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Five Steps to Effective Practice

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Matt Newby is a PGA Member and Certified Personal Coach at GolfTEC in Irvine, Calif.  He has more than 10 years of experience as a teacher and other facets of the golf business. In the past he was mentored by three PGA Master Professionals and has worked with the instructors of Graeme McDowell, Martin Kaymer, Justin Rose, Padraig Harrington, Jerry Kelly and Inbee Park.

1) Know specifically what/why you are practicing. 

This first step in proper practice sounds simple but is often overlooked.  Countless times I’ve approached students and range-goers and asked them specifically what they are practicing. Nearly all the responses fall into two categories. The most common response is that the golfer is “just trying to hit the ball well.” Usually this person has no motive or goal related to their practice.  This method may work for some golfers who are trying to blow off steam for an hour, but is ineffective for those seriously trying to improve performance. The other common response I hear is from golfers who I call “tinkerers.” They are always working on something new in their swing, whether it is a tip they saw in the latest magazine or something they heard from a playing partner. Although this category is more effective when executed properly, it often lacks execution. I challenge every reader of this article to assess their own practice and determine if they fall into either category.

Effective practice involves understanding what and why you are practicing. Golfers who are “just trying to hit the ball well” often lack specific goals for practice. Without a goal or motive for our practice the only proficiency we gain is at hitting golf balls on the range. Often this does not transfer to the golf course and is why many golfers have such dissonance in their performance on the range compared to their performance on the golf course. I am also a strong believer that you must understand why you are practicing. Students who understand why they are practicing often develop a better understanding of the process of improvement as opposed to the mentality that one tip will make them the next major champion. It also gives golfers an opportunity to gauge the source of the information received. Although most tips printed in magazines are accurate, they do not always apply to the reader and can actually cause further flaws if not implemented correctly. On the opposite end of the spectrum, advice taken from an untrained playing partner could simply be incorrect information and again can add further flaws to their game. As a PGA Professional I encourage everyone who truly wants to improve to contact their local PGA Professional. A good instructor is trained to determine what and why you should practice.

2) Know how to practice a specific skill. 

How golfers practice is a mindset that needs a complete overhaul. Most golfers have a false sense of learning and the learning process. A question I ask students after every lesson is how they plan on practicing until the next lesson.  I can almost guarantee that the first time I ask this the response involves the words “driving range.” The driving range is a great place to practice for certain things such as shot shaping, distance control and alignment. But attempting to practice other things such as mechanics or specific body movements on the driving range can lead to slower improvement and regression. A great coach once told me that learning to hit a full golf shot is like learning to doing a backflip on a four-foot balance beam. If I were teaching my students to do backflips on balance beams I would have to take a much different approach than how some instructors currently teach golf. In golf, students often hear the information once and then want to try it in a full swing right away. If I were to apply this same method to gymnastics I wouldn’t have any students left due to the injuries they would sustain. My business would most likely be uninsurable as well. To learn how to backflip on a balance beam, you would first start by walking on a piece of tape on the ground, then walking on a one-foot beam, then learning to do a backflip on the ground, then one-foot beam, etc.  Due to the risk of injury in gymnastics, a gymnast cannot progress to the next step until a student has mastered the previous skill. The same risk applies to golf, although the risk in golf involves injuring your swing instead of falling on your head. This process applies especially for making mechanical swing changes. When making a swing change start by doing a drill to promote that change. Then you should progress to swinging in slow motion without a ball. You can speed up over time until you are at full swing speed. One of the nice things about this process is that the driving range isn’t necessary for the first steps. Swinging without the ball and in slow motion can often be done at home.

3) Set MEASURABLE goals for practice. 

Measurable goals are required for any effective practice. This again goes back to the “just trying to hit the ball well” category. If you find yourself in this category, ask yourself what your definition of hitting the ball well is. Without a clear and specific goal, we have no way to determine whether we have succeeded or failed. Measurable goals apply to all types of practice, whether it’s the practice you do at home, on the range or on the course. Goals also must be specific to what you are practicing.  For example, let’s say you are battling a slice.  Your specific definition of hitting it well would probably be “not slicing.” This can then be turned into a measurable goal. First you would start by creating a virtual fairway on the driving range by using two flags or markers (blue flag on left and red on right). This would serve as your measuring device. Now you have to create a goal.  In this example your goal could be to hit less than three out of 10 balls to the right of the red flag. Just by using this simple goal you now have a way to analyze your practice and determine whether or not it was effective. This same system could apply to all your practice even if you were working on mechanics at home. One key that must be stated is that a measuring device must always be created to determine success or failure. In the last example our measurement device was our virtual fairway. Creating an effective measuring device is not always as easy to re-create at home. A video camera is usually a good solution to determine if practice was effective. The video does not lie as much as we would sometimes like it to.

 

4) Create a game plan. 

Now that you have your goals established you need to create a game plan for your practice session. A game plan needs to be specific to the goals for that practice session. Based on my personal experience I feel that the game plan of most amateurs when practicing consists of hitting a bucket with whatever club they feel necessary at the time. Much of the time I also watch amateurs hit the same club at the same flag repeatedly. Hitting balls at the same flag over and over unfortunately does not follow the same rhythm as a round of golf. On the golf course, it is rare that we hit the same shot more than once, so it makes no sense to practice this way. This only leads to the dissonance that most golfers experience between the driving range and the golf course. By creating situations in your practice similar to those you would find on the golf course, the gap in performance between the range and the course will start to dissipate. If your goal is to hit eight out of 10 greens with a wedge, you might hit a driver and possibly a mid-iron before each wedge shot to recreate the rhythm of an actual round of golf. You can also play games with yourself this way to make your practice more enjoyable. For example, if your drive lands outside your virtual fairway, then make yourself hit a mid-iron before you hit your next wedge wedge. If you bomb your drive down the middle, you might go straight to the wedge and try to recreate an on-course birdie opportunity. 

5) Analyze results and compare to goals. 

This is one of the most important and easiest steps, but also the scariest step for most golfers. Analyzing results implies the possibility of failure, but also success. I think most golfers want to believe that any practice is good practice. Unfortunately that is just not true. Golfers need to understand that there can be failure during practice. Because your goals are measurable it makes the actual analysis very easy. Keep a record of how you performed based on your goals. If you were to use the three out of 10 shots in the “don’t slice” game, you would keep a tally on a notepad or scorecard of each set of 10 shots that you hit. Keeping this record will also allow you to analyze your progress over time and revise your goals based on progress. Once you understand why you fail you will be able to practice more effectively in the future.

Matt Newby is a PGA Member and Certified Personal Coach at GolfTEC in Irvine, Calif.  He has more than 10 years of experience as a teacher and other facets of the golf business. In the past he was mentored by three PGA Master Professionals and has worked with the instructors of Graeme McDowell, Martin Kaymer, Justin Rose, Padraig Harrington, Jerry Kelly and Inbee Park.

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7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. rick rappaport

    Feb 29, 2012 at 1:54 pm

    Bravo! What a well written and well thought out article. My practice will change from now on and it sounds like it’s going to be a lot more fun, too.

  2. Jason

    Feb 29, 2012 at 11:06 am

    I’ve have often times recreated golf round scenarios at the end of a bucket when I only have a few balls left. Never have thought about trying to do that with the whole practice although it makes since of why it is a good technique. Going to try to start getting more quality range time in this week and in the months to come so I am looking forward to trying this out next time. Thanks for the article.

  3. Jason Black

    Jan 30, 2012 at 3:13 pm

    Great article. I had my high school golf team read this and write a paper about it.

  4. Pete

    Jan 28, 2012 at 3:13 pm

    Excellent tips! Applying a focused quantitative goal is the way to practice smarter, not harder. Thank you much!

  5. Marvin Brush

    Jan 27, 2012 at 9:49 pm

    Good article Matt. Looking forward in see you once I get some pain out of my left hand finger.

    Marv

  6. Mark Carlson

    Jan 27, 2012 at 4:05 pm

    Currently on the DL while rehabbing after elbow surgery, but I will keep this in mind when I pick up the clubs again in a couple of months. Good stuff. Thanks for the post!

  7. Matt Newby

    Jan 25, 2012 at 8:22 pm

    If anybody has any questions or comments please feel free to contact me at mnewby@golftec.com

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Instruction

Davies: The Trail Elbow In The Downswing

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In this video, I discuss the role of the trail elbow in the downswing. I also share some great drills to help golfers deliver the trail elbow correctly, which will help improve distance and contact.

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The 3 different levels of golf practice

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“I would have practiced as hard, but I would have made my practice more meaningful. I would have worked more on my short game and putting. I would’ve done a lot more drills to make the practice more meaningful, and I would’ve added pressure to the practice as much as possible.” — Lee Westwood

Now here’s the rub. Practice is not monolithic! I approach practice as having three different, distinctive and separate curriculum and criteria.

  • Level 1: Basic
  • Level 2: Advanced
  • Level 3: Extreme

Basic Practice (Level 1) by definition is “repeated exercise in or performance of an activity or skill so as to acquire or maintain proficiency in it.” Basically, it’s doing the same thing over and over again to get better at it. My favorite skill that requires practice is the 76-yard “flighted wedge.” I do it, and I recommend it be done at every range practice session. Additionally, I identify and then practice as many different “skills” that are required to hit different golf shots. I have found that a non-pressurized environment is the best way to practice in a basic model.

It goes without saying that golf is not played in a pressure-free environment, so basic practice doesn’t help us play golf. The prime objective of Level 2 Practice (Advanced Training) is to take what you do in Basic Practice to the golf course.

First, create on-course situations that require you to hit the shots you have practiced. There should be rewards for demonstrations of competence, and there should be consequences for demonstrations of incompetence

“When you practice, try to find a situation to fit the shot you’re trying to practice.” — Ben Hogan

For example, a major problem is the unevenness of the lies you will encounter during play as opposed to the lies you used for your drills. From marginal to extreme, lies are difficult to replicate on the practice tee. So, play a round of golf and move the ball into the most undesirable lie that is very close to where you are.

Another example would be duplicating the creativity that is sometimes required during actual play. The prime example of that would be the sensation of “being in-between clubs.” I would suggest that you play an occasional round of golf using only half of your clubs. Take two wedges instead of four. Take only the “odd” or “even” numbered irons. Look at not taking the driver, or not taking all of your fairway clubs. I have not taken my putter, which forced me putt with my sand wedge!

A third example would be to play a round of golf and deliberately miss every green in regulation. Should your ball accidentally finish on the green in regulation just move it off into the rough, a bunker or whatever else could use the extra attention. You can create games where your opponent moves your ball off the green into something that would be advantageous to him.

Level 2 Practice is conducted on the practice ground as well as on the course. What I do and recommend is to take each of the shots, skills and drills used in Level 1 and add some accountability to the range experience. I have my students and clients use a “Practice Book” to schedule activities and to keep track of improvement.

Author Note: I will send you a sample practice book page that many of my players actually use. Request it at edmyersgolf@gmail.com.

Please be advised that Level 2 Practice can feature games, wagering or other forms of friendly competitions because they should only activate the lesser emotions of irritation, annoyance, anticipation, anxiousness, joy, pleasure and disappointment. Dealing with these feelings in practice will help you recognize and deal with the minor stresses experienced by most recreational golfers.

Stress is the major cause of “CHOKING.”

Stress, by definition “is a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.” Stress can ruin our ability to perform when we experience the major emotions such as fear, anger, shame, humiliation, euphoria, ridicule, betrayal, doubt and/or disbelief.

Level 3 Practice (Extreme Preparation) is on-course training sessions best suited for very serious competitive golfers. The more a player is able to compete in a simulated or controlled environment that accurately replicates the actual “pressures” that produce the kind of stresses that can effect performance, the better the player will perform when stressed in actual tournaments or events. Please be advised that Extreme Practice DOES NOT feature games, gambling or “friendly” competitions. They don’t control the conditions of play sufficiently to replicate the type of pressure that would induce “stress.”

“Simulation, which  is a technique (not a technology) to replace and amplify real experiences with guided ones, often “immersive” in nature, that evoke or replicate substantial aspects of the real world in a fully interactive fashion.” For many years now, the medical profession has used simulations to train doctors, the military has used simulations to prepare troops for the realities of the battlefield and aviation has used simulators to train pilots. Simulating has the added benefits of being cost and time effective while producing verifiable results.

If it’s possible for airlines to replicate every possible scenario that a pilot could experience in the cockpit by using simulations, then why isn’t it possible to replicate situations, and subsequent emotional responses, that a competitive golfer could experience on the golf course? Let me give you an example of what I mean.

“I got nervous all the time, as nervous as the next guy. It’s just that I caught myself before it became destructive.” Jack Nicklaus

Recent events at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play gives us some evidence of the destructiveness of uncontrolled emotions. Justin Thomas said that he couldn’t get the thought out of his mind of becoming the No. 1-ranked player in the world should he defeat Bubba Watson in the semi-finals, which he failed to do.

“I haven’t had such a hard time not thinking about something so much,” Thomas said. “And that really sucked. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, to be perfectly honest.”

Then there was Ian Poulter being told that with his win over Louis Oosthuizen he had earned a spot in this years’ Masters tournament only to be told 10 minutes before his next match that he had not actually secured the coveted invitation. With elation, joy and satisfaction jerked away and replaced with disappointment, and possibly anger, the Englishman went out and got whipped by Kevin Kisner 8 & 6!

I concede that Justin Thomas’ and Ian Poulter’s situations were so unique that simulation-based practice and preparation techniques may not have been available to them, but now they both must know that their performance was effected negatively by mental stresses. And with that knowledge they may want to get tougher mentally. Level 3 Practice does that!

Not all that long ago, I was approached by a PGA Tour veteran for some on-course, one-on-one training. He was experiencing severe “choking” in pressurized short-game situations. So I took him out on the course and we replicated the exact shots he had problems with in the past. He demonstrated that he could perform each and every shot in a stress-free environment. We went into a “low-stress” training environment and his performance began to suffer. Then, at his urging to get “real,” we went into a “high-stress” practice mode and he melted down. Without going into details, he became so angry that not only couldn’t he hit golf shots, he tried to run me down with the golf cart as he retreated to the safety of his car.

Now, that’s not the end of the story. A few hours later, after some soul searching, he apologized for his lack of self-control and acknowledged that he had recognized the early signs of stress growing internally as we worked. We went back out onto the course and got back to work.

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Winning Ways: Here’s what it takes to become a winner in Junior Girls golf

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Every competitive golfer strives to win, and I want to help them achieve their goals. Recently, I wrote a story highlighting the statistics behind winning in junior boys golf, and how they can do it more often. Now, we set out to examine the data on winning in junior girls golf, and provide ways they can improve. The data is based on an analysis of tournament results from all events during the 2017 year from the Junior Tour of Northern California. We then asked stats guru, Peter Sanders, Founder of ShotByShot.com, to provide the stats related to the winning scoring numbers that we found. Finally, we discuss ways that juniors can practice building skills and work towards becoming tournament winners.

The Winning Scores

In 2017 the Junior Tour of Northern California held 26 tournaments with 850+ members. According to our data collection based on information available on the website, the average girl’s tournament course measured 6145 yards. The average winning score for girls was 146 (36 holes), or 73 per round. Ten of the 22 tournaments where won with scores of 144 or better and the low 36 holes total was a whopping 133! In the data collection we also collected the average 10th place scores girls. The average 10th place score for girls was 159 or 79.5.

The Winning Stats

We provided the numbers to statistics expert Peter Sanders. Peter’s company has been providing Strokes Gained analysis for golfers for the last 29 years. Peter is the founder of ShotByShot.com, a website that provides golfers at all levels with Strokes Gained analysis, pinpoints specific strengths and weaknesses and highlights improvement priorities. Since the launch of ShotByShot.com in 2005, Peter has collected over 317,000 rounds. Accordingly, Peter has agreed to share the numbers, below, for a typical female player who averages 73. There are two important points to consider when reviewing these statistics:

  1. In order to have a complete picture of the puzzle that is golf, one must consider the ERRORS, or lack thereof, that play such an important role in scoring at every level. Even the 650+ PGA Tour stats ignore these important miscues. Shot By Shot has included them in their analysis from the beginning and they are highlighted in the infographics below.
  2. The data provided represents only tournament rounds. As such it will primarily represent the high school and college programs that use ShotbyShot.com

Infographics Created by Alexis Bennett

The Winning Preparation

Junior girls are encouraged to use these stats as a benchmark against their own performance to determine where they might need to improve against the “typical 73 player.” After identifying gaps in their game, they can then create practice plans to help improve. For example, a junior might notice they have more 3-putts than the model. To improve, they could work put more time into practice, as well as playing games on the golf course like draw-back and 2-putt.

  • Drawback is a game where after your first putt, you draw the second putt one putter length away from the hole. This often changes a shorter putt (> 2 feet) to a putt of between 3.5 – 5 feet. This putts significantly more pressure on your putting.
  • You may also play Two-Putt, a game where when you reach the green, you (or your playing competitor) tosses the ball away from the hole. You must 2-putt from that spot to move to the next hole (even if it takes a couple attempts!).

Others reading this article might find that they don’t hit enough greens. Improving this area will require more consistent strikes, which may require further technical development and block practice, as well as working on the golf course. To start, I would recommend that every junior implement the yardage rule. The yardage rule works like this; figure out the distance to the very back of the green. For example, this number may be 157. Then figure out what club ALWAYS flies 157, which might be 6-iron. Then choose 7-iron for the shot. This way your best shot will not fly the green, your average shot will likely be in the middle of the green and your less-than-perfect shot will hopefully end up on the front of the green.

During practice rounds, play competitive games with yourself to sharpen your ability to hit greens. For example, if you normally hit 7 greens per round, in practice your goal might be 9. You would track your results over a month and then see your progress.

Beyond building individual skills, like hitting greens or working on putting, junior golfers need times to play competitive rounds on their home golf courses. Ideally, these rounds are played against other people with similar skills and done under tournament like conditions with consequences (loser buys winner a coke or cleans their golf clubs). Playing hundreds of rounds at your home golf course under these conditions gives you a unique opportunity to sharpen your game, learn your tendencies and build skills such as endurance and mental toughness. Most importantly, it teaches you to win and shoot under par!

Please also keep in mind building these skills may take months (or even years). In my own personal experience, when I set out to improve my birdies per round, it took nearly 4 months and 75+ rounds and significant practice to begin to see a change. Depending on your schedule and access to resources like a golf course and instructor, some changes might take a year or more. Regardless, don’t ever worry; building a solid foundation in golf will always lead to rewards!

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