Why Do I Get Worse the More I Play? You Need Some SPICE!

Anyone who has played golf for any length of time will be familiar with the drill.

You ask a pro why you are not getting better and are told that it’s because you don’t practice enough.

But what about the scenario which some golfers find themselves in where they step up the amount they are practicing and playing but the results are actually worse then they were before.

They find that the more they play the worse they are actually getting. But why is this?

Getting better at golf, or any sport or skill, requires ‘deliberate practice’. The volume of playing and practice time will not improve performance unless it is combined with goal setting, focus, expert feedback and discomfort. Unstructured practice by contrast will simply ingrain poor habits.

When golfers hear tales of legendary golfers they are often accompanied by anecdotes about how much they practice.

9-time major champion and one the greats of the game, Gary Player, is famous for the quote – “The more I practice the luckier I get.”

The work ethic of Tiger Woods, arguably the best golfer of all time, is also legendary in the world of golf.

As a result any amateur golfer would be forgiven for thinking it’s just a matter of stepping up the amount of practice and playing hours they put in before they finally get that handicap down or break that 80, 90, 100 score barrier for the first time.

But what these anecdotes leave out is the detail of the best golfers’ practice sessions.

Because unless you are practising and playing more doing the right things you are not going to get any better and can easily get worse.

Practice Makes Permanent not Perfect

Nobody ever told any golfer to practice less if they want to get better.

The concept that hours on the practice fairway and course are required to get your handicap and scores down is drilled into every golfer from the moment they start playing.

So when some golfers find themselves lucky enough to have more time on their hands to play golf, or decide to make the time, to get better it is an unbelievably frustrating experience if that extra time has the opposite effect.

Instead of their scores and handicap tumbling they find themselves slowly getting worse and can even reach the point where they want to take a break from the game or even give up.

But the reason this is happening is not that they have found themselves to be the only exception in the golfing world to the rule that more practice and playing time makes you better.

It will be because they are not spending that extra time practicing the right things.

Because if you want to get better rather than worse when you practice and play more you have to turn your extra sessions into ‘deliberate’ ones by adding ‘S.P.I.C.E.’ according to one of the world’s leading experts on expertise – Professor Anders Ericsson.

Lots of golf and sports literature in recent years has talked about the 10,000 rule.

This rule, popularized by the author Malcolm Gladwell, basically states that if you practice a skill like golf for 10,000 hours you have a good chance at becoming an expert at it.

But what this rule misses out is that the academic research this is based on didn’t say that.

The research on which Gladwell based his 10,000 hour rule on, led by Anders Ericcson – Professor of Psychology at Florida State University and internationally recognized as a researcher in the psychological nature of expertise – instead talked about the concept of ‘deliberate practice’.

And deliberate, or purposeful practice as it also sometimes called, requires anyone looking to improve to set goals, focus intensely on the task at hand, get immediate feedback on what they just did – ideally from expert coaches – and consistently practive things that you can’t do well rather than those they can.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Professor Ericsson et al. said:

“When most people practice, they focus on the things they already know how to do. Deliberate practice is different. It entails considerable, specific, and sustained efforts to do something you can’t do well – or even at all. Research across domains shows that it is only by working at what you can’t do that you turn into the expert you want to become.”

So if you are someone who has found themselves getting worse the more they have played think about the concept of ‘deliberate practice’.

When you started playing more did you just head to the range and course and do what you always did and just magically expect the extra time would make you improve?

Did you hit x20 drivers and ten 7-irons on the range before you played and then head straight to the course thinking because you finally had the time to warm up that would make all the difference?

Did you work on any aspect of your technique at those extra practice sessions or video your swing and analyse the results after each shot to try and work out what went wrong or right?

Did you mentally take yourself through a round on the course and work out what your strategy and course plan was for every hole?

Or did you just keep doing the same things more often and wonder why they didn’t finally lead to improvements.

Or conversely, did you try and change multiple things at once to the point where you had no idea what was working and what wasn’t because you weren’t getting any regular feedback.

The problem according to Professor Ericsson will almost certainly have been that it wasn’t the amount of time you were spending that was the problem it was ‘how’ you were spending that time.

Practice doesn’t make perfect.

It makes what you practice ‘permanent’ so unless you are practising ‘deliberately’ any extra time you spend on the course could simply ingrain your bad habits and make you play even worse.

How Often Should I Practice & Play Golf to Get Better?

Professional golfers can spend more than 6 hours a day practising.

In today’s modern game pros will also spend time in the gym as well as on the golf course.

And the reason they are for doing that is it is helping them hit the ball further.

The USGA / R&A’s latest ‘Distance Insights Report’ recently found player fitness is now the third most important factor that is contributing to the ever-increasing distances being hit at the professional level.

Others estimate that it takes players between 3-4 hours a day practicing to reach a scratch handicap.

But as we have already seen it is not just the amount of practice which is important if you want get better at golf.

How you spend that time practicing and the mental approach you take to the game is equally if not more important and therefore how long each individual player should practice and play to get better will of course vary from golfer to golfer.

“In the early phases [of playing golf], you try to understand the basic strokes and focus on avoiding gross mistakes … In a surprisingly short time (perhaps 50 hours), you will develop better control and your game will improve. From then on, you will work on your skills … until your strokes become automatic: You’ll think less about each shot and play more from intuition. Your golf game now is a social outing, in which you occasionally concentrate on your shot. From this point on, additional time on the course will not substantially improve your performance, which may remain at the same level for decades.

Anders Ericsson et al, Harvard Business Review

The main key determinant therefore of how much you should practice and play golf to get better is what your ‘target’ is.

Being clear on what your goal is and how good you want to be will give you a guide for how much you should be practicing and playing.

Very few of us, no matter what we say, actually have the desire or will to be professional golfers.

A lot of us for example simply want to reduce our handicap by a couple of strokes, maybe even to single figures or would just like to break a scoring milestone for the first time such as 90, 100 or even 80.

Based on the difference between your starting point and your goal you will be able to get an idea of how much practice and playing time you will need to put in.

Taking the estimates of the amount of time professionals and scratch players need to spend practicing it is unlikely that you will make any ‘significant’ improvements without practicing and playing two to three times a week.

If you cannot commit that amount of time to working on the key weaknesses in your game then you should scale back your goal to something that is realistic based on the amount of time you can spend.

If you are focusing on ‘how’ you are going to get better however that does not mean you can’t be smart about your practice time and maximise your opportunities.

For example practicing your putting is best done in the controlled conditions of home on a putting mat so you can add quality practice time into a busy schedule without always having to head to the range or the course.

You can also be analysing your stats from home identifying the actual weaknesses in your game which need to be worked on rather than the ones based on how you ‘think’ you played last time out.

If you find yourself having more time to play more either by accident or design and really want to improve don’t waste the extra time.

If you spend it just doing what you have always done you will not get any better and if you have some bad habits you’ll likely just ingrain them a bit more and get worse rather than better.

There is one absolute certainty however.

When it comes to golf and improvement – if you do not practice and play regularly you will not get better.

Is There an Ideal Type of Practice?

When they do get a chance to practice golfers are often wondering whether there is an ideal type of practice they should be focusing on to get better.

Because putting is viewed by amateur golfers as the key to golf and because it accounts for 40% or more of the shots most golfers take, it seems logical to think you should be working on your putting at least 40% of your time.

If you then spend at least 30% working on your chipping to dial in your short game and spend any remaining time at the range the answer to what ‘type’ of practice you should be doing would seem to be sorted.

There is however no magic formula or ratio for types of practice that every player should follow.

The answer for what types of practice an individual golfer should be doing will be different for every player.

If you want to get better however a great place to start working out what type of practice is ideal for your game is your own stats.

If you are serious about improving you need to know what are the weaker areas of your game so you can quickly focus on addressing them and setting mini-targets for how much you want to improve them.

To start practicing based on a ‘rough idea’ of how you think you are playing is not good enough.

You need to be clear on what you need to focus your precious practice sessions on.

It’s always tempting to head to the range and just keep hitting the shots we are good at.

But if your stats are indicating that you are 3 putting five times per round then you are not going to sort that by heading to the range to hit your driver the whole time.

Similarly if your stats are telling you that you hit the ball out of bounds or into deep trouble once every two times off the tee the focus of your next session shouldn’t really be your putting.

Better players analyse their game so any practice they do is specific to addressing their specific weaknesses.

Your stats won’t lie and tracking them consistently will give you a consistent feedback loop to help direct your practice over the coming weeks and months.

And once you’ve found what you should be working on try varying types of practice you do to find out what works best for you.

“While I am practicing I am also trying to develop my powers of concentration. I never just walk up and hit the ball.”

Ben Hogan, 9-time Major champion

If you simply don’t enjoy hitting endless amounts of balls on the range then ‘practice’ out on the course.

Similarly if you are range fiend and love nothing better than getting to the range then use that as a positive and work on your weaknesses there.

Just remember though you are going to need to get on to the course a few times also to make sure you are translating what you are doing on the range onto the course.

Or if you are having real difficulty with a particular shot on a particular hole on your home course do what the pros do and during a quiet time on the course play a few balls from that spot.

The ratio of practice to play will be different for different players.

Where you are doing your practice when you have the time is not really the important thing provided you are focusing intently on ‘how’ your practice sessions are targeted on your weaknesses.

Final Thought

If you are playing more and more but your golf is not improving the great news is that you already have the answer that will stop your continuing slide in its tracks.

And that is to stop doing exactly what it is your are doing at the moment!

Whatever it is you are doing clearly isn’t working so why would you continue doing it?

Take a breath, or even a break for a short while if you need it, and come back with clear goals and a plan of how you can achieve them.

If you are lucky enough to have some extra time to practice and play your golf and really want to improve don’t waste it!

Target your practice correctly, do it right and you will improve without question.

But if you just want to just keep enjoying the game socially and have time to do it more don’t worry about it so much!

It’s just a game remember!

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