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How to Practice
By Mark Blackburn

Effectively practicing golf is one of the most frustrating aspects of the game. Understanding the way we as humans learn movements has made coaching athletes and particularly golfers much more successful. Sports can be defined as motor skills some such as golf could even be considered fine motor skills. By definition a motor skill “is a learned series of movements that combine to produce a smooth, efficient action”. This definition seems to be the description of a golf swing anyone would want to own. Therefore, knowing how the brain works best when learning a motor skill may be the key to your most productive practice and long term golfing improvement.

When a golfer takes a lesson hopefully they leave with a few drills or feelings which can be taken out onto the range to be integrated into their swing or putting stroke. Initially the drills and feelings work quite well on the range but struggle to translate into the full swing and over time they lose the sensations or feelings and regress back to old habits. What also seems to be common and perhaps more frustrating is when they do have a good feeling on the range but can’t seem to continue it out onto the course. Well there is a familiar expression stating “that if you keep doing the same thing you’ll get the same results”, this would be an accurate way of describing the way golf has traditionally been practiced, namely hitting numerous balls on the range until we feel we’ve got it! This obviously doesn’t work since the average golf handicap has been static for years. However by studying the way we learn motor skills, practicing golf can now be effective and carried over to the course.

Never having the same shot twice in golf means the common practice of hitting two hundred seven irons towards the same flag to “grove it” does little but help your conditioning and endurance. In reality hitting numerous balls to the same target is the exact opposite to golf’s objective of playing 18 different holes with numerous targets (target off tee, aiming at left and right flags on green etc) in the least number of strokes. Knowing there are two types of practice necessary for mastering a golf game namely “blocked” and “random” is key to effecting change in your game.

Blocked practice refers to the drills typically prescribed by your instructor. Hopefully they are given in a specific order, with each drill building on the proceeding one. Once the drills have been ingrained the next step is usually making full swings to a target with the aid of alignment props. While this “block” practice is crucial to learning the skills required to hit or putt the ball it is only half of the puzzle and often the only piece golfers utilize. As previously mentioned each shot in golf poses a unique set of characteristics which will require an equally unique swing or stroke. So having hit at the same target, the same distance with the same club does little but improve a shot with that club distance and target of which you are unlikely to have when playing. Instead the golfer must add the second piece of the practice puzzle which is “random” practice.

Random practice requires practicing shots to different targets while using all of your clubs varying distances, trajectories, shapes and spin never practicing the same shot twice in a row. While it may be harder to hit all the shots well in this type of practice the brain is processing the shot as it would on the course. Thus this type of practice mirrors the vast array of shots required to play a round of golf. Research has shown that performance in practice when applying the random technique is less successful than when practice is drill based and blocked. However, those who practice in the random manner perform better in playing golf and tournament scoring conditions. In essence actually practicing hitting shots to a specific target going through a pre shot routine every time is vital to achieving peak performance on the course.

Elite players utilize the block and random practice techniques to improve their games. Frequently though many find themselves playing golfswing on the course and not scoring. This tends to happen when they are in the process of working on a swing change and have focused all their practice in the block form. Padraig Harrington’s first half of 2009 was a great example of this and when he final began to implement the random aspect back into his practice he was able to score again and consistently contend during the Fed Ex Playoffs.

The question you are no doubt asking by now is how do I add the random aspect to my practice schedule? Quite simply split your current practice time in half. Continue working on the drills and swinging to the same target with the same club to grove your swing but also practice how you play with some random work. I often tell students to play the course on the driving range holes one through eighteen imagining the tee shots and approaches into the green. If you hit a bad shot improvise with a pitchout or chip to recover. All too often I see folks hit a bad shot and say they will do that one over but this is sending the wrong message to the brain. Learn to recover and hit a good shot to set up a par saving putt. This type of practice is actually simulating what you will have to do when shooting low scores. Once you realize it is possible to hit a great shot immediately after a terrible one you’re more likely to shrug off a bad shot on the course. Unfortunately while it is satisfying to hit fifty seven irons inside twenty feet in block practice it means little in producing lower scores unless each hole is a par three requiring a seven iron! The same approach to the full swing can and must be adopted with the short game especially putting. Making one hundred three footers in a row will do little to help you with a double breaking forty footer. Obviously working on your stroke mechanics is important, as is your speed control which should be done in the block form. Yet random practice to different holes (lengths and breaks) on the green with one ball and a full routine is the practice essential to making that six footer to win your next match or tournament.

Applying the block and random principles to your practice will add some variety to the monotony of ball beating or wearing footprints in the putting green, while actually simulating the conditions of playing golf as you experience it on the course. Good luck and have fun practicing!

Greystone Golf & Country Club


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