The New Way to Improve

Friday August 7th, 2009
Illustration by Dennis Auth

We've never known more about the swing, enjoyed better conditioned golf courses, or used more advanced and forgiving equipment than we do today. So why hasn't the average amateur handicap dropped in 50 years while the pros continue to set scoring benchmarks that would make Hugh Hefner jealous? Forget Ben Hogan's mantra! The secret to success won't be found only through digging dirt on the practice range (although practice certainly helps). The first clue might just lie in new studies by the world's leading performance researchers, psychologists and kinesiology experts. These scientists haven't discovered a new way to swing drivers, irons and wedges, but rather how we learn to swing these clubs. Getting in touch with their findings may hold the secret key to releasing the low handicapper within.

1. Elevate Your Goals
The more precise you aim, the higher you'll climb

The Problem
You have a strong desire to improve, but you're not really doing anything concrete to get there. "Setting a goal of simply 'playing better' won't get the job done," says Dr. Christina.

The Solution
"Research shows that if you commit to improving by defining specific and moderately challenging goals, you'll learn a motor skill (like releasing the clubhead) faster," says Dr. Christina. "It also suggests that the longer you commit to playing the game, the better you'll perform."

The Science That Proves It
Dr. Gary McPherson, a professor of music education at the University of Illinois School of Music, asked 157 children picking up an instrument for the first time a simple question: "How long do you think you'll play your new instrument?" He sorted the children based on their answers and tracked their performance over several years using a standard musical-skill scale. McPherson discovered that progress in learning the instrument wasn't dependent on aptitude, but by the goal set by the child. With the same amount of practice, the kids who voiced a long-term commitment outperformed those who intended to play only through the school year by 400 percent [see graph]. "Although the benefits of goal setting haven't extensively been studied in golf," says Dr. Christina, "the McPherson data and research with other motor skills suggest that they'll translate very well to what you do with a club in your hands."


A golfer who commits to "playing my whole life" will out-learn someone who wants to play for a year or two, even if they have identical skill levels and practice the same amount of time.

400% The increase in skill learning when long-term goals are paired with high levels of practice

2. Use the Right Swing Thoughts
Think about the club, not your body

The Problem
You use swing thoughts on the range and during play to focus on staying coordinated through impact, but you're not getting the results you desire.

The Solution
Keep using swing thoughts, but use the right ones. "There are good swing thoughts and there are bad swing thoughts," says Dr. Gabriele Wulf, a professor of kinesiology at UNLV and a leading expert on performance cue research. "The ones that shift your attention away from your body, what we call external cues, are much more effective than internal swing cues, or those that focus on your body." An internal cue can be as harmless as "rotate your hands through impact," but since that thought is focused on a specific part of your body, it tends to constrain your movements and make learning and retaining the move more difficult. "Replacing that thought with something as simple as 'square the clubface,' says Dr. Wulf, will prove much more effective."

The Science That Proves It
Dr. Wulf asked novice golfers to pitch balls with a 9-iron to a 15-foot-wide circle. One third of the group was provided with internal cues by an instructor. These focused on hand and arm movement. Another third of the group was given only external cues ("swing the club in a pendulum fashion"), while the remaining third was given no cues at all. Points were awarded based on how close each golfer landed balls to the target. The results showed that the use of external swing cues instead of internal cues increases skill learning by approximately 33% [see graph], and that golfers who try to learn the game without any instruction at all fare just as well as those who rely solely on internal swing thoughts.

The Right Way to Use Swing Thoughts
Turn your favorite internal cues into external ones for more efficient learning

Don't think... Get my hands ahead of the clubhead at impact.
Think... Lean the shaft forward at impact.

Don't think... Shift weight from my right foot to my left foot on my downswing.
Think... Shift my weight forward on my downswing.

Don't think... Keep my left arm straight in my backswing.
Think... Trace a wide arc with the clubhead.

Don't think... Turn my shoulders while resisting with my hips.
Think... Coil like a spring.

Don't think... I'm going to straighten my slice by swinging from the inside and rolling my wrists through impact.
Think... I'm going to straighten my slice by trying to hit a hook.

Don't think... Keep the triangle formed by my arms and shoulders intact when I putt.
Think... Swing the putter like it's a pendulum.

3. Take a Lesson
Learn from a pro to play like a pro

The Problem
Since you know your swing better than anyone, you choose to navigate your own path to enlightenment. You never take lessons and think all you need is some extra range time.

The Solution
Book time with a pro — it's that simple. Whatever your skill level, it's highly unlikely that you can recognize swing or putting-stroke flaws, let alone prescribe an appropriate fix. "Taking lessons from an experienced teacher or mentor helps you learn motor skills the right way, and learn them more effectively," says Dr. Christina. "An instructor won't allow you to perform or ingrain errors when you practice — he or she is interested only in getting you to do the right things, and getting you to do them over and over."

The Science That Proves It
Golf Magazine looked at the handicap changes of 318 amateur players. These were no ordinary golfers — each had studied with our Top 100 Teachers in America between September 2007 and September 2008. The numbers on the opposite page illustrate their startling progress — these students lowered their indexes by an average of 35 percent.

Improvement Movement
In one year, 318 Top 100 Teacher students lowered their handicap by an average of 4.5 strokes

12.8 Average established handicap of Top 100 Teacher students on September 1, 2007

8.3 Average established handicap of Top 100 Teacher students on September 1, 2008

35% Average decrease in Top 100 Teacher students' handicaps over one year

.01% Average decrease in average handicap in the USGA database, 2007-'08

Not enough golfers are taking lessons, and there's a reason for it: lame excuses. Consider our rebuttal to the five most common cop-outs.

Play one less round a month, and apply that money toward a lesson with a qualified PGA teaching pro. You can make up for the missed on-course experience by playing an imaginary round on the range, or bring your favorite foursome and make it a group learning session.

See the answer to No.1, or simply make time. Get up an hour earlier on your day off — most teachers start their lesson day at 7:00 a.m. This works on weekdays too — you can easily make a 9:00 a.m. meeting.

Fine. Your instructor can build a lesson plan, or even a single lesson,to match your schedule, time, goals and wallet.

That's like saying your teeth are too rotten to go see a dentist. Calm your fears: your teaching pro — and dentist — have seen worse than you. Plus, they need your business as much as you need theirs.

C'mon! Make your lesson a family event. You should be introducing your kids to the game anyway. Have your spouse take the kids over to the practice putting green during your lesson, then swap if he or she needs lessons, too. Your kids will get a kick out of rolling the ball into the cup, and there isn't a course in the world that discourages young golfers.

4. Practice for Transfer
How to stop leaving your best swings on the range

The Problem
You hit it beautifully on the range, shaping shots at will. Then you head to the first tee and reality bites.

The Solution
Don't just practice, practice to transfer the skills you're trying to learn to the course. When you hit balls at the range, you typically aren't thinking about a specific hole, the conditions, the score you need to stay in the match, the pressure, etc. — but you do when you play. "Practicing your technique within the context of where you'll apply it," says Dr. Christina, "is what we call 'Transfer Practice,' and it makes all the difference in the world to your game."

The Science That Proves It
Dr. Christina and Top 100 Teacher Eric Alpenfels asked 30 students to perform the "feet-together drill." Half the group performed the drill as if they were on the course, going through pre- and post-shot routines, hitting to targets and grading the quality of each shot. The other half simply performed the drill. Christina and Alpenfels measured driver distance and accuracy at the beginning and end of each practice day, then tested the group a final time on the tee of a hole. The test subjects who practiced for transfer — those who imagined it was a real shot on the course — hit 33% more drives in the fairway on the course than the practice-only group [see graph].

How to Practice for Transfer

To work on your irons and wedges, find a grass range. The perfect lies you get on a mat are rarely found on the course, and the secret to transfer practice is creating actual conditions of play.

Hitting 25 drivers in a row is skills practice. Hitting driver, then 7-iron, and then wedge is transfer practice — it mimics how you play on the course. Regardless of what part of the swing you're working on, do it with a different club after every swing.

Call it quits when you're no longer able to concentrate on the task at hand. Beyond that point, you're just going through the motions. But you should also stop when you're swinging well or have the skill you're grooving in a good place. The danger in continuing practice is that you'll get sloppy or get lost in misguided experimentation.

5. Just Do It. Then Do It Again. No one has ever learned a motor skill without practicing it

The Problem
You marvel at the way Tour pros make the game look so easy, and ask, "Why can't I do that?"

The Solution
Um, keep practicing. Dr. Anders Ericsson, a renowned professor of psychology at Florida State University, estimates that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at any motor skill. Similar studies show that it takes 10 years before you can reach an elite level in any sport.

The Science That Proves It
Carnegie-Mellon researchers Drs. William Chase and Herbert Simon originally devised the 10-years-to-become-elite rule back in 1973. Numerous studies since have supported that theory and Ericsson's 10,000-hour benchmark. In the 1990s, veteran golf writers David Barrett and Al Barkow examined the careers of nine top PGA Tour pros and found that each had won their first major approximately 16 years after picking up a golf club for the first time (an updated study by Golf Magazine, right, shows that it takes today's pros even longer). Only one golfer has significantly beaten the 16-year time frame required to transition from novice to major winner: Gary Player, who won the 1959 U.S. Open after only seven years of practice and play.

"The Player phenomenon doesn't necessarily refute the 10,000-hour rule," notes Dr. Christina. "He likely was engaged in other sports — rugby, cricket — that allowed him to train motor and mental skills that translated easily to golf, or he had uncovered some powerful external swing cue that allowed him to bypass the required motions. That's like finding the magic bullet."

6. Make a Neural Shift

The Problem
You empty bucket after bucket on the range, but the new swing change you're trying to ingrain just won't stick. In fact, you find yourself repeating the fault you're trying to lose over and over.

The Solution
When you practice, work on one change only, or you'll literally short-circuit your brain. Repeating a movement — like swinging a golf club — causes changes in your central nervous system that increase the efficiency of the brain circuits controlling the muscles involved. One of these changes is myelination, the production of a fatty tissue called myelin around your neural circuits. Each time you use a circuit, this myelin cocoon gets thicker and increases the timing and speed of the signal traveling through the circuit, making it more efficient. Here's the problem: Myelin doesn't recognize a good golf move from a bad one. This means each lousy swing you make creates myelin and just makes that bad move easier to repeat, adding to the need to practice the right things.

"The key," says Dr. Christina, "is to practice while someone qualified is watching you, or with drills or training aids that provide you with feedback to ensure that you are performing the skill correctly."

Repeating movements — like a golf swing — causes a fatty tissue called myelin to form around the circuits in your brain that guide the motion and make them faster and more efficient.

7. Find a Role Model
Copying is allowed when learning new skills

The Problem
You're an expert at following orders. You digest information easily, and don't have to be told things twice. This skill has paid off at work, but not in your quest for a better swing and lower scores. Nothing your buddies tell you seems to sink in.

The Solution
Ditch the verbal instructions and study the moves you're trying to learn in a video or a photo. "Using your eyes can help you learn a lot faster than using your ears or imagination," says Dr. Penny McCullagh, a professor of sport and exercise psychology at California State University-East Bay. "Watching an expert perform the skill you're trying to learn — what performance experts call "modeling" — allows you to acquire the idea of the movement patterns of the skill in question, giving you a blueprint to guide your motions."

The Science That Proves It
Dr. McCullagh and her colleagues asked 60 female college students to balance on a stabilometer (a platform situated on a fulcrum). A quarter of the test subjects, none of whom had ever tried to balance on the device, listened to instructions that painted a picture of the exercise ("Imagine yourself standing with your feet shoulder-width apart"). Another quarter were shown a silent video of a woman balancing on the device with perfect form. A third group was given both types of instruction, while a final group performed the drill cold. The modeling group significantly outperformed the others [see graph].

8. Get the Most Out of Your Lessons
Structure your learning time to optimize the way you prefer to process and digest information

The Problem
You take lessons, you don't improve. The Solution Check one reader's take on his best and worst learning experiences, to learn why, according to Dr. Christina, each one soared or went sour.

Drew Maliniak
Memphis, Tenn.
Highest handicap since 2000: 5.7
Lowest handicap since 2000: +1.4

My Worst Lesson
"For a while, my instructor always had me warm-up with my 6-iron, I guess because it's not too short and not too long. It became a bad habit [1]. I got really good at hitting this club, even wearing a pockmark near the center of the clubface, but couldn't do much with the others. When he videotaped my swing, it too was with a 6-iron. I didn't think much about it because I love watching myself on videotape — I get a lot out of watching my swing [2]. If he detected a flaw, he almost always gave me a drill. He'd stop me as soon as he saw me falling back into a bad groove [3]. Usually, the drill worked, but only for a week or so, and then I'd go back to making the same mistakes. While we were doing all of this work with a 6-iron, my driving and short-game skills sagged, even though I practiced with these clubs on my own [4]. It didn't take long for me to seek out another instructor."

1. Hitting the same club over and over isn't good transfer practice. Rather, it's the fast track to grooving flaws.

2. Video is a form of feedback (critical to learning) and a way to model your movements. When trying new moves, watch a Tour pro. When fixing flaws, watch yourself.

3. Feedback works best after several swings, so you can engage in the learning process by trying to solve the problem on the nonfeedback swings. Feedback after every swing can become a crutch that won't be there when you play.

4. Unsupervised instruction rarely leads to increased motorskill learning.

My Best Lesson
I take a lot of lessons, and the most memorable ones have always been playing lessons [5]. I've been playing for 15 years, so I know the difference between good swing information and theoretical, mechanical voodoo, which you don't typically get when you're learning while playing. Whenever I'm on the course with my instructor, I get this strange need to impress him [6] — there's a bit more pressure involved when you're trying to hit an actual shot in front of an audience. Even if I don't feel like I make any technical gains in my swing during a playing lesson, I always add something to my game [7]: How to hit from a muddy lie, how to hit the ball extra-high over an obstacle, etc. Once I started taking on-course playing lessons, I stopped trying to learn on the range. I haven't taken a standard lesson in a few years, and I've never enjoyed the game more. I'll use the range to hit balls like everybody else [8], but if I want to go learn something, I'll do it on the course. 5. Practicing like you play — which is the essence of a playing lesson — is the cornerstone of successful transfer practice, which has been proven to improve skill retention.

6. Adding an element of pressure is another example of practicing within the context of play, a very real benefit.

7. Learning to shape shots or hit different trajectories usually involves imagery and feel, or external cues instead of internal cues.

8. While it's always best to work with an instructor, some studies suggest that learning peaks when you also struggle on your own to discover the solution to your swing problem.

More From the Web