Almost every golfer you see up and down the country, on every driving range is practicing in a way that raises expectations and confidence in an out of balance state. By this, I am referring to hitting ball after ball in successive fashion, otherwise known as block practice, or hit and rake, or machine gunning. By practicing in this way, you are effectively asking the same question to your body over and over – to which it replies with the right answer without thinking. Whilst this may make you feel more confident about your golf (wow, I hit it great here), it gives you a completely misguided gauge of your current ability.
Golf is simply not like that on the course, we never hit twenty 7 irons in a row to the same target without moving our feet. Research has also demonstrated that block practice will be a very slow way to increase your skill levels further. So practicing in this way raises your confidence, raises your expectations, but does little for your skill levels in a real setting. Does this sound like a good combination for most people?
What if we were to flip this, perhaps find a way to practice which lowers our expectations, balances our confidence and improves our skill. Through making practice more difficult, we can achieve exactly this. If we want to get stronger in the gym, we make it more difficult for ourselves by adding weigh to the bar. Making practice more difficult is the same thing. We can make practice more difficult in many ways – simply set ourselves a harder task, for example. If I want to improve my ball/turf strike, I will go into a bunker and hit fairway bunker shots. The level of forgiveness from a bunker is much smaller, you really have to strike it perfectly to get the distance and control. By demanding more preciseness, the human body responds by increasing its’ proficiency further.
Demand more from your skills and you will grow, just like a bodybuilder demands more from their body by upping the weight on the bar.
Practicing in this way – more difficult – will not only demand more of your skills and force an improvement, but it will automatically lower your expectations and confidence. Whilst this may seem like a bad thing, it really serves a great benefit for us on the course. A lowered expectation combined with higher skill level is exactly the scenario we face before we go on an upturn in form, as described here. Whilst making practice more difficult may knock our confidence initially (be sure you don’t over-do the difficulty to the point your confidence is sapped), as we progress with our abilities, we achieve confidence through the progression of our skills. For example, the player who tries the fairway bunker shot and only achieves it 1/10 will initially have low confidence. However, when they have progressed to 4/10, they will gain confidence from the fact they have improved. This is why I am big on keeping statistics for practice in some form. In lessons, I play mini 10 ball tests with clients, where they get a score – then we try to improve upon it.
My preferred method of increasing the practice difficulty is through random practice. This is where a player will not only change clubs every shot, but they will also change targets, and even change shot shape/lie (for more advanced players). Not only is this much more ‘course realistic’, but it has been shown to be much more beneficial to long term improvement of skills (and course transference of skills). As it is more difficult than block practice, it serves the effect of lowering expectations and balancing confidence levels.
avoid hitting to the same target over and over, unless you are working on a new technique in the early stages, or simply want a confidence boost.
For those of you who just can’t bear practicing on the range, there are still a few ways of producing this effect ‘on course’. When I was younger, I used to get bored playing a round of golf by myself. I created a game where I would ‘Tiger proof’ my home course, making it more difficult than it was, in order to prepare me for tougher courses. How did I do that?
• I played the rough as a lateral water hazard – If my ball landed in the rough, I would drop the ball back in the fairway, level with where it lay, but with one shot penalty.
• Out of bounds was a 3 shot penalty
• Bunkers were a 1 penalty shot, and I had to play from them as normal
• The first time the ball hit the green, I would have to drop the ball directly away from the flag 10 paces
This last rule especially made me think about which portion of the green I wanted to hit, and stopped me attacking flagsticks in a position that would leave me ‘short sided’. The first rule really prioritised accuracy over distance for me. It really helps to lower your expectations, and learn some valuable course management skills. Although confidence is initially shocked by your new high score, it is quickly re-established when you see that score come down as a result of your newly learned skills. This is a powerful game for those who are overly aggressive in their strategy – which is just about everyone.
being overly aggressive on the course does not just mean this – it could be your strategy too!
Another similar game to play on course is ‘worst ball’. This is basically where you hit 2 golf balls and take your worst one. Hit two golf balls from there, take the worst one again, then repeat the process until the ball is in the hole. This is a great game to lower expectations and balance your confidence/an overly aggressive strategy, whilst improving your skill levels.
Whilst the majority of poor players suffer with overly high expectations (lots of good players too), there are situations where we may want to increase expectations. This can help you break through previous barriers when you are performing your best. The 80’s shooter who is having a week of good form, may not be able to break 80 still, as they are self sabotaging. They may be coming into the last few holes with a score that looks sure to be mid 70’s, only to finish with 3 doubles and be on the bubble again. I talked about this a little in this article. In this situation, it may be beneficial to increase expectations through effective visualisation and a reversal of the above suggestions.
This could involve making practice easier, through a more blocked practice protocol where the player hits balls in a rapid succession. The player could make the tasks a little easier than normal, playing from preferred lies and hitting the same shot over and over.
making the game a little easier can do wonders for your confidence if used correctly. It wont do a lot for your skill levels though.
On the course, a player could play a 3 ball Texas scramble with themselves, where you pick the best shot from 3, and then hit 3 balls from there, then repeat. Throwing in a few ‘flagstick length’ gimmes can also show you your potential, and give your subconscious mind the nudge to say “this is what I have the ability to score”. You do not want to stay in this stage for too long however, as it can quickly make you over-confident (you get crazy with your course strategy), increase your expectations too much and slow your progression with skill acquisition.
Potentially then, it could be said that expectation management is a delicate balancing act. Achieving the ideal situation of high skill, balanced expectations and balanced confidence, requires actively taking control of the processes that manage such things. Using a periodisation model, we could take charge of these states and use them to let us peak at certain times, say, for example, a big tournament.
We could spend a large portion of our time in a phase of
• Actively lowering confidence and expectations through increased practice difficulty (hence dramatically increasing skill)
• Followed by a balancing of those states for optimum performance – ready for the tournament.
• Followed by a period of tapering off difficulty, to allow for a little more enjoyment and realisation of the new skills acquired.
The player/coach would be responsible for identifying what a player would need at any time. But as an overall rule, if you really want to reach your potential, add some weight to the bar. If golf is just a game for pure fun and enjoyment, keep bashing away at 100 balls in 20 minutes. But don’t expect to produce those shots on the course, and don’t expect to be a dramatically better golfer any time soon.
Both block and random practice certainly have their merits in the long term outlook of a players’ development. Learning a new skill is best acquired through block practice. However, accessing that skill requires a ‘plan making’ brain activity, which is best achieved through random practice in most cases. As with everything, everyone should find out what helps them perform best on the golf course.