Golf Clubs
The Wrong Way to Practice Golf

Not at Home on the Range

Why Much of the Work Golfers Do to Improve Their Games Isn't Helping Them Get Better

(View original article in the Wall Street Journal)

You're on the range, pounding balls, and suddenly golf seems easy. All the parts of your swing sync and you start striping one career-best drive after another. "By golly, I've got it," you say to yourself. You can't wait to get to the course.

Science has a name for this exalted state, but unfortunately it's not "flow" or "in the zone." It's "the illusion of competence," and the odds are it's doing your golf game more harm than good.

You may think you've got it, but you haven't. More than most people realize, the range has little to do with actual golf. "After most sessions on the range or even lessons, golfers haven't really learned anything, if by learning you mean making a skill usable, durable and automatic in other contexts," said Fran Pirozzolo, a Ph.D. in neuropsychology who has worked on performance training with PGA Tour pros, elite athletes from football and baseball, Navy SEALs and NASA astronauts. By "other contexts" he means playing in the pressure of competition, but also driving off the first tee in front of friends and hitting off a downhill lie.

We golfers, it turns out, are bad at assessing the state of our skills. We are even worse at understanding how our brains work when we try to make changes, and most instructors aren't much help, either. "Our golf culture is set up to pass along knowledge in half-hour or one-hour lessons. In that time, a teacher can fix a shank or get somebody to slice the ball less, and everyone leaves the lesson happy. But there's not much of a system in place to transfer that knowledge onto the course," Pirozzolo said.

Elite athletes know themselves better. "That's why Tour pros talk about needing months or even a year to integrate a swing change. Eighteen-handicappers almost never understand that," he said.

Drawing heavily on the latest research in neuroscience, Pirozzolo is working with Steven Levitt, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago and the co-author of "Freakonomics," on a golf research project to determine which transfer techniques work and which don't.

One technique that clearly doesn't work is "massing"—that irresistible urge most golfers have to hit interminable balls at the range until, maybe, they get it right for a short spell. "Massing can be useful for introducing new skills because you have to create a basis. But fairly quickly, if you want to progress and retain what you've learned, you need more advanced techniques," Pirozzolo said.

A lot of these can be uncomfortable, since they involve frequent failure. The good news is they can take less time than the random ball-whacking many golfers are already doing. Some can be adapted into games against other players, especially short-game drills.

"Interleaving" is one example. That's neuroscience-speak for constantly alternating clubs, drills and targets. In one experiment that Levitt and Pirozzolo conducted, the goal was to increase proficiency on 110-yard wedge shots. One group of participants hit 90 shots to targets exactly that far away. A second group hit 30 shots to 70-yard targets, 30 shots to 110-yard targets and 30 shots to 120-yard targets. In the end, the second group substantially outperformed the first group in hitting to 110-yard targets, even though they had hit only a third as many shots to that distance.

Generally speaking, the best practice techniques are those that lay down multiple, vivid memory patterns in the brain. Sometimes that entails introducing "desirable difficulties" such as simulated pressure, hitting in strong winds and from bad lies. Practicing in short sessions across many days is more effective than "cramming" the same work into a single session, opening more avenues for recall.

Not all golfers are willing to put themselves through such grief, of course, even though they'd ultimately enjoy the game more if they did. (A recent study by the golf research firm Pellucid determined that for each stroke lower a midhandicap golfer scores, he or she will play, on average, 10% more rounds because of increased enthusiasm.)

A major reason for players' reluctance to make the effort is their frustration with previous lessons, when what they learned on the practice tee (or thought they learned) didn't stick. "Golfers are being sold a lie when they're told they'll get better with 30 minutes of swing analysis," said Rick Jensen, a sports psychologist who argued in his book "Easier Said Than Done" that simple lessons aren't enough. "Golfers need coaches like in other sports, someone to give them drills, monitor their progress, send them out to scrimmage and give them feedback," he said.

The intensive coaching model that works for Tour pros is too expensive for most amateurs, but Jensen said that if players are better educated about what it really takes to improve, they and their teachers can better decide how to use the time and money that is available. There are signs that this philosophy is gaining steam. Top-50 instructor Michael Hebron now teaches almost entirely in light of the latest brain-science research. "You never hit the same shot twice on a golf course, so why should you on the range?" he said. Golftec, a national chain of teaching centers, sells most of its lessons in multimonth or yearlong packages that include gym-membership-type access to video-enhanced practice facilities.

Even for local teaching pros, there's a better way, said John Kennedy, the director of golf at Westchester Country Club in Rye, N.Y. The starting point is establishing realistic long-term goals that are within the student's budget and physical limitations. "A 45-year-old 20 handicapper in OK shape, with a lesson every other week or so, should probably be able to get down to a 12 handicap in one season. But he'd have to really commit to his teacher and follow through on drills and proper practice and the short game," Kennedy said. "It's doable and enjoyable. But people have to be told the truth. And they have to really want to get better in their heart."