post by Matt Wilson


For the past 5 years, anyone in the business of developing human potential has been enamored with the notion of Deliberate Practice and the ‘10,000 hour rule’.  Originally fathered by Ericsson in a seminal research paper, ‘The Development of Expertise’, and popularized by Daniel Coyle in ‘The Talent Code’ and Malcom Gladwell in ‘Outliers’, deliberate practice offered a framework through which coaches, consultants, trainers, and many others, could work their philosophies.  However, recently, people have begun to take a deeper, more qualitative look into the ‘10,000 hour rule’.  We are no different. Why?  See Sergio below.

How do you explain this?

We agree with the idea that deliberate practice is an activity that one engages in for the purpose of improving performance.  However, there is one primary aspect of the description of deliberate practice that we’re particularly curious about: the notion that deliberate practice isn’t inherently enjoyable. 

We are of the belief that enjoyment is required for learning and that it precedes performance.  Under the current definition of deliberate practice, enjoyment isn’t mentioned as core tenant, rather, it is presented as quite the contrary – ‘deliberate (or deep) practice, isn’t inherently enjoyable’…so they say.  We propose a different possibility, namely, that deliberate practice will improve performance only when it is enjoyable.  And that practice, like anything else, has a point of diminishing returns, after which it ceases to be of value to one’s development.  Thus, practice should have a clear focus and a defined ending point, rather than a time constraint.

Enjoyable, focused practice with an ending point…What might that look like?

Let’s take a moment and try to set the stage using a golf context.   In looking at the pictures below, think to yourself.  What ‘skills’ are being developed in each? Which depicts the best way to develop the learning and enjoyment of a player, as well as their performance? Which exercise has a clearly defined purpose? Which provides the feedback to tell you that you’re doing well and to move onto something else?


Our major contention is that for practice to be truly effective it ought to:

In motor learning research, much of this has been discussed under the ‘Non-Linear Pedagogy’ and ‘Task Based Learning’ umbrellas.  So, what is it, how does it work, and how do I apply it to coaching golf?

It is pretty simple, actually.

First, the coach creates a task and defines an objective.  For it to be effective, the task and outcome goals need to be aligned with the learner’s abilities and performance goals.  Next, the coach encourages the learner to find a way (or different ways) to accomplish the task objective(s).  This is the critical process: “Finding solutions to the problem via their movements, requires the learner to develop the ability to adapt and adjust to the task requirements and the environment.  As a result, the learner learns to explore, use trial-and-error, and environmental cues to find a solution.” 

This, in my opinion, is the essence of learning – engaging, encouraging, and enjoyable activities that promote the discovery of movement ‘solutions’.  Once the solution is discovered and the task completed, the coach turns the learner’s attention to something new.

As an example, below is part of a short game practice plan that I recently put together for a club-level player. 

In-a-Row from Cones 3 balls in a row in the circle (6 foot radius from the hole) from each cone before moving to the next cone.  Miss and start over.  Record the total number of shots required to complete the exercise.
Total Footage from Cones Hit one ball from each of the 9 cones.  Record the total distance from the flag for each shot.  Outside 10ft? Add 5 feet.  Miss green? Add 40ft.  Hole out? Subtract 10ft.  Repeat the exercise as many times as necessary to score below 80 total feet.

He’s since gone from a 9.9 index to a 6.3.  He was a former believer that more ‘saddle-time’ was required to get better.  Unfortunately, as he invested more hours in his game, he got worse.   Since shifting to more task and objective-driven practice, he’s practicing less, playing more, and has improved his performance– significantly.  Some days it takes him an hour to complete. Other times, he’s done in 3o minutes.  Regardless of time spent on task, he leaves the range when he completes the task, and when he leaves, he knows he accomplished something that will improve his performance.  A quick point worth noting: a well-designed practice exercise won’t take an excessive amount of time if truly aligned with the learner’s skill level and performance goals.

Why does this work? 

The effect of ‘task based practice’ works in three, very powerful ways. 

  1. It fosters engagement.  If the task is designed properly, learners will stick with it.  As learners stick with it, they get really high quality repetitions of the movement, under their belts – the kind that promotes lasting learning that transfers. 
  2. It affords the learner the time and space necessary to develop unique solutions to solve the problem that the task presents.  This is not earth-shattering by any means; however, as this process continues over time, the learner starts building an ever expanding ‘book’ of solutions to problems.  As their book becomes bigger, so too does their skillset.  Think of it this way – as player develops their pitching skills in response to the constraints of an exercise, they develop more ways to hit the ball inside of 6 feet.  This ‘awareness’ is what separates top performers and is a big reason why they can do this (and I can’t).
  3. From a psychological standpoint, as learners experience success (or in this case, accomplishes the task), their sense of ‘I-can-do-this’, increases. This resulting confidence confirms their ability and inspires action, leading to more practice, improved skills, and better performance.  This, as coaches, is what we are all after –athletes that are independent learners with high levels of self-efficacy who are motivated to practice.

The process ends up looking like this:

Increased Self-Efficacy
Increased Frequency of Practice
Heightened Awareness
Improved On-Course Performance

The end result? Confident and competent performers who enjoy the game and the process of improvement.  What more could you ask for?

So, as we wrap this up, I would encourage you to think about how you are structuring your students’ training activities.  Replace the world deliberate with effective, and exchange time-based practice with objective-driven practice.  Expertise is the cumulative effect of accomplishing a lot of small objectives over time. These simple changes will improve the quality of your students’ practice, accelerate their learning, expand their confidence, increase their enjoyment, and help them shoot lower scores.

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  1. Spot Chip – place a tee on the green about one foot from fringe about 15 feet away from cup (you can use another tee too if no cup). Place three balls five feet apart up to 15 feet away (you’ll need 9 balls total). Chip the first three (trying to land as close to the first tee by the fringe and let it roll out) until you get one within 1 foot of cup. Move five feet back and do the same until you get at least one ball within one foot of cup. Move 5 feet back and do again. This will help teach you to use different clubs in order to achieve the right trajectory at each station using the same swing hitting the ball, trying to hit the first tee on the fly and allow the ball to roll out within one foot of cup. Eventually you will learn to see where you want the ball to land in order to get it close as possible taking the hole out of play and help you swing freely.

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