You play the same way you practice is a coaching adage used in all sports at all levels. If it is true, most golfers have little hope of playing well. It is common to see golfers practice without focus, without targets, with frustration and with mechanical thoughts that are often misguided. If we could improve both the time spent at practice and the quality of our practice, our golf games would improve quickly. Most of us do not have any extra time in our day, so our only option is to improve the quality of our practice. Here are some ways that you can make your time in the practice area more productive.
If you truly want to play the same way you practice, you need to change how you practice. First, you should have a clear intention for your practice at all times. Second, you need to include aspects of the game that are important on the golf course, such as decision making, focus under pressure and a pre-shot routine. Finally, you need to make your practice reflect the actual game by giving 30-40% of your time to putting, 30-40% of your time to chipping, pitching and bunker play and the remaining time to ball striking. If you have only 30 minutes to stop at the course and get some practice in, you should spend at least 60-70% of that time close to or on the green. What is meant by a clear intention? It means that before you get out of your car in the parking lot, you know what your focus will be and how you will improve your game that day. For example, if you recently took a lesson and the pro gave you mechanics to improve in your swing, go to the range with the goal of working on only that mechanical change. Take training aids if the pro suggested using them. Check your reflection in a mirror or window to remind yourself of the position you want. Focus completely on changing the movement in your swing that needs to be changed. This might sound very logical and easy to do, but it isn't. Human nature leads you to want comfort, fall into old habits and be great at what you do. These instincts will often cause you to give up and focus on hitting great shots or finding a different mechanical change to focus on. In order to make a change, you have to be uncomfortable, change your habits and quite likely, hit some poor shots for a time during the transition.
Another example is if you were going to go with your buddies to play a golf course with very sloped and undulating greens. In the week prior, your intention is to practice putting and chipping on every slope you can find. To make your practice more "game-like" you can set yourself up with goals and spend time using only one ball, instead of giving yourself many tries with a pile of balls. You could get the ball up and down 10 times from around the green. Perhaps you find a very sloped cup and make 5 six-footers in a row from around the cup.
Your intention is to challenge yourself on tough putts, just as you will face in the weekend match. This approach will allow you to grow your confidence and feel prepared when you step onto the first green and compete with your buddies. Now that you go to practice with a determined outcome, the second factor of great practice is to introduce aspects of the game that are important on the golf course. These aspects will allow you to execute under pressure.
We can all picture a moment in time when we needed a shot to be great and we performed! Leading up to that shot, you probably had a great mental picture of it, you committed to that picture, you set up well, you took dead aim, your rhythm was flowing and your mind was focused. You stepped up and made it happen! Can we also picture an important shot that we flubbed completely? I know I certainly can. In that moment in time, I had an unclear picture of what I wanted, I wasn't very committed, I rushed into my set up barely paying attention to my aim and my tight grip ruined my rhythm. My mind was focused, but it wasn't on what it should have been, but instead on not screwing this up. Perhaps an important person I wanted to impress was there or the Nassau was doubled. No matter what caused the interference, I didn't execute. We need to practice execution under pressure. Because pressure is self-perceived, we can set up situations that create it at any time. We can do it by requiring a goal to be reached or by keeping track of personal bests. We can also call people over to compete with during practice or to simply watch us perform. A true competitor never wants to lose anything, including a putting contest at sunset for $1. Pressure often effects muscle tension, which can quickly change grip pressure, rhythm or even your swing path. Learning to set aside the outcome and focus on the task at hand is a great way to offset pressure and therefore tension. In order to do it on the course, we need to practice it on the range or putting green.
Focus is another aspect of the game that is crucial to good execution. Choosing what to focus on is a learned effort. When faced with water to the right, a generous fairway and trees on the left, where is your focus? If you are not single-minded with your choice of a target, set up to that target and swing to send the ball to the target, you have lost your focus. There are so many ways to lose your focus and only one way to keep it; total commitment to it. If you have a fear of hitting into the water, your focus may be to avoid the hazard. However, that would mean that a shot into the trees was successful. My father often said, "Be careful what you wish for." I never really understood his advice until I was older, but now it is crystal clear to me. What I wish for is bound to happen. My focus or wish must be completely on place I want the ball to go. On the practice range, your focus must be clear and steady. If you are hitting drivers to a target 250 yards away, you need to recognize on each and every shot if you are in the right frame of mind to execute the shot. You need to be specific with a target and commit to it. If you are on the range and your focus moves to a conversation on your right, you must step off. If your set up feels off and unbalanced, the swing you make will be full of compensations. If you feel as though you are aimed to the right, you must not decide to offset it and swing left. When you practice, it is important to recognize if and what your focus is and be demanding of yourself to make it right. Whenever fear, doubt, inattention or results creep into your mind during your pre-shot or execution of a shot, you need to recognize the lack of commitment and start over. This may seem time consuming and even irritating to your fellow competitors once you take it onto the golf course, but what will happen is you will learn to truly commit to each shot and in the long run, speed your play.
One other aspect of execution that you should address at practice is your pre-shot routine. Your pre-shot routine will follow your decision making process of what shot to hit, what club to hit and at what point to aim. On the range, you must make these conscious decisions and then go into your routine. Your pre-shot routine will allow you to visualize the shot you have chosen, align yourself to it, maintain rhythm and readiness and stay committed as you execute. If you practice your routine on the range, you can assure yourself that under the greatest pressure on the course, you will go through the steps needed to visualize, focus and go to the ball prepared to execute. Failure to practice your routine takes away its power to put you in the right frame of mind needed to execute. Even if your shot doesn't turn out as planned, you will know that you didn't fail in preparation, either prior to the shot or on the practice tee.
The final aspect of great practice, to balance your practice between putting, short game and ball striking, is probably the most important to actually lowering your scores. When you become a great putter, you take pressure off of both your short game and ball striking. At our course, both our men's and women's club champions spend time each day practicing. Often it is only 15 minutes at lunch, but they are here for that 15 minutes and when they are here, they both putt. Neither is the longest hitter, nor even the best ball striker among their fellow competitors, but both are the best putters. The reason they are the best is because they spend the majority of their practice time on the putting green. They "make more than their share" many of their friends say, but I know the truth, because I see the commitment they have made to being great putters. If you have an extra fifteen minutes a day to spend to become a better golfer, would you hit a bucket of balls or putt? These club champions know the answer that helps them beat their competition; they putt. It is also important to chip and pitch well if you want to score. When you first begin to practice your short game, it might not seem very fun. But if you make the practice challenging, competitive, and creative, you will find that you have to tear yourself away from the practice green. Kids can spend hours around a green challenging each other to shots, such as "how high can you flop your wedge" or "can you make your ball bounce three times between here and the hole?" Find that childlike attitude and you will soon visualize the same shots when you are on the course. With that ability, you can more confidently go at tucked hole locations or score well on a windy day. You will dictate your game plan instead of a game weakness or an outside condition.
Remember, spend 1/3 of your practice time around the green and make it fun. In January, it is often easy to make promises to yourself about what you want to do to improve yourself. If the promise deals with weight loss, you must change some habits. If the promise deals with spending time with family, you must change some habits. If the promise deals with lowering your handicap, once again, you must change some habits. You now have some ways to look at your practice time to help you do that. Find a P.G.A. or L.P.G.A. Professional in your area to facilitate your changes and help you practice effectively and become a better player.