Of Two Minds

Playing and Practicing Require Two Different Mental Approaches

October 13, 2004

Playing golf and practicing are two completely different parts of the game, with different goals and mindsets. For this reason golfers who try to play and practice at the same time are not really doing either.

For example, playing is target-oriented, whereas practicing is goal oriented. On the course we go through a process of club selection based on the distance, wind, elevation change, and other factors (or we just grab the same club we use every day on that particular hole) but the swing is, ideally, a fairly clear-minded effort to hit the ball toward a specific target.

quote-twominds-aAwareness of the target (and actually choosing one first) is a crucial part of playing golf. It puts us in an uncluttered state of mind that allows for unbothered execution of the swing as well as sub-conscious “corrections” that give the ball a better chance of finding the target.

Unfortunately, most of us play with a “practice mind”. This means that we are trying to execute the shot with a focus on some mechanical part of the swing, like taking the club away more to the outside, or getting a strong hip drive on the downswing. In a sense, the mechanical thought has become the “target”, the object of our focus, which means that the actual target is being neglected (and less often hit).

On the driving range, hitting the target should not be as high a priority. When practicing, the goal is to “groove” a particular part of the swing through repetition and drills. If golfers had the patience, I would actually try to convince them to do a lot of their practicing without hitting balls (at least for the full swing). Sounds boring, but simply making practice swings with attention to the particular mechanical part keeps the mind focused on the task. The great teacher, Harvey Penick, was a fan of slow-motion swings. I also think repetitions in front of a mirror and using weighted clubs are some of the best ways to practice. I, like most people, want the immediate feedback from the ball, but in practice it pays to be willing to take apart the engine and work on individual parts without worrying if the car will start right away.

So, playing is target-oriented, and practicing is goal-oriented. Similarly, playing should be reactive whereas practice should be rational. Imagine standing at the free-throw line with a chance to win the state basketball championship. Do you stand there thinking, “OK, flex the knees, elbow under the ball, eyes on the rim. Now I’m going to extend my knees and flick my wrist”? Hopefully you dribble the ball a few times for rhythm and relaxation, look at the target, and let the ball fly.

quote-twominds-bBeing reactive to the target is one of the toughest challenges of golf, which is not like other, more fast-paced games where you have no choice but to react. After choosing a club and a target, it is time to flip the switch. Take a practice swing if desired, or a little waggle, look at the target, and let the ball fly.

Practice on the other hand, should be rational. Again, there is a different goal–to improve a particular part of the swing; or to learn to shape the ball in a certain direction; or to develop feel around the green by chipping so many balls until you control the distance; or to make 50 three-foot putts in a row–and in this case you want to rationally find a way to achieve the goal.

Another difference between these two aspects of the game: playing should be non-judgmental, but practice should be judgmental. How many times during a round of golf do the little voices in our heads make us mess up a shot? “Man, that’s a lot of wind up there.” Or, “I’m not sure I am playing enough break on this putt.” Or, “This would be a great birdie, and then I can birdie the par-5 and make up for that stupid double bogey on three.”

These kinds of thoughts are judgmental, meaning they put a value, good or bad, on things. And usually execution suffers when the mind works like this. If that pond looks large and menacing, then it is on your mind and it has, in a sense, become your target.

What is the difference between a birdie putt and one for bogey? They are both worth one shot, and yet there are a lot of golfers who make par and bogey putts from all over the place but have almost no chance on a three-foot birdie putt. They have made a judgment about the value of a “birdie”, and when they address this “big putt” the mind is consumed by the value and importance of the shot. The mind is no longer target oriented. Good players learn that the time for value judgments is after the scorecard has been signed.

Practice, on the other hand, should be judgmental. Did I keep my spine stable, or did my hips shoot out sideways and make me tilt? Does my posture help to create good planes? Did I take the club away too far to the inside?

Another difference: playing is for the present, practice is for the future. Ben Hogan, and other great players, said that the next golf shot has to be the most important thing in the world. Playing golf well means that we are not thinking about laying the sod over that wedge shot on the previous hole, or that brain-dead double-bogey that ruined the front nine, or the three “birdie holes” coming up. Again, if the mind is wandering off to some past or future event (and usually in a judgmental way), then it is not target aware.

Practice, though, is about patience and delayed satisfaction. If we are hitting ball after ball on the range and just trying to get the ball to go to target, then we are probably not paying enough attention to that chicken wing. And if we are working on that chicken wing, then there is a good chance the ball is not going to target–which is all right, since we are practicing to make our golf better in the future.

So playing is target-oriented, reactive, non-judgmental, and for the present. Practice is goal-oriented, rational, judgmental, and for the future. And there are more differences: playing is about using the odds, while practice is about changing the odds. And so on.

As a teaching professional, I know as well as anybody how difficult it is to leave behind the mechanical, analytical mindset of the driving range when I head to the course. Some people have the opposite problem, though. They play clear-minded, target-oriented golf, but have no patience or energy to improve by practicing. I think the best players know how to shift gears, how to change their mindset from the practice tee to the first tee, and are willing to put in plenty of time in both places and in both states of mind.

Here is one way to get better about playing and practicing. If you carry a scorecard, and you want to count your strokes, then tell yourself that you are PLAYING. Use your best course management, put your mind in the right place, and go after it. If you are working on your mechanics, or trying to learn to hit a particular club, then leave the scorecard behind, and count no strokes, even if you are on the course. Then you are PRACTICING. And remember, when you try to both, you are probably not doing either.

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