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Jump-Starting Improvement

Picking Skills for Greatest Potential

Before we really get going, it’s important to take a moment to look at where I should spend my time practicing to see the greatest improvement.  Spending too much time working on a part of my game that won’t show much benefit is like trying to fix the radio in a car that’s been wrecked.  What’s the point?

So let’s do some digging.

There are two subjects that have revolutionized golf data in the past decade: crowdsourcing and big data.  The culmination of these two subjects is a beautiful statistic called “Strokes Gained”.  Instead of being based on static information like greens in regulation or number of putts, strokes gained is a dynamic comparison between a single shot’s performance and the statistical expectation.

The easiest way to explain this is to compare a 3-foot putt to a 20-foot putt.  If a golfer sinks either, each counts the same on a static statistical category like “number of putts”.  Which putt means a golfer is performing better?  Our intuition says the longer of the two.  “Strokes gained assigns a number to this intuition.”1

So why is this important to me?

Strokes gained provides a better idea on where to plan my practice time, not necessarily as a statistic I can track.  Mark Broadie, Columbia Business School Professor and developer of Strokes Gained, breaks it down in his book Every Shot Counts:

“Between the best pros and average pros, between pros and amateurs, and between good amateurs and poor amateurs, the numbers show that putting contributes about 15% to the difference in scores.  Tee-to-green shots explain the remaining 85% of score differences.”

Broadie’s book is a brilliant argument against the old adage, “drive for show, putt for dough”.  Any golf fan that hasn’t picked it up should, but be prepared to face some tough facts.

Take for example The Dan Plan.  Dan McLaughlin began his 10,000 hour journey to golf mastery with nothing but a putter in his hand.  For the first several months, he only putted!  If Broadie’s analysis had been around when he started, his path for improvement may have been drastically different.

Although Dan was exhibiting some practice plan tactics that I’ll talk about in a little bit, it might have held him back from true improvement by limiting his focus to a lesser significant portion of the game.

Broadie also goes on to talk about how distance, more than accuracy, is more beneficial for long-term scoring improvement.  Let’s take a look at Brooks Koepka’s winning performance at the 2017 U.S. Open.

  • Greens in Regulation – 1st
  • Fairways Hit – T-4th
  • Driving Distance – 7th
  • Putting – T-51st

Tee-to-green seems to be a bigger contributing factor to his performance.

Side note of humility:  Brooks averaged 322.1 yards driving.  AVERAGED.  And he was 7th!  I’ve maybe hit a handful of 320+ yard drives, and I promise most of those were downhill and/or downwind.  That is absurd.

Another book I’d recommend if you can get your hands on is Lowest Score Wins by Erik J. Barzeski and David Wedzik.  They came up with their own metric called “Separation Value”, and it denotes which areas of the game offer the greatest potential for score improvement.

They did this really cool analysis where they gave different skills a “SCOR”, short for Strokes, Ceiling, Opportunities, and Related Skills.  Every skill gets a value based on how many strokes it can save you, how good you can even get at it, how many times you’ll be required to test that skill in a round, and how many other skills are related.  Other than trying to sell you other stuff in the book, it has plenty of valuable information.

What are the most valuable skills according to Barzeski and Wedzik?  Driving and approach shots.  Big surprise.

When it comes to making my own improvements, I have a good idea where to start.

You may remember from the Subpar Introduction that my “how” was deliberate practice and data tracking.  These two topics are related when it comes to improvement, but today I want to focus on deliberate practice.

Originally introduced in the paper The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance 2, Anders Ericsson expands on how to use deliberate practice for skill mastery in his book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise.  If I haven’t recommended enough further reading yet, just add it to the list (and this one isn’t about golf).

Here’s a quick rundown.  Deliberate practice:

  • Develops skills that other people have already figured out how to do and how to teach.
  • Takes place outside your comfort zone and constantly raises the bar.
  • Involves well-defined, specific goals that breakdown the larger goal.
  • Requires a person’s full attention.
  • Involves feedback and adjustments in response to that feedback, most effectively from an instructor.
  • Both produces and depends on effective mental representations.

If that’s too much to remember, Anders offers a quick version for teaching yourself:

“To effectively practice a skill without a teacher, it helps to keep in mind three Fs:  Focus, Feedback, Fix it.  Break the skill down into components that you can do repeatedly and analyze effectively, determine your weaknesses, and figure out ways to address them.”

Fortunately I do have a teacher.  He has an encyclopedia of knowledge, a friendly approach to teaching, and the enthusiasm to continue his own deliberate practice at being a great golf instructor.  All I have to do is focus on my practice and make sure I have well-defined goals for every step of the way.

Which brings me to my next focus:  chunking.

It’s an ugly word for such a beautiful process.  All that’s involved is breaking larger goals down into smaller ones.  This is what Dan was doing in his early stages.  You can add more depth to chunking by offering rewards for milestones, raising the stakes if not meeting goals, or just using it as a gamification technique.  So let’s check out what Anders has to say about it:

“Purposeful practice is all about putting a bunch of baby steps together to reach a longer-term goal.”

See, validation.  He even begins to describe how a golfer could improve right after that, but that’s my job.

If the largest goal (lowering my handicap) is dependent on smaller goals (let’s say hitting more greens in regulation), then we need to slice it up to chewable, measurable bits.

Hitting more greens in regulation relies on several things.  First, it’s probably easier to hit a GIR if I’m closer to the green with my approach shot and playing from a favorable lie (i.e. not a bunker).  It’s probably also important that I understand how far my clubs launch the ball, controlling both spin and trajectory in case there is a tree or wind.  In order to control the ball, I probably need to know both what causes the ball to fly a certain way and how to create the conditions for it.  Which means I need to be able to deliver predictable, consistent strikes, including in terms of where the ball hits the face, where the club hits the ground, and what the face is doing in relation to the path when striking the ball!

A simple stat to improve with a complex answer.

Adam Young wrote another book I’ll reference called The Practice Manual.  It can get a little dense if you’re not prepared, but the message is worth it.  He does exactly what I described above: breaking down the game into fundamental skills.  On top of skill acquisition, he talks about how we learn and different ways to challenge plateaus.  Definitely check out his blog if you’re interested.

I know we’ve talked about a lot of ideas in this post without how it applies to me personally.  With the foundation set, that’s where we’ll pick up in the next article.  I’ll take inventory of my game, reverse engineer the Outliers “rule” to find out how far along I am, and provide a deeper insight on what I will be working on for the next couple of months.

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3 comments on “Jump-Starting Improvement

  1. I’m excited to follow your blog. I found you from Practical Golf and it seems like we may be at a similar spot with our games currently. I’m sitting at a 3.1 handicap and wanting to get to 2.0 this year. My lowest Arccos scores are in approach so my improvement focus is on fairways and greens. To accomplish that I’m working on improving my impact location on the face using the drills from The Practice Manual. Poor strikes have been getting me in trouble.

    I’ve been incorporating pieces of deliberate practice and skill learning for a couple years now and I’m starting to hit a plateau, so I’m hoping following along on your journey may also help provide a boost to my own.

    Hit em well!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s awesome, Eric! Sounds like we have a lot of the same influences and quality resources.

      It’s great that you’re tracking and already have awareness of potential plateaus. The lower your handicap the tougher it is to see improvements, but tracking is a significant deterrent to getting stale. I liken it to losing weight: it’s the last 10-20 lbs that seem the most stubborn.

      Keep at it and let me know how your progress is coming along! It took me three years to knock 8 strokes off my handicap and I expect at least another three years to make a dent in the rest.

      Thanks for following!

      Like

  2. Pingback: Working My Plan – Subpar Golf Blog

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