THE 4 LAWS OF PERFECT PRACTICE
1. DELIBERATE PRACTICE IS HIGHLY PERSONALIZED
What you need to work on is unique to you. Few everyday golfers understand how to practice in a way that leads to actual improvement. You need a personalized plan that stretches your comfort zone. Only you -- and your golf teacher, if you have one -- knows what that is. Ask yourself what shots and situations make you uncomfortable and what you'd like to do well, and then devise a plan to work on those areas. If you hit your wedges close from 120 yards, start trying to hit choke-down 7-irons the same distance. If money matches make you feel edgy, it's time to bet $5 per side to get your mind more comfortable playing for cash. Find the areas where you want to improve, then focus on drills that challenge you. But remember that...
2. DELIBERATE PRACTICE SHOULD PUSH YOU JUST BEYOND YOUR ABILITIES
We're talking about taking a step outside your comfort zone, not a giant leap. Small-chunk it. If you've mastered basic chips from clean lies, that doesn't mean it's time to hit Phil Mickelson-style flop shots from the hardpan -- you'll just blade ball after ball and feel lost. Instead, graduate to pitches from gnarly lies, or hit three-quarter shots that run. Perhaps you have your 3-wood fade down pat but haven't hit a draw in ages. It's time to work on shaping it right to left. Your new grip and stance will feel hopelessly strange, and you'll hit many terrible shots, but it's what you must do to improve. In fact, hitting both good and bad shots -- plenty of bad -- is a sign that you're achieving deliberate practice. Seeking out what we do poorly is not most people's idea of fun, so few of us do it. But the best players find deep satisfaction in the challenge and immersion in the task.
3. DELIBERATE PRACTICE MUST BE REPEATED AT HIGH VOLUME
The best performers repeat their practice at stultifying length. Sam Snead hit balls all day, then practiced by his car's headlights at night. Ted Williams hit baseballs until his hands bled. Pete Maravich shot baskets in the school gym from dawn to dusk. We've all heard that practice makes perfect. Now brain science reveals why high-volume repetition is critical. When Sean Foley was asked how his client, Justin Rose, had improved his long irons, he responded, "Myelin." Many saw that remark as evidence of Foley's supposed quirkiness, but he was right. Myelin is a substance in the brain that builds up around certain circuits, much like insulation around an electrical wire. Performing a motor activity repeatedly sends signals through a highly-specific brain circuit -- say, the "high-3-iron-with-slight-draw" circuit -- that builds myelin, creating what some call muscle memory. The great performers have myelin in exactly the right places. For you and me, years of poor practice have built up so much myelin around the "huge-honkin'-slice-off-the-tee" circuit that it's practically armorplated. Of course, repetition is vital, but it isn't enough. That's because...
4. DELIBERATE PRACTICE REQUIRES CONTINUAL, SPECIFIC FEEDBACK
We all have blind spots, so we need a coach -- or, failing that, sound feedback. Whether you want to become the next Tiger Woods or Itzhak Perlman, the research in various fields strongly suggests that you can't improve if you don't know how you're doing. In golf, we see how each shot turns out, but we don't see ourselves hitting it, and thus we don't know why it turned out the way it did. What's worse, we often think we know why it turned out that way -- but are wrong. A good teacher is the ideal solution; another option is watching and analyzing video of yourself. From your flying right elbow to your swaying left hip, expert feedback corrects mistakes that you may not know you're committing. Without it, progress is virtually impossible.
I've mentioned Tiger Woods several times. When considering the idea of deliberate practice, the behavior of the world's greatest golfer is instructive. In his book The Big Miss, Hank Haney, Woods's coach from 2004 to 2010, observed that on the range Woods would rarely hit more than 25 balls before taking a seat in his cart, where he would stare silently and think about what he was doing. Haney wrote: "To me, it was an example of a great performer doing... 'deliberate practice.' " In his own way (again, it's highly personalized), Woods was engaged in the hard mental work of fixing a weakness. "A lot of players hit a lot of balls but focus only on their strengths," Haney continued. "The great improvers are willing to get uncomfortable and make the mental and physical effort to correct a flaw."
And yet, some people don't buy this. I've given seminars on this topic around the world, and often someone will say, "Hold on. You can't tell me that Tiger Woods didn't come into this world with an incredible natural gift!" To which I say, "He did come into this world with an incredible gift: Earl Woods." Thanks in large part to his father, Woods had 19 years and, by my estimation, some 12,000 hours of deliberate practice under his belt by the time he won the Masters in 1997, at age 21.
For bogey golfers like us, the message is liberating: Hard, smart practice can lead to huge improvement. More good news? Other golf studies show that you don't need anywhere near 10,000 hours to see great results. Even a few hours per week can lead to better shots and lower scores.
Deliberate practice is a bit uncomfortable. It will take time. But now you can choose to walk the same well-lit path that other masters have traversed, whether you want to win your club championship in 2014 or the U.S. Open in 2024.
Believe it or not, you have no idea how good you can get.