By Kevin Smeltz, BGGA Director of Golf
As I was thinking about how I wanted to approach this blog on how professional golfers practice and what we can learn from them, I began to think, is there a way that we can practice better than a professional?
It sounds odd I know, but there is a lot of research being done on elite performance in sports and other walks of life and what the best of the best do that perhaps even some professionals don’t do.
I have had the chance to be around some of the greatest golfers in the world, multiple major winners and the highest ranked players in the world. Many of them do some of these things instinctively, but can we take some of the research and help the next generation of players become even better. There are many things to cover with regards to this, more than we can cover in one blog, but we will look at a couple of items here to help your practice time become more productive.
The key is learning the information. That sounds obvious but almost everything I know about learning now is virtually the opposite of what I used to think at worst and counter-intuitive at best.
In a coaches’ meeting, that we often have so we can all improve from each other and share best practices, I came across a good example that hit home with regards to learning. We were discussing this very subject of learning, and one of my colleagues was discussing his daughter and the ABC’s. She knows her ABC’s. She can recite them like clockwork. However, if you ask her what comes after the letter “S”, she must recite the whole song to get to the answer (she is only 2.5 years old). The question was, has she really “learned” the ABC’s. The answer would be it seems so but not really.
Let’s apply this to golf. Do we really learn when we put an alignment stick down and hit 200 7-irons to the same flag? One of my mentors and BGGA advisory board member Dr. Fran Pirozzolo would say no but instead you have the illusion of competence. The student feels like they got a lot better because they are performing the movements better and hitting better shots. The coach feels great because they can see the student swinging better and hitting more quality shots. How much of this is because they are in a rhythm and raking over ball after ball vs. truly improving?
If we have truly “learned” something, then we can recall this information in different situations, especially in golf when there are so many different variables every day. After you feel like you have grooved your new swing, change targets and clubs. Did you keep the new movements or did your swing regress back to the old habits when you had to take into account different wind conditions, different lie, you only have one chance to pull it off, etc? If you did regress, you haven’t learned it yet. Think of how many times the commentators on TV say down the stretch that the tour pro went back to their old tendencies. They haven’t fully learned it yet either. It isn’t good or bad. The information they are trying to assimilate in their swing might be great, but it just takes a certain amount of time to incorporate these things.
The key is, is there a better way to transfer these changes more effectively? The research shows that if you practice more like you play on the course, you can get better faster. Using the alignment stick and hitting a bunch of 7-irons in a row isn’t the worst thing you can do. It can be effective, especially initially. Once you feel like you have a handle on it, change targets and clubs and see if you maintain the changes. This simulates competition and is far more challenging to your brain, which aids learning and in turn helps you maintain the changes faster. It will seem harder while you are doing it, and it might not look as pretty as the 200 7-irons but it is what is going on in your brain that you can’t see that will help you transfer your new action to the course.
This was a very simple example so stay tuned for upcoming blogs expanding on more concepts like massing vs. spacing, backward chaining techniques, interleaving, etc.