Week of May 1st Tee Times

The Brain Game: Purposeless Practice

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Article by Dr. Josh Brant, Clinical Psychologist and Sports Performance Coach – drjoshbrant@gmail.com / drjoshbrant.com

“Why don’t the skills I practice off the course translate to my on course play?” This statement, or some form of it, is a common lament from golfers, and points to one of the biggest problems in the sport; golfers don’t know how to practice. The main problem, as I see it, is that the skills most golfers are practicing are not the same skills that are needed to be successful on the course. 

As the saying goes, “practice makes perfect”; the more you practice a skill, the more proficient you get at it. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a skill as “a learned power of doing something competently”, then theoretically, any learned behavior will be strengthen the more we repeat it. It is this basic principle of repetition that drives golfers to spend countless hours honing their skills with the hope that it will lead to lower scores.  

But what if we’ve been doing it all wrong? What if those countless hours of honing our skills have only served to interfere with our development as golfers? What if the skills we have been practicing are not the ones needed to most effectively play the game? What are the skills necessary to succeed at the game of golf? My hope is that this article will begin to answer these questions, and a few others, so that we can make the best use of our practice time in an effort to maximize our potential as golfers.

So, what are the skills necessary to succeed at the game of golf? Imagine a friend of yours, who has never played the game before, asks you what skills they need to develop in order to be successful. What would you tell them? In a recent survey, I asked low handicap golfers this very question, and in no particular order, here’s the list of skills they came up with:

As you read through the list, what did you think? What would your answer(s) be? What did you agree with? Do you think if you possessed all of these skills your game would improve? When I ask better players these types of questions, I am always struck by how often the mental game is referenced (The skills highlighted in green are those I would consider psychological skills, or aspects of the mental game). My personal experience, both as a golfer and that working with players at every level, from beginners to professionals, tells me the above list of skills, although not comprehensive, would be a great place to start if you wanted to become a better player. If you agree, how many of these skills do you regularly practice?

If you’re not practicing these skills, or some variation of them, you’re doing yourself a disservice, and most likely, the skills you are practicing don’t correlate well with the actual playing of the game on the course. Very often, we don’t practice the skills necessary to be successful at the game. Instead, we practice skills that we believe will translate to on course play, but rarely stop to question whether or not they do. This disconnect between the skills we practice and those necessary to succeed at the game is probably the greatest impediment to our development as players. My sense is that we are wasting our time practicing in ways unquestioned by the status quo.

The most common of these unquestioned skills can be seen at every driving range around the world, rapid fire ball striking from the same location and lie. I’m all in favor of going to the range to hit balls, but it has to be more purposeful than robotically raking one ball after another onto a flat lie and firing away if we want to develop our skills as players. Hitting balls on the driving range and playing golf on the course are two distinct skills, and we’d be foolish to think otherwise. I’m not sure about you, but rapid fire ball striking from the same location and lie is a skill I rarely ever use when I’m playing on the course. In fact, there’s only one circumstance when the rules of golf allow you to replay a shot from the same location and lie and that’s when you’ve incurred a penalty shot. However, there are numerous golfers who believe practicing in this way will help them play better when they get to the course. 

So, how could your time on the range be more useful? Consider the following exercise: 

Next time you’re at the range, and after you’ve warmed up, rather than hitting one ball after another with minimal time between shots, wait. Depending on the distance of the shot you happen to be practicing (see chart for reference), take that designated amount between each swing as if you hit a shot on the course and were walking to where it landed. For example, if you were practicing hitting 175 yard shots, wait approximately 2 minutes before you make your next swing. Hitting balls this way will make your practice time much more purposeful and authentic to your experience on the course.

If you want an even more authentic experience, practice “playing the course” on the driving range. Say you know you’re playing a specific course for your next competitive round, using the score card, make a game plan outlining the clubs you will be hitting off each tee, then “play the course” on the range. Again, use the chart above to determine the amount of time to wait between shots. Granted this will take more time and require focus and patience, which by the way are important psychological skills for golfers, and most importantly, you will begin to engrain the actual skills you will need on the course.

Dr. Josh Brant is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Sports Performance Coach who has worked with golfers at all levels including professionals, collegiate, and high ranking amateurs. Feel free to contact Dr. Brant at drjoshbrant@gmail.com, visit his website at drjoshbrant.com and follow him on Twitter @drjoshbrant