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The Psychology behind Practice

This is an excerpt from Golf Flow by Gio Valiante.

At the root of practice is the psychology of habit development. Many of the greatest observers of human behavior have landed on habit as the ultimate factor in human behavior and performance, and numerous axioms have been created to help reinforce that lesson. Aristotle observed, “We are what we do every day. Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit.” William James was perhaps the first psychologist to flush out the rules that guide habit development. He once wrote, “Ninety-nine hundredths or, possibly, nine hundred and ninety-nine thousandths of our activity is purely automatic and habitual, from our rising in the morning to our lying down each night.” His laws of habit are still the guiding principles used today.

Habit development has transited into the world of sport with the term practice. A few landmark works of science help define the rules by which athletes practice their craft. Perhaps the most famous paper is titled “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance” by Anders Ericsson and colleagues. In this paper Ericsson outlines his formula for expert development, the now-famous 10 years by 10,000 hours rule, touched on in chapter 3. “We have shown that expert performance is acquired slowly over a very long time as a result of practice and that the highest levels of performance and achievement appear to require at least around 10 years of intense preparation” (Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Romer 1993, p. 366). I have paraphrased their framework for the three key steps in the acquisition of expert performance:

  1. Deliberate practice requires available time and energy for the individual as well as access to teachers, training facilities, and materials.
  2. Motivation is important during practice.
  3. Deliberate practice is effortful and can be sustained for only limited periods to maximize gains.

On this final point about limited, efficient practice, note that the trajectory of Luke Donald's career improved after he had children. Many reasons might be at play here, but the strongest case I can think of would be that he had less time to waste and so had to engage in shorter, more focused practice sessions. At the 2012 Memorial, Luke was asked whether it was tough to find time with his children. He replied,

Well, I think it's made me a better practicer. I do feel like I want to spend more time with my kids, but it makes me every time I go to the range, I have a bit more of a plan now. I still work hard, but I can be a little bit more efficient with my practice.

The key thing to understand about habit development as relates to practice is this: Everything registers. Habits group with other habits in a process known as association. For example, while you are hitting balls, you are practicing not only the physical action but also the habits of mind, mood, tension, rhythm, and attention. For that reason, motivation is a key component of skill acquisition. Merely going through the motion of hitting a thousand golf balls may certainly habituate your golf swing, but if other things distract your attention, then you are also habituating distraction. If you are sloppy in your practice, then you are habituating sloppiness. The great ones certainly invest time, but they do so with motivation and intense attention to the proper details.

Learn more about Golf Flow.

More Excerpts From Golf Flow