Monday, 8 May 2017

When Practice makes Imperfect

As a client of mine sat down in my office, it was obvious that he was frustrated about something. He was a very keen amateur golfer who desperately wanted to improve his handicap but wasn’t making the progress he wanted to make. “I work so hard on my golf”, he sighed, “Every spare minute I have, I am down the driving range hitting ball after ball. Sometimes I am there for 3 or 4 hours. On a good day, I can get through about 500 balls. And yet, I just don’t get any better.” He looked at me and frowned, “In fact, if anything, I’m actually playing worse than I was when I didn’t practise so hard”.

He reminded me of a time I was working with another golfer client at the driving range of his course. A man was walking past us, with 2 full baskets of balls, towards a bay a bit further up from where we were standing, when his mobile went off. All eyes turned to him as he fumbled for his phone to answer it. He obviously wasn’t where he was supposed to be because he started saying “I’m in the car,” and then pleaded, “No, I’m not at the golf club. I’m on my way. I be back in 5 minutes.” He then hung up and looked at his phone then looked at his baskets of balls and then back to his phone again as if weighing up what to do next. He then spurred himself into action, poured all of his balls into the automatic dispenser, pulled out his driver and proceeded to whack one ball after another as quickly as he possibly could. The balls went everywhere apart from where he seemed to be aiming. He appeared to become more tense and frustrated with each swing that he made as he watched the balls hooking left, slicing right and, on one occasion somehow, after a loud clatter, actually ending up 5 yards behind him.

There is an often used saying that “practice makes perfect”, which implies that the mere process of practising will make you a better performer at any task or sport. And yet it would be hard to think that this golfer would gain anything from just spraying shots all over the place. What he probably didn’t consider, however, is that practice would undoubtedly have been making him worse. He was actually learning how to hit a ball badly. If you want to make practice effective, quality will always be better than quantity. Instead of hitting 100 balls very quickly, he would have gained far more by just hitting 5 with full concentration.

This is effectively what I told my client. I told him that next time he should get a maximum of 30 balls and for each shot he played, to play it as if it was a real shot on a course. That meant choosing a precise target, pulling the club out of the bag (each time) and going through his full pre-shot routine before playing the shot. Then I wanted him to take a break of a minute before going on to the next shot. This had the effect of getting him into the idea of quality practice. Two weeks later, he came back to see me. A broad grin appeared on his face as he described how his game had transformed and how he’d beaten his best round of golf by 3 shots only 2 days earlier. This is because he had been teaching himself how to play quality golf and it had, over the two weeks, become a habit.


The great Gary Player famously coined the phrase, “The more I practise, the luckier I get”. What he probably should have said was “The more I practise “with purpose”, the luckier I get”. 

Andy Barton
Performance Coach

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