It’s spring, which means it’s time to dust off the clubs and practice. Most people, when they work on their games, get sucked into what I call the “black hole” of practice. The black hole arises when you continuously hit 7-irons to the same target over and over, “working” on something. It feels good, but from an improvement and performance standpoint the brain is not learning nearly as much as it could. Avoiding the black hole means structuring your practice a little differently, challenging the brain to make deeper and faster connections, thus improving faster and performing better. I encourage my students to approach practice with the idea that there are two separate modes of practice: Technique practice and Play practice. Both must be deliberate, and specific, however play practice involves varying shot selection and targets, while technique practice does not.
Technique practice is most often associated with a swing ‘change’, or new way of moving, but can also be used to solidify existing ‘good’ movements. It is the conscious building of neural patterns in the brain that signal the body to move in certain ways. The more often we repeat a sequence of movements, the faster and more efficient we become at them. This kind of practice can work efficiently if we remove the target, and in some cases the ball entirely, allowing us to completely focus on the movement.
The second mode of practice I call ‘play practice.’ This is where we should spend most of our time, and is where we teach ourselves to play and respond to targets as we would on the golf course. Targets should be precisely selected, and most importantly, varied from shot to shot.This challenges the brain, simulates real play, and does not allow the brain to rely on the steady stream of feedback we get from hitting 20 consecutive 7-Irons from the same lie into the “black hole.” If we practice like we play, then actual play becomes less foreign and more automatic. I tell my students that when we get to this point, we’ve skirted the black hole of practice, and are light years ahead of the competition.
Here’s a drill to help you get started with play practice:
Find a practice area that has room to hit 50-75 yard shots at a flag on a green. Place 10 balls in various locations and in various lies starting at 50 yards, and working back to 75 yards. Move from shot to shot, recognizing your exact distance every time, and hitting each shot at the flag, or a different part of the green. You will be varying the shot and the target by changing the distance and lie with each swing. Use your routine and watch each shot to its complete finish, just as you would on the golf course. Once you’ve mastered this, hit each shot with different trajectories, and/or clubs.