Using the driving range
Using the golf practice range has come in for criticism in recent years from certain areas, especially the typical covered driving range. Comments like “you don’t see other sports training on areas that don’t mimic the playing ground” have been used to level some disparagement at golf’s traditional training methods, however this comment is just not true. Also comments like “it doesn’t resemble the golf course so you can’t learn to PLAY golf there” may have some truth if taken literally but it doesn’t mean we won’t benefit our golf by using the range. After all probably all the great players have used the range at some point to their advantage. The truth is that in any sport if we use our training time and the resources we have available wisely we can get a lot of benefit.
Of course the driving range environment is different to the golf course, so one of the first things we can do is acknowledge this and use this understanding to our gain. Apart from the more obvious differences like hitting from mats etc. there is the mental environment that comes with hitting balls on a range as opposed to the golf course. I’m going to use the analogy I have when explaining this to some of the kids on coaching programmes I’m involved with.
Of course the dangers the animals face in the wild and the dangers a golf course presents to the golfer maybe quite different but hopefully the point about the mentality is put across. This is an important acknowledgement if you are using the range for tournament preparation – you will at least need to find ways of making the range a bit more stressful and random.
The second point to take into consideration is the subject of developing skill. Two key factors that reinforce the building of skill are the volume of practise and the specificity of this practise. On the range there is often little consequence to the shots we hit so it is easy to get in the habit of mindlessly hitting balls. Repetition is still going to be very useful in pursuit of certain things like technique but when it comes to skill transfer then the practise needs to take on specificity as well as randomness.
Optimising our range time
Always have clear aims as to what you are trying to achieve or what you want from your sessions. Before you start hitting any balls ask yourself 3 simple questions – WHAT, WHY & HOW. This will help to direct your thoughts to what your aims are, the motivations or reasons for these goals and the process you need to set up to achieve them. It might be just a simple goal of enjoying your session but at least by asking these three questions you can work out how to achieve this. I think for most golfers they usually are looking for other things.
Regardless of your goals always start by warming up. Do some stretches (it is so easy to find some good stretches these days). I think it is worth putting around 10 balls from your basket to one side and use these as warm up shots. Put no importance on the specific results of these shots, you are just trying to get into the swing easy paced and gradually. Generally to two main aims to warming up are 1. Minimise the risk of injury and 2. It gives you a good foundation for your practise session. Don’t underestimate the value of warming up.
Probably the main thing people will engage in at the driving range is swing mechanics. The range environment is well suited to the initial stages of swing technique development or change. But once again I think you should go with specific thoughts and reasons behind those ideas, it is so easy to start tinkering for the sake of it. One of the problems in the modern world today is that there is so much information available as to how to swing the club but not necessarily how this information applies to you. We should know by now that there isn’t one “perfect method” but there is still good and bad ways. I was reminded of a quote recently by a well-known golf coach it went – “if you have an unconventional grip don’t be trying to develop a conventional swing”. I’m sure this coach was trying to encourage a good grip but it also puts the message across that swing movements need to compliment a method or system. Have good reasons, motivation or stats for change. Once again using the simple grip as an example, it might be that you have a strong grip and although you hit a lot of good shots you have noticed that under pressure and also off the tee you are prone to shots been pulled off line quite a bit. When you have identified WHAT and WHY you are working on think about the best way of going about this at the range. So using our grip example above, we might have certain checkpoints or drills like number of knuckles showing, grip pressure etc. We might also check the before swing before and after swing to see if the grip was maintained throughout the swing. We can then go to looking at the ball flight. It’s very important at this juncture to point out the important of establishing a target or target line, this should be one of the very first things you do in your session. This target can of course be changed but you would be amazed at how many people go to a range and don’t pick a specific target line. I would say that in nearly all cases the effectiveness of your swing can only be really measured when we have established the target line and made sure our fundamentals relate to this line (this in itself could be one of your technical goals). You may also notice that in the early part of practise that having this good grip doesn’t produce accurate shots but you must stick with the goal if you want long term success.
If we want to focus on some of the other aspects to performance beyond the efficiency of our swing then we need to go back to the environment and try and change some of the characteristics. Playing skill games is a reasonable way to bring some consequence to your results. You can do this on your own but it is also great to do if you are with other people at the range. I’m sure you can think of many challenging skill type games you can play in the range but try to make them a game like as you can. In other words remove any training aids you have used like alignment sticks etc. Go through the same routine you use out on the course for every shot. Recording the results will help in elevating the importance and consequence as well as highlighting the effectiveness of your practise – a bit like marking a scorecard. If you are on your own make the skill games specific to what you have been working on so once again going back to our example of the grip change. We could pick out two points on the range that represent a 20 yard gap. Then hit 14 shots with the driver, again going through each one as a separate shot, and record how many went left or right or straight. You could get a point for each drive you hit between the 20 yard target, zero points for shots going right but minus one point for shots going left. This would put the emphasis on how effective the grip change has been under pressure.
In general terms getting better at golf means we need to be on the golf course as well as on the other practise areas including the range and we shouldn’t exclude the benefits of physical considerations also. The ultimate range session is going to vary from person to person. For some it may be concentrated on just one thing for others it could be a combination of the above ideas. However for a lot of golfers our range time will be so much more productive if we apply some thoughts before we go and reflect when we finish. I promise you, you are kidding yourself if you think just going to the driving range and whacking a load of balls aimlessly is going to do a lot for your game.
Don’t forget your short shots as well, it’s easy just to get wrapped up in hitting the long stuff. In an ideal world “little and often” is better than getting the biggest basket of balls and cramming as many shots in as you can. If you are going to video yourself take extra care to video from the correct spot, you would be amazed at how different swings can look from just the smallest viewpoint change. Lastly try not to just engage in shots or clubs you are comfortable and confident with just in case the person in the next bay is watching you. Step out of that comfort zone and challenge yourself, after all the clever people say that the best way to learn is first to make mistakes.
Skill practice is one of the most integral components in the development of golf expertise.
A definition of skill is hard to come up with but it is the ability to make the reality/outcome as desired. The “outcome” part of the definition doesn’t have to be the shot result itself, it can also be a part of what creates the result for example it could be where you have struck the ball on the face of the club.
Skill and technique are not the same thing although there is going to be cross- overs with one affecting the other. Being aware of skill practice as opposed to technical practice is important at some point during any of your sessions whether they are at the range or on the course. Her are a few things to keep in mind as a frame work for skill practice.
SPECIFICITY – this refers to the extent to which practice represents how the skills of the game are used in competition. In other words “train how you play”.
PROGRESSION – ultimately refers to actual performance. If you try and find the point where you are challenged in the task but not to the point where it is so difficult it will deflate your confidence. When things improve then keep increasing the difficulty (challenge point).
LOADING – this refers to the cognitive effort or mental work a player undertakes to achieve a task. Low loading may seem to have more immediate results at the range but ultimately higher loading should lead to enhanced skill performance in competition. For example you could hit 10 x 6 irons and then 10 x 9 irons, this will generate low loading compared to switching between the 6 iron and 9 iron each shot.
TEDIUM – is a state of being bored due to the monotony of your practice and this can be detrimental to skill development.