You’re reading this article because you play golf and have spent various periods of time working on a shot or a part of the swing that you want to improve. You remember when somewhere along the road you hit a rough patch where you weren’t playing as well, and your ball flight was unpredictable. It’s happened to you, it’s happened to me, it’s happened to Tiger Woods. And to fix the problem, you’ve gone back to the range to figure out what’s going wrong. Maybe you checked out this website for tips, or taken a lesson. And somewhere during that period you figured out the solution and then said, “Eureka! I’ve solved it! Now all I have to do is repeat this over and over until it sticks.”
Kind of. I know what you’re thinking, “How could that be wrong? Why would repeating the new move be the wrong thing to do if it’s what my swing is missing?” And I understand why you may think this way. Nearly everyone thinks this way and because of this, golfers don’t improve as well or as a quickly as they could be. If you create a habit through repetition, why wouldn’t repetition be the solution to change it? But how we overcome bad habits isn’t as simple as just repeating the motion in the way we want it to be. The complete answer is complicated and through a lot of scientific evidence over the past 50 years, we know that simply repeating a movement over and over isn’t the full story. But in sticking with the topic here, let’s look solely at what you need to know if you’re trying to break a habit. A critical element to include in your quest to break a pesky habit is to create a new one that is stronger than the existing one. Officially, there isn’t really such a thing as “breaking a habit,” because a memory of what you learned doesn’t just go away. You can only create a new one that is stronger than the old one. And the old ones are typically stronger than the new ones. This makes sense if you think about how much easier it is for golfers who learned as a kid. They have great habits that they don’t have to think about anymore. But if you have a bad habit from when you were a kid that you’d like to change in your mid-40s, then it will take some time.
How do you create a new habit to take over the old one? Here are three keys to your success:
Know when you’re doing it right or not. Find ways to know how the new movement feels so that you can stay alert to your body drifting back to the old ways. You do this by setting up a practice station with implements to give you a signal if you, say, swing too much from the inside. If you feel comfortable, then you are probably doing what you always did. Making changes is UNCOMFORTABLE and it will feel awkward.
Commit to the change. Changing a habit can take a lot of time if you’ve been doing something differently for a long time. For example, you probably tie your shoes without even thinking about it. Well, if you decided to change the way you tie them, you’d have to think pretty hard about what you’re doing while you’re doing it and that can really mess up the movement. If you’re on the course and you’re trying to get that new move on, there’s a good possibility that you will hit some errant shots. But you have to think about it in order to make that change. And if you don’t commit to the change and stick with it, the time it will take to see that improvement will go up. So take the time to make the new movement feel more comfortable.
Practice should be hard. If you simply repeat the movement over and over mindlessly, your brain isn’t really asked to do any work. The deepest and most productive learning occurs when you are asking yourself to create the movement from “scratch.”
The classic study by Morgan and Shea in 1979 asked two groups to perform a task. One group repeated the same movement from the same place, and the other group varied the movement slightly. In practice, the group that repeated the same movement did much better. But afterwards, when tested for retention and transfer, the group that varied up the task far outperformed the other group. Since then, various versions of that same study were repeated to see what happens and each time the same answer comes up: When you adjust your practice slightly (change targets often, limit the number of balls that you hit with the same club, etc.), your brain has to reorganize more often and come up with a motor pattern. And when it has to retrieve that motor pattern from memory, that memory will be strengthened, thus increasing the ability to perform it on command. As a bonus tip, just because you can perform the movement doesn’t mean you’ve learned it. Truly learning a new movement means that you can do it without too much thought when it counts, on the golf course. So to be sure that you are really creating the new motor pattern that you want, have a solid plan of attack with drills and practice that give you feedback about whether you’re doing what you’re intending to do. Then commit to it. You will be doing yourself a disservice if you decide to play with your “old swing” and practice with the “new swing.” You have to be all in. And finally, respect the part about it being hard. As the saying goes, you get what you pay for. Make the most of your habit changing practice by following these steps and you will be on your way.