Are you a range rat? We all know that guy who is on the range whenever you head out there. He hits balls for hours. You rarely see him on the putting green or chipping, but he is a fixture on the range. What is that guy getting out of his practice?
What you get from a practice session depends on a few factors. First, are you enjoying yourself? I don't mean you have to be laughing and cutting up with buddies, but I do think there needs to be enjoyment to stay focused. If you become bored, your mind will wander or you will start to "make stuff up" about your game. So how do you make it enjoyable?
First, the thing to remember is you "play" golf. If you can learn to make it enjoyable, instead of drudgery, that same attitude will hit you when you are in a tense situation in competition. The fun of the game is in the process. We all know golf takes repetitions. You have to groove your swing and make it reliable. You need to hit putts and chips until your motion is competent and effortless. You need to know your game and trust it in any circumstance. When all of these things happen and you feel as though you have a repeatable action, you can then form real mastery and move away from repeatable into creation. The repeatable movement is a baseline, but when you are on the golf course and have a funky lie and need to work the ball around the trees in front of you, the repeatable swing won't work. You now get to take what you have learned and create something new. You get to experiment and perform a motion that is both unique to you and fitted to the situation you face. This is the essence of learning the game. The repetition is the foundation and upon it you build your creativity.
Here is a great video of Keith Richards talking about exactly this process in music. Spot on!
When you are on the range, you first need to understand what you are practicing. If it is a practice focused on repetition, then your practice should include your pre-shot routine, particular focus on alignment, a definite target and whatever swing key needed to execute an effective swing. I have often heard the phrase, "quality, not quantity" and I think there is much wisdom in that. However, I have found that champions in any sport have figured out how to have both. They understand that each of the above pieces of the process of hitting a golf shot are important and they focus on the steps so often that it becomes second nature. Have you ever seen a pro stop his pre-shot routine and start over? Have you seen one over a shot and suddenly step away and begin her routine again from the beginning? In both cases, these players understand that they left something out of the process that is crucial to their executions. The ability to understand the process of executing a golf shot is ingrained through repetition and becomes fundamental to the shot itself.
How would this understanding of process make practice enjoyable? A focused mind is a content mind. It matters not what your avocation. If you love music and are learning to play the guitar, you could play the same 3 chords in sequence hundreds of times and be completely entranced. Allowing yourself to be caught up in the process is to be conscious of your actions and intentions and a crucial step in training.
There is also repetition involved in learning mechanics. Some golfers get so caught up in this step of learning that they never move past it and flourish as a player. I believe there are professionals playing on tour who might still be stuck in this mode and never truly play the game without a basis in mechanics. By saying that, I admit that you can play at a truly high level with a focus on the repetition of mechanics, but I also think you might be missing the true mastery of the game and therefore the opportunity for the most fun.
Repetition in mechanics is a crucial step in learning. It is developing an understanding of what your club face must do to hit a straight shot, relating that to your hands, and swinging the club and getting those two things matched up. You can talk about all kinds of different parts of the golf swing, but that is the true essence of mechanics. If your parents were keeping a baby book of your golf swing, that would be the magical first step. As you progress and learn to hit more shots with a squared face, you will soon want to "run" and get some power into the swing. Now your mechanics are happening at a faster pace. You have to now have flow, rhythm and speed and couple these things with that ability to put the club face squarely on the ball. It helps to have a guide - a good teacher - as you go through this process, but there have been a lot of great players who were self-taught. The thing that all of us must realize is, even if we were self-taught, we watched others and learned.
The time you spend on the range thinking about mechanics and repeating shots is so valuable in and of itself. It forms your basic swing or game. In the process, there are feelings that are relayed from the hands to the brain. There are images that are relayed from the eyes to the brain and there are sounds of pure contact brought into the brain. The learning process is overwhelming in that you are taking so much in. Because of that, you need to pare down and focus on what one thing will make you better today. This is where a lot of golfers make the mistake of listening to everything and not focusing on the essence of what is needed. They are searchers, experimenters, tinkerers and thinkers. They are learning a golf swing, but they are not focused on what their needs are. When you are practicing your mechanics, decide what you want to accomplish in that session. If you want to hit the ball higher, that is the goal of the day. Don't allow yourself to get off track. Don't start thinking about not hitting it to the right or about the thin shots you hit. When you are working through a mechanical thought or change, you will hit bad shots. Don't let them lead you down the path of tinkerer. Instead, focus on what you want as a player and decide what will make you better in that session. This is a great way to stay on track with "quality vs. quantity" and also a real commitment to moving toward greatness. Truly learn your own swing. Make it perform as you want it to perform. Know your own mechanics and what makes your swing work.
Now that we have talked about the importance of repetition, it is crucial to spend some practice time being creative. When you walk off of the first tee, you will be presented with a shot that is unique. Something about each shot makes it unique, whether it is the wind, the grass, the trees, the temperature, where the hole is cut, how the ground is sloped or how you are feeling at that time. The best thing about golf is that you are constantly presented with unique situation. It is a problem solvers sport and one that is best played with an open mind.
Creative practice means simply that you create shots. You don't hit a ball and then try to copy that swing. Instead, you create a unique swing that accomplishes something entirely different than the shot before. David Cook, a fantastic sports psychologist, wrote a practice schedule called "88 Shots" for people to use to understand the idea of creative practice. In it, you are hitting hooks, slices, from your knees, with one hand and all kinds of different ways. It is prescribed creative practice, which is a bit of an oxymoron, but it is a great tool. It returns us to our childhood when we tried stuff just for the fun of trying it. By learning to create a hook, we will in turn be able to control our slice. By learning to hit with one hand, we will feel the balance of the club. By hitting off of our knees, we start to understand swing plane. Even by leading a player into creativity with a formula, the player learns the benefits of being inventive and experimenting.
If you feel as though you aren't learning anything in your practice sessions, quit trying to learn and simply be outrageous. See how big of a hook you can hit. You will learn and have fun doing it.
The ideas today for making your practice more fun are to get lost in the process, learn to control your mechanics instead of striving for a perfection or a model of mechanics and finally, be creative. These are three ways to stay focused and three things that I have long witnessed in great players.