are often less clear cut.

  1. People get better with practice.
  2. When we test them at a later date they have retained a % of that skill, not all of it (retention).
  3. When we test them at a similar skill (transfer) their performance drops off again compared to retention.

Research has shown that adding variability into practice causes more errors in practice, but commonly results in better retention and transfer. Similar findings are present when we make practice suitably challenging.

The links above allow you to dig into each topic more, but as a note, I want to say this. Wildly variable practice and incredibly difficult practice isn’t a magic bullet. You want a blend of difficult and variable practice along with grooving movements in a blocked practice structure.

Key lesson # 1

Bad practice performance does not mean you are not learning. Learning occurs after practice, 1 day, 1 week…and so on. Errorful practice can lead to some good learning.

How long should I stick with an idea or swing change?

If you are an experienced golfer I would suggest you stick with the same focus and direction for a minimum of six practice sessions. Another caveat is that you should not measure the final results of the practice block for a week or two after those practice sessions have been completed.

Learning carries on after you have finished practicing – known as offline learning. Here we have an example for a full-time golfer practicing 3x a week, and a keen club player practicing once a week.

Stick with consistent themes

This leads into the second lesson – stick with consistent themes. As long as your approach is half-sensible (ideally with the support of a pro) and it relates to ball flight laws, you’re far better off sticking with one idea for 6-8 weeks than you are tweaking and changing every week searching for perfection.

Even if your swing thoughts and attempts are not perfect, a consistent theme is really important for learning.

With stability, your body can problem-solve, if your approach changes each week you just make the task even more complex.

What does this look like in practice?

Below I’ve sketched out what this might look like. Each practice session has the same goal. Each session also has some technical work through the bag and a couple of skills games.

What you’ll notice is the swing thoughts and feelings might change week to week. This is fine, as long as you’re broadly in the same mindset with the same logical approach.

This same approach is laid out in the Golf Insider Performance Diary.

Another point I wanted to share is that you won’t always see linear progression in your skills games score each week. I hope you do, but practice performance is often messy and non-linear in reality.

If a golfer showed me the practice plan above I would know they were on the right track, my key advice would be as follow:

Focus on creating that neutral ball flight with every shot. Find the feelings that help you achieve this, exaggerate them at times. Then play your skills games and see if you can create that same ball flight with a less technical mindset and more focus on your target.”

Summary

This has been a bit of a nerdy article, but I feel it is a useful topic that I’ve not seen covered in golf – I hope it helps some of you.

The key takeaway messages are:

  • As a golfer you should care far more about retention and transfer than your practice performance.
  • Don’t judge your learning purely on practice performance, sometimes more errorful practice can result in greater learning (retention and transfer).
  • Stick with a consistent practice theme for at least six sessions (ideally 6-8 weeks).
  • Swing thoughts can evolve over this time, but always use ball flight as your unbiased guide.

If you enjoyed this and want more, check out The Real Reason Golfers Don’t Get Better. Or come join the Golf Insider weekly post for more content.

Happy golfing – Will @ Golf Insider UK

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A PGA golf professional, with a PhD in Biomedical Science and MSc in Sports Biomechanics & Psychology. I currently spend my time lecturing part-time at Leeds Beckett University and working with elite athletes. In my spare time I build Golf Insider UK.

7 thoughts on “Is My Practice Working?”

  1. Hi Will,
    thanks for the last two posts – what to practice and this one on how to structure it. Im guilty of switching focus too frequently and not giving myself a good chance to make a long term difference that shows up on the course – where we actually play the game of golf.
    keep up this great work.

    Reply
  2. Brill as always Will and you really caught the mood that is in this golfers head at the moment as I try to make a swing change. Helped a lot!

    Reply
  3. Thanks Will, I understand your points about Retention and Transfer of learned skills but I don’t think the graphic is very helpful as the relationship between the three lines is unclear.

    Otherwise your post contains some great tips. I was out practicing them this afternoon and will probably buy a copy of your performance diary.

    Please keep your posts coming they are really useful

    Best Regards John

    Reply
  4. Interesting article. I practice regularly but get frustrated when the changes that i work on dont seem to translate onto the course. I often hit the ball fantastically well on the range but dont seem to be able to replicate it with the same success on the course.

    Reply

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