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Are You Wasting Your Time on the Practice Putting Green?

I am a people watcher.  As a putting coach, I find it interesting to watch people practice putting. While it is admirable that a player is motivated enough to invest time to practice their putting, I often feel badly for them many times because they are unlikely to be improving. Why? Because, most golfers do not understand the four (4) requirements to improve their putting skills.  The four (4) requirements to effectively learn putting skills are the same requirements for learning any motor skill.  What are they? Read on and find out.

Learning Requirement #1: *Repetition

This requirement is obvious.  If you want to learn or improve at something, you must practice that skill. Did you notice the “*” I placed in front of the word repetition?  The reason for the “*” is that not all repetitions are created equal.  Not all repetitions are productive.  How many times have you seen someone standing next to a pile of golf balls (on the practice tee or practice green) while they “rake and fire” putt after putt to the same hole?  These repetitions are bad investments of time and energy.  They are not productive.

A productive repetition should include several things.  Three of those things are the remaining Learning Requirements in this post.  In addition to those, a productive repetition should include the player engaging their full, specific shot routine.  The repetition should be played as a competition stroke would be played.  This is critical to transferring the new skill into play. One other element to include in productive repetitions is “randomness”. Skill is acquired faster when the task is varied with each repetition versus the same putt, time after time. So, vary your targets with each repetition and play the shot like a competitive shot, with full routine, and you will be executing productive repetitions.  These are necessary, but not sufficient, for efficient learning.  You also need the other three requirements.

Learning Requirement #2: Feedback

A productive repetition of putting practice requires the player to receive immediate feedback pertaining to the skill being practiced.  It is insufficient to observe if a putt falls into the hole or not.  There are many reasons for a putt to not fall into the hole.  Some reasons are outside the player’s control and several are unrelated to a specific skill that may be the focus of that practice repetition. For example, a player wanting to improve their ability to start their ball on a specific line might use a chalk line, a yardstick, or a laser line to provide feedback.  Any of these tools will immediately reveal if a putt repetition is online, right of line, or left of line.  The player immediately knows if the putter face was square, open, or closed at impact.  If the player had relied solely on a putt going into a hole, they may try to “fix the wrong problem” because the miss could have been a result of: a misread, poor speed for the chosen line, or an environmental factor like wind, grain, or the inconsistency of grass which has been demonstrated to greatly impact miss/make putting outcomes.  Productive practice and learning require feedback.  Obtaining feedback does not require expensive training aids.  Often a player can use inexpensive, everyday items to provide effective feedback.  

Learning Requirement #3: Failure

The quote, “Failure is not an option.  It is mandatory.”, is not just a motivational truth about the need for persistence.  When developing motor skills like putting, skill is more efficiently acquired when the feedback provided in the repetition informs the player about the specifics of the “failure”.  The player’s brain uses the feedback as a reference for the planning and execution of future repetitions.  In fact, it is a common element in the practice drills of world-class instructors to have the player intentionally fail, repeatedly, on both “incorrect” sides of the desired target.  For example: Using a chalk line as a start line objective, having the player intentionally start the ball incorrectly left of the line, then incorrectly right of the line, and, finally, squarely down the line, has proven to be a more efficient way to develop start line skill versus only trying to start the ball down the line.  Similarly, for a distance control drill.  First, putt the ball intentionally too far, then intentionally too short, and, finally, the correct distance.  Intentional failure is a great tool for learning.  Failure is both inevitable and necessary for learning.  Embrace it.

Learning Requirement #4: Concept

Although I am listing Concept as Learning Requirement #4, it is the first requirement a player should meet before attempting to engage in productive practice repetitions.  It is critical for learning that a player have a clear and sound concept/understanding of the skill being learned. Without a clear and sound concept, the player will not be able to effectively make use of feedback from failed repetitions.  The result will be the player randomly changing their technique, hoping to get a better result, but failing to improve.  For example, let’s stay with the theme of the start line skill.  It is true that the starting direction of a putt is largely determined by where the face of the club is pointed at impact, versus the direction of the path the club is traveling. Experts place the percentage between 83%-90% (or higher) of the start direction of the ball is caused by the face direction versus the club path direction.  If a player has an incorrect concept or belief that the club’s path is more critical to starting the ball online versus the face, they will likely change their technique to alter the path of the putter when reacting to a failed repetition.  This would be, unfortunately, ineffective. So, the Concept (or Belief) needs to be both clear and sound (correct) for learning to be the outcome of productive repetitions.  Unfortunately, there exist several concepts in traditional putting instruction that are counter-productive to players improving.  Some of those traditional concepts represent “preferences” versus “fundamental truths”.  Some of those traditional concepts are simply incorrect.

So, there you have it.  The four requirements for learning putting are: Concept, Productive Repetitions, Feedback, and Failure.  If you would like help in developing clarity around your concepts, or if you would like to measure your putting skills, or if you need to learn how to practice more effectively, I would love to meet you and explore how I might help.  Please text, call, or email me and we can set up a time to begin your improvement.

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