Learning is expensive, you have to give the human body a good reason to make all of the physiological and neural adaptions required to become more skillful. Golfers who want to get better at golf should take note of practice difficulty – it is a key reason why golfers stop getting better.
Golfers assume that practice will make them better. This is close to the truth but incorrect. Specific, optimally challenging practice will make you better at golf, but what this looks like in reality changes as you progress from beginner to club player and on to becoming an elite player.
In this article, we’ll dive into practice difficulty and look at how you can optimise your own golf practice.
View practice like a gym workout
There are a lot of commonalities between developing strength and skill, these both require changes across the central nervous system and both occur as a result of stressing your body and then allowing it to recover (the latter aspect is known as off-line learning).
In the gym we are focused on developing strength, power and endurance. In golf practice, we are focused on developing accuracy, consistency and distance, but we are working with exactly the same hardware – the brain, neural pathways, muscles and sensory organs – so the same principles still broadly apply.
A gym workout will push your body to adapt, but over time the routine needs to progress to keep providing a suitable challenge, the same is true in your golf practice. Now, think back to your golf practice routine – how much has it progressed as you have developed as a player?
If the answer is very little, then I have great news for you – this is likely the reason you have stopped getting better.
As the graph below shows, there is a hypothetical sweet spot of practice difficulty where learning will be optimised. Too easy or too difficult and your rate of learning will reduce. This sweet spot shifts to the right (a higher level of practice difficulty) as you become more skillful.
How can you make practice more / less difficult?
Unless you have the luxury of hitting 50 9-irons a week into the 17th green at Sawgrass, practice difficulty is defined by the goals you set yourself in practice. You have to set the constraints of practice to change your driving range, putting green or golf course into the optimal level of challenge.
There are two main dials you can tweak:
- Target size/distance to the target (relative target size)
- Reps of successful shots required
As you decrease the relative size of your target or increase the number of reps needed your practice difficulty increases. If you do both at the same time practice very quickly becomes difficult.
By making 1) your target size smaller / moving further away or 2) by increasing the number of successful shots required you can easily tweak practice difficulty. This is at the heart of the skills games I share with you all. Here is an example:
Will’s range challenge
Stage 1: Hit 3 drives in a row through a 20-yard gap (easy), 15-yard gap (med), 10-yard gap (hard).
Another way to increase the practice difficulty above would be to keep your target size the same but to up the number of successful shots in a row from 3 to 5. These both increase practice difficulty but will shape your development as a player in different ways.
Accuracy versus consistency
There are two key attributes you need to develop as a golfer – accuracy and consistency. You need to hit your shots close to your target and you need to be able to do this often.
- Relative target size – challenges your accuracy
- Number of reps – challenges your consistency
In the same way, a gym routine will develop your muscular strength or endurance, based on the number of reps and weight moved, your practice can be shaped to make you more accurate and/or more consistent based on the size of your target and the number of successful reps needed to complete a task.
If you need to become more accurate, shrink your target size. If you want to become more consistent, challenge yourself to perform a higher percentage of successful shots inside your current target size.
You can change both at once, but as the graphic below shows, difficulty rapidly increases – you’ve been warned.
I personally feel this is a really important concept, that is never mentioned in golfing development, so I hope it helps you re-think your golf practice.
What should you be aiming for?
Just like a great gym routine, you are looking for optimally challenging practice. Too easy and you won’t learn much, but equally, if you make practice too difficult it will also slow down your learning. Your practice goals need to give you glimpses of success and wins for your confidence, whilst challenging you to refine your current ability.
I had a brilliant chat with Kevin Kirk (PGA pro and all-around great guy) recently and I must credit him for helping me make sense of how to explain this. He suggests PGA Pros have roughly 5% error, 70% of the time.
For example, from 100 yards, their proximity to the hole is ~5 yards, from 200 yards it is ~10 yards. They also hit fairways and greens ~70% of the time.
So you can see even at an elite level we are not looking for perfection – roughly 5% error, 70% of the time allows you to compete. Kevin takes this concept and tries to make players’ practices 10% harder than they need in competition.
I think this is a great rule of thumb and one you can use.
What are the targets you need to hit? Take this number and shrink them by 10%.
How frequently do you need to hit fairways/green? Add 10% to this value.
I personally vary practice difficulty more than this over the season. In the pre-season, I like to really increase practice difficulty for short periods to push players to improve. I then lower practice difficulty as we move into the season to help develop confidence.
However, the take-home message is simple – make your practice slightly more challenging than you are aiming for in play. The 10% rule is a great concept to apply.
Applying this to your golf game
Now it is time to reflect on your own golf game. Which areas are you trying to improve:
- Wedges & pitching
What is your current level of accuracy and consistency, and what are you aiming for?
Look at your weekly practice, what skills games and challenges have you put in place to develop your accuracy and consistency in these areas?
Just select or create one appropriate skills challenge and play it every week, tweak it to the appropriate difficulty level and keep playing it until you can complete it. Once completed, make the targets slightly smaller or tweak the number of reps needed in a row to keep your level of practice difficulty optimal.
It is that simple.
Summarising practice difficulty
I hope you can now see how important this tiny concept is for your development. Practice difficulty should be set slightly higher than what is required in play, it should gradually increase as your skill level increases. Finally, we can tweak practice difficulty to stress accuracy and/or consistency using the concepts discussed in this article.
I’ve loved writing this, so I sure hope it has been helpful. As ever, come sign up for the Golf Insider weekly post if you would like more articles like this one. Also, check out Break X Golf – an app that builds you personalised practice plans based on how you play golf.
Happy golfing – Will @ Golf Insider UK
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