I have good news: You have the ability to play much better golf than you ever dreamed possible. Even if you're just a 90s-shooter, the talent to break 80, or shoot par, or even turn professional dwells within you. That's right, in terms of raw talent, those shot-shaping millionaires on TV don't have anything you don't have. But if you want to become great -- or heck, just darned good -- it will take more than practice. It will take hard work and a new understanding of what's effective on the range, what isn't and why. It will take something called deliberate practice.
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The term was coined by the renowned psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, who did landmark research on how we attain mastery in a given pursuit. For our purposes -- getting good at golf -- deliberate practice is about improving by pushing your practice beyond your comfort zone. I don't mean mindlessly pounding balls in order to build muscle memory. (Your muscles don't have memory. Only your brain does.) I'm talking about expanding your abilities by putting your brain through something akin to an ongoing golf boot camp. Only by practicing with purpose and (a little) pain will you learn to bend the ball to your will.
I'm 59 and a pretty typical golfer -- a 17-handicap. I work too much and play too little. A few years ago, after I began researching my book Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else, I realized that my range sessions were pathetic. I'd get a couple buckets of balls and work my way up from my short irons to my driver, not trying to accomplish anything in particular other than figuring out why the good shots were good and the bad ones bad. I could come up with reasons ("It's about rotating the lower body! No, I'm decelerating!"), but there was no evidence that they were the real reasons. Before long, the balls were gone, and I'd achieved nothing.
Maybe you're like me. You practice, but you don't get any better. That's because you don't deliberately practice.
Perhaps you've heard that it takes 10,000 hours to master a given skill. That number comes from Ericsson's 1993 study of violinists at a music academy in Berlin. The researchers gathered vast data on all the students -- the brilliant performers who would build careers with elite orchestras, and the mediocre performers who would become high school music teachers -- and found they were mostly the same. In fact, they differed significantly in only one measure: total lifetime hours spent on deliberate practice. By the time they graduated, the best performers had racked up about 10,000 hours practicing, while the mediocre ones had logged about half that. Later research in many other fields has supported those findings: There's something meaningful about that number of hours of deliberate practice.
I always thought "the secret" to golf was finding the correct physical sequence to make the clubface hit the ball hard and straight. It turns out that what happens in your brain is more important than what happens with your body. You can play all day, but if you aren't intensely focused on doing a specific thing better than last time, you won't improve.
This reflects the bottom-line finding from 30 years of scientific research into great performance in any field. In researching my book, I studied dozens of scholarly papers on this topic and interviewed leading researchers. Top performers of every kind -- brain surgeons, jet pilots, business leaders, musicians, athletes -- attained excellence in their respective fields through deliberate practice.
The truth is, you don't need innate talent to be great at golf. No one's cut from a different cloth. What you need is more hours of deliberate practice -- not 10,000 hours, mind you -- which is not what most of us do on the range.
If you think I'm crazy, you're going to think I'm crazier. I'm saying that you have as much innate golf talent as Tiger Woods. That is, you came into this world with the same inborn ability to play golf that he did. You inherited genes that made you tall or short, that gave you physical proportions conducive (or not) to golf or swimming or playing NFL football. But there's no golf gene. You quite literally have as much talent as Woods. What you don't have is the umpteen-thousand life-time hours of deliberate practice that he's accumulated. And unless you're reading this at age 2, you never will have them, because he's adding more hours every week. So the research says that you'll never be as good as him or any other top professional.
But much more importantly, it also says that you can be much, much better than you ever imagined.
Don't worry about having to log 10,000 hours; that's roughly three hours a day for the next nine years. You have a job, a family, a life. You can improve significantly by grabbing hours wherever you can, as long as you're doing deliberate practice.
So what, in more detail, is it? It's comprised of four key elements.