The Secret to Practicing Like A Tour Player

This is good…

by Jonathan Wallett

Practice until your hands bleed is advice often given to young players who aspire to a career in professional golf. Repeat, repeat, repeat so you play like a machine and mistake-free is another mantra preached by some parents and coaches. It’s well meaning advice, but it falls short.

The most common mistake I see young elite players making is looking to build a machine-like swing and then looking to engrain it through repetitive practice from dawn to dusk. Instead, what I’ve learned firsthand from tour players is that they look to build skill and confidence with their practice time.

So what’s the difference between engraining the perfect swing and building skill?

A mistake many golfers make is to get several buckets of balls, put down an alignment aid, grab a 7-iron and just work on trying to hit the ball perfect with the same flight to the same target every time. These golfers think that the more balls they hit, the more muscle memory they’re create. They believe they’ll be able to take it to the course or tournament and be able to play automatic, machine-like, mistake-free golf.

Why does this not work?

Let’s first understand that the emotional or psychological aspect of hitting a ball on the range and hitting a ball on the course in tournaments are poles apart. If you hit a poor shot on the range, you just take another ball and look to correct the swing in the next shot. On the course, you first have the physical challenge the golf architect of that course set – perhaps water down the left, trees on the right, a fairway bunker, etc — but then you have the mental challenge. You want to do well, you want to shoot a certain score, you’re thinking what other players are doing, etc. These two scenarios bear little relation to each other, and that’s why trying to engrain a machine-like swing on the range has very limited value.

So does that mean practice is for nothing? Absolutely not. Practice is where you can develop your skills. The critical point are: (1) How you practice, and (2) Under what conditions.

Practice until your hands bleed is advice often given to young players who aspire to a career in professional golf. Repeat, repeat, repeat so you play like a machine and mistake-free is another mantra preached by some parents and coaches. It’s well meaning advice, but it falls short.

The most common mistake I see young elite players making is looking to build a machine-like swing and then looking to engrain it through repetitive practice from dawn to dusk. Instead, what I’ve learned firsthand from tour players is that they look to build skill and confidence with their practice time.

So what’s the difference between engraining the perfect swing and building skill?

A mistake many golfers make is to get several buckets of balls, put down an alignment aid, grab a 7-iron and just work on trying to hit the ball perfect with the same flight to the same target every time. These golfers think that the more balls they hit, the more muscle memory they’re create. They believe they’ll be able to take it to the course or tournament and be able to play automatic, machine-like, mistake-free golf.

Why does this not work?

Let’s first understand that the emotional or psychological aspect of hitting a ball on the range and hitting a ball on the course in tournaments are poles apart. If you hit a poor shot on the range, you just take another ball and look to correct the swing in the next shot. On the course, you first have the physical challenge the golf architect of that course set – perhaps water down the left, trees on the right, a fairway bunker, etc — but then you have the mental challenge. You want to do well, you want to shoot a certain score, you’re thinking what other players are doing, etc. These two scenarios bear little relation to each other, and that’s why trying to engrain a machine-like swing on the range has very limited value.

So does that mean practice is for nothing? Absolutely not. Practice is where you can develop your skills. The critical point are: (1) How you practice, and (2) Under what conditions.

In a conversation 17 years ago with Michael Campbell, who went on to win the 2005 U.S. Open, he revealed a concept that he referred to as the one-third rule. In essence, it means dividing your practice into three parts.

  • In the the first part, you focus on progressing your technique.
  • In the second part, you focus on rhythm and motion.
  • In the third part, you simulate competition.

So if Michael was doing a 60-minute long game session, he may divide it into the following three parts.

Part 1: 20 minutes working on swing technique, using key drills set for him by his coach. In this part of practice, it’s fine to hit to just one target with one club and use training aids like alignment sticks.

Part 2: In this part of practice, no technical thoughts are allowed. Every shot must also be different. You may use the same club for five shots, but you must aim at five different targets. Or do Steve Bann’s nine-shot drill where you hit each of the nine ball flights on different balls. It can also mean changing clubs every shot. In essence, it’s about variability. When swinging, golfers need to be focused on the shot instead of the technique.

Part 3: In this part of practice, you put yourself under pressure by introducing a “win-lose” element. This last section creates a bridge from your practice to your play. It helps you transfer your range work to hitting good shots down the stretch. Extensive testing has shown that practicing in pressurized situations is the most effective way of inoculating yourself against the negative effects of pressure. Use your pre-shot routine just as you would on the course and have a specific practice drill that creates competition

This one-third concept relates to all aspects of the game: a putting session, short-game practice, wedge training, etc. What I have found in applying the concept for more than 15 years is that it assists players in building what I call competitive confidence, or confidence under pressure. Because they’ve been tested and challenged during practice, they are better prepared to perform when they face challenge and pressure during competition. Practice this way, and you will be able to build confidence that you can hit the key shot under pressure. That’s what tournament golf is about, being able to execute the key shot at the critical time.

This summer, Jordan Spieth won the biggest tournament in golf, the Open Championship. He had the best four days of his already star-studded career. His game was far from machine-like, but he possessed competitive confidence and skill. That enabled him to get the ball in the hole over 72 holes in fewer strokes than any of the other 155 competitors, which is the essence of tournament golf and the skill we need to build in our practice time.

The video below highlights some competitive practice drills you can try in your next practice session.

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