Missing ingredient to lower scores is something called deliberate practice

September 13, 2013

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.







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.

To put deliberate practice to work for you, check out these six drills

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.


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…

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.

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…

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.

To put deliberate practice to work for you, check out these six drills