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Golf Instruction Article
On the problem of practice swings being better than ball swings

The Practice Swing Phenomenon
Why is the Swing with the Ball Different?

Golfer silhouette

There is a very common problem among a large percentage of middle to high handicap golfers that I call "the practice swing phenomenon." It is the act of taking a decent practice swing and then stepping up to the ball and doing something completely different (usually significantly less decent) in the swing through the ball. It seems clear that this would not be effective and in most cases it is not. What's going on here and what can we do about it?

When you take a practice swing it is fairly easy to pay attention to (be consciously aware of) what you are feeling during the swing. And since you're not going to actually hit the ball there is no particular demand on your visual system. What I believe to be happening with golfers that have a problem reproducing the positive features of their practice swings is that when they step up to the ball (now that there is a result in the balance, and the additional visual demand on the brain of the ball) the majority of the awareness is now taken away from what the golfer is feeling and put into what they are seeing, anticipating or anxious about. To recreate the same thing that happened in the practice swing they would have to continue to pay attention to what they are feeling, as they did in the practice swing.

But it may even be more fundamental than that according to Dr. David Chen, Director of the Motor Behavior Lab at Cal State University, Fullerton. There is a finite amount of what Dr. Chen calls "Attention Resources," which basically means how much capacity one has for paying attention. In the practice swing without the ball these resources are not used up, but when golfers with this problem try to add the visual component, and the anxiety of an outcome, they exceed their limit in terms of how much they can pay attention to at one time, and that's the reason for a different swing with the ball.

Whether it is the shift between feel and visual focus or just an overtaxed capacity for paying attention, the effect of this altered focus of attention is a host of common errors: trying to hit the ball hard in case you don't make perfect contact, tightening up all the wrong muscles at the wrong time, trying to "steer" the club into the ball, anticipating the result and looking up, and more. Since the golfer isn't paying attention the same way as in the practice swing it is easy to see why the same thing does not happen when they swing through the ball.

So what's the solution?

One logical thing I would suggest in order to make the transition from the practice swing to the swing through the ball is to add a visual component to the practice swings: e.g., focus on brushing a leaf or particular blade of grass, etc., with your practice swings. This shows you if your club brushed the ground in the right spot or not. And if you have the specific problem of swinging too hard through the ball I would offer a temporary, band-aid type fix first: be sure to swing as hard in your practice swings as you are going to swing through the ball (and if you don't like the result of the practice swing don't swing through the ball until you take a practice swing that you like - if the practice swing was bad why would swinging through the ball on the next swing be better?). Again, this last suggestion is for temporary use; the long term solution is to groove the rhythm of your swing like a machine.

This article touches on the need to develop the mental side of the game. For the best mental game resource I've ever found see

Mental Game Help

Highly skilled players have the ability to pay attention to all the relevant information at the same time. Why? According to Dr. Chen they have already developed so many skills and so much awareness of what they are feeling that it does not take much of the brain's resources to pay attention to the relevant cues. Whereas the less experienced player either has not had enough time to develop those skills and awareness of the right sensations or, in the case of players who have been playing for a long time but are still functioning at a fairly low level of performance, they have never developed the fundamental skills and awareness to the point where these are automatic and, therefore, do not require much conscious attention.

To develop the correct habits initially boils down to a choice, I believe. Humans have the ability to put their attention wherever they want it. If you want to develop any habit in your golf swing (for instance, keeping your spine angle constant) you have to pay attention exclusively to that one aspect of your swing until you become so intimately familiar with it that it no longer requires any conscious attention.

If you just can't seem to do the same thing in your swing through the ball as in your practice swing it may simply mean that you do not have enough attention resources for the number of things you're trying to do in that small an amount of time. Again, the solution is to develop permanent correct habits (good sound fundamentals from the ground up) to decrease the demand on the attention and get things more on automatic. So work on one thing at a time until, at some point, each thing no longer requires your attention.

The End

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This topic also gets deeply into the realm of the mental game. For my latest mental game recommendations see this page.

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