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Failure is crucial: Make your practice sessions more difficult

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I recently attended the PGA Teaching and Coaching summit, a biennial gathering of the leaders in our industry. I enjoy interacting with and learning from other teachers and researchers in the game — the more I learn, the better I teach.

Dr. Mark Guadagnoli, a professor at several leading universities over the past 20 years, gave a particularly interesting presentation. His research into human performance and learning is enlightening and beneficial to improving at anything we do, but particularly golf, his specialty.

I will offer a capsule version of what Dr. Guadagnoli believes and invite those of you interested to read further into his work.

In practice, FAILURE IS CRUCIAL! We can benefit from practice when stress and failure are an integral part of what we’re doing. Real learning takes place under stress. This little tidbit fascinated me in particular because, as an instructor, I have witnessed it first hand for years.

When practice is too easy, we get bored — our brains fall asleep! Our training has no lasting effect if it doesn’t keep us awake. 

Dr. Guadagnoli even quantifies it to say that practice should really contain no more than a 60-to-70 percent success rates. This means that we derive more value from practice when we fail 30-to-40 percent of the time than when we’re successful a majority of the time. Failure is the key; it is when we are stimulated enough to pay attention.

How can this translate to your game? There are a number of ways I suggest my students practice to help them achieve lasting success and take it to the course:

  • Create difficult, golf course-like situations in your practice.
  • Hit balls from a variety of lies: level, unlevel, good lies, bad lies etc.
  • Work on what your game needs. If you are driving it well but can’t hit from the turf, hit a lot of irons. Practice the shots you hate the most. 
  • Practice those slippery, downhill right-to-left breaking putts (if you’re left-handed, practice left-to-right breakers).
  • If you prefer a fade, force yourself to hit some draws to a back-left pin.
  • Practice on the course. Go out to the toughest driving hole at your course and hit a bunch of tee shots.

If you fight a shank, drop a bucket of balls by the green in random lies. Resist the urge to “set them up.” Simply play them as they lie. 

The idea is to make practice difficult so you’re prepared for anything. Place yourself under the toughest conditions when practicing so that play feels easier and less stressful, no matter the situation. 

I watch members practice all day long from perfect lies, usually off the FRONT of a divot they’ve just made! You’ll almost never get this lie on a golf course, so giving yourself this lie on the range creates a false sense of improvement when working on your game. 

As I said, Dr. Guadagnoli’s theories have an empirical basis in fact based on my own teaching and observations. Mike Hebron has gone to great lengths in his work to explain that any meaningful, sustained progress is the result of self discovery. Difficult practice under more stressful conditions is yet another way of expressing this. Practice has to include failure and we must learn from the failure. 

“The secret is in the dirt,” so let’s get digging.   

If you’d like me to analyze your swing, go to my Facebook page or contact me (dennisclarkgolf@gmail.com) about my online swing analysis program.

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Dennis Clark is a PGA Master Professional. Clark has taught the game of golf for more than 30 years to golfers all across the country, and is recognized as one of the leading teachers in the country by all the major golf publications. He is also is a seven-time PGA award winner who has earned the following distinctions: -- Teacher of the Year, Philadelphia Section PGA -- Teacher of the Year, Golfers Journal -- Top Teacher in Pennsylvania, Golf Magazine -- Top Teacher in Mid Atlantic Region, Golf Digest -- Earned PGA Advanced Specialty certification in Teaching/Coaching Golf -- Achieved Master Professional Status (held by less than 2 percent of PGA members) -- PGA Merchandiser of the Year, Tri State Section PGA -- Golf Professional of the Year, Tri State Section PGA -- Presidents Plaque Award for Promotion and Growth of the Game of Golf -- Junior Golf Leader, Tri State section PGA -- Served on Tri State PGA Board of Directors. Clark is also former Director of Golf and Instruction at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort. He now directs his own school, The Dennis Clark Golf Academy at the JW Marriott Marco Island in Naples, Fla.. He can be reached at dennisclarkgolf@gmail.com

23 Comments

23 Comments

  1. Pingback: The Great Features Of The Golf Course All Over The World – My Blog

  2. Jose

    Feb 13, 2015 at 2:14 pm

    It is not that failure is crucial, it is that failure is part of the process of learning and innovation and not to self stigmatize failure.

    The majority of successful Silicon Valley Startups’ plan A’s were failures. The gold was in applying what you learn from executing plan A and apply it to plan B.

    http://youtu.be/De6h0_qGulg

  3. Jose

    Feb 13, 2015 at 1:03 pm

    or ADHD Golfers who are experimental learners by nature there is no stress hitting the hard shots. Anxiety comes into play when worried about the consequences of results. Mindfulness exercises can help the brain focus on the moment while ignoring broken windows, concussed alligators …etc

    • Alex

      May 24, 2015 at 3:25 pm

      So true. I have ADHD myself and I relish the most difficult shots on the course. I always get excited, develop a gameplan, and execute with much better commitment than something like a 150 yard 7 iron from the middle of the fairway. I’m so overwhelmingly a feel player because of it, that any shot based on making a stock swing feels like too much of a blank canvas for me. I’d much rather be 230 yards away from the rough having to low-slice a 3 wood around a tree. Why? It’s fun. I just wish I could take some of the skill I’ve developed with these shots and apply it to the shots that I should take care of no problem.

  4. CK

    Jan 31, 2015 at 3:05 pm

    Great article Mr. Clark! How would you give advice to someone who can shoot level par all day long, but when he gets to a tournament he is lucky to break 80? Thank you again!

  5. Al

    Jan 29, 2015 at 12:58 pm

    My failure rate approaches 100%. I knew in my heart I should be scratch by now.

  6. mj

    Jan 28, 2015 at 5:09 pm

    Dennis How about the pressure of playing in a tournament when you might not be ready. Like the first one of the year that you play and playing each shot as you would to try and improve your skills not just bunt it around laying up on par 4s no lob shots landing the ball as close to the fringe and let it roll bs Practice after the round the shots u cant hit because that is when your still focused at least I am I like the saying and the percentages change with some that 90 percent of the people dont care what you shoot and the other 10 wish you shot higher To score bette you have to challenge your tough shots or even the straight in 5 footers I hope this makes sense

    • Dennis Clark

      Jan 28, 2015 at 7:55 pm

      sorta…punctuation would help me read it better. thx

  7. Brad Ingarfield

    Jan 27, 2015 at 6:05 pm

    I have often wondered if to be a really good player you should use unforgiving blade irons. This research might support that view.

    • Rich

      Jan 27, 2015 at 7:50 pm

      I’ve often thought the same thing but have realised, like with everything else in this game, it’s each to their own. If it helps you play better having the challenge to pure a blade every time, go for it. I’ve gone with a balance with my irons and it’s good have that bit of forgiveness on those days when I’m not quite striping it or when I make a bad swing.

  8. Mike

    Jan 27, 2015 at 3:48 pm

    “This means that we derive more value from practice when we fail 30-to-40 percent of the time than when we’re successful a majority of the time. ”

    Ummm isn’t this the definition of succeeding the majority of the time?

    • Dennis Clark

      Jan 27, 2015 at 4:02 pm

      Just reporting the scientist in the field who researches this stuff for his life’s work…

  9. JP

    Jan 27, 2015 at 8:08 am

    Great article Dennis. Luke Donald – who is shown escaping from the sand in the picture above the article and has one of the best short games on tour – often talks about making his practice more difficult, dropping balls on to the ground or in to sand and treading on them to create challenging lies. He knows he’s unlikely to face those kind of shots on the manicured courses he plays, but having practiced for the worst, he then views most escape shots as fairly routine. It’s a great mindset.

    • Dennis Clark

      Jan 27, 2015 at 4:04 pm

      JP, so true! We set ourselves up to fail by improving lies on the range constantly

  10. Chris

    Jan 27, 2015 at 3:57 am

    Here’s a longer format audio interview with Dr. Guadagnoli where he discusses learning, effective practice and some other aspects of playing great golf. http://birdiebank.com/020-dr-mark-guadagnoli-the-science-behind-how-elite-athletes-learn-faster-perform-better-and-triumph-in-competition/

  11. Rich

    Jan 26, 2015 at 11:17 pm

    More often than not, people have a hard time translating good practice into good play on the golf course. I don’t know if failing 30-40% of the time would give me a lot of confidence to play well but I’ve found if you can disconnect the “fear of failure” when actually playing, then you’ll play more like you practice. Sure, don’t just go out and hit easy shot after easy shot but creating positive images is just as important when it comes to those pressure shots. Not giving a sh&t helps too.

    • Jose

      Feb 13, 2015 at 1:20 pm

      It is not failure, it is simply a process of learning.

      Shawn Clement often speaks of practicing with Goldilocks.

      For example you are trying to hit a 9 iron to the 100 yard faux green at the range when it is your 145 yard club. Hit the first shot just short. Then hit the second shot just over the back of the green. With the thirds shot predict at the flag. The third time through this sequence you will be lights out. This is how the neocortex learns.

      http://youtu.be/6ufPpZDmPKA

  12. RG

    Jan 26, 2015 at 8:20 pm

    Great article Dennis. Along those lines often when I play a practice round I will eliminate certain clubs from my bag. No 7i forces me to hit a knockdown 6i, and so on. Challenging the mind and engaging the imagination is just as if not more important than physical technique.

  13. rgb

    Jan 26, 2015 at 7:51 pm

    Oh my. This will never do. Imagine today’s urchins — having been raised coddled in the arms of early childhood education and the concept that one never fails and participation is more important than success or winning — being told that FAILURE is necessary to develop. A concept they’ve never experienced because to mention FAILURE means someone was a winner. Oh, I can hear the wails now.

  14. Alex

    Jan 26, 2015 at 3:18 pm

    I’ve played golf since I was a kid, and the items you list. are what we used to do all day long at the course. These days I do pretty much the same in short 30 ball sessions not to get bored. Sometimes I feel sort of embarassed for practicing ‘like a child’, but now I have some research backing me up LOL.

    • Dennis Clark

      Jan 26, 2015 at 8:56 pm

      yes; Piano, dance, golf, whatever…

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