Practice makes Perfect!
“ From my years of experience on the Ladies European Tour, I firmly believe that the real improvement in golf motor patterns comes with repetition, but repetition is worthless if re-enforcing our bad habits, not improving or changing them, perfect practice makes perfect.” REBECCA CODD.
Perfect practice makes perfect.
The Harrington Golf Academy co-founder, Rebecca Codd spent 14 years on Tour, and it is safe to say she learned a thing or two along the way about practice. As any good tour pro will tell you it is not about hitting the shots that makes or breaks a tour pro, anyone that has made it out on to tour can hit the shots required to make a living playing golf, it’s what you do between rounds that will determine your life span at the big show. How you fill those hours between rounds, between tournaments, in the years that you spend on Tour will determine your career, not the four-foot putt to win your first tournament.
As Rebecca points out, that is the Pandoras Box that is professional golf, the lack of resources, the lack of knowledge regarding the science of practice, the lack of a proper team will erode, over time, any picture-perfect swing.
From the day I met Rebecca, she has always used the phrase, “perfect practice makes perfect” and I always thought that this phrase was as subtle as a sledgehammer. It was so obvious that I missed her point. So, what does she think is the most efficient type of practice to help all you amateur golfers out there?
The Science of Practice and Skill Acquisition.
There are three critical areas to consider before raking in ball after ball and hitting a thousand M6 drives (I did mix it up with a few pitches towards the end!) into an empty field. (1) What type of learner are you? (2) Your physical limitations and injury record. (3) The correct power source for your body type.
Back to that word obvious and the oh so often overlooked subject of “what type of learner are you?” There are many types depending on what thesis is the flavor of the month; these things tend to go in cycles as someone discovers something new that is as old as the pyramids.
Different types of learner.
(1) Active learners ~ let’s go ahead and do the task in hand, we can work it out along the way.
(2) Reflective learners ~ let’s work it out first by considering the possibilities and making a list.
(3) Sensing learners ~ these are practical people, fastidious about learning, they tend to notice all the details.
(4) Intuitive learners ~ they are creative learners that think more abstractly about the world in general.
(5) Visual learners ~ as the name suggests they love graphs, videos, and pictures. A significant percentage of my clients would be in this category.
(6) Auditory learners ~ they like to hear the subject matter or speak it.
(7) Read/write learners ~ They learn best from books and the written word.
(8) Kinesthetic learners ~ They like physical activity where hand to eye coordination comes into play. They excel at proprioception, the awareness of the position and movements of the body in space, all good for golf and the even better news is proprioception can be learned!
(9) Sequential learners ~ again as the name suggests, like to follow directions, very linear people who like to take things step by step.
(10) Global learners ~ they like to leap in or dive into the problem at hand.
When I am trying to work out what type of learner my client might be, I always pay attention to what best attracts their interest as this is usually the most efficient way for them to learn.
Your physical limitations and injury record?
If I had a penny for every time a client was advised to perform some swing move that they were physically incapable of doing? It is the number one item to consider before teaching a client to swing or give them a practice routine. If I asked you to hop up and down on your right leg for three reps (assuming you are not injured) you would be able to perform it smoothly. If I asked you to do it 30 times, you would need to be fit, if I asked you to do it 300 times and so on? You would injure yourself. Yet I watch players attempting swing moves that will ultimately injure them. Bob, the baker in the Saturday fourball, tells them “you need more wrist hinge” in your swing, three weeks later after beating a thousand balls, injury sets in! Billy the accountant tells them “you need more side bend in your swing,” (in suitably hushed tones,) again a familiar story. Do not attempt a practice routine without getting proper professional advice on whether you can perform the required moves. Golf played properly, contrary to popular belief, is a physically taxing game.
The correct power source for your body?
At the Harrington Golf Academy, we divide this into three categories,
(a) Thrusters, (b) Lateral or (c) Rotational types of player.
Thrusters are players that derive their power from an upward motion of the body through impact. Think Justin Thomas or Lexi Thompson.
Lateral players create power by moving predominately laterally through the ball, think Jon Rahm and finally, rotational players, they as the name suggests, rotate well through the ball, think Dustin Johnson. There can be a combination, and indeed after identifying the primary power source, a secondary source can be complimentary but bringing the incorrect motion to a particular body type is catastrophic. Daily, in the range and on the golf course, I see golfers trying to create power in their swings using a motion that does not suit their body type. The next time you notice your fourball partner (20 stone, Ex Rugby player) stand up through the ball and wonder why he suddenly thinks he is Lexi Thompson, it’s probably because his hips don’t work very well (for a lateral with a sprinkle of rotation type of player.) Thrusting is the worst thing he can do, but he can’t get back to impact in any other way because he is limited with internal and external hip rotation.
Now that you have dealt with those three areas (or plough ahead and get injured!) here are some of the things that myself and Rebecca have picked up along the way about practice and skill acquisition.
Rule number one! Consistency is the mother of mastery.
Imagine an ice cube in a refrigerator, the temperature is showing 26 degrees, as we know an ice cube will melt at 32 degrees F, days pass, and the temp rises by one degree a day. On day five the temp shows 31 degrees, and the ice cube still hasn’t melted. But on day six with the addition of one more degree, it starts to melt. The question? what melted the ice cube? Is it the last degree or the previous five degrees? How you answer this question is how you see the world and how you will tackle practice routines. (If you answered the physics solution, one degree, you need to read the theory of compounding!)
Some pointers along the way!
Michael Gelb wrote a book called “How to think like Leonardo da Vinci.” It discusses the topic of confusion endurance which is not knowing where to start, wondering what results you should get, how to stay with the task instead of abandoning when it gets difficult. It’s all about persistence.
Start slow, stay slow and learn slow. (The tortoise analogy.)
This piece of advice will not sit well for the McDonalds generation (who want everything yesterday.) It takes anywhere (depending on who you believe, and there is a myriad of studies on this subject,) between 1k and 30k reps to achieve a motor skill depending on its complexity. Read that sentence again and realize why you have failed to master golf. You took four lessons and thought you were Tiger Woods. Golf is not a mystical game that players like to make it out to be, a golf swing is essentially a motor skill. It can be learned (physical limitations aside.)
You decide instead to take up playing the piano and want to learn to play a particular piece. It should take somewhere up to 1000 reps to learn a complex piece from scratch. (There are many variables here.) If you do an hours practice a day and perform 12 reps per hour, that is anything up to three months to learn one piece of music. Golf is harder to learn than the piano. Take it from someone who has done both to a teaching level.
Good Hearts Law.
Good Hearts Law, suggests that “when a measure becomes a target it ceases to be a good measure.” Instead of chasing specific targets when practicing, embrace the process. In other words, enjoy the journey.
Now that you are aware of the complexity of the task at hand this is our advice for practice.
You have to start with block practice; it is as the name suggests repetition of one skill, with one club until you can perform it. It is “deliberate practice” which is purposeful and systematic but also tedious and time-consuming. Pick a certain amount of balls and stick to that number. Work on tasks of manageable difficulty, not too complex but tough enough. A good rule of thumb, if you find your practice easy, you are probably not doing it right!
Use uninterrupted blocks, learn one part of the skill before moving on. Complex things are relatively simple when you break them down.
Don’t get bored or disengaged, muscle memory doesn’t (I know muscles don’t have memory!) discriminate against good or bad practice. Stop before you get sloppy. Try using a form of distributed practice here, little and often.
As you improve, understand your blind spots and shortcomings. Identify your weakest links and aggressively attack them. Embrace struggling with something and finally succeeding with it instead of just passively reviewing it.
Different types of skill acquisition.
Practice different types of skill acquisition as you move towards interleaving which is a process of mixing the skills in golf. Your brain has to focus on continually finding solutions, (block practice you already know what the answer is.) It is active learning and much more challenging. Errors should be welcomed. (Prof. Carol Dweck, Errorful Learning.)
Finally, pick a time frame that keeps you interested, and stick to it. Boredom is the greatest villain for golfers who practice daily. It is the same as trying to lose weight, trying to get fit, beginner gains are soon relegated to, “I am so bored with this.” It takes time and who has time? “I’m just so busy!”
For professional golfers, it is the player who can handle the boredom of repetition that will succeed; they find a way to show up every day. They are aware of the power of accumulative advantage, back to our tortoise, getting better by just one percent a day is a massive gain over time. It just takes time! The margin between good and great is narrower than it seems. What begins as a slight edge in skill acquisition compounds with each additional practice session. The challenge here is “delayed return environment,” humans are just not evolved for delay.
Developing sound practice routines is not quantum physics, it is a lot of common sense ideas but as the famous English poet, Samuel Coleridge once noted: “Common sense, to an uncommon degree, is what the world calls wisdom.”
(Note: if you would like to delve deeper into the subject of practice, Dave Alred, is an excellent place to start.)
Epilogue – A new show debuted on the Golf Channel a couple of weeks ago, called Chris Como concepts. It is a science and technology-based show and has attracted a lot of controversy regarding the subject matter and the teaching of golf. The argument rages that golf is already too hard a sport to master and that this information will only make it worse. And therein lies the point, much like I completely missed the succinct detail that Rebecca was trying to convey to me about practice, golf coaches who don’t take the time to work out what type of learner their pupil is will struggle to get their message across. Surely knowing why and how something works, (the golf swing,) from a physics point of view is a good thing IF the coach can convey the message to the client in the form that they will best receive it?
That is the trick, the secret to teaching, knowing, but also knowing what to say, how much to say and when to say it. I have never met a client yet that was interested in sequential peaks, they are only interested in how you can improve them, the coach could be Newton’s first cousin but must pander to the needs of the client and how they will best receive the message.
Convincing them of the absolute need for regular “perfect practice” is the glue that will determine success and failure.
Thank you for taking the time to read! It is appreciated. Follow our Ryder Cup Captain at our dedicated Ryder Cup page and over at his website. Finally, don’t forget to sign up for my FREE monthly digital magazine plus a Charity Kindle book for Xmas which this year is being produced for Goal. Finally, you also have a chance to win a dozen Titleist Pro V1’s each & every month. Tadhg.
Tadhg Harrington is a full time, professional golf instructor, and owner of the Harrington Golf Academy, based in Dublin, Ireland. He is a graduate of the Titleist Performance Institute and Setanta College. He is the eldest brother of three-time time Major Champion, Padraig Harrington.
He succeeds, employing empathy, passion and exceptional customer service, teaching above the noise, the quick tips, and the latest fads and is truly unique in the Irish golf industry.
The Harrington Golf Academy provides long term coaching programs designed to bring sensory processing to motor learning skills. Tadhg teaches the long game at Drynam Park Golf Centre and short game at Roganstown GC. His business partner, Ex European Tour Player, Rebecca Codd, also teaches full time at Drynam Park Golf Centre.