I would like to start this post by asking you a simple multiple choice question…
Where would you say you perform your best?
A – Range
B – Course
C – Both the same
If it’s A – you may find this advice useful…
My old Answer – A (by a country mile)
In my prior golfing life, I was what could only be described as a ‘range golfer’. I was that guy who was absolutely obsessed with how I hit it off that flat mat into a wide open field.
I judged my entire game on how I performed in those 60 odd minutes.
Surely it’s on the course where it really counts…
So, why was I so fixated with my performance in practice?
Well, I had this belief that how I hit it on the range somehow correlated to what my subsequent performance would be like on the golf course.
I was what could be described as your typical practiser…I would stand there and hit my usual 100 balls, one after the other, often with the same club at the same target.
Most sessions were the same…after a few shots, I would start to get into a nice rhythm and begin to hit lots of good shots. The odd few bad ones I did hit were often forgotten.
Then when the session was finished, I would usually come off the range fairly pleased and had high hopes of replicating this same ‘perceived’ performance on the golf course.
Which I must say very, very rarely materialised.
And quite naturally, always left me totally mystified.
”Must practice harder”
”More 6 irons”
So, often I would go back to the range and repeat this exact same cycle.
To be honest, after a while I just put it down to the fact that my range performance had to just be so good, that I had to accept that my course performance would never quite match.
(Horse crap alert)
And after many years, it suddenly dawned on me – maybe it’s the way I am practising.
- Maybe standing there repeatedly battering balls at the same target isn’t actually doing anything for me anymore??
- Maybe there is a different way to increase my level on the course??
These questions grated on me and finally then lead me down the route of researching about motor learning. I became fascinated in the subject and it lead me to a glaring realisation…
In the main, I had been practicing all wrong (or at best – not optimally) and without sounding too judgemental, you probably are too…
And it’s probably leading to these two things happening…
– You’re mostly disappointed with your on course performance because your current range sessions are giving you a false belief about your game. (SORRY)
– You’re wasting 90% of your practice sessions and learning very little. Or best case, you are not maximising them…
So what was I doing that was so wrong (and you probably are too)?
Because I thought my performance in practise reflected on how I would perform on the course, This lead me to practice in a way that allowed my performance in practice to be at its highest.
So, like most golfers, I often went for the easiest method and the method which would allow the highest performance possible.
A method which is known as block practice.
You may be very familiar with this term, but if not…
Block practice is effectively doing the same task over and over again in a repetitive manner. ..
A personal favourite of mine was to just grab my 6 iron and smash every single ball at the 180 pond on my range.
And this is not an exaggeration.
But A less extreme example could go like this:
– 20 hit with sand wedge to the same target with no variety in shot selection.
– 20 hit with 9 iron to the same target with no variety in shot selection.
– 20 hit with 7 iron to the same target with no variety in shot selection.
– 20 hit with 5 iron to the same target with no variety in shot selection.
– 20 hit with driver to the same target with no variety in shot selection.
Nearly every session was like this for probably 13 years and my game became stuck. I got down to an okay level but for the amount I played and the amount of talent people said I had, I underachieved big time.
I could never quite take the game I thought I had to the course.
So if you are having this same problem, then this could certainly be the culprit.
So what’s the alternative?
Something which is the total opposite to block practice, otherwise known as random practice.
In random practice you never hit the same shot twice in a row.
So, Less assume you are a more experienced golfer and you have 10 balls, it may go like this:
– Sand wedge, 90 yard target.
– 8 iron, 150 target, draw.
– 5 iron, 190 target, fade.
– Driver, 250 target, low draw.
– 4 iron, 200 target, high fade.
– Pitching Wedge, 110 target, low punch.
– 3 wood, 220 target, draw.
– 3 iron, 210 target, straight.
– Lob wedge, 60 yards.
– 6 iron, 175 target, fade.
A less experienced golfer may hit the same club but at a different target every time.
Random practice is harder and is actually less satisfying during the session because performance will ultimately be lower in comparison to a block session.
Think Retention NOT Performance
One thing that is so hard for golfers and was for me in practice, is to focus on the idea of skill retention and not performance.
Performance is how you perform in the session and retention is how much you actually learn from it and could perform the next day.
I used to think that they came hand in hand. If I hit the ball great on the range, I was learning. If I hit it poor, I wasn’t.
Now I know, it’s actually the opposite way round.
Countless studies have been done on this (I will link at the bottom) and they all come back to the same things.
– Block practice is better for performance in practice.
That’s the number one reason I always performed in this way, because as I have already said – I believed that my performance in practice equalled how I was going to play the next day or round. I believe this is the same for most golfers.
– Block practice it’s not particularly good in terms of skill retention.
This is thought to be the number one reason why golfers do not feel like they take their range game to the course and why most golfers do not improve.
– Whereas random practice is the opposite. Performance will ultimately drop in practice but skill retention levels will be far higher.
In my experience you get a kind of surprise factor from both. Sometimes I have practiced in a random manner and have been very disgruntled with the way the session went. Then when I went back a few days later, I couldn’t believe how great I was hitting it. Actually sometimes I have been totally shocked.
You kind of feel like improvement comes out of nowhere.
But this is what retention should feel like. Remember, It’s how you perform days after the session what matters.
NOT THE SESSION.
On the opposite end of the spectrum. I have walked off after a block only session feeling like I am about to beat Rory Mcilroy and then a couple of days later, played like I could barely beat an egg.
I know which surprise I prefer.
The Perfect Positions Myth
One thing that most golfers fall into and something I certainly did was believe that once you learn how to achieve great positions in your golf swing. Then all you have to do is simply replicate this on each shot on the course.
This was my game plan:
– Hit thousands and thousands of balls until I can get my swing into X positions.
– Then the goal was to simply repeat these X positions on the golf course.
The problem with this method, is yes I got my swing into a technically sound positions but I hadn’t learnt the skills to maximise them.
Playing on the golf course requires many subtle adjustments and changes on every shot…
You have different lies which require tiny subtle changes which can only be learnt from hitting from the lies. For example a bare lie requires a slightly steeper attack than let’s say a lie which is sitting up.
Whether the ball is below or above your feet also requires subtle changes that can’t be learnt just battering balls into a field off a flat mat.
You also have different angles on the golf course which makes a huge difference to how your swing feels.
For example, hitting to a left pin feels different from hitting to a right pin. On the course you will have to alternate this.
I saw Mcilroy say in an interview a few weeks back that he was having trouble with left pins…
What’s different from a right pin and a left pin if you can simply just repeat a perfect technique?
Golf is a game of seriously fine margins and subtleties which cannot be learnt by just trying to ingrain a technique.
I got down to a 3 handicap quite early on (when I was 15) and during this time I spent most of my time just playing golf on the course.
It was after this that things started going wrong. I became fixated with chasing positions in my golf swing and I just kind of forgot how to play on the course and consequently went backwards.
Looking back on it, I think if I knew what I do now – I believe things could have been very different.
So I don’t want you to make this same mistake.
It Makes You Happier On the Course
But other than your skill retention and improvement factor, I think it’s also hugely beneficial for having realistic expectations.
I believe expectations which are too high are the ultimate killer in performance and enjoyment.
I have had a few spells where I took some time out of the game for various reasons and on pretty much every occasion, my first round back has been my most enjoyable and a lot of the time, a good performance.
And this is all because my expectations were at their absolute minimum.
I would be stupid to think I was going to play any good after having 3 months off without hitting a single shot…
…but weirdly – I usually play great.
Compare this to block practising where it gives you a heightened sense of your level and a kind of false confidence if you like. You go into the round full of hope and false beliefs which often come crashing down.
You are far less deluded…
The great thing about random practice, it shows you pretty much where you are and what you can expect on the course.
For instance, I play a chipping and putting exercise. I assume I have missed the green 18 times and the aim is to get up and down from each of these different places.
All 18 places I have thrown the ball into are different and each lie is completely random.
Last time I did this exercise…
- I got up and down 9 times.
- Took 4 to get down once.
- And failed to get up and down the other 8.
- My closest chip was 3 feet.
- My average was between 8-12 feet.
This absolutely resembles of what it would be like on the golf course. At my current level, I know I am not going to get up and down more than that and I know I’ll have the odd hole where it takes me 4 to get down.
Whereas if I had hit 18 shots from the same place out of perfect lies, my level would have been far greater and given me a deluded belief about chipping ability.
Here’s the exercise if you want to give it a try.
Am I a Better Golfer Now?
It’s hard to compare the golfer I am these days with my prior self, because I play about 10% of the time I used to.
But I am still a low handicapper, like I was back then. I shot 5 under for 9 holes a few weeks back which was probably the best 9 holes of my life.(in terms of performance)
And much more importantly , I enjoy it far more than I used to, which is what counts.
I do however feel with the way things are progressing I can get to a far better level than I was back then even with a limited schedule…
But I suppose time will tell.
Do we know why random practice is more effective for learning?
Ok, although the evidence that random practice is more beneficial for skill retention is very conclusive. Why it is, is less so.
One idea is known as ‘The Spacing effect’. This at its simplest is the idea that forgetting actually promotes learning. Sounds counterproductive but it makes sense.
When you block practice you are simply hitting shots by essentially remembering what you done from the previous task. This is why performance is higher. for instance, If you hit a poor one, you can simply adjust from memory.
Whereas for random practice, you may have 15 different shots in between that last poor 6 iron. This makes it much more difficult to just go from memory and forces you to complete the task again in full.
This process is thought to enhance retention.
Another idea is called ‘Elaborative and distinctive processing’. This idea is due to how we process the information before and after the task. Again I want to really, really simplify this…
This idea is that the information in a random task is better remembered rather than the repetitive nature of block practice.
This would also make sense.
There is a link at the bottom if you really want to get deep into the scientific jargon but beware, just reading it may send you too sleep.
I think in this instance however, why it works better is not hugely important. The studies showing it works are very conclusive, the concept makes total sense and the results I am experiencing solidify the ideas.
Block practising isn’t all bad
I know I have given block practising a bad time here, but let’s be honest, I did get to a pretty decent level predominantly doing it.
So when is it useful?
If you are a beginner golfer then block practising is actually preferred. You are able to learn the different movement patterns required to hit the ball pretty quickly, which can increase your confidence.
Albeit a false confidence in terms of course performance, but as a beginner, it’s important to see some gains early, so you’ll actually carry it on.
I do still use a smallish percentage of my practice time block practising (about 20%). Due to its benefits of learning different movement patterns, I do it when I am trying to make a swing change or adding something technical in.
I tend to do this at the start of the session and then replicate the feeling into a more random environment, so I can take it out on the course.
Depending on where you are and what you are working on, this percentage could vary but I believe no matter where you are, an element of your session should include random practice.
In short – Block practising used in the right way does have benefits and you can become a better golfer practising in this way, but do I believe it’s’ optimal?
From my own experience and my pretty extensive research…
No – far from it.
So, let’s quickly run through the benefits of a more optimal method:
– Increased skill retention.
– More realistic expectations of your own game.
– Easier to accept mistakes on the course.
– Practice sessions are more challenging which increases growth.
– No false confidence.
– A good shock factor.
I really, really hope you take this advice on board – This is a huge belief of mine and I want you to see the same benefits.
If you are interested in motor learning and want some more insight into this. Here’s some further reading on this subject which have helped me immensely…