What is the Best Way to Practice?

Most of us have had the experience of having a great practice session at the range. We leave brimming with confidence in anticipation of the next round. Could it be THE one? The one round where I break 90, 80 or 70? Upon arrival at the course you meet your playing partner and talk about how much you are looking forward to the round. You have a great warm-up; flushing the ball with nearly every swing. The anticipation mounts and adrenaline begins to flow. As your warmed up body arrives at the first tee you anticipate a soaring tee shot down the the middle of the fairway. Your playing partner goes first and hits his tee shot well. It is now your turn. As you stride confidently to the tee box you begin to narrow your focus on your target and try to eliminate any outside distractions. You take a couple smooth practice swings as you focus on breathing and relaxation. You are now ready. You peg your tee in to the ground and place that shiny $4 tour ball at the desired height. You take your stance, waggle and pull the trigger....SHANK into the bushes!

Your immediate response is one of surprise, then followed by anger. As you convince yourself that that is just one shot, you steady your nerves and emotions as you re-tee the ball and yes, you hit that soaring drive you should have hit in the first place. As the round progresses, that confidence and consistency you found on the range evaporates. Realizing that this is not the day, you begin to notice the little things that are not right; anything that you can pin the blame on will do. The wind is cold, I have sore back, the fairways are too wet, my playing partner is distracting and on it goes.

In the post round analysis at the 19th hole, you try and take solace in the few great shots you hit. But deep down you are frustrated and deeply disappointed. You begin to question yourself and your ability. Maybe I am not cut out for this? What happened to that confident golfer just a few hours earlier?

While we won't get too deep into the psychology of the game in this post, it is important to understand that we all can make mental mistakes when we approach a round of golf. This is the main thought behind Bob Rotella's book Golf is not a Game of Perfect, which teaches us that if we approach the game as something we can "get perfect" we will be ill equipped to deal with the imperfection of the game. The inevitable topped ball or pull hook is going to happen at some point. It is these events that often trigger the downward spiral in a round when the results don't meet our expectations. 

Could it Be How we Practice?

So what is really happening here? Again, the purpose of this post is not to go deep on the psychology (that is a post for another day). Our suggestion is that if we are experiencing poor performance on the course then it must come from, in part, what we do in practice. Now there are times when we  to learn a new technique or fix a flaw in our swing. This practice is essential to improvement and mastery. In some cases we may need to devote an entire session to a new technique or move in our swing. But as Adman Young points out in his bestseller book The Practice Manual: The Ultimate Guide for Golfers, there is a big difference between practising technique and developing skill. The latter is what we do to when we want to improve our performance in playing the game. So what is the difference between skill and technique? Adam explains this by using the example of throwing a ball into a bucket. The technique is the motion, angles and positions you would adopt to perform the task. Whereas the skill would be the ability to get the ball into the bucket, perhaps in different ways by varying the speed and trajectory of the toss.

So, could it be that the confidence we thought we had after that great range session involved flawed practice? A routine that may have been fun to follow but really did nothing to improve your skill. For example, most of us can get into a groove and hit shot after shot off a range mat and hit great shots one after another. After all the lie is perfect, we are aiming in the same direction every time and the swing has little to no consequence. We may even hit ball after ball with the same club. This is what Adam Young calls "low context" practice. We are basically in a state where there is no pressure or competition, we have a wide open range in front of us and the results don't matter. If we really want to improve our skill that we can transport to an actual round of golf, we have to simulate what the real game presents. 

"High Context" Practice

Adam Young advocates that by simulating as much of what occurs on the golf course in our practice routine the better off we will be. We want to develop the ability to transfer what we have learned in practice to the course, under pressure. This is what he refers to as "high context" practice. How is this achieved? We suggest you incorporate the following 4 points into your practice routine:

1) Make sure you practice in front of observers. Practising when people are watching actually can simulate the pressure we feel when we are on the tee box with the rest of our 4-some.
2) Always hit a shot to a target. Hitting ball aimlessly into oblivion is a waste of time. Is that what we do when we play the game? Of course not. We always have a target. Targets narrow our focus and they take our mind of technique and allow us to develop our skill to hit the shot that is required.
3) Be competitive. Being competitive in practise does not have to mean you are competing with your buddy. What we mean is that you should play games with yourself where the outcome has a consequence. For example you may assign points to certain outcomes like hitting a target in a certain radius and if you don't achieve it you lose the game. Or you may even deprive yourself of a post-practice treat. Whatever you can do to simulate pressure.
4) Play the course in your mind. Again, the whole idea of practice is to simulate the real thing. So why not play the course in your mind? If you hit driver off the tee on number 5 then hit driver. If the shot was straight you can then pull the club that you would hit for the approach. If it goes offline, imagine you are now in the rough in front of the green with little room to work with. Pull out your wedge and play the shot and so on. If you can afford to do so, take a practice round and drop balls in different places and see if you can get up and down from awkward places.
The above suggestions are but a sampling of the many things you can do to make your practice more meaningful. Hopefully by applying them you can avoid the disappointment between a great practise session and the real thing! 

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