7 Habits of Highly Effective Practice
It is a familiar sight on driving ranges and practice facilities around the world; golfers beating away at balls, one after the other trying to achieve the typical golfer’s goal of “more consistency”. Most of this effort is completely wasted. They may have a great practice session there and then, but all too often that doesn’t transfer to the course.
So, paying homage to Stephen Covey’s classic self-improvement book, here are 7 habits that will make your practice a lot more effective.
1. Deep Practice – Quality vs Quantity
It has been argued that it takes 10,000 hours of dedicated practice to reach mastery in any discipline. There are many examples of pros who have followed this line of thought to great success; Ben Hogan famously spoke of the answer being in the dirt, Gary Player said “The harder I practice the luckier I get, and Nick Faldo would beat at least 1,000 balls a day until his hands bled in pursuit of his goals. But for every one of these stories there are thousands of cases of players who have worked hard but haven’t achieved anything in the game.
A new way of thinking, highlighted by Daniel Coyle in his excellent book ‘The Talent Code’ (an essential read for any serious coach) is that of Deep Practice, which consists of fully focused, intense training sessions. This type of practice can be achieved for a maximum of 3 to 4 hours a day, but is far more effective than the ‘dawn ‘til dusk’ practice that doesn’t get you very far. Done correctly, it sits perfectly on the balancing line between quality and quantity. Since implementing this philosophy in my academy with our student’s golf training and academics, we have had staggering improvements in both disciplines.
2. Train Skills
As golfers (and golf coaches) we tend to get far too caught up in the technique of the swing, thinking that perfecting technique will bring us the results. This is not a surprising mind-set as most modern day instruction has focused on this way.
For a far more effective way of practicing, focus on training the required skills for effective golf. For example in chipping, the required skills are controlling the starting direction, height, distance, and spin/roll. These can be practiced together or in isolation. Focusing on the skills first will give you great feedback as to which ones you need work on, which may then require technical assistance. But if you are competent at the skills, then no need to change the technique for the sake of it.
Practice can be categorised into two types; Block Practice and Random Practice. Block practice is when you repeat the same thing over and over again to build up a certain amount of reps in order to groove a movement. This is what most golfers spend their time doing. Random practice involves changing something shot by shot, for example changing target, club or desired flight.
Block practice has its place as part of effective practice, especially when working on a technical drill where the result is not the main focus. However many studies have shown that random practice is the most effective way of developing and learning a new skill. Golf on the course is 100% random, therefore it makes sense to practice in this way most of the time, otherwise your training is not reflective of the actual game you are training to improve.
4. Replicate Pressure
Similar to number 3, we want to make our practice to be reflective of what we experience on the course, where every shot counts. Using the chipping example again, hitting a pile of balls one after the other with no consequence is a complete waste of time. A great way to represent the actual game in training is to add pressure to your practice by setting target goals to achieve or to play skills based games.
A nice example of this is playing ‘Par 18’ around a chipping green. Play 9 holes, with 3 easy, 3 medium and 3 difficult up and downs to achieve. Putt out each hole and keep your score. This is great practice on your own or with a partner.
5. Make it more difficult
Another highly effective method of training is to make your practice more difficult than the actual game. Michael Phelps’ trainer would regularly have him swim 10,000 metres full out in single training sessions (taking 2.5 hours) to build the kind of stamina that would enable him to win 8 gold medals at the Beijing Olympics, swimming 17 races in 9 days.
There are many ways you can do this in your golf training, both on and off the course. A great game to play on the putting green or on the course is ‘Pull-Back’. On the putting green, play a matchplay game against a training partner but after every putt you have to pull the ball back a putter length from the hole. This ensures at least a 3-foot hole-out each time. Using the same concept on the course, once you hit the green you have to pull the ball 2 club lengths off the green in direct line away from the flag. To score well at this game is the ultimate test of your short game.
6. Embrace Mistakes
Mistakes and failure are essential in any learning process. We grow by stretching our skills just beyond current ability. In other words when we put ourselves just outside of our comfort zones, we experience new things and learn from them. This means mistakes are inevitable and successful people thrive on this as they grow. Some of the best practice sessions you will have are when you are really struggling. This is valuable feedback along your learning journey.
7. Don’t neglect the course
Many players devote their entire practice time to the range or practice areas. Much great learning can be done on the course and this shouldn’t be neglected. I’ve already spoken about the ‘Pull-Back’ game that can be played on the course. There are so many other games to be played that can help the learning process, whether it’s making the game more difficult or making you think differently around the course (play off ladies tees or take half a set out there). As a general rule, I like to see my players spend around half of a training week on the golf course. This is how we set out the schedules in our full-time programmes at my academy.
Founder & Performance Director
The Golf School of Excellence