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Don’t be so critical! Research shows it pays to be positive

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A lot of golfers spend their time focused on what’s wrong.

My club should be over here, my head should have stayed just a little stiller, my back swing is a little too steep. The list goes on and on.

Honestly, it’s really easy to do. In golf, the default status is to focus on what’s wrong and what needs to be fixed.

However, there is a lot of research happening (and plenty already out there) on motivational learning, which looks at the factors of motivation that have an impact on how effective an individual’s learning can be.

Let’s look at the research and to see if there’s a better way to approach learning and practice.

Let’s kick this off with a quick story

We’re going to talk about a study that was released just this year (if you’re interested, you can read the paper here).

The study involved two groups of golfers asked to complete a putting task. Researchers created circles around a golf hole — a large circle (14 centimeters in diameter) for one group and a smaller circle (7 centimeters in diamter) for the other group.

golf putting task

Each group was told that their putt would be considered a success if the ball made it into the circle around the hole.

Interestingly enough, it was the group putting to the large circle that outperformed the small circle group, even though both groups were actually putting to ultimately the same target (a regular sized hole).

studygraphNot only did the group that putted to the large circle perform better in the initial test, but also in retention tests when they were retested the following day.

So what’s the point?

What this study shows is that how success is defined has an impact on how we learn and how we perform.

This concept has major implications, because viewing a performance in a positive light fosters learning, while being overly critical dampens the learning effect.

In other words, it pays to accentuate the positive. Taking this idea and extending it even further, coaches and instructors can help their students by creating and fostering positive motivation.

how success is defined has an impact on how we learn and how we perform.

We used to think that motivation had a temporary influence on performance. It was something we believed energized players to perform better, but now we think that pairing positive motivational factors with early learning actually enhances the learning.

Creating positive motivation

There are a few ways to create a positive motivational opportunity: One is to enhance the sense that a player been successful as they go forward. The other is to provide them with opportunities to choose or have autonomy over their actions.

In a recent interview, Dr. Rebecca Lewthwaite shared her suggestions on how to best go about this.

There are really several ways you can go about creating this positive motivational opportunity.

One is to enhance the sense that one has been successful as you go forward, and the other is to provide people with opportunities to choose or to have autonomy in their actions.

So, one way you could pair these things is tell people early on, it’s quite good if you can hit this target or be close to it in this way, provide them with positive feedback, you know, “For that early trial, it was excellent.”

And then the next thing you said is, “Let me know when you would like to get some more specific feedback.” So it’s an invitation to have to take a little charge of when you get further detail or when you dive into it more deeply.

You can hear more from her on motivational learning here.

Set better expectations

Another problem that a lot of golfers face is being in a constant state of inadequacy.

Most amateurs look to the professional ranks as the goal they should be chasing. So when looking at stats, whether it’s driving distance or scrambling percentages, there is always a negative reaction.

It’s time to compare apples to apples and not look at the PGA Tour as the goal for you game (unless you are a competitive professional).

For more reading on this check out Monte Scheinblum’s GolfWRX story, Golfers have ridiculous expectations

It’s really the long-term that matters

One of the aspects of this study was learning retention, which is important for golfers because one of the biggest problems most of them have is taking their best game to the course.

So let’s assume there are two groups of people and each group is asked to perform a motor task. One group is told their score after the task, while the other group is told their score in addition to some positive feedback such as “you have performed well relative to others.”

The second group — the one that received a second form of positive feedback — will do better, as it appears that this additional sense of success is what potentiates learning. Returning to the scenario a day later, the second group will also retain more of what they learned the first day when asked to perform a similar or somewhat related task. Not only that, but they will once again outperform the group that did not receive the additional sense of success.

In terms of practical applications for improving your game, it looks as though positive thinking is a key player. We all know that a strong mental game is a major component of success in sports, but the glass-half-full mentality really does seem to make a difference in performance and learning retention.

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Cordie has spent the last four years working with golf instructors, helping inform thousands on business and teaching best practices (if you're a coach or instructor check out http://golfinthelifeof.com/). Through that he's realized that it's time for the way golf is taught to be changed. When looking at research and talking with coaches and academics, he's launched the Golf Science Golf Science Lab , a website and audio documentary-style podcast focused on documenting what's really going on in learning and playing better golf.

3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Matthew Cooke

    Nov 27, 2015 at 11:31 pm

    Great article Cordie, well rounded insights with scientific support. I love that it supports the deliberate practice framework! Working on the things you have less skill at rather than more skill, but intelligently reframing the perception to be more appropriate for the individual (hence positive motivation). Bravo!

  2. gvogel

    Nov 25, 2015 at 6:23 pm

    Give me a guy with a lousy swing and a lot of confidence over a guy with a good swing and no confidence.

  3. g

    Nov 25, 2015 at 4:53 pm

    “Be the ball”…..where did it go? “Right in the Lumberyard”

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Instruction

Why you are probably better at golf than you think (Part 1)

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Golf is hard. I spend my career helping people learn that truth, but golfers are better than they give themselves credit for.

As a golf performance specialist, I give a lot of “first time working together” lessons, and most of them start the same way. I hear about all the ways the golfer is cursed and how s/he is never going to “get it” and how s/he should take up another sport. Granted, the last statement generally applies to an 18-plus handicap player, but I hear lots of negatives from better players as well.

Even though the golfers make convincing arguments for why they are cursed, I know the truth. It’s my job to help them realize the fates aren’t conspiring against them.

All golfers can play well consistently

I know this is a bold statement, but I believe this because I know that “well” does not equate to trophies and personal bests. Playing “well” equates to understanding your margin of error and learning to live within it.

With this said, I have arrived at my first point of proving why golfers are not cursed or bad golfers: They typically do not know what “good” looks like.

What does “good” look like from 150 yards out to a center pin?

Depending on your skill level, the answer can change a lot. I frequently ask golfers this same question when selecting a shot on the golf course during a coaching session and am always surprised at the response. I find that most golfers tend to either have a target that is way too vague or a target that is much too small.

The PGA Tour average proximity to the hole from 150 yards is roughly 30 feet. The reason I mention this statistic is that it gives us a frame of reference. The best players in the world are equivalent to a +4 or better handicap. With that said, a 15-handicap player hitting it to 30 feet from the pin from 150 yards out sounds like a good shot to me.

I always encourage golfers to understand the statistics from the PGA Tour not because that should be our benchmark, but because we need to realize that often our expectations are way out of line with our current skill level. I have found that golfers attempting to hold themselves to unrealistic standards tend to perform worse due to the constant feeling of “failing” they create when they do not hit every fairway and green.

Jim Furyk, while playing a limited PGA Tour schedule, was the most accurate driver of the golf ball during the 2020 season on the PGA Tour hitting 73.96 percent of his fairways (roughly 10/14 per round) and ranked T-136 in Strokes Gained: Off-The-Tee. Bryson Dechambeau hit the fairway 58.45 percent (roughly 8/14 per round) of the time and ranked first in Strokes Gained: Off-The-Tee.

There are two key takeaways in this comparison

Sometimes the fairway is not the best place to play an approach shot from. Even the best drivers of the golf ball miss fairways.

By using statistics to help athletes gain a better understanding of what “good” looks like, I am able to help them play better golf by being aware that “good” is not always in the middle of the fairway or finishing next to the hole.

Golf is hard. Setting yourself up for failure by having unrealistic expectations is only going to stunt your development as a player. We all know the guy who plays the “tips” or purchases a set of forged blades applying the logic that it will make them better in the long run—how does that story normally end?

Take action

If you are interested in applying some statistics to your golf game, there are a ton of great apps that you can download and use. Also, if you are like me and were unable to pass Math 104 in four attempts and would like to do some reading up on the math behind these statistics, I highly recommend the book by Mark Broadie Every Shot Counts. If you begin to keep statistics and would like how to put them into action and design better strategies for the golf course, then I highly recommend the Decade system designed by Scott Fawcett.

You may not be living up to your expectations on the golf course, but that does not make you a bad or cursed golfer. Human beings are very inconsistent by design, which makes a sport that requires absolute precision exceedingly difficult.

It has been said before: “Golf is not a game of perfect.” It’s time we finally accept that fact and learn to live within our variance.

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Instruction

Walters: Try this practice hack for better bunker shots

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Your ability to hit better bunker shots is dramatically reduced if you have no facility to practice these shots. With so few facilities (especially in the UK) having a practice bunker it’s no wonder I see so many golfers struggle with this skill.

Yet the biggest issue they all seem to have is the inability to get the club to enter the sand (hit the ground) in a consistent spot. So here is a hack to use at the range to improve your bunker shots.

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Golf Blueprint: A plan for productive practice sessions

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Practice range at the Dormie Club. Photo credit: Scott Arden

Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

You’ve gotten lessons.  Several of them.  You’ve been custom fitted for everything in your bag.  You even bought another half a dozen driver shafts last year looking for an extra couple of yards.  And yet, you’re still…stuck.  Either your handicap hasn’t moved at all in years or you keep bouncing back and forth between the same two numbers.  You’ve had all the swing fixes and all the technological advances you could realistically hope to achieve, yet no appreciable result has been achieved in lowering your score.  What gives?

Sample Golf Blueprint practice plan for a client.

One could argue that no one scientifically disassembled and then systematically reassembled the game of golf quite like the great Ben Hogan.  His penchant for doing so created a mystique which is still the stuff of legend even today.  A great many people have tried to decipher his secret over the years and the inevitable conclusion is always a somewhat anticlimactic, “The secret’s in the dirt.”  Mr. Hogan’s ball striking prowess was carved one divot at a time from countless hours on the practice range.  In an interview with golf journalist George Peper in 1987, Mr. Hogan once said:

“You hear stories about me beating my brains out practicing, but the truth is, I was enjoying myself. I couldn’t wait to get up in the morning so I could hit balls. I’d be at the practice tee at the crack of dawn, hit balls for a few hours, then take a break and get right back to it. And I still thoroughly enjoy it. When I’m hitting the ball where I want, hard and crisply—when anyone is— it’s a joy that very few people experience.”

Let me guess.  You’ve tried that before, right?  You’ve hit buckets and buckets of range rocks trying to groove the perfect 7-iron swing and still to no avail, right?  Read that last sentence again closely and you might discover the problem.  There’s a difference between mindful practice and mindless practice.  Mindful practice, like Mr. Hogan undoubtedly employed, is structured, focused, and intentional.  It has specific targets and goals in mind and progresses in a systematic fashion until those goals are met.

This is exactly what Nico Darras and Kevin Moore had in mind when they started Golf Blueprint.  In truth, though, the journey actually started when Nico was a client of Kevin’s Squares2Circles project.  Nico is actually a former DI baseball player who suffered a career-ending injury and took up golf at 22 years old.  In a short time, he was approaching scratch and then getting into some mini tour events.  Kevin, as mentioned in the Squares2Circles piece, is a mathematics education professor and accomplished golfer who has played in several USGA events.  Their conversations quickly changed from refining course strategy to making targeted improvements in Nico’s game.  By analyzing the greatest weaknesses in Nico’s game and designing specific practice sessions (which they call “blueprints”) around them, Nico started reaching his goals.

The transition from client to partners was equal parts swift and organic, as they quickly realized they were on to something.  Nico and Kevin used their experiences to develop an algorithm which, when combined with the client’s feedback, establishes a player profile within Golf Blueprint’s system.  Clients get a plan with weekly, monthly, and long-term goals including all of the specific blueprints that target the areas of their game where they need it most.  Not to mention, clients get direct access to Nico and Kevin through Golf Blueprint.

Nico Darras, co-founder of Golf Blueprint

While this is approaching shades of Mr. Hogan’s practice method above, there is one key distinction here.  Kevin and Nico aren’t recommending practicing for hours at a time.  Far from it.  In Nico’s words:

“We recommend 3 days a week.  You can do more or less, for sure, but we’ve found that 3 days a week is within the realm of possibility for most of our clients.  Practice sessions are roughly 45-70 minutes each, but again, all of this depends on the client and what resources they have at their disposal.  Each blueprint card is roughly 10 minutes each, so you can choose which cards to do if you only have limited time to practice.  Nothing is worse than cranking 7 irons at the range for hours.  We want to make these engaging and rewarding.”

Kevin Moore, co-founder of Golf Blueprint

So far, Golf Blueprint has been working for a wide range of golfers – from tour pros to the No Laying Up crew to amateurs alike.  Kevin shares some key data in that regard:

“When we went into this, we weren’t really sure what to expect.  Were we going to be an elite player product?  Were we going to be an amateur player product?  We didn’t know, honestly.  So far, what’s exciting is that we’ve had success with a huge range of players.  Probably 20-25% of our players (roughly speaking) are in that 7-11 handicap range.  That’s probably the center of the bell curve, if you will, right around that high-single-digit handicap range.  We have a huge range though, scratch handicap and tour players all the way to 20 handicaps.  It runs the full gamut.  What’s been so rewarding is that the handicap dropping has been significantly more than we anticipated.  The average handicap drop for our clients was about 2.7 in just 3 months’ time.”

Needless to say, that’s a pretty significant drop in a short amount of time from only changing how you practice.  Maybe that Hogan guy was on to something.  I think these guys might be too.  To learn more about Golf Blueprint and get involved, visit their website. @Golf_Blueprint is their handle for both Twitter and Instagram.

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