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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

Master your takeaway with force and torques

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Most golf swings last less than 2 seconds, so it’s difficult to recover from any errors in the takeaway. Time is obviously limited. What most golfers fail to realize is that the force and torque they apply to the club in the initial stages of the swing can have major effects on how they are able to leverage the club with their arms and wrists.

Our research has shown that it is best to see the golfer as a series of connected links with the most consistent golfers transferring motion smoothly from one link to another and finally to the club. Approximately 19-25 percent of all the energy created in a golf swing actually makes its way into the motion of the club. That means the remaining 75-80 percent is used up in moving the body segments. This emphasizes the fact that a smooth takeaway is your best chance sequence the body links and become more efficient with your energy transfers.

In the video above, I give a very important lesson on how the forces and torques applied by the golfer in the takeaway shape the rest of the swing. There will be more to come on the subject in future articles.

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Learn from the Legends: Introduction

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There is a better way to swing the golf club. I’d prefer to write that there is a correct way to swing the club, but I know that really freaks people out. People love to talk about how everyone’s swing is different. “There are lots of ways to get it done,” they say. “Look at Jim Furyk’s swing – it’s not what you’d teach, but it works for him.”

To some extent, they’re right. Elite swings do have different looks. Some take it back inside (Ray Floyd). Some cross the line (Tom Watson). Some swings are long (Bubba Watson). Some are short (young Tiger). But these differences are superficial and largely irrelevant. When it comes to the engine – the core of the swing – the greatest players throughout the history of the game are all very similar.

Don’t believe me? Well, let me prove it to you. In this series of articles, I will do my best to show you – with pictures and videos and data – that the legends all move a specific way. Focusing on these elements (while ignoring others) and practicing a certain way is the surest path to improving your golf swing and lowering your scores.

So, let’s get into it. There are a number of important elements that all the legends have, but the biggest and most important of these elements is rotation. Every great player throughout the history of the game has had elite rotation. It’s the most important thing they do, and it’s easy to see. When you’re looking down the line at all the great players at impact, you’ll see hips and torso open.

This is what the legends look like at impact:

1Hips open
2Torso open
3Both butt cheeks visible
4Left leg extended and visible

And here’s what some very good players with less good rotation look like at impact:

These are very successful players (one of them is a major champion!), but they don’t move like the legends of the game.
1Hips and shoulders not open
2Left leg not totally visible
3Can’t see both butt cheeks

Now, there are plenty of nuances to how great players rotate. They do it while keeping spine flexion, for example, and they do it with very little (or no) lateral movement toward the target (lateral movement impedes rotation). I will discuss these things in detail. My hope is that at the end of this series you will have a much better understanding of what separates the legends from the very good… and from the rest of us.

You will understand their “engine,” and hopefully this understanding will help you begin to create your own legendary swing!

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10 reasons your golf game isn’t improving (even if you’re practicing a lot)

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One of the things I hate to see is when you watch someone come to the practice facility day after day, week after week, truly doing what they think is best for their games and they continue to get worse. In fact, you can actually do more harm than good by “practicing” if you are not careful. So in this article I want to give you my top-10 reasons your game is not improving, even if you’re practicing more than ever.

1) You’re not practicing, you’re just getting exercise

We all know the guy who walks into the grill room and boasts that he has hit five pyramids of balls that day. The problem is, at least 90 percent of those shots were a complete waste of time! This guy is only getting exercise, not doing himself any good whatsoever. As a matter of fact, this is my number one pet-peeve for my clients who have retired and are looking for something to fill their day. When you hit this many balls, you have no chance to get better as you are only ingraining poor swing flaws or improper motions from getting tired.

Please limit yourself to one hour per range session, and use this time wisely with slow motion swings, proper feedback, and mirror work; this way, you just might improve. Anything past that hour mark (unless you’re a trained professional athlete or top-level amateur), and you are spinning your wheels, in my opinion.

2) You don’t understand “feel vs real”

Feel and real are two different things, and if you don’t know the difference, you’ll have to practice twice as hard for twice as long to get any better. Remember the feeling of making that “new” move? How weird it feels and how similar it actually looks on camera? Don’t be afraid to exaggerate a new move in order to make the change you want; if you don’t exaggerate it, then you may have to put in much more time in order to eradicate yourself of whatever move you’re trying to eliminate.

Use video feedback to remind yourself of what is actually happening when you’re making a swing change. Huge changes in our mind often translate to very small changes in real life; the camera will remind you what needs to be done.

3) You only practice the fun things

How many times have you gone to the range and worked on smashing your driver versus working on hitting trouble shots around trees, or your super-long lag putting? In fact, we are all guilty of working on things that we are already good at or enjoy doing with the excuse that “we don’t want to lose it.” Personally, I hate practicing my long irons and seldom did when I was playing, and because of this fact, I am not too stellar from outside 200 yards still today. Why? Because that was in the days of small bladed forged irons and whenever you missed them they felt terrible and therefore I avoided them. Not a smart idea. Hone your strengths, but work hard on your problem areas to really improve.

4) You’re not making practice uncomfortable and pressure filled

Another one of the things I constantly see is where a player can hit the ball like a champ on the range, but the moment they walk on the course, things change for the worse. Why? Because they become too outcome focused. If they could reverse the mental process — making practice pressure filled and the course worry-free — they would be a world beater. My favorite drill is to set a goal during a practice session, such as making 100 3-footers in a row; and if you don’t reach that goal, open up your wallet and throw $20 on the ground for someone to find. If you do this, I promise you will focus and feel pressure. These are the type of things that one must do in order to simulate game-like conditions.

5) You’re not testing your changes on the golf course

Ok, you’ve worked on it, and you feel that you have mastered the “new” move that will cure your snap hook… now take it to the course and test it out! There is no better way to see if your no-double-cross swing is working by aiming down the line of trouble and trying to work it away from it. The course is the only place for you to see if you truly have a grasp of the new move, and under pressure on the course is the only way to actually know for sure!

6) Your equipment isn’t truly fit to what you’re trying to do as a player

If you have faulty equipment, then how can you actually know you have eliminated a faulty move or funky shot? Maybe those super-slick grips are causing your grip pressure to increase at address and this is the reason why you tend to swing the club too much to the inside on the way back? Or is it a faulty motion of the forward arm and wrist? If your clubs are not correct, then you will always fight something that might not actually be your issue.

Think about the buddy of yours who has irons that have an incorrect lie angle… how much easier could the game be if they were correct?

7) You don’t have any… goals, practice, evaluation or feedback

I’m sorry, but just swatting balls daily is not the best way to get any better! Have you ever asked yourself “what is today’s goal?” and then “what is the best way to work toward achieving that goal?” Next time you’re at the range, ask yourself those two questions, and then ask yourself how you will measure this and understand the feedback you’re given. Most people do not even think of these things, nor do they have factors in place in order to do so.

To be a better player, like in life, you have to have clear-cut goals in mind, or else you are being sloppy. Remember to take into account the four things above, or you will not improve as rapidly as you’d like!

8) You’re working on mechanics only, not how to score

Yes, you can do either or both in your practice, but don’t get them confused! What is your first objective in a given practice session — making a more consistent motion or lowering your score? Most of the time, they don’t have anything to do with one another.

9) You’re overly focused on the “look,” not the function

Are you too focused on making a perfect swing instead of one that is functionally correct and repetitive? Yes, we’d all like to look as pretty as Adam Scott, but understand that Furyk has a better record — it’s not about beauty, it’s about function at the end of the day.

10) You’re working on your swing with a non-professional

This is one that hits close to home, as I HATE to see people working on the incorrect things on the range, or from their buddy who can’t break 90. It kills me to watch someone working on their exit pattern when their grip or transition is the fault. Please make sure you at least consult with someone who knows more about the game and the swing than you do, and if your thoughts check out, then by all means go at it alone. I’m a big fan of players being self-sufficient, but for every Watson or Trevino who figured it out on their own, there are millions of golfers who screwed themselves up royally doing this.

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