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.
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.
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!