A warm summers evening with a light breeze, is a rarity near Skegness on the east coast where I practised, but there was one evening just like this that I remember so vividly.
It was at the end of the summer in 2015. I was hitting balls at the range like I did most days, and it turned out to be a landmark evening for me.
For some weeks through that summer, I had a nagging feeling that how I practising wasn’t quite right.
Its not the first time I felt this uneasy feeling, but when I did I would normally just push it away, and carry on with the swings key I always used.
I was feeling uneasy for a reason, so I began to wonder if there were limits to this structured type of practise. Maybe I had got too involved with the idea of doing the same thing again and again, as being the best way to improve.
Certainly using the same swing keys fitted that end.
So with my last half bucket I thought I would just flip practise upside down.
I thought ok 'no swing thoughts' allowed, so I began to hit balls without thinking about where my club was going. I didn’t think how far back I should take the club, nor how hard I would hit the ball. I didn’t think about what I had to do to hit it straight.
I just hit balls, left to right, high and low. I hit the 5 iron to all the targets from 50yds up just short of 200yds, hitting a rope hook. It was fantastic; I don’t know whether you have ever come home from a game or from practise on a real high. Well I got one this evening.
I tried to make sense of the lesson I was learning, by analysing the differences in approach.
I definitely used my mind in a different way, there is no doubt about that. The change was that I went away from a semi rigid, concentrated approach based on 1000’s of repetitions, (that were more or less the same)............ to sessions where the only content in my mind was to have an idea of the type of shape of shot, force or height I wanted.
It was hugely successful.
I am no academic but I know there are 2 sides of the brain, one is more practical, while the other is more creative. Maybe this switch opened up some faculty I was previously not using.
I put up a net in the garden, for the times when I couldn’t get to the range, and this is when I came up with the name for this post. I was hitting the ball 100 different ways’.
When I practised my ball striking at the range there was a target to aim at, and this can be a big distraction, but, in a net there isn’t. So to make it more interesting I would concentrate hard on sweetspot striking, but also hit intentional tops, thins, hosels and toe shanks.
I am not one for golf practise aids at all but I just had to buy myself PSP Golfs “The Little One”. The head is tiny, just bigger than the size of the ball and I loved it. I also hit one handed, and if you have never tried it, have a go, the ball still flies hard off the clubface, and its more difficult to be accurate on the strike, but not impossible.
During these net sessions, I really found out just how accurate its possible to be with the contact....... once I placed my attention on where to hit the ball from off the face.
I didn’t have the capacity to be technical with what my body was doing. There didn’t seem to be enough resources left.
If I didn’t get to the range any day, then I would be able to get a my quota in, from hitting balls in the net.
I was always trying to increase my consistency in striking, and without a target to aim at, I broke through another plateau. My sensitivity to where the face contacted the ball was much better.
I could hit the sweetspot regularly and even when a shot was off, it was only off by 1cm at most This is enough to affect the distance and direction of a shot, but signified an big improvement for me. Also stone cold foul balls, would now occur only about 1 or 2 times every 50 balls which was significant cor me.
Writing this now I get a buzz remembering how flipping the focus made such a difference. My focus become even more specific and my motor function could oblige without any difficulty.
There was definitely more ‘flow’ when I returned to the range. I was excited.
This new type of practise seemed to make my motor function work differently, (or to help it to work closer to the intention I had for the shot). I was adapting easier to what I was trying to do with the strike.
The random way I was striking the ball encouraged new neural pathways to develop. With this improvement in striking skills, my uncertainty lessened, and confidence improved alongside it.
It was against my nature to be somewhat passive about my practise. By passive I mean I was not trying to influence the action in my usual way, by emphasising some sort of body action/swing key during the hit.
This was really difficult to do at first.... but I eventually managed to go with the flow and leave those thoughts out. I stuck with the intention of hitting as close to the sweetspot as I could on every hit.
Adjustments occured naturally on the next hit, and were being guided by the contact I wanted.….. previously each hit was being directed in too many ways. I was preoccupied with swing keys first, then where the ball landed, and contact was a by product. Essentially, I was prioritsing backwards.
So when I took away away the concerns about what ‘I thought’ my body should be doing’, and I took away concerns about where the ball was landing. The scatter pattern was tighter.
I had read that some people use the analogy of hitting a nail with a hammer, as a way of describing, the sort of hand-eye coordination movements, a golfer is making when striking the ball..... I think this example is poor.
As we all know, hitting a golf ball in just the way we want, time and time again, is microscopically difficult, in a way that hammering a nail in the wall isn't.
I cant speak more highly about how hitting the ball with so much variety, took my game to a new level.
Buoyed by this ‘discovery’, I went at practise like a man possessed.
I hit the ball every which way I could think of. I varied the length of the swing, the force, the angle of attack, the part of the face I wanted to hit the ball from. I hit intentional hosel rockets, and toe shanks, hit the ball intentionally thin, then a little less thin, then from the sweetspot, then hit it 1cm nearer the toe.... and so on.
Other ways I used to change things up was to step into the ball and hit, to take the address position and hit with my eyes shut and also hit single handed, left and right.
I quickly realised that it was unhelpful to want the ball to land anywhere specific. The practise was precisely and solely about making solid contact, even when my body wasn’t in an ideal address position.
I wanted to see how easy it was to hit well when conditions weren't ideal, such as the lie being difficult , or the stance awkward.
After I got comfortable with hitting on or very near the sweetspot, I tentatively checked if my new striking ability was damaged when I had a target in mind. I was chuffed to find that it wasn’t.
I began to find out what my natural aptitude was for the game. Everything was more fluid.
I knew what a good grip should be like, and what a tidy stance was.....everything else after that was about the ball, the club and target.
My previous practise routine 'ploughed the same furrows'. I changed because I hit a plateau that I couldn’t break through.
See the trickshot magic of PGA Tour player Wesley Bryan.