The New Way to Improve

August 7, 2009

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

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.

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

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
to learn why,
according to
Dr. Christina, each
one soared or
went sour.

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

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
(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
rarely leads
to increased motorskill

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.