Practice Preparation

Day 1: 31st July 2017

So, the first day of the next 13 years of my life arrives. Documenting 10,000 hours of deliberate golf practice and its effect on performance of the average golfer. Arrive on time at my local driving range to find it shut for grass cutting! A setback before the timer has even started. Not to worry, another driving range is 10 minutes away but a lesson quickly learned about preparation.

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Hunley Hall Driving Range

Arriving at Hunley Hall Golf Club I briefly discussed the project in a with their head teaching pro Johnny Norton. He seemed genuinely intrigued by the idea and interestingly was reading Dream On about John Richardson’s attempt to break par in a year. He is also challenging himself to play left-handed having reached +2 as a right hander. Johnny estimated he’d probably practiced for about 5,000 hours to reach +2. And he also cited a stat that 43% of most players shots are putts. This resonated with me as I started work at the range.

Another gem from Johnny was that at his level he changes both his club and the target for each practice shot and selects specific targets. So, rather than aiming to hit through a set of rugby posts instead I aimed more specifically for one of the upright posts. Such a simple but effective change as deliberate practice requires the selection of such specific goals. For example, the rugby posts are 5.6m across so instead of aiming at a green I’m now aiming for a flag. Day 1 had ended well.

Day 2: 1st August 2017

Buoyed by my start, I headed out to Middlesbrough Municipal Golf Club. With yesterday’s conversation in my mind I tried changing club and target with every shot. The result: it was tiring, it took a lot of effort and I lost focus on couple of times but it felt very rewarding. This is something I’ve never done and during my time at the practice range have also not seen it done. Yet, keeping in mind that for practice to be deliberate it needs to occur at a place outside of your current comfort zone I hit my PW and 7, 8 and 9 irons in this way.  Is this the way forward for me? Not sure about this, perhaps some ‘blocked’ practice would help me groove a more repeatable swing.

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Middlesbrough Municipal GC

Another strength was the fact that straight away I natuarlly aimed at very specific targets. Again the single goalpost was a good example. It shows the power of habits and also how on a simple range it is possible to select varied targets like a patch of mud, a mound or a single yardage marker. After a short break I was also able to start putting practice but soon found myself in old habits; after missing I’d correct and get closer until finally holing it. This only helps me improve when given a 2nd chance at the same putt. It does not represent on-course conditions so has limited transfer in the context of performance. It also does not require full attention, another key element of making practice deliberate, as I’ve learned from the earlier failures. As a result, I stopped and then lined up each putt individually, selecting a new target each time. This was much better as each time I engaged with the putt; line, distance, contours, wind…

Day 3: 2nd August 2017

Third day and third different practice facility, this time Saltburn-by-the-Sea Golf Club. Continuing to attempt to stretch myself I added more movement around the range mat, selecting targets at both sides of the range, each time forcing my body to selecting a new target line. After developing a level of comfort with this I added in hitting wedges with one foot off the practice matt. This was definitely a case of practicing at the edge of what I was comfortable with and the temptation was to block practice this with 3 or 4 shots in a row. However, catching myself doing this I stepped away for a break and returned to the challenge of changing shots for each ball.

There is a risk therefore of trying to do too much at once when searching for the appropriate challenge point. Of course the challenge point alters for each level of player. Determining the correct challenge point in the future should probably be informed with coaching input.

Day 4 and 5: 10th and 11th August

Back to Saltburn for both of these days but these came after a week off with family holidays. A definite rustiness was present, my body struggling to execute shots and make the swings I was seeking. How feasible is it to practice everyday in reality? As a result I moved to 2 shots of blocked practice per club thinking it might help get me back on track quicker. Not exactly sure of the rationale here, more of a gut feeling that it could help me, especially with the longer irons that are harder to hit. I then altered it to three balls with the same club with three different targets, so again providing variation within the practice approaches I use.

Another observation was the use of practice techniques of fellow players and also the speed of hitting practice balls. Practicing deliberately shows the session down I find while players next to me worked through their bucket of 30 balls in the time it took me to hit 10. To make your practice time more deliberate order fewer balls at the range; give each shot more focus; absorb the feedback that each shot allows you (strike, sound of contact, feeling in the hands, ball flight path, ball landing, ball roll, position relative to the target).

My first 5 hours therefore took two weeks to complete, a rate I’m aware I need to increase over the coming months and years. Still better to return to practice after one week than two and overall I’m optimistic about progress. I do however need to look into memberships available to me here in the North-East of England. Putting greens are frequently only available to club members or those paying for a full round. As a result only 30 minutes or 10% of practice time has been devoted to putting and this will need to change in light of nearly 50% of shots being putts!

 

 

Performance Profiling

Widening the areas of the game I’m working on, while exciting as it brings me closer to a well-rounded golf game is also proving complicated when it comes to allocating my practice time. And deciding how to schedule my time. A 2-hour block per day can only be split a certain number of ways. It also has made me think harder about how to allocate time, especially in light of typical British winter conditions! Should the focus be on weaknesses or the importance of certain parts of the game are to your score? I mentioned previously that putting accounts for 40-45% of total shots. Equally, a coaching discussion on a recent Sky Sports Golf Podcast cited the three most important areas of the game as (1) approach play, (2) driving and (3) putting.

Fundamental to practicing deliberately is that each practice session has a specific aim and focus with intended outcomes that are out of reach at the start but are closer at the end of the session. As a result I’ve delved into some literature on performance profiling; analysing the golf game based on where you stand currently and what you are targeting over the course of a set practice period. The practice timeframe can be individual to the golfer but the current ability ratings must be realistic, based on quantifiable measurements and ideally have a coaching input too.

Drawing one up like the below example published by the researcher Patrick Thomas has made me think harder about how the mechanics of golf are broken down in the context of getting around a golf course: driving, hybrids/long irons, mid-irons, short irons, chipping, sand play, putting.

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My current focus is on the basic techniques of the game but there are wider areas such as pre-shot routine, flexibility, concentration, mental toughness. It is a valuable exercise putting down on paper the facets of the game as you see it, your current level and your target level. Especially as the weather moves more golfers to the practice tees and off the course. Even ask a playing partner for their input on where you stand. The outcome is a spider’s web effect with the target ahead of the current rating in each of the categories.

Talking at the outset with Johnny at Hunley Hall it became apparent that the weakest areas of a game should be identified first and foremost and brought up to the same level as the stronger ones. This approach of equalising strengths means that there are no significantly weak areas. And consequently, the challenges offered up over 18 holes can be met.

I’m planning on writing a summary of where my game lies shortly which was the result of a day spent evaluating my game. From this assessment it became apparent I have a series of swing flaws, including excess sway in the backswing and incorrect ball position. These both lead to hitting fat shots, mostly to the right. One practice technique I’ve found that works for me is at the start of a practice session I write on a ball the precise part of the swing that is being focused on. Hitting the first ball in this way seems to centre my mind on a specific area and provides a visual representation to return to should my focus and concentration falter. So my first range session following the evaluation started with: DSCF0086

Thanks again for all the encouragement and positivity I’ve received; it’s appreciated.

References:

Thomas, P. R. (2001). Cognitions, Emotions and Golf Performance in Thomas (ed.) Optimising Performance in Golf  (Brisbane: Australian Academic Press).

Back on the Road Again

Encountered a couple of setbacks since my last post, including an increasingly old and unreliable car and a series of coughs and colds entering the house since the kids returned to school. Am back up and motoring along now with the practice hours, partly trying to catch up but also accepting that over the years these types of setbacks are naturally going to occur. More important I’ve realised is the reaction to such setbacks and the ability to learn from them and where possible work to stop them reoccurring!

I’ve also officially joined Hunley Hall Golf Club as a Par-3 member now, so I’m able to use their facilities daily for only £99 for the year. It really was an easy decision to make as the travel time for me is low and the facilities are ideal for my practice. These include: driving range, putting green, short game area and Par 3 course. And, they also offer unlimited range balls during the winter months for £90 which is going to allow me to groove my swing over the coming months for a fraction of the cost of normal range balls. I’ve experienced such a friendly welcome, with lots of members passing on their thoughts about the project and advice on how to improve at a quicker rate. I’m grateful of every comment and appreciate all the support I’ve received so far.

Interestingly, the Par 3 course uses holes twice the normal size to help kids learn the game. Instead of this being a drawback, there are opportunities to incorporate deliberate practice. For example, I’ve only been competing a hole once I’ve made a one putt on the green. Or the ball has to enter the exact middle of the cup. There’s a story that the legendary cricketer Don Bradman undertook early practice hitting a golf ball with a cricket stump; transitioning to hitting a cricket ball with a bat was easier as a result. Similarly, achieving another challenge point has been through teeing off from divots instead of new tee ground. A drive does not always find a perfect fairway lie but I’ve never in the past thought about practicing from such a lie. There are of course stories of Tiger practicing with coins and keys being jangled nearby and him standing on his ball in the bunker before playing it. I’m keen to hear of any other suggestions like these to make practice deliberate through introducing challenges at a level commensurate with golfing ability.

In a similar vein I’ve also been thinking about what forms of practice drills transfer to the golf course. While at the range recently I’ve seen a number of techniques being used and now I find myself asking if what I see transfers to on-course performance. For example, a series of small stones placed after the ball to encourage a straight club path during impact? It’s a visual aid which can’t be used in play. But, if it helps with ingraining  a swing change then it’s productive right?

I’m also increasingly attuned to the depth of feedback that comes with both good and bad golf shots. These range from feel of the club in the hands, contact sound, ball fight, divot size and direction, ball landing, spin. I’m trying to utilise as many of these as I can as a means to understand the flaws in my swing and over time help correct each one. For the time being I’m focusing on being aware of how much feedback is available without considering external input from a coach or video. That’s for the future. For now, the trail of the ball through the morning dew on the putting green is a perfect reminder of how golf is surrounded by valuable feedback . The ball and the speed at which it is travelling interacts with the slope differently as it approaches the hole:

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