Some golf pros have a way to go …

I was at the Queensland Open over the weekend to have a look. It was great to walk the fairways and get up and close to watch the pros play. Those boys can certainly hit the ball and many of them can’t be far from cracking it on a bigger tour somewhere.

Many of them would do well to change their practice habits because I don’t think they’re getting improvement, just exercise. Here’s what I saw.

On the practice fairway prior to play I was quite surprised to see so many working on their swing technique. I really shouldn’t be surprised, because “swing thinking” has been the order of the day for the golf industry for perhaps the better part of 50 years. But if you know anything about learning, performance or getting ready to shoot a score, you know that you don’t want to be tweaking your swing minutes before hitting off.

golf practice the proper way

These guys may not have been warming up the best way …

But this is what I saw. And it wasn’t just one or two. Practically the entire range line up (a few exceptions of course) were checking backswing plane, doing drills, fidgeting and fumbling about. One guy was almost doing a war dance with some exaggerated waggle drill – he had arms and feet and body parts going everywhere. Very funny, but not sure it was helping him prepare to play his best.

What you didn’t see was this:

Guys hitting shots – fades and draws and knockdown shots. Soft shots and hard shots and everything in between. I just didn’t really see players preparing themselves for battle. It just didn’t look like they were mentally getting ready to play. Here’s the thing…

… the practice fairway is for warming up. It’s too late to try and find your swing (despite what you or your golf coach may think). Your best bet is to get your body moving and then hit some shots like you’re out on the course. I’ve said for a long time that you’ve got to practice like you play. Anything else is unlikely going to help you play your best. And if you get too technical on the practice ground then I’ll guarantee you’ll be over-thinking on the course.

Through the turn I saw one of the country’s best young players hitting putts on the practice green. He had a line of balls and was whacking one after the other into the hole from the same spot. This is not a good practice habit. After the first couple of tries he too was getting exercise, not improvement.

There was a famous study done in the US with a college basketball team. The researchers looked at free throws both in practice and play. They discovered that the players averaged (I’m going from memory) 69% for their throws in competition. But when they analysed their percentage in practice, they averaged higher, around 75%. Now you might think that the percentage was lower in competition because of the pressure of the game. But this wasn’t the case.

The researchers then did something very clever – they looked at the player’s success percentage of their first two throws during practice. And funny enough it was almost exactly the same (I think it was something like 69.3%). This study went for the entire year and what it highlights is your first (and maybe second) attempt in practice is vitally important. After that you’re not getting any real benefit.

The hard thing to appreciate here is that as golfers, we like to practice success. We like the feeling of hitting perfect shot after perfect shot on the range (or the putting green or chipping area). Success is addictive. But practicing for success isn’t helping you. Hitting the same shot over and over gives you a false confidence because there is little learning going on and when you’re put under the pump, like you are when you’re playing golf, there’s little retention.

But if you practice to learn, you may feel you’re not being successful, but you’ll be in better shape when you need to perform because there’s better retention. The young pro on the putting green would have been much better using ONE ball and hitting all sorts of random putts. This simulates (much more closely anyway) what happens on the golf course. He also could have used his time better because he needn’t spend 3 hours hitting putts. In fact, he could have given his entire game a serious workout in the same time.

One thing that hit home to me on Saturday was how tough professional golf is. It’s brutal! There’s such a fine line and it’s so competitive. And if you’re going to succeed you need everything in your favour because a single shot here or there could be the difference. And when you’re playing for a living that difference could mean earning some dollars or going home empty handed. And there’s no better way to get things on your side by warming up correctly and not wasting your precious practice time.

One last point: If you’re not a golf pro and you don’t get to play all the time, your practice (and warm up) is even more important. When you make the most out of every shot and strive for learning and improvement you can leapfrog all those that practice for success and exercise.

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