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Practice is overrated, and here’s why

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Let me be the first to say I loved to practice in my younger years. I couldn’t wait for the sun to rise so I could chip and putt, then hit balls all day at the range until there was an opening on the course to play. Now, however, I feel that practice is significantly overrated. In fact, I have come full circle from my past and believe that, at certain levels, it is more harmful than good in many circumstances. Therefore, in this article I would like to explain my thoughts so you too can practice less and score better.

In the old days, before we had technological feedback and data gathering resources, we had to practice all day just to figure out what worked and what didn’t. In fact, it was like a dartboard of fundamentals; you threw a dart, and that was your starting point to fix your ball flight. As time progressed, we had the advent of video and everyone became obsessed with the “look” of their swing and the “proper” positions. We all found a full-length mirror to rehearse over-and-over until we looked better, but did this ever really help our score?

Today, we have the advantages of video, 3D motion analysis, force plates, and Trackman; thus, we have all the tools necessary to instantly figure out the problem and where it is coming from.

Let me give you and example.

Let’s say you are fighting a slice and cannot figure out why; you do feel that the club is getting a touch “behind” you on the way back, but you cannot determine exactly what’s going wrong. If you were to get a lesson now, you would be hooked up on 3D motion analysis, shown on video, and proven by Trackman that you have a slight over rotation of your lead forearm on the backswing, and you’re putting the club in a laid-off position into the backswing causing you to swing from out-to-in a few degrees on the way down. This MRI of events gives you all the answers you need to know in order to improve, with NO inefficiency! Could you imagine if Hogan had access to all this data? He’d have cured his hook years earlier, and he may have won 100 tournaments in the end.

Now, let me put this into perspective in regard to my stance on practice being overrated. I once taught Pete Sampras how to play golf when I lived in California, and I asked him if tennis players worked on mechanics as much as golfers. His reply was that by the time you get to a certain age your mechanics are set and you have to work on the things that matter, such as footwork and timing. And the same thing is true with golfers. Once you get to a certain point as a player, more harm than good comes from standing on the practice range simply “banging” balls.

In fact, now that you can have a technology-driven lesson as in the example above, you can instantly know what piece of the puzzle to work on and, with the help of an instructor, how to accomplish the fix. After you’ve put in some work with a mirror in order to feel the correct positions and movements, your range time should be minimal. Once you have accomplished the new feeling, it’s time to take it to the course and see if it sticks. If not, then you need to do more rehearsals and hit a few more balls, and repeat. The point is to work smarter, reduce inefficiencies and stop mindlessly tinkering or beating balls without purpose.

After you’ve made the necessary golf-swing improvements, your goal should be to continue to learn how to score better and manage your game. Remember, the pencil and the scorecard is all that matters, NOT how your swing looks or how much time you spend on the range.

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Tom F. Stickney II is the Director of Instruction at Combine Performance in Scottsdale, Arizona. He is a Golf Magazine Top 100 Teacher, and has been honored as a Golf Digest Best Teacher and a Golf Tips Top-25 Instructor. Tom is also a Trackman University Master/Partner, a distinction held by less than 60 people in the world.

30 Comments

30 Comments

  1. Dan

    Sep 29, 2017 at 7:07 pm

    I guess I’m the only person on here who actually agrees with this.

    I took up golf 18 months ago. Played off 21, usually shooting mid-low 90’s on good days, troubling 3 digits on bad days. Used to go to the range once or twice a week, play full 18 once a week. Watch countless videos from Me and My Golf / Crossfield / Shiels / Finchy and showed no improvement.

    “Paralysis by analysis” is a phrase me and my usual four ball use. 1million swing thoughts. Hands forward, spine straight, ball position, hit down, hit up, in to out, out to in.

    I got a new job, and suddenly had no time to practice. Within about 3 months I’d dropped an average of 9 shots a round. Better ball striking. More GIR, more fairways, more up and downs.

    I’m now playing off 12, and playing to it constantly. Still yet to break 80, but I’m confident within the year i’ll be down to single figures.

    All that, in my opinion, is down to a massive reduction in practice. Beyond warming up I never go to the driving range. I share a bucket with my partners, hit a few chips, a few putts, and I’m done.

    Thoughtless, unstructured, unfocused ball bashing, and I’ve dropped my handicap by 9 shots.

    Granted, every WRX reader besides me hits it 300+ avg carry with a 5 wood off the deck with a slight draw into wind, putts 19 times a round and plays off +3, so I’m sure the game is a lot more complicated at that level.

    I’m just a simple mid handicapper who wants to hit it straight, and get around a course with more pars than bogeys.

  2. MAC

    Sep 26, 2017 at 6:35 pm

    THIS GUY CLEARLY DIDN’T REALIZE THAT I HAD ALL THE ANSWERS 30 YEARS AGO.

  3. Straylight

    Sep 26, 2017 at 5:59 pm

    There is a point here, if not artfully made. Assuming you have access to information, the “fix” is no longer a guessing game and you have a MUCH shorter path to better golf, without the guesswork and the inevitable rat holes. Moreover, there is a lot less bad information out there, particularly as Trackman analysis eliminates myth after myth. I do think repetition is still the best way to train the muscles and nerves to execute properly, however. Once you have the swing you want to groove, banging a few buckets engrains the learnings and vastly improves good contact. Thanks t also improves your ability to apply those nanoscopic changes to the swing that make a good shot great. Good, thought-provoking concept for the article.

  4. Kenny Buckland

    Sep 25, 2017 at 10:37 am

    I think the writer has access to some amazing golf analysis equipment that the masses don’t

  5. larrybud

    Sep 25, 2017 at 9:07 am

    “After you’ve made the necessary golf-swing improvements”

    Yeah, and there’s the rub… Even the pros haven’t done that.

    Everybody will max out their scoring ability eventually, and golf swing improvements will HAVE to be done to get better. In addition, a person’s body is not static. As we get older we’re less flexible, less strong, perhaps injuries have limited certain mobility, therefore a golf swing MUST change.

  6. Andrew Cooper

    Sep 25, 2017 at 8:12 am

    Tom, if you believe this then you’re deluding yourself. No great sportsperson (or musician or performer) hasn’t put the hours in honing their skills, usually from a very early age. The technology available today is brilliant for sure, but that super refined sense of feel and awareness for managing the clubface, swing path, dynamic loft, angle of attack, speed; putting it all together to produce the shot required in every unique situation? That can only be developed through years of repetition and trial and feedback.

  7. henry

    Sep 24, 2017 at 9:05 pm

    **Bad practice is overrated.

  8. DaveyD

    Sep 24, 2017 at 7:29 pm

    The gains I’ve made are due to working hard on my short game, from 100 yds to putting. I don’t see myself ever stopping that based on an opinion.

  9. Chris B

    Sep 24, 2017 at 1:30 pm

    It’s important to get the balance right between practicing and playing,but the best players in the world have always been the ones that work the hardest off the course. Just hitting balls or putting etc with no purpose or not working on anything is pointless. But good structured practice Woking towards a swing change or position change is essential to get better.

  10. Gary

    Sep 24, 2017 at 1:27 pm

    In response to Nack Jickaus, I too tend to play better after some time away.
    However, I do enjoy practicing.

  11. JEC

    Sep 24, 2017 at 10:31 am

    A bad golf swing can equal good scores…..

  12. JEC

    Sep 24, 2017 at 10:30 am

    Practice is overrated…..for those with great hand/eye coordination and natural ability. It still amazes me how the great players of the past ever played the game without Trackman and all the it other high tech gizmos……wait…..they practiced until they figured it out.

  13. cgasucks

    Sep 24, 2017 at 8:57 am

    Good practice makes perfect!

  14. Tim

    Sep 23, 2017 at 9:42 pm

    I will say, I have seen (and played with) guys at my old club who almost never practiced and would still play to a scratch or maybe a 2 handicap. However, these guys still played 4-5 days a week and had spent their younger years chiseling their technique in stone. I’ve also known and know some decent players (+ handicaps & a few on mini tours) and they would all laugh at this article. Sure there is something to be said for mental rehearsals and technology, but there can’t be anyone in golf that would agree with this, can there? Maybe if Bo Jackson had played golf…….

  15. chinchbugs

    Sep 23, 2017 at 6:27 pm

    You know the old adage… “footwork and timing (not practice) make perfect”

  16. Moses

    Sep 23, 2017 at 5:48 pm

    Just about every great golfer would disagree about your theory on practicing.

  17. Donald Trump Rules

    Sep 23, 2017 at 5:05 pm

    I never knew Huffington Post writers also wrote here at Golf WRX.

  18. Donald Trump Rules

    Sep 23, 2017 at 5:02 pm

    You will never get paid to play the game. Practicing is a waste of time. Just go play and have fun.

  19. Joe A

    Sep 23, 2017 at 4:45 pm

    I agree and disagree with this article.

    In terms of the long-game, I would agree that, with the modern tools available, there is a significantly less need to spend hours and hours hitting balls. Having lived through the last 20+ years as a competitive golfer practicing has become less about being on the range and more on the course. Now, I caveat this by saying that different people react differently to instruction and practice. And at different levels of skill, there is even more differentiation. But as someone who has played competitively (formerly on mini-tours and now as an amateur), I find myself in the same position as Mr Stickney says. It’s more about grooving the right feel and then taking it to the course, and less and less about spending a lot of time just hitting ball after ball. Unless I am working on a certain shot or ball-flight, I don’t spend a lot of time hitting full shots. I do my warm up and then work on putting and chipping. And this is the part I disagree with. Short-game and putting have to be practiced as much or more than when I first started playing competitively. It’s what separates good players from great players and average players from good players. And the only way you can become proficient at short-game shots and putting is a lot of practice.

    So while I agree that the current technology, in terms of things like Trackman and current methodology of instruction, is all about optimizing and making for more efficient practice, there is no substitution for getting better at the short game. You can derive a good technique, but technique is only as good as your ability to hit the ball a particular distance with a great deal of consistency. There is no way to gain the feel needed, other than “digging it out of the dirt” and spending the time it takes to gain the mastery necessary to be a better player.

  20. Sean

    Sep 23, 2017 at 3:27 pm

    I find practice to be beneficial. For example, I practice my short game incessantly and as a result have a pretty good short game. I don’t think all the technology in the world would help as much as simply practicing. I agree that once a golfer has a good, fundamental swing, he can direct his attention to other aspects of his game.

  21. Hogan

    Sep 23, 2017 at 2:04 pm

    “The more I practice the luckier I get!”

    • Mr. Replier Guy

      Sep 23, 2017 at 5:33 pm

      It’s hard to understand you, Mr. Hogan. Could you stop rolling over?
      THE…SECRET…IS…IN…THE…DIRT.

  22. gioreeko

    Sep 23, 2017 at 1:35 pm

    Dumbest article ever. Please don’t ever write another article. When I actually devoted time to practicing my short game, my weakest links, my scores dropped by a good ten strokes. Is practicing chipping, pitching and putting not considered practice? There’s more to practicing than merely smacking a bucket of balls. Practice makes perfect..

  23. Guia

    Sep 23, 2017 at 1:31 pm

    Obviously, if you don’t practice correctly and with purpose beating balls is a waste of time.

  24. alfriday

    Sep 23, 2017 at 1:28 pm

    The article equates practice with “standing on the practice range simply ‘beating’ balls” and “mindlessly tinkering or beating balls without purpose.” Interesting definition of practice.

  25. Nack Jicklaus

    Sep 23, 2017 at 12:02 pm

    I tend to have some of my best rounds after I haven’t touched a club for weeks or months. I usually just screw myself up up when I try to practice. The only practice I really do nowadays is to chip in the backyard.

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Instruction

How the Trail Arm Should Work In Backswing

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Stop getting stuck! In this video, I demonstrate a great drill to help you move your trail arm correctly in the backswing.

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Self-discovery: Why golf lessons aren’t helping you improve

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Of all the things I teach or have taught in golf, I think this is the most important: It’s not what we cover in a lesson, it’s what you discover. 

Some years ago, I had a student in golf school for a few days. She was topping every single shot. Zero were airborne. I explained that she was opening her body and moving forward before her arms and club were coming down. “Late” we call it. I had her feel like her arms were coming down first and her body was staying behind, a common correction for late tops. Bingo! Every ball went up into the air. She was ecstatic.

Some time later, she called and said she was topping every shot. She scheduled a lesson. She topped every shot. I asked her why she was topping the ball. “I think I’m picking up my head,” she said to my look of utter disbelief!

I had another student who was shanking the ball. At least 3 out of 5 came off the hosel with his wedges. I explained that his golf club was pointed seriously left at the top of his backswing. It was positioned well OUTSIDE his hands, which caused it to come down too wide and swing OUTSIDE his hands into impact. This is a really common cause of shanking. We were able to get the club more down the line at the top and come down a bit narrower and more inside the ball. No shanks… not a one!  He called me sometime later. The shanks had returned. You get the rest. When I asked what was causing him to shank, he told me “I get too quick.”

If you are hitting the golf ball better during a golf lesson, you have proven to yourself that you CAN do it. But what comes after the lesson is out of a teacher’s hands. It’s as simple as that. I cannot control what you do after you leave my lesson tee. Now, if you are NOT hitting the ball better during a lesson or don’t understand why you’re not hitting it better, I will take the blame. And…you do not have to compensate me for my time. That is the extent to which I’ll go to display my commitment and accept my responsibility. What we as teachers ask is the same level of commitment from the learners.

Improving at golf is a two-way street. My way is making the correct diagnosis and offering you a personalized correction, possibly several of them. Pick the ONE that works for you. What is your way on the street? Well, here are a few thoughts on that:

  • If you are taking a lesson at 10 a.m. with a tee time at 11 a.m. and you’re playing a $20 Nassau with your buddies, you pretty much wasted your time and money.
  • If the only time you hit balls is to warm up for your round, you have to be realistic about your results.
  • If you are expecting 250-yard drives with an 85 mph club head speed, well… let’s get real.
  • If you “fake it” during a lesson, you’re not going to realize any lasting improvement. When the teacher asks if you understand or can feel what’s being explained and you say yes when in fact you DO NOT understand, you’re giving misleading feedback and hurting only yourself. Speak up!

Here’s a piece of advise I have NEVER seen fail. If you don’t get it during the lesson, there is no chance you’ll get it later. It’s not enough to just hit it better; you have to fully understand WHY you hit it better. Or if you miss, WHY you missed.

I have a rule I follow when conducting a golf lesson. After I explain the diagnosis and offer the correction, I’ll usually get some better results. So I continue to offer that advice swing after swing. But at some point in the lesson, I say NOTHING. Typically, before long the old ball flight returns and I wait– THREE SWINGS. If the student was a slicer and slices THREE IN A ROW, then it’s time for me to step in again. I have to allow for self discovery at some point. You have to wean yourself off my guidance and internalize the corrections. You have to FEEL IT.

When you can say, “If the ball did this then I know I did that” you are likely getting it. There is always an individual cause and effect you need to understand in order to go off by yourself and continue self improvement. If you hit a better shot but do not know why, please tell your teacher. What did I do? That way you’re playing to learn, not simply learning to play.

A golf lesson is a guidance, not an hour of how to do this or that. The teacher is trying to get you to discover what YOU need to feel to get more desirable outcomes. If all you’re getting out of it is “how,” you are not likely to stay “fixed.” Remember this: It’s not what we cover in the lesson; it’s what you discover!

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Instruction

Jumping for Distance (Part 2): The One-Foot Jump

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In Part 1, I wrote about how I think this concept of jumping up with both feet for more power may have come about in part due to misinterpretation of still photography and force plate data, self-propagation, and a possible case of correlation vs causation. I also covered reasoning why these players are often airborne, and that can be from flawed setups that include overly wide stances and/or lead foot positions that are too closed at setup or a re-planted lead foot that ends up too closed during the downswing.

In Part 2, let’s look at what I feel is a better alternative, the one foot jump. To me, it’s safer, it doesn’t complicate ball striking as much, and it can still generate huge amounts of vertical ground force.

First, set up with an appropriate stance width. I like to determine how wide to stand based on the length of your lower legs. If you go to your finish position and stand on your lead leg and let your trail leg dangle down so your knees are parallel, your lower trail leg should extend only as far back as it will go while being up on the tip of your trail toe. If you roll that trail foot back down to the ground, viola, you’ll have a stance width that’s wide enough to be “athletic” and stable but not so wide you lose balance when swinging. You can go a little wider than this, but not much.

To contrast, the stance below would be too wide.

Jumping off the ground can be caused by too wide of a stance and lead foot position that is too closed at setup

Second, make sure your lead foot is open sufficiently at address. I’ve previously outlined how to do both these first two points in this article.

Third, whether you shift your weight to your trail foot or keep a more centered weight type feeling in the backswing, when you shift your weight to your lead foot, be careful of the Bubba replant, and then push up with that lead leg to push your lead shoulder up. This is the one-foot “jump” and it will take advantage of parametric acceleration (read more about that here).

But also at the same time, shift your lower spine towards the target.

From a face-on viewpoint, this can look like back bend, but in 3D space it’s side bend. It kind of feels like you are crunching the trail side of your mid-section, or maybe just bending over to the side to pick up a suitcase, for example. This move helps lower your trail shoulder, which brings down the club (whereas this is more difficult to do if you try to two-foot jump with your trail leg). It also helps you to keep from getting airborne off your lead foot. Further it doesn’t change your low point (by not changing the relative position of the C7 vertebrae in its general orb in space) and complicate ball striking like a two-foot jump does.

At this point, the club releases and you can stand up out of the shot (you don’t need to transition in to any sort of dangerous back bend) in balance on your lead foot having generates tons of vertical ground force without having jumped off the ground or putting yourself at risk for injury.

“Movember” mustache… not required!

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