Purposeless Practice?

Purposeless practice, loosely defined, is practicing a skill that doesn’t correlate with the behavior you intend to perform. In my opinion, practicing skills that don’t correlate with the intended behavior is one of the more significant factors holding golfers back from developing to their full potential. Rarely do I see golfers on the range working on skills that are going to help them get better on the course. The average golfer hits balls on the range with the expectation that “range play” will  translate to effective “on course play”. For most of us, practicing this way, without a clear purpose, often leads to confusion and frustration. There is an inherent lack of awareness that we are ingraining two different skill sets; swinging a club on the range and playing the game of golf. We are often left scratching our heads about why we are not getting better. If we are truly serious about getting better at the game, we need to practice the necessary skills to be successful at the game on the course. In other words, our practice needs to become more purposeful; not purposeless if we want to consistently shoot lower scores.

In the expert performance and sports science literature, purposeful practice is more often referred to as deliberate practice, but essentially, the terms are interchangeable. Anders Ericsson, a professor of Psychology at Florida State University, is often considered one of the world’s leading researchers in the field of expert performance. Ericsson’s research has consistently demonstrated the importance of deliberate practice in maximizing one’s potential. In his latest book, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, co-authored with Robert Pool, deliberate practice is defined by the following characteristics. As you’re reading through, ask yourself if each of the characteristics is a component of your practice. If they aren’t, they need to be.

1.Deliberate practice develops skills that other people have already figured out how to do and for which effective training techniques have been established. The practice regimen should be designed and overseen by a teacher or coach who is familiar with the abilities of expert performers and with how those abilities can best be developed. 

Are you following a practice regimen designed by an expert who is overseeing your development? Are you working with a PGA Professional? A Mental Coach? A Physical Trainer? What are the skills of the expert golfer? What skills are

you practicing?

2. Deliberate practice takes place outside one’s comfort zone and requires a student to constantly try things that are just beyond his or her current abilities. Thus it demands near-maximal effort, which is generally not enjoyable.

Are you pushing yourself every time your practice? Are you working on your weaknesses as well as your strengths? Or, do you just go through the motions when you practice hoping you will get better some day?

3. Deliberate practice involves well-defined, specific goals and often involves improving some aspect of the target performance; it is not aimed at some vague overall improvement. Once an overall goal has been set, a teacher or coach will develop a plan for making a series of small changes that will add up to the desired larger change. Improving some aspect of the target performance allows a performer to see that his or her performances have been improved by the training. 

With a technical, mental, and or physical expert, have you identified a specific goal to aspire to? Do you have a step-by-step plan to achieve your goal?

4. Deliberate practice is deliberate, that is, it requires a person’s full attention and conscious actions. It isn’t enough to simply follow a teacher’s or coach’s directions. The student must concentrate on the specific goal for his or her practice activity so that adjustments can be made to control practice. 

When you practice, are you able to stay focused on a specific goal for a specified period of time? Or, once you feel like you understand a specific skill and have success with it, do you stop working on it and move on to something else? Or, do you find yourself distracted, bouncing around from one technical thought to the next? Full sustained concentration on the skill being worked on is critical to its development. Mastery of the early steps in the process of skill building allows for more rapid and sustained growth.

5. Deliberate practice involves feedback and modification of efforts in response to that feedback. Early in the training process much of the feedback will come from the teacher or coach, who will monitor progress, point out problems, and offer ways to address those problems. With time and experience students must learn to monitor themselves, spot mistakes, and adjust accordingly. 

When you are practicing, how do you get feedback? Do you practice with a coach? Do you use video analysis? A training aid? If not, how do you know when you’ve correctly performed the intended behavior? If you not getting accurate and meaningful feedback, then you’re most likely guessing about what’s actually happening, putting your development as a golfer in the hands of chance. Accurate feedback is critical, so make sure you’re getting it.

6. Deliberate practice both produces and depends on effective mental representations. Improving performance goes hand in hand with improving mental representations; as one’s performance improves, the representations become more detailed and effective, in turn making it possible to improve even more. Mental representations make it possible to monitor how one is doing, both in practice and in actual performance. They show the right way to do something and allow one to notice when doing something wrong and to correct it. 

If you’re not familiar with the term “mental representation”, think of it as the collection of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors you associate with specific things in the world. For example, if I say the word “mom”, instantly a “mental representation” of what “mom” means to you will come to your mind. You might see an image of your mom in your mind and certain thoughts and feelings might pop up as well. Mental representations don’t only exist for objects. Our brains naturally develop them for behaviors as well. What Ericsson and his colleagues have discovered is that expert performers have more well developed and comprehensive mental representations for the behaviors they excel at than inexpert performers. 

7. Deliberate practice nearly always involves building or modifying previously acquired skills by focusing on particular aspects of those skills and working to improve them specifically; over time this step-by-step improvement will eventually lead to expert performance. Because of the way that new skills are built on top of existing skills, it is important for teachers to provide beginners with the correct fundamental skills in order to minimize the chances that the student will have to relearn those fundamental skills later when at a more advanced level.

Does the “expert” you’re working with focus on the importance of developing the fundamental skills from which expert performance is built upon? Are you clear about what those fundamental technical, mental, and physical skills are? If you are struggling to progress in the way you would like, it might be worth getting some coaching and going back to the fundamentals. 

For those of you who are already familiar with The Golf Performance Center, you know purposeful and deliberate practice are at the soul of our philosophy. We recognize the importance of identifying the strengths and weaknesses of our athletes at every level (i.e. mental, technical, physical, equipment, and desire) and designing a specific practice plan for sustained long-term improvement. If you are serious about getting better, I highly recommend going through our Player Development assessment. Regardless, if you are not practicing with a purpose, guided by a plan designed by an expert who is giving you feedback on your performance, you should probably lower your expectations. 

Dr. Josh Brant
Clinical Psychologist

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