Winter practice – beating the winter blues

Finally it looked like winter was going away, but my hometown just got dumped with a few more inches of snow.  Luckily I hear an early spring is in the works.

With all this snow, I couldn’t really get out to practice much.  I hit the driving range on a few warm days, just to ensure that the things I’ve been working on are having a positive impact.  The result: I’m satisfied with the work I’ve put in over the winter.

My main focus has been on simplifying my swing.  I figure, the less moving parts, the easier it will be to repeat.  A subset of this has been to focus on automating the squaring of the club so that it is not dependent on timing it precisely, but rather it happens automatically as I turn through the ball.

Both of these concepts, while simple in design, have required work to get into my muscle memory.  The upside is that everything is coming together.  In my last range sessions, I’ve noticed the following: straighter ball flight, better distance control, more solid contact in the center of the club face, and additional ability to work the ball.

I fell very positive about the upcoming season and I wish the snow would melt away so that I can get back out on the short grass.

How to make swing changes stick

Recent experience has taught me that you need two things to make swing changes stick.  Practice and time.  Now while these may seem self evident there is more going on behind the scenes in the subconscious mind than meets the eye.

We’ve all heard the phrases “Practice makes perfect” and “Perfect practice makes perfect”.  We all know that tour players have practiced all their lives to get the level they are at.  The thing is that they are not always practicing the same things in the same way.  They have built up enough skill level, that as they dial one thing in, they can work and address another part of the game.

What am I getting at?

As amateur golfers we don’t have the luxury to practice to practice like a tour player.  In fact, for most of us, we rarely get to practice.  I’ve tried to combat this by investing in some things that bring the practice home, and while that does address much of the problem, there is another part of practicing that has to be thought through as well.

That is, practicing the right things in the right way.

If you’ve had a lesson with a golf pro, they probably got you to do so some things that felt a little strange.  And if you’re like most golfers, you probably forgot about that feeling very shortly after and didn’t really practice it.  The end result is a wasted lesson, and no step forward in your progress.

I think part of the reason we forget to practice those things is because they feel so strange.  And when that happens, we are less likely to use it.  Combine that with very few practice sessions and it is virtually inevitable that you will forget what you learned.

How I’ve been practicing differently

I’ve been focusing on the things I have learned, and how strange they feel.  The thing I’ve realized is that I don’t necessarily need to be doing full swing. Initially what I start out doing is conditioning my body to get used to how that feels.  That position, swing thought etc, that feels strange, is often a big key to getting to the next level.  However, it’s hard to practice because it feels so strange.

Every day, I focus on something like that, that feels a bit strange.  It could be the forward press in putting, it could be the feeling of holding on to your angles and your lag, it could be a feeling that you don’t sway when you turn, or not laying off the club too much etc.

These things feel weird because they are not a part of your swing.  You need to get used to them, you need to get comfortable with them.

Making amazing progress

It’s amazing the things that happen once you start to integrate these things into your swing.  Not only do they become a part of your swing, but as you really integrate them, they take on their own strength.  They become a part of your swing that you can count on, that you can trust.  And when that happens, your swing changes and your results change.

So when your instructor gives you a piece that feels a bit strange, hold on to it, work with it, make it a part of you and you will be rewarded with a more solid game.

Practice Games

Now that it’s getting colder in the North East, I find that when I go to the practice area at my golf course that there is no one there.  The place is deserted.  Still, I want to keep getting better so I’m spending a lot of time.  I’m using a couple of practice games that make practice really interesting and add some significant challenge.

I call the first game:

Pin Seeker

The objective is to get the ball as close to the hole without going more than gimme range past.  Here are the rules.

For every shot that lands on the green, but stays on and short of the pin you get 1 point.  Every shot that gets within 3 feet you get 3 points.  Every shot that hits the pin or goes into the hole, you get 5 points.  However, for every shot that is past the pin and more than 3 feet away, you lose 2 points.

Play this game, it will really sharpen up your pitching, chipping.

Another great game to play is:

Leap Frog

Pick a pin on the green to hit to.  The first shot must land short of the pin, but on the green.  The objective is to see how many balls you can get between the first ball and the pin with each ball having gone past the previous shot.  Start with a PW and move to your more lofted wedges.  It’s trickier than it sounds and it’s a good way to learn distance control.  If you really want to challenge yourself, play this game out of the bunker.

This should give you some really good practice, add some pressure, and begin to recreate situations on the golf course.  You’ll see your skills sharpen, your distance control sharpen and your feel improve.  Give these games a shot and let me know what you think.

Sometimes in golf we need to unlearn before we can learn

The Golf Brain

The last couple of weeks have been up and down in terms of my scores, but I have learned some very valuable lessons along the way.

In my last five rounds I have two of my best scores for the season, two of my worst, and an average round.  What does that tell you?  It tells me that golf is a game of patience.  You can’t control the outcome.  You can only control your process.

Golf is interesting because you can’t force a good shot, you can only let it happen, but you can definitely do a lot of things to create bad shots.  The opposite of that is what I think sports psychologists call “getting out of your own way”.

Over the last few weeks I’ve kept plugging away and practicing what I learned from my coach Eben Dennis.  What’s interesting is that little by little the pieces are coming together, but only because I’m still working on them.  Most golfers, when they take a lesson, or try to make a swing change, take a short term approach.  I don’t think they do it on purpose, but I think they get frustrated when they are not getting results.  So they start to think that what they were learning doesn’t work.  It might be because they tried to take it to the golf course and when it failed there, they assumed the idea or concept is broken.  They dump it and start working on another idea, trying a little bit of this, and a little bit of that.  But what if it wasn’t the idea or concept that was broken?  What if they just didn’t take the time they needed to really get it?

You can’t become a better player if you’re constantly trying and throwing out ideas.  Some things take a while to learn.  And sometimes, we need to unlearn before we can learn.  Drop bad habits so that you can make room for good habits.

One of these bad habits I had, which I didn’t even realize was that I was re gripping my club during the swing. I’m not sure if it was on the back swing or on the downswing, but at impact, the club was in a very different position from where it started in my hands.  Here’s the thing though, I didn’t figure this out until a few weeks after seeing Eben.  And once I figured it out, I needed to unlearn this habit, before I could pick up the habit of maintaining my grip in the same position throughout the swing.

Now that I’ve worked on it, there is one less compensation to make and this has made a world of difference.  It has taught me to use the club as it was designed to be used.  Sounds like a simple and common sense statement doesn’t it?  Use the club as it was intended to be used.  But the truth is that few very few golfers actually do that.  They use it as they think it’s supposed to be used, not as it was actually intended to be used and there’s a big difference.  If you go to the driving range you will see golfer after golfer, chopping away at the ball.  You’ll see them get into all kinds of contortions as they make compensations to get the club on the ball.

But the truth is that the club was not designed to require all these compensations and extra effort at the ball.  It was designed for ease of use to let the ball get in the way, and to use the loft and the club head to do the work as the ball simply bounces of the club face.  Think about that for a few minutes.  Marinade your mind in that thought.  The ball bounces off the face of the club, no extra effort needed and no need to chop at it.

This morning’s round is a sign that I’m working on the right things.  I shot a 76, that could easily have been a 70 if only a few more putts had gone in.  This round simply ramps up my determination to continue to work with the concepts I’ve been learning.  Control, Vision and Dynamic balance.  Get Power Feel Golf to understand what these mean in the golf swing.

Practice unusual shots to develop creativity

Lately I’ve been having so much fun practicing my short game, that I almost don’t feel like going to the driving range.

I’ll bring my bag out to the practice area and I have a sleeve where I keep 10 practice balls.  The sleeve allows me to quickly pick them up, and drop balls anywhere I want to hit from.  It’s been a lot of fun just trying different shots and seeing which club and shot is easiest for me to get it consistently close.  Sometimes I’m surprised by the results.

For example, I picked a shot from the fringe off the green, with about 15 yards to the pin.  There was plenty of green to work with so I tried everything from 9 iron to 60 degree lob wedge.  I would hit a full sleeve of balls with each club, sometimes 2 or three depending on what I was feeling.  Sometimes it was easier to loft it high and land it soft, and other times it was easier to bump and run it up to the pin.  I found that I could get, on that particular shot, roughly the same results with the 9i, PW, 52 degree and 56 degree sand wedge, while the 60 degree was just a bit less consistent.

Once I get going it, I’m constantly picking up the 10 balls and dropping them in a new location to try a new shot.  It’s really a lot of fun, but the biggest benefit is that you begin to develop feel.  The more shots you hit with different clubs from different lies, the more creative you start to become.

I picked a shot that normally I would hit a lob wedge pitch with.  The ball was in the rough, about 5 yards from the fairway, 10 from the green, and 13 from the pin.  I tried some bump and runs with the PW and some pitches with 52 and in both cases I was able to get the balls pretty close to the pin, averaging three to four feet away.  The fun part was that the trajectories were very different and I had to see the shot very differently with those two clubs.  It was a lot of fun just to try different shots and I highly recommend it.

The more creative you can be in your practice, the more fun you can have.  The other benefit of it, is that it takes your mind of mechanics.  It forces you to visualize more clearly and to concentrate more on the feel you are trying to achieve.  This is the kind of practice that I believe can translate well to the course.

Get to know your tendencies

While I’ve been playing pretty consistent golf, I have not been practicing my long game as much.  I think one of the things that happens when you play a lot of golf without going to the driving range is that you can start to get into some bad habits.  For me, it was with my setup.  I noticed it yesterday in my first driving range session in a while.

The first thing I noticed was that my setup didn’t feel right.  After a bit more careful thought I determined that it was my shoulder alignment.  My shoulders were a bit open.  I had to consciously set myself up properly and once I did that my shots straightened out bit and the ball would start either right on line, or slightly right of target and draw back in.

I think it’s important to know what our tendencies are and to try to develop better habits.  My shoulders opening up at address is a tendency that I have and it creeps back in if I don’t watch my setup.  It can also creep into my putting and send putts off line.

However knowing that it is a tendency allows me to be on the lookout for it and the place to make those changes is on the practice tee.  If you build good habits on the practice tee you can take them to the course.

Often when you read about tour players going to see their instructors, you might notice that they talk about working on their fundamentals.  Setup, grip, ball position, etc.  Even tour players can let their own tendencies creep into their game and a good instructor will notice that happening and begin to correct them.  I read recently that Kenny Perry was having some problems with his driving.  He was getting stuck and had the club coming from too far inside and as a result he was losing distance.  His ball position with the driver had slowly crept for forward.  Once he recognized that, he was able to get his ball position back into a better place for him, and his driving improved.

How to warm up properly to play your best golf

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Do you ever show up to golf course only minutes before your tee time, dash to give yourself a quick stretch, take 2 swings, and then hit your first tee shot deep into the woods, OB or in the rough?  Does this happen all the time?

How can we give ourselves the best opportunity to play well?  How can you expect to play well without giving yourself an adequate warm up?

I want to offer a different way to warm up for your round of golf.  It’s going to be designed to help you quickly get into the groove so that you can play your best.

First, let’s talk about what the purpose of the warm up is.

Certainly part of the warm-up should be designed to get your body moving.  Golf after all is an athletic activity.  It requires coordination, flexibility and strength (to varying degrees).  Any tightness in your muscles will affect how you play.

The other part of the warm up is to prepare you for the round you are about to play.  You want to see what your swing is doing that day, and you want to give your self the best opportunities to play well without having to think about mechanics on the golf course.  Any sports psychologist or mental game coach will tell you that thinking about mechanics while you’re doing the activity will lead to decreased performance.  So how do we give ourselves the best opportunity to play well.

I’m going to share a routine that works well for me.  But I want you to understand what I’m trying to accomplish with it.  I want to eliminate 2 variables from the warm up so that we can get off to a great start.  I also want to make sure that we engage the imagination and feel parts of our brain.  This will help us on the golf course.

Eliminate the variables

The first variable I want to eliminate in the warm-up is club length.

Why would I want to do that?

The average golfer does not practice nearly enough to have a consistent swing.  This is a big reason their handicaps have not improved in the last 20 years.  If you are constantly changing the length of the club, than you are going to need to constantly adjust.  When you don’t practice enough, it becomes difficult to make those adjustments quickly.  By warming up with the same club, a 6 or 7 iron only for the first part of it, you have a consistent ball position, a consistent bottom of the arc, and a consistent length of the club.  By not having to adjust to changing those variables you can more easily get a true sense for what your swing is doing that day.  You can also groove consistency.

The next variable I want to eliminate is loft.

Again by warming up with the same club you can groove consistency.  You can get some rhythm.  And you can prepare to play great golf.

Engaging Feel and Imagination

So I’ve taken away two variables.  But what I do want to do is really get your feel and imagination warmed up and ready for play on the golf course.  When you watch the best players in the world, you will find that each shot is unique.  They are normally not playing the same stock shot every shot.  Each shot has a unique trajectory, curve and target.

I’m not going to expect the average golfer to practice unique trajectory, curve and target but I do want to engage feel and imagination.  So here is what to do.

With your 6 or 7 iron you are going to hit to different distances, straight out in front of you.

Take a few balls and hit between 3 and 5 to each distance below.

15 yds

30 yds

50 yds

80 yds

100 yds

120 yds

150 yds

By starting with short chips and moving to longer shots you began to engage feel and imagination.  You need to try and feel the length of the shot. Your imagination becomes engaged in the process.  Starting with shorter shots also builds your consistency.  As you strike short shots accurately your confidence goes up.  If after moving to the next distance you see shorts start to go off line, take a few balls and hit some short ones again, get that feeling solid and return to hitting the longer shots but with that solid feel in mind.

After doing this first part of the warm up, you should be ready to hit some longer clubs including driver.  Maintain the feeling you had when you were hitting crisp shots with your 6 or 7 iron and you should see improved ball striking on the course. For more on practicing see managing your expectations on the golf course or using your natural auto pilot to play your best golf.

How do I choose a golf simulator?

Recently a friend asked me to provide some information on golf simulators to his wife, a university golf team coach who needs to present a proposal to the school for an indoor practice room.

Whether you are looking to create a commercial facility, a team practice area, or a home practice room, there are a lot of choices out there when it comes to a golf simulator.

What I would advise anyone who is looking to buy one is to look at the following factors.  Each one will have an impact on the golf simulator actually chosen.

  1. What is your budget?
  2. How do you intend to use it?
  3. Do you intend to use it for club fitting or lessons?
  4. How much space do you have?

What is your budget?

Golf simulators range from a few hundred dollars to more than 50,000 dollars.  Interestingly some of the lower end units can rival the more expensive units for a certain type of customer.

Generally though, your budget will determine what you can actually look at, realistically for an installation.

On the lower end of the price spectrum (but nonetheless an excellent simulator) is the Optishot from Dancin’ Dogg.  You can see my review here of this golf simulator.

At the higher end of the spectrum you have something like the PGA Tour Simulator which will run you $50,000.

Another thing to consider is how many you want or need to install.  One is perfect for home use, but you may want to have 5 or 6 bays for a team practice center or commercial facility.

How do you intend to use it?

There are many excellent uses for a golf simulator.  You can use a golf simulator to stay sharp over the winter, you can use them in a commercial venture and host golf leagues, or as an add-on to a bar or restaurant, to sharpen your short game, or you can use them for lessons and club fitting.  How you intend to use it will again, affect the choices available to you.

While I wouldn’t use the Optishot for club fitting, it can certainly be used for commercial or home installations for practice, and camaraderie.  On the other hand, a launch monitor like the Vector Pro should not be used to play rounds of golf with friends as the software doesn’t support that.  It’s best use is for club fitting and lessons.

Do you intend to use it for club fitting or lessons?

Club fitters typically need more data than other users of simulators.  Club fitters need to look at things like back spin rate, side spin, angle of attack, in addition to the normal data offered by most simulators (club head speed, path, club face angle).

If you give lessons you may want a simulator or launch monitor that integrates with you V1Pro or Catalyst package.

How much space do you have?

This is an important question.  I can fit my Optishot system in a small room in my apartment or house as long as the ceiling is high enough and I have clearance.  The system is flexible so that I can start out with just the base unit connected to a computer, but at any point I can add stance mat, net, screen, projector etc, creating a system that would rival the big boys.

However if you have the funds and the space you can start out with a fully loaded system like the PGA Tour Simulator that can have 50 courses and counting, and can have multiple screens projected on them simultaneously to create a true panoramic view.  That kind of system takes up a lot of space.

How to keep breakthroughs from slipping away

So I read something interesting on a a forum last night.

The poster wrote that he often experiences breakthroughs while on the range, but they disappear as quickly as they came the next time he plays golf or practices.

I would bet almost everybody goes through this.

So how can you take a breakthrough and build on it, rather than letting it slip away?

Imagine what would happen if every breakthrough you had practicing, stayed with you?  You would quickly become an excellent golfer.  You would have a more consistent repeatable swing.  And you would have more fun on the golf course.

Here’s why breakthroughs don’t last.

  1. We don’t document what we did.
  2. If we do document, we document the wrong thing
  3. We try to extend the breakthrough
  4. If we can’t get it back quickly, we forget about it

We don’t document what we did

One of the best things you can do is keep track of your progress in some kind of written form.  A notebook, a pad, a laptop, or even a blog will do.  I hard that Annika Sorenstam kept copious notes of every practice session, every practice round and that she has notebooks filled with her insights, thoughs, and feelings.  Those are invaluable.  As golfers we go through periods when we are playing well, and periods when we’re not.  The game is filled with ups and downs.

It’s nice when you’re not playing well, to look back at times when you were, see what you were doing right, and it might spark some new enthusiasm or just get you back on track.  That is actually one of the main reasons I started this blog.  I know that any time I’m not playing well, I can just come back to this blog, see when I was playing well, and read some entries around that time.  It might lead to an a-ha moment that can set me on the right track.

If we do document, we document the wrong thing

If we do take notes of our practice sessions we tend to write about the wrong things.  We may write about some mechanical aspect of it.  Our elbow was here, or my feet were set like this…etc.  I think it’s more important to document feelings.  What felt right about the swing.  What did you feel in your body, your hands.  What was your mindset like?

These things are more important because they change how you approach your practice sessions.  By focusing on feelings you can learn to recreate those.  By recreating feelings you are more likely to get back to the results you were having that day.  If your swing has changed over time, the mechanics that you look at or remember, may no longer apply.  In fact you may be doing more damage by trying to work those mechanics back into your swing.

We try to extend the breakthrough

Ever notice that when you’re striking it particularly, there is a feeling of “wow, if I’m hitting it this far at 85%, I can really get it out there at 100%”.  These thoughts are deadly.  What happens is that you then lose the success.  The breakthrough dissipates and is not heard from again.  What happened here?

You tried to extend the breakthrough.  You tried to make it do more instead of keeping it, feeling it, and making it a part of your swing.  It’s sort of like killing the goose to get the golden eggs.

If we can’t get it back quickly, we forget about it

Ah defeat.  You’ve lost the breakthrough because you killed the goose.  Now what?  If you can’t get it back you wind up forgetting about it and hoping another breakthrough comes along.  It will, but you’ll probably lose it again unless you change what you do when you get a breakthrough.

So what should you do?

Focus on the things that are re creatable.  Mainly how things feel in your body, and your mindset.  At first it will be difficult to document how the swing feels.  Over time you will get better a describing it.  In describing it you’ll be accomplishing two things.  You’ll make the feeling more real so you’re body will remember it better, and your creating a document you can look back on to get you back on track when things are off.

It’s just as important to describe your mindset.  If you can get back to into the same mindset you will probably start to get those results back.  If you combine the mindset with the feelings, you should be able to quickly get back on track.

30 Day Challenge – Day 6: Can I hit more greens in regulation?

The past few days I have talked quite a bit about things I have been doing with the driver. Things that astounded me. Today I really wanted to focus on how I can hit more greens in regulation, which means improving my iron play and approach shots.

One of the most frustrating things in golf for me is to hit a great drive and follow it up with a lousy iron approach. It really bugs me to have placed the ball in perfect position and not get home.  I don’t know if it’s happened to you but I always feel like I wasted a good opportunity when that happens.

I can only imagine how many more greens I would have hit if I could have just improved on that shot and how much more it would have changed my scores and my handicap.

So how can I hit more greens in regulation?

There are a number of things you can do to hit more greens in regulation. I’ll talk about the things I’m doing now, as well as cover other effective techniques.

During the 30 Day Challenge I’ve been working on improving my feel. This has paid a lot dividends including improving my consistency with the driver. It has also really helped to improve my iron game. I feel very confident now that not only will the irons go in the intended direction, but that I can bring them in from the right or the left. I think this alone will have a tremendous effect on my approach shots to the green.  My ball striking has become so much more solid by simply feeling what my hands need to feel during the swing.  It’s not the same as using my hands, it’s more like feeling their role throughout the swing.  It’s very interesting to work on it really simplifies the game.

On the technical side of things there are things you can do as well. The first is to shorten your back swing. Irons should be hit with a 3/4 swing with a descending blow. Hit the ball before you hit the ground and you should see your ball striking improve. One way to ingrain this faster and save yourself some time on the range is to use a hinged iron to improve your mechanics and hit more greens in regulation. The hinged club will break when you’re swing is off and as you correct those problems, you should be able to hit it more solid.

I think a lot of it has to do with confidence as well. I think if you’re not used hitting a great drive, and I wasn’t used to it as driving was the weakest part of my game last year, is that when you do hit it well, you get a bit excited, or very excited. This in turn creates pressure to execute. If your not comfortable with the pressure, you won’t hit a good shot.

This 30 day challenge has changed my confidence greatly. I feel differently approaching the ball. I am better able to plan a shot and actually execute it without thinking about the mechanics of the shot. That is probably the most helpful result of the challenge so far. It simplifies the game, takes mechanics out, and makes it simply more fun to be a shot maker. Sign up for the 30 Day Challenge here if you’re interested in taking complicated mechanics out of your game and gaining confidence over the ball.