Despite What Tiger Woods Tells Us, Practice May Not Make Perfect

You know that rule, which says you need 10,000 hours to master a skill, whether that’s your golf drive, or playing the drums? Well, turns out it’s bogus…

So, if you’re trying to supercharge your golf game, lift yourself off a plateau, or encourage your own ‘mini-Woods’, then you should know what science is saying about the pros and cons of practice hours, and specialisation.

How The Myth Took Hold At the age of four Tiger Woods shot 38, eleven over par, for nine holes at a course in California; by the time he turned pro, at age 20, it took less than a year to reach world number one.

Everyone knows the story of how the young Tiger’s father – a former athlete and Green Beret – shaped him into a sporting colossus with coaching, discipline and the mantra of ‘deliberate practice’, as opposed to just messing about with a set of clubs.

Tiger’s story, and others like it, has poured rocket fuel onto the idea that came out of a 1993 study of 30 violinists (no, that’s not very many), which claimed to show that, on average, the best players had clocked up 10,000 hours of practice by the time they were 20 – it suggested that this was the main driver factor for success, rather than talent.

Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book, The Outliers seized on this study, and the idea that anyone of us can achieve greatness, if we were only able to put 10,000 hours into it, became entrenched.

What’s the point trying hard, if you ‘know’ you didn’t start early enough, or can’t rack thousands of practice hours?

The Corrosive Effect Of ‘What’s The Point’? The 10,000 hour myth has a sidekick, AKA the ‘head-start story’. This is the idea that to get elite at anything you need to start at an early age, and specialise as soon as possible in order to secure a ‘headstart’ on everyone else, and become elite.

It combines with the myth of 10,000 hours to create a weaponised brain block that can corrode the most bulletproof motivation. What’s the point of trying hard to excel, if you think you ‘know’ you didn’t start early enough, or don’t have time to rack a Tiger Woods-level of practice hours?

Not only is this massively unhelpful, it’s also wrong on both levels, says a new scientific study, as well as David Epstein, the author of Range.

The Study Exploded This summer, Brooke Macnamara, a psychologist from a Ohio university repeated part of the original study three groups of violinists (rated ‘best’, ‘good’ or ‘less accomplished’), which revealed that although the bottom ranked players had on average 6,000 hours of deliberate practice before 20, the ‘good’ and ‘best’ players both had around 11,000 hours (although some of the best had far fewer), meaning that something else separated them.

That Other G.O.A.T. In his book, Range David Epstein tells the story of that other G.O.A.T. (Greatest Of All Time), this time from tennis. Roger Federer spent years playing soccer and sampling lots of other ball-centric sports, before finally specialising. And as for helicopter parents, his were the opposite: his mother even worked as a tennis coach, but still refused to coach him.

Up until now, the received wisdom was that Federer is an anomaly, and Woods is the normal pattern for elites – but Epstein says the evidence points the other way!

Eventual elites typically devote less time early on to deliberate practice

The Elite Athlete Curve When scientists look at the development path of athletes as a whole, what they find flies in the face of ‘common sense’. ‘Eventual elites typically devote less time early on to deliberate practice in the activity in which they will eventually become experts,’ Epstein writes. The elite curve actually starts behind, only overtaking the near-elite one when that falls off completely.

There seems to be a real edge to be gained in going through a ‘sampling period’ where testing your body with different sports teaches you physical and mental skills that you can bring over into golf, giving you your own style, and possibly an edge. It also stops you from burning out.

When Practice Becomes Sabotage Deliberate practice is defined as what you do when you have been given specific instructions, are individually supervised, get immediate feedback and repeat the same, or similar drills. According to Epstein the evidence does show that: ‘Elite athletes spend more time on highly technical, deliberate practice each week than those that plateau at lower levels.’

The trouble is that most of us define deliberate practice as repeating self-coached exercise, or just playing golf while focussing on a particular aspect of it. There’s a lot to go wrong, even if you are really good.

As an example, golf super-coach Pete Cowen told Golf Monthly magazine that the common practice of hitting 400 balls and playing a round of golf in a day, far from honing your skills, can actually end up being counterproductive.

Cowen points out that because 400 shots takes 11 minutes (1.5 seconds a shot over four hours), that’s a tiny part of one day spent on drilling a physical movement to improve it. And because more of those shots are bad than good, you’re effectively going backwards.

His solution for this was taken from Ben Hogan who used to do ‘dry drills’ without actually hitting the ball – he abandoned the outcome for the process in order to hone the process, and it’s movement, itself.

It’s Never Too Little Or Too Late If there’s a lesson to learn from the myth of 10,000 hours, and ‘headstart’ it’s that we shouldn’t allow our personal goals to be coloured by some external ‘rule’. There are a host of individual reasons for success in golf, or any other field, and it’s more profitable to focus on potential than limitations.

Yes, deliberate practice will reap rewards, but only if you do it in the right way, and take the time to improve your body, and physiological resilience in other arenas, sporting or otherwise. As for thinking you’ve already been left behind, it turns out that’s just an excuse, and not a very good one at that…

WHAT NEXT? Want to read more RSNG Golf content? Then check out our exclusive interview with Jon Rahm on how he channels anger to give him an edge.

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