Practice Like You Play

Why can’t I take my practice range excellence to the course?

There is an ad on television that states, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” That may or may not be true, but I can guarantee that what happens on the practice tee will stay on the practice tee unless you understand motor skill development and your brain. I must tell you that If you think that hitting a few balls every time just before you play is practice you are wrong, it’s not a practice; it is your warmup. First, let’s discuss practice.

On the range most golfers hit in a mode called block practice.  Its whack, whack, whack, and the balls generally go where they are aiming, and they think, “Wow! I finally have this game under control.” They have hit twenty or thirty balls with the driver and for brief periods the results were all good.  They switch to another club and at first there are a few mishaps before they find the groove and once again consistency is present. One club repeatedly, one target, ball after ball and the requirements to make a swing (eleven separate skills) are behaving in unison, a in the autonomous or automatic phase of learning (practiced motor skills become routine requiring no conscious thought). The golfer believes he/she is grooving the swing. This is called blocked practice and Is where the golfer performs a single skill over and over, with repetition being the key. There is little variance during in the training procedure. This process does not resemble the game of golf, and some but some call it learning. This learning transfers to the course for two or three holes and then fades.

The remaining fifteen holes will be played in a fog. Not knowing what will happen, or when it will happen and how to stop it. The periods between shots are filled with doubt. To erase this doubt takes time and practice, lots of practice. To learn a motor skill requires that you progress through three stages of learning, called cognitive, associative, and autonomous.   

To make progress toward the autonomous stage the golfer needs a learning plan for practice that imitates the play of the game. Practice done this way will assure you are not wasting time just “hitting balls.” Our goal is to train the brain and not just exercise the muscles. In training the brain, we know that the repetition or blocked practice leads to quicker learning during the practice session and you perform well during practice, but when it comes to playing and the pressure is on if often fails, because the learning occurs with low demands on solving problems. What is the solution?

We must practice like we play. Do not hit more than three shots with any one club before you switch clubs. Do not hit at the same target on consecutive shots. Mix up your shots, high, low, fade, draw… This process requires you to work through problems that use different skills to be successful. In short, your brain will get no rest, it must solve problems on every shot. (Sounds like real golf) Complete concentration is required on every shot as you go through your pre-shot routine. (Remember that your pre-shot routine is not just a haphazard event. It is habit and is performed before every shot in practice and in the play of the game.)

Question: Does your pre-shot routine include a mantra? (A series of words such as, loosey goosey) that you mentally say just prior to initiating your swing.  In doing this you turn off the conscious mind where thoughts of failure lurk and allow the subconscious autonomous functions of the brain to take over. You can walk, drive a car, feed yourself, with practice your golf game grows more and autonomous, but reproduction of a motor skills become nearly impossible when fear takes over.

I was once in Toronto, Ontario at the CN Tower, where there is a circular observation floor located 1,122 feet above the ground complete with a 256-square-foot portion of the floor that is glass allowing you to stand and look down to the ground below. This area is totally safe and there should be no real fear of falling unless the floor gives way. Though after walking across floor and feeling suspended in midair, I admit I wasn’t totally comfortable. I stopped to observe how others reacted to the same feeling. In the ten minutes or so that I spent there observing I witnessed a couple of people starting across the floor and then dropping to their hands and knees and crawling, others had their legs go weak and grabbed the nearest person for support. The kids were seemingly unafraid. The adults who were bothered by fear had their ability to walk, one of the most autonomous motor skills possessed by man, interrupted by the fear of falling.

The point I am making is that fear in the conscious brain moves to the subconscious brain and disrupt autonomous actions, like walking, or your golf swing.  When you set up to hit a golf ball you need to let your conscious mind go blank. You must not allow fear of failure, or hitting the ball out bounds or into the water surrounding the green, the weather, or how poorly you struck your last tee shot disrupt your sub conscious mind in doing what you trained it to do.

To accomplish this, we rely on habit and go through our preshot routine; this ends with your mantra that helps your conscious mind go blank, at this point the practice you have done will guide your autonomous ability to make the swing.  The more you concentrate on regular, purposeful, organized practice the more refined your autonomous actions will become. The key is purposeful practice, just banging ball after ball is a waste of time and you might as well be lifting weights or bending your elbow with a can of beer.

Practice does not have to consume your life unless you have aims on becoming a professional, playing competitive golf, or becoming club champion. Practice one hour a day, three days a week and you will achieve positive results, and the best part is that next beer might be free.
You might be saying, “What can I learn in three hours a week?” Let’s approach it this way.  Take an hour and divide it into useful blocks of time: twenty minutes on the driver, ten to fifteen minutes on the irons, and twenty to thirty minutes on the short game to include putting. I say this because concentration is tiring, and sessions should not be more than an hour at a time.  Learn and practice the seven fundamentals, plus the takeaway, the backswing, the transition, and the downswing. These eleven different elements must be learned one element at a time, and then blended each time you stroke the ball.  Don’t clog your brain with too many learning tasks at one time or rush the process. If you put regular purposeful practice of golf in your life’s routine, I can almost guarantee you that the result will be a repeatable swing with a predictable result.

Above all else I would advise you to remember that golf is a game. When you think about how you played games when you were young you will recall that there was a lot of pretend in most of those games.  It was just you, a ball and goal and yet you could turn that time it into the final four seconds of the state championship and drive to the baseline for the jump shot and win the game. The horn would sound, and crowd would scream. Over and over you made that move and drove to the line and made that shot. Or maybe it was catching a pass, striking a hockey puck, busting through the finish line tape, or sinking the putt that would win the Masters. Whether you realize it or not this was training your brain (your best piece of equipment) to perform when the pressure was on.

So, when start to hit practice balls think about how fun those days were and follow these simple instructions.
1. From this day forward in practice or play never hit a golf shot or a putt without purpose. That was a habit in the game of the world’s greatest golfer, Jack Nicklaus.
2. Go through your complete pre-shot routine (including visualization) prior to every practice shot or putt just like you would do on the course mentally simulating as close as you can the play of the game.  This was also a Nicklaus habit. Two habits that produced 73 PGA victories including 18 majors. We have a tendency during practice after a ten foot put drops or we really stripe a drive to want to immediately repeat the shot without doing our routine. Repeating it is fine but remember to include your pre-shot routine.
3. Go to a place in your mind where it’s only you, your club and the ball. Do as Sam Snead did; hold the club lightly, let your mind go blank, be loose as a goose, say your mantra. No thoughts, no fear, and the autonomous swing happens.

12 thoughts on “Practice Like You Play”

  1. Hello Bob,

    I met you at the driving range at Tallgrass this past Monday afternoon. Thanks for taking your time out to give me some much needed pointers!
    Btw, I ordered a book this morning. I am looking forward to reading it. Hopefully we meet again!

    Terry Davison

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