When I was chasing the dream of becoming a professional golfer, I put a hell of a lot of time into getting better. I would regularly practice 40 hours a week or more – and when I wasn’t practicing, I would be thinking about golf, watching golf, and analysing the swings of the best players.
I loved it.
And, to a certain extent, it worked. I got down to a 2 handicap within just under 3 years of playing.
Now I am a full-time teacher, people don’t realize, but I may only play 4-5 rounds of golf a year, and practice maybe one or two hours a month.
But the crazy part of this is, I am a better player now than when I was practicing 40 hours a week.
In this article, I am going to share some things with you which make me a better player with less practice – so maybe you can also gain some insight into what you should do to improve.
One of the biggest differences between me now and when I was a 2 handicap is my understanding of what creates a good shot.
When I was growing up learning golf, I was constantly under the assumption that there was a magical backswing position or move in the takeaway that the pros knew which turns on the ‘awesome shot’ switch.
There is none.
And if anyone tells you any different, they are selling you golf snake-oil
However, by learning about and understanding ball flight laws in their basic form, and realizing what the true fundamentals of golf are (impact factors relating to a good shot), the penny finally dropped.
Don’t get me wrong – simply understanding these things is not going to make you go out and hit the ball like a pro in a day. But, a clear vision of what you are trying to achieve with the club and the ball is the greatest gift you can give your golf game. It opens up the body’s ability to self-organize over time, and, as you get better at the skills of impact, you will DEFINITELY see an improvement in your game. You just have to – because a good golf shot is purely determined by what happens at impact with the club and the ball.
Things such as;
- Where your club makes contact with the ground
- Where you have struck on the face
- What your path and face were doing to create the shot shape/direction
- What your angle of attack and loft were doing to create the trajectory
- The speed the club is moving
By improving your understanding, awareness and ability to control the above things, you can’t help but get better. I have become a better golfer simply by ruminating on the ideas of the above. Now, anytime something goes wrong in my ball flight, I am immediately able to pinpoint and fix it. When I was younger and didn’t understand these things, I would feel hopelessly lost when my game started to decline in form. Now, I can stop the rot and reverse it, very quickly.
In Next Level Golf, I go through all the impact concepts you need to understand to influence your ball flight, as well as how to increase awareness and how to change those impact factors.
As a teacher, I have access to some awesome technology. High speed cameras, K-Vest, force plates, video analysis software, SAM puttlab. One of my favorite devices to use is Trackman. It measures everything I need to know about the club and ball interaction at impact.
Following on from ‘understanding concepts’, it helps massively if you can measure those things you are trying to do. Due to the disparity between feel and real, measuring devices can often help us bridge the gap.
An example of this is the fact that, when I first started teaching, I played a massive draw shot. I knew my swing path was severely in to out, but it felt very uncomfortable to create a swing which produced the desired result. It felt as if I was cutting across the ball like a slicer.
However, after my first session with Trackman, I realized that what felt like a 10 degree out to in swing was actually very close to neutral (in fact it was still about 3 degrees in to out). This gave me the mental ‘green-light’ to produce the weird feeling swing, as I knew it was actually closer to neutral than it felt.
I also used Trackman to help me optimise my ball launch, which aided me in picking up over 50 yards of carry without adding any swing speed. This is something which would have been almost impossible for me without measurement, as what I need to do to produce my optimal launch felt so strange/alien initially. Now, after practice, it feels natural.
Through optimizing launch and spin, I am able to still keep up with players who have more speed than me
You don’t want to become reliant on measurement devices, but they can be a very important part of the process, initially, when figuring out what you are actually doing. For this reason, I recommend to everyone to get measured and see a good teacher who can guide you.
In Next Level Golf, I discuss the many forms of feedback you can use to determine what is happening at impact – most of these feedback sources are free.
Form versus Function
I am a recovering perfectionist.
I first started playing golf at age 15, so I was old enough and analytical enough to want to do it the ‘right’ way – I got every book out of the library and devoured every bit of info I could find. The internet was only in its infancy back then, or my head would have exploded with the plethora of information out there now.
I also spent hours recording Tiger Woods at his peak, watching his swing freeze frame-by-frame, then copying his positions in the living room, hoping to find that elusive secret.
However, since becoming a teacher and studying more and more swings, as well as getting the best out of pupil’s swings, I came to learn that form and function are not always synonymous. In other words, some of the best looking swings performed poorly, and some of the ugliest movements seemed to perform great.
I have since learned more about why that is, and it is too detailed to talk about in this post. But it is safe to say that
Pretty lines do not maketh the player
This is not to say that form does not matter (don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater), but that
- People put way too much emphasis on swing style
- There is more than one way to skin the cat of golf
- Club and ball impact is the most vital element of a golf swing
- Lots of what is pushed as ‘good technique’ is absolute bullshit, has no basis in science/reality, may not be right for every player at their particular point in their development, or may even be detrimental, and is usually based on the erroneous idea that symmetry and ‘tidiness’ is what we are wanting.
As a result of this understanding, some things in my swing look ‘worse’ now that they did 15 years ago (such as my massively outside-the-line takeaway). But I now hit the ball better and can control the ball much more.
Too many players these days are chasing swing beautification at the expense of function
So, what is your goal? To look pretty? Or to play pretty?
During my perfectionist days, I used to spend hours upon hours trying to reduce the amount of variability in my swing (based on the myth of grooving one repeatable motion – which many players and coaches still fall into the trap of believing).
Players spend way too much time trying to groove one motion, as opposed to learning skills and exploring variability
However, things changed dramatically when I started teaching. Rather than perfect my swing, I actually spent more time exploring different ways of getting desired impacts. I also practiced ‘bad shots’ like hooking and slicing the ball intentionally, so I could demonstrate to pupils what they were doing wrong, and what they needed to do to fix it. I also had to learn to top the ball and shank the ball at will, just so I was able to demonstrate these shots during lessons.
I also tried to imitate a lot of the swings of my pupils in order to figure out
- What they were feeling
- How I could communicate what they needed to feel
- would it be possible to play good golf from their positions
While I thought that copying these poor swings and hitting these poor shots would ruin my own swing/game (I was willing to sacrifice it for my teaching), it couldn’t be further from the truth. What I found was that is actually made me a better player.
Practicing a ton of variability, even movement patterns or shots I would never use in the course of play, improved my
- ability to adapt/change my swing at will
- increase movement awareness
- positive ‘compensatory’ variability (a topic I will discuss at a later date)
It was like I could see the golf matrix – by learning how to shank and top and toe it at will, it greatly improved my ability to hit the center of the face – Counter intuitive as that may seem.
Better Practice Methods
I also started reading a lot – about non-golf stuff too.
Brain science, genetics, evolutionary learning, free will and consciousness (the scientific stuff, not the hippie stuff), human movement, animal movement, biology, psychology, motor learning, skill development.
Through all of this information, and devouring scientific studies, I started to practice differently. I stopped beating balls to the same target over and over with the same club from the same spot. I stopped thinking so much about my movement. I learned how to zone out more easily and allow my movement to go on autopilot.
I also started training more intelligently. I started using
- random practice
- variability practice,
- differential practice
- calibration practice
- performance training
- transference training
All of these are methods described in The Practice Manual.
Some of the methods, such as differential practice, were contrary to what I previously believed would work – but it did.
One of the biggest differences for me, and one of the reasons I am able to play better golf now than years before (even with less practice) is my belief system. As much as you now want to mentally ‘turn off’, this might be the most important part of the article.
This takes many forms, and I will describe a few below.
Golf means less
When I was younger, golf was my world. I was the happiest person in the world if I had just played well – but my world came crashing down when I seemingly lost it. I took it personally – every round was a reflection of who I was as a person.
But I matured.
Life happens, bigger things pop up, golf ultimately means less. My life philosophy also changed – I see golf for what it is, a game, there to be enjoyed. Ultimately, no one gives a shit for long if I shoot 6 under, just as much as no one really gives a shit for long if I shoot 10 over. And neither do I.
This mindset has ultimately given me the freedom to go out and just ‘play golf’ without the need for the round to validate me as a person. Sure, I fall back into the trap every now and again – but I make sure to enjoy the parts I am good at now, rather than worry about every little thing that is going wrong.
Paradoxically, this lack of ‘caring’ about my game means I am able to play better. A free mind is one that can shoot a very low score. And, if they don’t, it’s water off a duck’s back.
I’m a pro, with benefits
One of the biggest changes for me was when I got my professional status.
As an amateur with a handicap, there is always this sense that ‘shooting under par’ is for the other guys. Handicap players shoot over par – it’s just a matter of how many over par, right?
This belief system held me back. As an amateur, I would many-a-time be coming into the clubhouse under par, only to sabotage it and blow up on the last few holes, bringing my score back to my handicap. Being under par made me feel uncomfortable. I shouldn’t be there as an amateur.
Things changed when I got my pro status. Now I belonged under par. I felt comfortable. I ‘should be’ under par. As a result, I was able to shoot under par more often.
One of the biggest things I see amateurs struggle with (and I also did) is their expectation levels.
As an amateur, I used to believe that the best players hit every fairway, never miss an iron shot, and hole everything inside 10 foot.
Boy was I wrong.
Pros are not that great. They only hit 60% fairways, 60% greens and hole 50% of 8 foot putts. But they still get it around the course.
This helped me massively. Now I could stand over a drive and, rather than worry about missing the fairway, I could freely whack at it and know that if I have a 50/50 chance of hitting the fairway, it’s good enough. Even the best players in the world don’t hit it perfectly every time.
So many times, we put pressure on ourselves as golfers to be perfect. The fear of making a mistake is often something which brings about a self-fulfilling prophesy. The moment you let go of the fear of a bad shot and accept that anything can (and often does) happen – but that’s ok – the moment we are free to play our best golf.
I call it “f#!k it” golf. There’s the target, I’m gonna swing at it, and I couldn’t care less what outcome I get.
As a result of the above, and the fact I have played golf for longer, I have also had many more experiences which shape me.
Like the time I went out with club members for a playing lesson and shot 8 under par for 9 holes (with a 3 putt). Then the next day we went out and I shot 8 under par for 12 (before it got dark and I had to finish). I had never been so far under par before, it completely shattered my previous bests.
But I also realized that it meant nothing. No one gives a hoot. Sure, there are some “wow, you played awesome’s”. But within a week or so, everyone has forgotten and it doesn’t matter.
But those experiences do stay with you. Now, anytime I am 3 or 4 under par, I don’t freak out.
Panic mode activated!
I don’t freak out because I feel comfortable – I have done it before, so it’s not a “big deal”. Also, I know that no one ultimately cares if I come in with a good round or not – so just keep playing.
We are often held back by our mental barriers. “I am an 80’s shooter”. “I have never shot under par” etc, all stop us improving. If only we stopped caring so much about the labels we give ourselves, we might be able to break these barriers with greater ease.
I apologize for the length of this article – I know most will not have made it to the end of this. However, I feel the points made here are too important not to be said.
- Understand what ABSOLUTELY creates a good shot – impact factors
- Work on your awareness and ability to create better impacts
- Get stuff measured, if you can, to speed up the process. Don’t become reliant on technology, but use it wisely to help bridge the gap between what you think you are doing and what you are actually doing
- Value function over form. Too many golfers are trying to play ‘pretty golf swing’, and, as a result, are playing ‘pretty shit’
- Add some variability – throw out the idea of ‘grooving a swing’. At least for the most part
- Get better at practicing – and there is no better way to learn more about effective practice than by getting “The Practice Manual – The Ultimate Guide for Golfers”.
- Expect more, and expect less. Understand that your beliefs may be the thing holding you back. Go out with the belief that you can shoot better than your best ever round. HOWEVER, deal with and accept whatever your body and brain and the golf course throws at you on the day. YOU ARE NOT YOUR GOLF.
Thank you for your attention.
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