Purposeless Practice?

Loosely defined, practicing a skill that doesn’t correlate with the behavior you intend to perform might be considered a form of purposeless practice and quite counter-productive to your development as a player. In my opinion, practicing skills that don’t correlate with the intended behavior it’s designed to mimic 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 play better on the course. The average golfer hits balls on the range with the expectation that “range play” will  transfer to effective “on course play”. Fundamentally, there is an inherent lack of awareness of the skills one needs to practice on the range that will directly transfer to on course play. 

For most of us, practicing this way, without a clear purpose, often leads to confusion and frustration. 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 intentionally, or purposefully, practice the skills that will allow us to be successful at the game when we play 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 former 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.

  • 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? For a list 

of skills worth considering adding to your regimen, check out my previous article. 

  • 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 you practice? Are you working on your weakness 

as well as your strengths? Or, do you just go through the motions when you practice 

hoping you will get better some day?

  • 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?

  • 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.

  • 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’re 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.

  • 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. 

  • 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. 

Speaking of fundamentals, consider adding the following deliberate practice exercise to your next practice session:

Of the many wonderful things I love about GPC’s approach to player development is the deep appreciation for the fundamentals and the need for a stepwise approach to building a sound golf swing. In particular, GPC emphasizes the importance of an effective setup long before a ball is even struck. When I refer to set-up, I mean body posture, grip, ball position, and alignment to your intended target based on the lie of the ball. I have come to learn that the vast majority of swing flaws result from an improper set-up. In other words, from a technical perspective, if you don’t know how to properly set-up to the ball, you’ve significantly decreased your chances of effectively swinging the golf club. 

So, how often do you deliberately practice setting up to the ball? Do you know how to set up to the ball with different lies (i.e., uphill, downhill, sidehill, rough, greenside bunker, fairway bunker, divot, etc.)? If you do, do you have a way of getting feedback to make any corrections or adjustments if needed? How do you know you’re properly lined up to your intended target? 

Remember, expert golfers have more well developed and comprehensive mental representations for proper set-up than the inexpert golfer. Expert golfers deliberately practice setting up to the ball, not just from the comfort of flat plush range mats, but from every lie imaginable. 

The next time you practice, take 30 minutes and deliberately work on setting-up to the ball and hitting shots from differing lies. If you don’t know how to set-up to the ball properly, especially with differing lies, please consult an expert and let them guide you initially before you start practicing on your own. This way, you can get the most from your practice time. Start with flat lies, then with the ball above your feet, then below, then uphill and downhill lies. Hit 10 balls from each lie identifying which lie challenges you the most. Practicing your weaknesses is also a hallmark of expert performers. The more feedback you can get from your practice session the better. If no one is there to give you feedback, at the very least, use an alignment rod/aid to ensure you’re aiming where you think you are and have a written checklist to reference outlining the proper technique for each of the lies you’re practicing. If you’re not sure how to properly align yourself to your intended target, please consult an expert to assist you with that as well.

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