The ultimate goal when practicing is to improve your performance when playing and competing. How can you practice to ensure that it will improve performance? The answer is in the way you practice. How you perform later is more important than how you perform when practicing. You want to use methods that will improve retention and improve performance.
Technique is important in golf as it is in other sports. If you are a 10 handicap, you can work to improve your mental game or course management but without improving your technique, your improvement may be limited. Improving your technique is not as simple as hitting several 7-irons in a row in a practice session or two. Changing a part of your golf swing or putting stroke takes time, effort and repetition before you have created a new habit that works when playing on the course and when performing.
Let’s look at two different types of practice: block and random. Block practice is doing the same thing over and over, like hitting a 7-iron to the same target several times in a row. Random practice is doing something different every swing. Rather than hitting the same club to the same target, you do something different for each shot. You could change clubs, targets, trajectories, or curves but you would be doing something different every shot. Several studies have been done over the years and over many different sports including golf and they all have the same conclusion, random practice is better. Tiger Woods, in an interview with Sports Illustrated Golf Plus, talked about changing something every swing when practicing. Tiger says that he changes something every swing, a club, a feel, a trajectory, or a curve when he practices.
According to Peter Brown in his book Make it Stick, the baseball team from Cal Poly University in San Luis Obispo, California participated in a study to improve their batting skills. Part of the team practiced in the standard way. They practiced hitting forty-five pitches, evenly divided into three sets of fastballs, curve balls and change ups. The batters faced fifteen consecutive pitches of each. The second half of the team faced the same forty-five pitches, fifteen each of fastballs, curve balls and change ups, only the pitches were mixed up. Each batter had no idea what was being thrown. The first group in the study, the group that did the block practice performed much better during practice. The second group that faced a random mix of pitches didn’t perform as well as the first group. These sessions continued twice weekly for six weeks. At the end of the six weeks, the players were measured and those who practiced randomly improved more than those who used the block practice method.
When practicing golf, if you were to hit forty-five balls in a practice session, rather than hit fifteen consecutive wedges, fifteen consecutive 7-irons and the fifteen consecutive drivers, you would be better to mix it up. Hit a driver followed by a wedge and then a 7-iron changing clubs and targets every swing. Not only is this more challenging and will help you to retain and transfer the skill but it is also more similar to how you play the game on the course. I’m sure it would be pretty rare to hit consecutive 7-irons when playing.
Peter Brown also describes another study in Make it Stick where a group of eight-year-olds practiced tossing beanbags into buckets in gym class. Half of the kids practiced tossing into a bucket three feet away. The other half mixed it up by tossing the bags into buckets two and four feet away. After twelve weeks, they were tested on tossing into a bucket three feet away and the kids who performed the best were those who practiced on the two and four foot buckets.
When practicing block practice, it will seem as if you are actually getting better. You will see an improvement in your swing and results. When practicing randomly, your results may not seem as good but in the end, your goal is to improve your performance on the course. Random practice is more difficult and you will make more mistakes but it will help you transfer the skill and improve your on course performance.