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The Secret To “Deep” Golf Practice

by Coach Stephen on

Today I’d like to share a short review of an excellent book titled The Talent Code, by Daniel Coyle.

This easy-to-read, cutting-edge manifesto on the current research regarding HOW top performers develop what appears to be other-worldly skills, gives all of us “average” golfers valuable insights into maximizing our own golf practice and performance.

For a long time, the debate was always nature vs. nurture. And if you happen to swim in the shallow end of the gene pool (like yours-truly), then there was always a perceived (moderate) ceiling on how much skill you could achieve, no matter how much you practiced.

While it’s obvious that some golfers are more naturally gifted, The Talent Code explores the conditions and types of golf practice that seem to play an even greater role in becoming an expert or mastering a given skill set.

The Talent Code actually covers a wide range of skills, from athletics to music to chess. Of course, I’ll be referring to golf practice in this review because… well, that’s what we’re all passionate about here.

The book focuses on what are termed “talent hot beds”. Talent hot beds are tiny places that produce dis-proportionate amounts of talent, like Korean women golfers. The key theme of the book is these talent hot beds are not random occurrences, but are places which share the same skill acquisition and success foundations. Each hotbed has certain characteristics and patterns of targeted, deep practice which builds skill, the result of which is accelerated learning.

The author explains, in relatively plain English, that this stuff called Myelin may actually be the stuff that dream-like skills are made of… at least if it is properly developed over time.

At the risk of over simplifying things, Myelin can be thought of as an insulation that wraps around nerve fibers. The more Myelin that wraps around each nerve fiber, the faster and stronger the impulse travels through it. So by firing your circuits in the right way, you can add layers of Myelin, which in turn will add more precise skill and speed.

How do we build Myelin to insulate our nerves with the proper firing for our golf swing?

Good question. The answer is what the author calls “Deep Practice”.

Directly from the book – Deep practice is built on a paradox: struggling in certain targeted ways – operating at the edge of your ability, where you make mistakes – makes you smarter…..experiences where you’re forced to slow down, make errors, and correct them. (Page 18)

“What do good athletes do when they train?” Bartzokis said. “They send precise impulses along wires that give the signal to myelinate that wire. They end up, after all the training, with a super-duper wire – lots of bandwidth, a higher speed T-3 line. That’s what makes them different from the rest of us”. (Page 33)

Q: Why is targeted, mistake-focused practice so effective?

A: Because the best way to build a good circuit is to fire it, attend to mistakes and then fire it again, over and over. Struggle is not an option: it’s a biological requirement.

Q: Why are passion and persistence key ingredients of talent?

A: Because wrapping myelin around a big circuit requires immense energy and time. If you don’t love it, you’ll never work hard enough to be great. (Page 34)

Struggle is not optional – it’s neurologically required: in order to get your skill circuit to fire optimally, you must by definition fire the circuit sub-optimally; you must make mistakes and pay attention to those mistakes; you must slowly teach your circuit.

So how do YOU perform deep golf practice?

The author noted that in these talent hotbeds, the athletes would first take in the desired skill as a whole, focusing intensely on the complete action. This often presented itself as “staring and listening”… maybe we should all take staring lessons from Keegan 😉

Keegan Staring

Next, they would chunk down each of the individual segments of the whole movement.

Finally, they would systematically slow the individual segments down, practicing the precise segments at very slow speeds. These segments can be thought of as circuits. As they memorize these circuits, they eventually put them all together into the desired skill.

The goal is always the same: to break a skill into its component pieces (circuits), memorize those pieces individually, then link them together in progressively larger groupings (new, interconnected circuits).

Again, directly from the book –

Why does slowing down work so well?

The myelin model offers two reasons. First, going slow allows you to attend more closely to errors, creating a higher degree of precision with each firing-and when it comes to growing myelin, precision is everything.

Second, going slow helps the student to develop something even more important: a working perception of the skills internal blueprints-the shape and rhythm of the interlocking skill circuits. (Page 85)

There is, biologically speaking, no substitute for attentive repetition. Nothing you can do-talking, thinking, reading, imagining-is more effective in building skill than executing the action, firing the impulse down the nerve fiber, fixing errors, honing the circuit. Repetition is invaluable and irreplaceable. There seems to be a universal limit for how much deep practice human beings can do in a day… between three and five hours a day, no matter what skill they pursue. People at most of the hotbeds I visited practiced less than three hours a day. (Page 87-89)

The point is to get a balance point where you can sense the errors when they come. To avoid the mistakes, first you have to feel them immediately… (Page 90)

Growing skill, as we’ve seen, requires deep practice. But deep practice isn’t a piece of cake: it requires energy, passion, and commitment. When I asked people in the hotbeds about the source of their passion for violin/ singing/ soccer/ math, the question struck most of them as fairly ridiculous, as if I were inquiring when they first learned to enjoy oxygen. The universal response was to shrug and say something like “I dunno, I’ve just always felt this way.” (Page 97, 98)

At this point, I realize that I am just directly quoting from the book. That’s because it’s so damn well researched and written! 😉

What I found most enlightening  was the apparent NEED for struggling at the edge of my ability during my golf practice sessions.  At Renegade Golf Fitness, we have always preached quality over quantity.  Now there is a growing mountain of both research and empirical evidence to show us WHY.

Again, I cannot recommend this book highly enough for any serious golfer, regardless of age, and it will certainly be a valuable resource for parents and coaches.

You can order the book from Amazon HERE. It is also widely available through most libraries.

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