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.

Golf practice diminishing returns
This is a classical motor learning curve looking at the relationship between time invested and skill level. To begin with you will see big gains with just a little time invested into a skill. However, as you progress in skill level, you will see less progression in skill for every hour you invest in practice.

Non-linear progression

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.

Golf practice non linear progress
Most golfers expect their golf to improve as they practice (dotted black line). In reality, performance changes take time. There is often very little improvement, before a sudden jump up in performance. We experience this as the ‘everything just clicked’ moment.

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.

To check out the first Golf Insider practice challenge, follow this link. More to follow in the coming weeks.

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.

Over the coming weeks I will release more templates for the Golf Insider Practice Systems. If you don’t want to miss them, come sign up for the Golf Insider weekly post.

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.

1 thought on “Marginal Gains in Golf – How to Become Great”

  1. Not a surprise, but the golf learning process is similar to muscular recovery which occurs in half lives. I use Arccos Golf swing analyzers which only track real golf shots on the course. One aspect of the data is that they provide a handicap for the main components. For me, my handicap in mid teens but my driving handicap is 29+. and my approach handicap was nearly the same.(After over a year of trying to improve this facet, I am finally down to low 20s in my approach handicap.)
    So I know where to work. I video my practice, keep a journal of my practice and my rounds and try to have specific goals at practice, yet my progress is miserably slow.
    I do love how you try to keep everything “simple.”

    Reply

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