Two weeks ago, I wrote a hard-hitting blog post on the most important thing in golf. It’s the only thing that matters to the golf ball (besides wind), and if you are looking for improvement, this is where it will be found.
First, Create Function
Our first goal as a golfer should be to create a functional impact. As a quick refresher, a functional impact would include
- Functional ground contact
- Sweet spot strike
- An appropriate clubface direction and swing path combination
- The appropriate speed
This is all that most golfers need to look at to create their desired shot.
Now, Create Repeatability
Creating a functional impact is all you need to play great golf. However, it would be nice if we could create it consistently.
The beauty of human (biological) movement is that, given enough practice, even the strangest of movements can be highly repeatable.
Furyk (mr 58) has a highly unorthodox looking swing, yet he has both a functional impact, and repeats it.
In fact, as much as you average golfers complain that you have no consistency, you are actually very repeatable.
You are just repeating a poor impact.
For example, a poor golfer may have a low point which is between 2 and 3 inches behind the golf ball (1-inch range).
In this picture, the amateur has a low point (black line) which is 3 inches behind the ball. This is non-functional,
as it produces either fat shots or thin shots. It could only be functional on a tee or perfect lie.
I have seen (and used Trackman to verify) hundreds of poor golfers and seen that their low point might stay within this 1-inch range for 100 swings in a row. Now that is very consistent.
The results, however, will be erratic.
A pro, on the other hand, might have a low point which is 3-4 inches in front of the ball (again, a 1-inch range).
The repeatability is THE SAME as the amateur, but the pro is just repeating a better impact.
This is why repeatability is the SECOND most important thing. It’s pointless repeating a non-functional impact.
So, our first goal is to create a functional impact. The second goal is to improve repeatability of that.
This begs the question; how do we improve repeatability?
In the golf swing, we inevitably have many moving parts. A few examples of these are;
- Shoulders turning
- Legs losing/gaining flexion
- Hips dropping and raising as well as shifting and rotating
- Left arm abducting and adducting as well as raising and lowering
- Spine goes through flexion, extension, rotation and side bend, and this is constantly changing through the swing
- Scapula protracting and retracting
- Left arm straightening and bending subtly
- Forearm rotating (supination and pronation)
- Wrists move into flexion and extension, as well as going through ulnar and radial deviation
Wow, what a list – and that’s just a small summary.
Effectively, skill (a concept which is vastly underrated in developing your golf) is our ability to take all of these moving parts and coordinate them into a workable solution.
Adapt Or Die
Paradoxically, our ability to repeat is also hugely down to our ability to adapt and change.
We have to adapt to different clubs, lies, shots and even our own patterns from day to day.
This is why forms of practice such as random, differential and variability practice are so vital to a player’s long-term consistency. I discussed these in depth in The Practice Manual – The Ultimate Guide for Golfers.
Both creating a functional impact and repeating it are therefore a product of our ability to coordinate the many moving parts into something that is functional – but this may be different each time depending on which club we are using, or what the shot calls for.
The Dreaded “P” Word
Unfortunately, practice is one of the best ways to improve your repeatability.
It seems that the more we repeat a task the more consistent we can produce certain outcomes. This is why there isn’t a single tour player who has only got 100 hours of practice under their belt – it’s simply not enough practice.
Practice helps the signals from the brain to the body fire more effectively and efficiently. Through improvements in neural connections and a process called myelination, our body is better able to do what we want it to.
Practice produces changes in the brain which help us become better at a skill.
However, don’t forget that we need adaptability. Practicing only a single shot with a single club from a flat lie (AKA the driving range) over and over may not produce your desired improvement.
In The Practice Manual – The Ultimate Guide for Golfers, I wrote about how to include certain variations in your practice which speed up your ability to adapt better.
Also, how much the practice represents the game of golf itself (something called contextual interference) will have an important effect on our improvement. This is why changing clubs, targets and lies each time on the range (something called random practice) can supercharge our learning.
Focus of Attention
External vs Internal
Again, this was a topic I discussed in depth in The Practice Manual – The Ultimate Guide for Golfers. It deals with the topic of where we place our attention.
The vast bulk of scientific literature shows that, when we place our attention externally on the task, we are better able to coordinate all the moving parts.
For example, if we are to hammer a nail, we would be better to focus on the task (hitting the nail) than to focus on an individual piece of all the moving parts (such as the elbow movement).
The nail is classed as external as it is not part of our body.
It’s as if our brain helps everything work together towards a common goal. With the task of hammering the nail in our conscious mind, the brain is able to take all of the moving parts (arm, shoulder, elbow, wrist) and create a workable solution to that task.
External focuses tend to help our body with this common-goal coordination.
For example, a darts study showed that an external focus (where the dart is going) produced more consistent outcomes (which makes sense). However, the crazy part was, the movements became LESS consistent.
In other words, the darts players became better at throwing the dart consistently, but used more variable movement patterns.
Conversely, the same darts study showed that focusing on the arm movement (internal) made the arm movement more consistent, but produced LESS consistent outcomes (they missed the bullseye more often).
There have also been studies which show that, for skilled performers, having a neutral focus (such as focusing on breathing) can increase consistency. This is because there is less conscious interference with the movement pattern, so the motor pattern runs on automatic.
An analogy for this is signing your name. If you are not to think about it, your signature would be highly repeatable. However, the moment you start to analyse and overthink the signature, it becomes easier to make a mistake.
Autonomy Of Skill
We have certain stages of learning in almost anything we do.
First we become aware of what we need to learn, but we can’t do it effectively. We call this conscious incompetence.
After a certain amount of practice, we become more able to do what we want, but we have to do it with conscious thought. We call this conscious competence.
After a lot of practice, we can enter the autonomous stage, where we can perform a task without thinking – just as you can drive your car without thinking about what your feet need to do. We call this stage the unconscious competence stage.
The interesting thing is, when we reach the last stage, we can actually make things worse by thinking. For example, I can juggle, but the moment I try to explain to someone how I do it, I drop the balls.
If we are to reach the final stage of learning, we are rewarded with increased consistency. However, most golfers are constantly tinkering with their swings consciously. Thinking too much about your swing can lead to inconsistencies with what you have already learned.
There is a lot more to this idea, but it’s something to think (pun intended) about.
Easier Movement Patterns
Hammering a nail from one inch on a stable surface is a lot easier to repeat than if you are bouncing up and down on a trampoline with a 10 ft backswing.
Similarly, some movement patterns in golf can be easier to repeat than others.
However, there is a lot of debate as to which movement patterns are easier to repeat. Many theories out there fall flat – often not being supported by what we know from data gathered, even if it may make logical sense (such as the idea that everything has to move on a single plane).
Jack Nicklaus (left), Garcia (middle) and Furyk (right) showing club shaft planes on the backswing (yellow) and downswing (red)
There are even examples where more moving parts may actually create more consistency – such as the examples of creating a flat spot in the swing arc.
Also, while easier movement patterns may be more repeatable, we also have to factor in how ingrained a movement pattern is. A more difficult movement pattern may actually be easier for an individual to repeat if they have done it a million times before.
Likewise, if seeking an easier movement pattern causes an increase in thought-levels and/or sends a player back to the “cognitive incompetence” stage of learning, we may actually see a decrease in consistency.
There is also the question of trade-offs. Our 1 inch hammering backswing might be easier to repeat, but it will never knock in a nail in one hit. Our guy bouncing on the trampoline might not have as much repeatability, but he might be able to knock that nail through the other end of the wood if he times it correctly.
There is a also a nice middle-ground in there somewhere, and the optimal strategy may vary from person to person depending on a number of factors (such as coordination/skill level).
The topic of easier movement patterns could make an entire book in itself – but above are some of the main considerations to take into account when seeking a better movement pattern.
This idea was presented to me by Dr Mike Duffey (Penn State university). He said;
There is good evidence that movement accuracy goes down when we approach maximal effort. In golf, this would mean trying to swing as fast as possible, or contract muscles as hard as possible. So when there is a golf swing pattern that requires maximal or near maximal effort (in at least one component) we would likely see less repeatable results.
While I agree with this largely, I would warn golfers that I have also seen the opposite, where players try to swing the club so slowly and controlled that it becomes manipulated and less consistent.
We also have to (again) look at the trade-offs. If swinging with less effort gains you a small amount of consistency but at a huge loss in distance, we may be looking at a statistical loss in strokes gained on the competition. For example, if you hit one more fairway but are 20 yards shorter each time in doing so, you might see a negative impact on your score.
I like to see players maintain a relatively consistent effort level when it comes time for performance – hence why so many players say (anecdotally) that they play their best golf when they are swinging in rhythm or are focusing on that aspect.
As mentioned in my first article on this topic, the most important thing is to create a functional impact (club and ball collision), as this is the only thing the ball responds to (apart from wind).
It’s just physics.
Impact is everything
Repeatability comes second in importance, because it is pointless repeating a poor impact, like many golfers are doing. If we can create functional impacts repeatedly, we are onto a winner.
Many factors go into creating “functional impact repeatability”, namely;
- Our skill/ability to coordinate the soup of moving parts into a functional solution – which includes the ability to adapt that solution to whatever club/lie/shot we need.
- The amount and quality of our practice, which aids in the last point.
- How ingrained the movement is. This can include what stage of learning we are in.
- Whether our thought processes (such as where we place our attention) help or hinder us.
- How easy our movement pattern is to repeat (less moving parts can equal more repeatability, but be careful. There are examples of the opposite being true).
- Whether we are at maximal effort levels, or the variability of our effort levels may induce further movement (kinematic) variance.
Solutions to The Problems
The Strike Plan not only directly improves the most important part of a functional impact (strike quality), but it also works on your repeatability of that.
Many of the exercises in The Strike Plan use external focuses of attention, which help with the biological coordination aspect, and there is a lot of research showing they speed up performance gains and longer-term retention (learning).
I have many people email me saying how refreshing the drills in The Strike Plan are, and that they have freed them from the frustrations of their old internally bound complex swing thoughts. Ed (see tweet below) is an example of someone who has recently benefitted from these drills.
If you want to learn more about The Strike Plan, click the image below.
If this blog post interested you, I also discuss many of these topics and more, as well as laying out practice solutions for you in The Practice Manual – The Ultimate guide for golfers.
The book has been an international best-seller (in the USA, UK, Canada, Germany, Spain and France), as well as being featured on The Golf Channel as a must-have book. Click the image below to learn more.
If you want to read the post “The Only Thing the Golf Ball Cares About” (the first part in this series of articles), CLICK HERE.