How much practice makes perfect?

Many of you may have heard the theory that if you practise a skill for 10,000 hours you can become an expert.

Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers” clearly presents some of the research that has been undertaken to understand whether it is “innate talent” or preparation that matters most (this book is definitely worth a read!).

In Gladwell’s book he describes the studies undertaken by the psychologist K. Anders Ericsson and his colleagues where they compare the practice of musicians to understand its importance. Despite lots of debate, their results have been replicated over and over again with different skills and people (the book uses the examples of the Beatles and Bill Gates) and it has been found that, although some level of talent and opportunities matter, what distinguishes someone from being an amateur or a professional or gaining success is the number of hours of practice with 10,000 being the magic number.

10,000 hours is quite a lot! If you practised anything for 12 hours a day it would take you approximately 833 days (or 2 years and 3 months) to get to 10,000 hours. In fact Gladwell’s book states that it takes about 10 years to put in 10,000 hours of hard practice.

So now that every beginner (including myself) has been sufficiently scared, what can we actually take away from this? Practice matters. Sounds obvious? Yes, but one crucial aspect that Ericsson has also written about is “deliberate practice”. I mentioned this in my post “Driving Range Darkness.” Deliberate practice has several definitions but includes highly structured activity, looking for feedback, requires effort and may not be inherently enjoyable.

As a beginner, you have to remember that everyone started somewhere (see my blog post “5 Tips for Every Beginner”).

Deliberate practice in golf:

Some of the questions that I ask myself (or am supposed to ask myself!) before every practice session:

1. What do I want to get out of this session?

Each practice session is personal to you and your needs and should have some structure. I look back at things such as any analysis from previous scorecards (number of putts, greens in regulation etc.), any lesson notes and any videos I have and decide what I need to work on.

Videos are an invaluable way for me to identify anything in my swing that I didn’t realise I was doing and my pro friends have been really helpful at analysing them (special shout-out to the amazing Adam if he ever reads this!).

I tend to focus on just 1-2 things per session and I always try and keep each session varied so that I don’t get bored or too frustrated.

2. Am I stepping outside my comfort zone?

A key point of deliberate practice is that you need to step out of your comfort zone and practise those difficult shots in what I like to refer to as “a safe environment” i.e. there’s no pressure and you’re not in a competitive situation. It’s easy to go to the range and just smash balls consecutively with your favourite club.

I am definitely guilty of saying, “I can’t hit that” or “I don’t know what to do” when I’ve been out on the course so they are exactly the shots I should be practising instead. Deliberate practice may not be inherently enjoyable but at the end of the day it’s what you need to practice. Don’t take this to the extreme though and get discouraged- I’m not afraid to admit that golf has made me cry and looking back on those times I realise I was putting too much pressure on myself and forgetting all the reasons why I love the game.

3. How long am I going to practise for?

I have definitely overdone my practice sometimes and actually injured myself in doing so.

Now I either practice for a specified amount of time (to reach those 10,000 hours!) or say I’m going to hit X number of balls or get X number of putts in and then move onto something else, but I always try and finish on what I think is a good shot for some kind of boost (even if it isn’t necessarily representative of the whole session).

4. How can I assess any improvements?

As with anything, encouragement comes from seeing positive results. However, this might not necessarily be a case of hitting the ball further. In golf you always see where the ball ends up but you don’t see your swing and how you got there. The word “repeatable” is so crucial and so sometimes the most useful feedback is just feeling confident that I have a swing pattern or thought which means I can get the club into the best position for me and have a reliable, consistent swing that feels effortless.

The most tangible way of assessing improvements is of course from your scorecard (I had my best round of 15 over this summer) but it’s the analysis (greens in regulation, number of putts etc.) rather than the total score that helps identify areas for improvement. This together with videos and any tips from my friends/coach forms part of the feedback loop that answers question 1 for the next practice session.

The conclusion is this – if you really want to get better at golf but don’t want to wait 10 years to become a perfect expert then make sure you undertake “deliberate practice” and try to make each practice session count. At the same time, please try and remember to have fun and don’t lose sight of the reasons why you started in the first place!

Happy golfing!