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3 Essentials to Breaking A Habit

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You’re reading this article because you play golf and have spent various periods of time working on a shot or a part of the swing that you want to improve. You remember when somewhere along the road you hit a rough patch where you weren’t playing as well, and your ball flight was unpredictable. It’s happened to you, it’s happened to me, it’s happened to Tiger Woods.

And to fix the problem, you’ve gone back to the range to figure out what’s going wrong. Maybe you checked out this website for tips, or taken a lesson. And somewhere during that period you figured out the solution and then said, “Eureka! I’ve solved it! Now all I have to do is repeat this over and over until it sticks.”

Kind of.

I know what you’re thinking, “How could that be wrong? Why would repeating the new move be the wrong thing to do if it’s what my swing is missing?” And I understand why you may think this way. Nearly everyone thinks this way and because of this, golfers don’t improve as well or as a quickly as they could be. If you create a habit through repetition, why wouldn’t repetition be the solution to change it?

But how we overcome bad habits isn’t as simple as just repeating the motion in the way we want it to be. The complete answer is complicated and through a lot of scientific evidence over the past 50 years, we know that simply repeating a movement over and over isn’t the full story. But in sticking with the topic here, let’s look solely at what you need to know if you’re trying to break a habit.

A critical element to include in your quest to break a pesky habit is to create a new one that is stronger than the existing one. Officially, there isn’t really such a thing as “breaking a habit,” because a memory of what you learned doesn’t just go away. You can only create a new one that is stronger than the old one. And the old ones are typically stronger than the new ones.

This makes sense if you think about how much easier it is for golfers who learned as a kid. They have great habits that they don’t have to think about anymore. But if you have a bad habit from when you were a kid that you’d like to change in your mid-40s, then it will take some time.

How do you create a new habit to take over the old one? Here are three keys to your success:

  1.  Know when you’re doing it right or not. Find ways to know how the new movement feels so that you can stay alert to your body drifting back to the old ways. You do this by setting up a practice station with implements to give you a signal if you, say, swing too much from the inside. If you feel comfortable, then you are probably doing what you always did. Making changes is UNCOMFORTABLE and it will feel awkward.
  2. Commit to the change. Changing a habit can take a lot of time if you’ve been doing something differently for a long time. For example, you probably tie your shoes without even thinking about it. Well, if you decided to change the way you tie them, you’d have to think pretty hard about what you’re doing while you’re doing it and that can really mess up the movement. If you’re on the course and you’re trying to get that new move on, there’s a good possibility that you will hit some errant shots. But you have to think about it in order to make that change. And if you don’t commit to the change and stick with it, the time it will take to see that improvement will go up. So take the time to make the new movement feel more comfortable.
  3. Practice should be hard. If you simply repeat the movement over and over mindlessly, your brain isn’t really asked to do any work. The deepest and most productive learning occurs when you are asking yourself to create the movement from “scratch.”

The classic study by Morgan and Shea in 1979 asked two groups to perform a task. One group repeated the same movement from the same place, and the other group varied the movement slightly. In practice, the group that repeated the same movement did much better. But afterwards, when tested for retention and transfer, the group that varied up the task far outperformed the other group. Since then, various versions of that same study were repeated to see what happens and each time the same answer comes up: When you adjust your practice slightly (change targets often, limit the number of balls that you hit with the same club, etc.), your brain has to reorganize more often and come up with a motor pattern. And when it has to retrieve that motor pattern from memory, that memory will be strengthened, thus increasing the ability to perform it on command.

As a bonus tip, just because you can perform the movement doesn’t mean you’ve learned it. Truly learning a new movement means that you can do it without too much thought when it counts, on the golf course.

So to be sure that you are really creating the new motor pattern that you want, have a solid plan of attack with drills and practice that give you feedback about whether you’re doing what you’re intending to do. Then commit to it. You will be doing yourself a disservice if you decide to play with your “old swing” and practice with the “new swing.” You have to be all in. And finally, respect the part about it being hard. As the saying goes, you get what you pay for. Make the most of your habit changing practice by following these steps and you will be on your way.

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Trillium Rose is a certified teaching professional and Head Director of Instruction at Woodmont Country Club in Rockville, Maryland. An innovator and life-long learner, her knowledge of teacher effectiveness, mechanics and practice training have proven highly successful. She has improved the games of over 1,000 individuals who rely on her cutting-edge expertise, and honest, straight- forward approach. Her area of expertise is in helping golfers develop their skills as quickly as possible and help them practice efficiently. She is highly skilled at designing and implementing curriculum's that develop golf athletes with targeted practice plans. She was recently honored as the 2017 Middle Atlantic PGA "Teacher of the Year," and awarded a “Best Teacher in State” distinction (ranked #3). Selected as one of “America’s Best Young Teachers” by Golf Digest, Trillium Rose's name has been synonymous with quality practice standards and trusted education.

3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Snoopy

    Jul 1, 2016 at 4:40 pm

    I had the “luxury” of a cheap local course where I could play until dark after 5pm for $10, and most days I had the course practically to myself. I could play 5 balls at a time if I wanted. So once I got a good feel on the range, I could continue to practice it on a real golf course. I’d encourage everyone to try to find a setup like that, so you can practice as much on a golf hole as you can on the range.

    • Snoopy

      Jul 1, 2016 at 4:43 pm

      The point I forgot to make was that your brain will learn faster when there is a real consequence to your shot.

  2. Stephen Lee

    Jul 1, 2016 at 2:41 pm

    thank you for sharing this with us. one thing that was missing from my practice session was variance in the movement that i was working on. im going to implement this from now on to get the most out of my practice session!

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Instruction

Want more power and consistency? Master this transition move

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Lucas Wald Transition

World Long Drive competitor Eddie Fernandes has added speed and consistency by improving these transition moves. You can do it, too!

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Why you must practice under pressure if you want to play better golf

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Practice, as most of us employ it, is borderline worthless. This is because most of the practices, if you will, typically employed during practice sessions have little chance of improving our performance under pressure.

The type of practice that improves performance is, for the most part, rarely engaged in because practicing under typical “practice” conditions does very little to simulate the thoughts, feelings, and emotions we deal with once our performance actually means something. If we want to really improve our performance when it matters, we need to put ourselves in situations, often and repeatedly, that simulate the pressure we experience during competition. And nowhere is this statement more true than on the putting green.

The art and skill of putting is a funny thing. No element of the game requires less inherent hand-eye coordination or athletic talent. Putting’s simplicity makes it golf’s great equalizer. You roll a ball along the ground with a flat-faced stick in the general direction of a hole nearly three times its size. Sure, green speeds vary wildly, and there are those diabolical breaks to deal with, but despite that, putting is truly golf’s most level playing field; it’s the one element of the game where even the highest handicappers can potentially compete straight up with the game’s most skilled. At the same time, there are few other situations (other than maybe the first tee) when we feel as much pressure as we do on the putting green.

Ben Hogan, during the latter part of his career — years that were marred by poor putting — claimed that putting shouldn’t even be a part of the game because, in his words, “There is no similarity between golf and putting; they are two different games, one played in the air, and the other on the ground.”

Now, Hogan suffered a serious case of the yips later in his career, and while this statement was likely uttered following a frustrating round of missed three-footers, it serves to highlight not only the differences between putting and the rest of the game, but how taxing on the nerves it can be for even the game’s greats.

Its inherent simplicity, the slow pace of the stroke, and how much time we are given to contemplate it, are in truth what sets us up. It’s golf’s free throw. We very often know exactly what to do, and how to do it, like when we’re faced with one of those straight three-footers, but with more time to think, it opens the door wide for the type of second-guessing that arises during those moments we feel a bit of pressure. And that’s the biggest part of the problem.

The self-sabotage that leads to missing relatively short easy putts, the reasons behind it, and practices to overcome it is something for a different article. What I really want to get into at the moment is a practice that I think can help ensure you never end up in that desperate place to begin with.

Most of us rarely practice our putting, and when we do, it’s in about the most useless way we can. We’ve all done it. You grab a sleeve of balls just prior to the round, head to the practice green, and begin rolling them from hole to hole around the typical nine-hole route. Now I could go into a whole host of reasons why this isn’t very helpful, but the No. 1 reason it’s such a pitifully poor practice is this: there is no pressure.

Early in my career, I worked at a club where there was at least one money game on the putting green every day, and many nights too. The members (and staff) putted aces, 5 for $5, rabbits, and many other games for hours on end, and when the sun went down they often switched on the clubhouse roof-mounted floodlights and continued into the wee hours. Many days (and nights) I witnessed hundreds of dollars change hands on that putting green, occasionally from my own, but in my younger days, that was fortunately an infrequent occurrence.

Those money games were a cherished part of the culture of that club and an incredibly good arena in which to learn to practice under pressure. To this day, I’ve never seen as many really good pressure putters (many of very average handicaps) as I did during that period, and when I think back, it’s no small wonder either.

The problem with practicing golf, or just about any other sport for that matter, is that it’s difficult to practice under the types of pressure we compete in. In 4 or 5 hours on the golf course we might only have a half dozen putts that really mean something, and maybe only 2 or 3 of those knee-knocking 3 footers with the match on the line or the chance to win a bet.

When I was younger and playing in those money games on the putting green, I had a meaningful putt every minute or two, for hours on end, and you either learned to handle that pressure pretty quickly or your hard-earned paycheck was being signed over to someone else. Now I’m not bringing this up to encourage gambling, as I know for some people that can become a serious issue, but rather to point out how the opportunity to practice repeatedly under pressure helped me learn to deal with those situations. And with how infrequently we even get the opportunity to face that same pressure when we actually play, it’s important to try do our best to simulate it as often as we can during practice.

So when it comes to my own students these days, I don’t necessarily encourage gambling (I don’t discourage a little bit of it either), but I do encourage putting and practicing for something. I’ll get three of my students together on the putting green and say “look, you guys putt for 30 minutes and the loser has to do 100 push-ups” or something similar. I’ll tell students to putt against a parent for who has to mow the lawn, do the dishes, or some other mundane household chore neither of them really wants to do. The point is to have something on the line, something that will make it really hurt to lose.

You can even do it by yourself. Wait to practice putting right before lunch or dinner and make a pact with yourself that you can’t eat until you make 15 three-footers in a row. Until you find a way to practice under pressure all that practice is really just that: practice. You shouldn’t be surprised if, when the chips are down, mindless practice doesn’t translate to improved performance. Hopefully, by learning to simulate pressure during practice, you’ll play better when the heat is really on.

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WATCH: How to execute the “y-style” chipping technique

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Top-100 instructor Tom Stickney of Punta Mita Golf Academy shows an easier way of chipping around the greens to get the ball rolling faster and ensure ball-first contact. Enjoy the video below, and hope this helps!

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