October 1, 2017

Practice by the Numbers

Practice, periodization and proper preparation for the elite junior/amateur golfer

By: Brendan Ryan

So, you coach a competitive junior player or college golfer. They’re passionate about golf and want to go pro one day.

Great! Now, I’d like you to ask them the same question I asked some of the top amateur and junior players in the world:

  • How many days a year do you practice?
  • And for how many hours per session?

Have your students write down their answer. After they’ve done that, let’s compare their numbers to some of the best amateurs and juniors in the world, who based on a recent survey I conducted, practice…drum roll please…on average 285 days per year for 3.7 hours per session.

Surprised? You should not be. The data collected seems to work well with the framework created by Dr. Anders Ericcson of Florida State University. Dr. Ericcson has suggested that elite performance is the result of deliberate practice over an extended period, with experts marking between 8,000-11,000 hours. If a golfer spent 285 days per year practicing for 3.7 hours they would accumulate about 1,000 hours per year. Over 8 years, the player would begin to reach the standard that Ericcson found people need to become experts.

It is important to remember that Ericcson’s original work on deliberate practice involved musicians. I will not debate if music is easier or harder to learn than golf but would note that they are different. Because they are different we cannot assume that the same numbers apply to professional golfers as musicians.

It is important to remember that these findings are simply a benchmark. I played my junior golf in Canada. This meant a very limited golf season, with about six months of pleasant weather (May – October). It also meant a huge adjustment when I moved south to attend school in North Carolina; my season immediately went from 150 days or so per year to almost 300. It was a huge change; golf for the first time in my life was a grind. I remember countless times my freshman year being on the range, exhausted and disinterested in golf. I was not use to the duration of practice and missed the opportunity to take time away from the game.

It is also important to note that not all the players practice that much, in fact 8/40 players surveyed reported to practice 250 days or less per year for about the same approximate time (about 4 hours). These individuals are practicing about 1/3 less than the others, yet still maintained a high enough quality of play to be asked to participate in this questionnaire.

As juniors and their parents are starting to consider their long-term development, I would recommend they read the Royal Canadian Golf Association’s Long Term Development Plan. The plan divides development into five stages:

  • Active Start and FUNdumentals (Approximately 2-8 years old),
  • Learn to Play (Approximately 8-12),
  • Train to Play (Approximately 12-16 years old),
  • Learn to Compete (Approximately 15-18),
  • Train to Compete (Approximately 18-23+ years old).

Each stage of the plan outlines key developmental principals including number of hours spent practicing and ideas on how to spend those hours, including ball count. Ball count is the amount of times the player should contact the ball during a week at any given stage of development. I believe the RCGA to have the most accurate guidelines for junior golfers and their parents.

Although practice is linked with skill acquisition, so is rest. Two of the participants in the study cited practicing 320-plus days per year. This means that some weeks, they are not taking a single day away from practice. In my opinion, this is detrimental to their development. Everyone needs proper time away to not only relax but also to digest.

Part of creating proper practice plans is scheduling various aspects of practice at the right times. Periodization is a method of training in which athletes prepare for events through a cycle of preparation, which is meant to optimize performance. The cycle for golfers would include a technical phase. During this phase, they would ensure they have the technical proficiency to compete.

For example, if the course for the tournament was a little longer than normal, they might work on hitting longer irons. Once they have the technical component, they would then move to a pre-competition phase. During this phase, they would try to play the tournament course (or as similar as possible) under tournament like conditions. They would collect feedback, which they would use to prepare. The next phase would be the competition – the actual event. Then the final stage is rest and evaluation.

You will note that the RCGA long-term development plan has technical phases for developing players, or time when they are simply working on their patterns of club delivery to improve ball control. All juniors would be well advised to incorporate such timing into their development. Please note that players need to experiment with periodization, as well. Junior golfers are always better to favor over preparation for a tournament, rather than being under prepared.