Welcome to Play Smart, a game improvement column that drops every Monday, Wednesday and Friday from game improvement editor Luke Kerr-Dineen to help you golf smarter and better.

The secret is in the dirt, Ben Hogan once said. The only problem is that millions of golfers have spent countless hours digging but found no treasure. At least not yet.

In golf, “practicing” is synonymous with “going to the driving range” and, by extension, the literal act of hitting golf balls. If you want to improve, it’s something you just to have To do. Get your hands dirty, put in the hours and dig in.

But recently, a growing number of voices in golf are beginning to question this notion – that hitting a golf ball is, indeed, the best and only way to practice. Could the secret of golf lie not only in the earth, but also in the air that surrounds us?

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Measuring the positive effects of visualization in sports isn’t new, but as research into its benefits has become more specific in recent years, we’re beginning to better understand just how amazing visualization can be for athletes. practitioners.

One of the most well-known studies on the matter appeared in the 1980swhen a group of researchers from the University of Chicago led a study in which they divided a group of basketball players of the same level into three groups: the first group did not touch a basketball for an entire month. The second group practiced free throws for an hour every day for a month. The third group repeated the movements without the ball and practiced visualizing themselves making free throws for one hour each day for the same period.

At the end of the study, the researchers found that the second and third groups both improved in the same way. It made no difference whether they practiced with a real ball or a fake ball: each group ended up making about 25% more free throws each.

At the end of 2019, we were treated to a golf-specific version exploring a similar subject. Academics from the University of Limerick in Ireland measured a group of 44 avid golfers through a series of 40 putts. Half of the golfers saw a video of experienced golfers performing the same challenge beforehand and were given cues to imagine themselves performing the same task. This group eventually outperformed the group that took on the task after a more traditional warm-up.

“An individual’s ability to imagine the sensation of an action without actually performing it may have an important role in determining the effectiveness of exercise,” says project researcher Niall Ramsbottom. “The results suggest that simply watching a video of another performing an action can enhance their ability to imagine and then perform that action.”

How come the ball involved – literally the focal point of the game you’re playing – is such an incidental part of the overall improvement?

There are two parts to the answer: it helps you avoid bad comments and lets you practice good technique.

Deletion of negative comments

When golfers hit a ball, they get an immediate list of feedback: did they hit it right or wrong? Up or down? Left or right? Feedback, in general, is an important part of practice. It allows golfers to spot what they are doing right and wrong immediately after doing it.

Generally speaking, getting feedback is beneficial, but sometimes too much feedback can be a bad thing because hitting the ball badly can often cause golfers to start making short-term adjustments at the expense of their long-term improvement. . Swinging slower, for example, or making a short-term swing correction.

Dr. Sasho Mackenzie is one of the most innovative and influential golf biomechanics in the game, and the Stack System co-creator, a training aid that uses a series of weights, a shorter club and a radar to train at a higher swing speed. Not hitting a golf ball is an intentional part of the design, he says, because it focuses golfers on the task at hand: swinging for more speed.

“The biggest benefit is removing the abundance of negative feedback that occurs when you hit balls with maximum effort,” he says. “With only clubhead speed on the radar and the feel of our swing as our sources of feedback, we are free to learn movement patterns that generate maximum speed and practice unimpeded at those speeds. we can then do small calibrations to transfer speed to hitting a ball.

practicing Well technical

Another benefit of removing the golf ball from the equation – and all the feedback that comes with it – is that it allows you to focus more intentionally on your technique. Rather than hitting golf balls and potentially ingraining bad form, swinging without a ball, and often in slow motion, can ingrain the moves you actually want to make.

Lucas Wald, GOLF teacher to watch and PGA Tour coach, makes slow-motion practice without a golf ball a key part of his lessons for students. He has his students practice a backswing-downswing transition exercise he calls “the dance move,” then swing in slow motion before picking up speed.

“Training slowly and with precision gives you time to think,” he says. “You have to slow down to go fast.”

Practicing your golf swing in slow motion is a technique that one of the best ball-strikers on the tour, Will Zalatoris, has used all his life – something he says his father taught him growing up.

“Whenever I work on something, I rarely do it at full speed. Lots of slow-motion work,” he says. “It’s something my dad really instilled in me growing up. It helps me become aware of my body and put things into perspective.

Max Homa is another believer.

“Almost every day I stand in front of a mirror before I get to the course and check my posture,” he says. “There can be real benefits for amateur golfers who can’t hit the course as often.”

The object of the game is, of course, to hit the ball better, and no sane teacher would say that you should only practice by not hitting the golf balls. But the next time you find yourself with a few minutes to spare, try grabbing a club and swinging away, without any of the baggage that the golf ball brings. You may be doing your game more good than you think.

Luke Kerr-Dineen

Contributor Golf.com

Luke Kerr-Dineen is Director of Service Journalism at GOLF Magazine and GOLF.com. In his role, he oversees the brand’s game improvement content covering instruction, equipment, health and fitness, across all of GOLF’s media platforms.

Alumnus of the International Junior Golf Academy and the University of South Carolina-Beaufort golf team, where he helped them rise to No. 1 in the NAIA National Rankings, Luke moved to New York in 2012 to pursue her Masters in Journalism at Columbia University. and in 2017 was named “Rising Star” of the News Media Alliance. His work has also appeared in USA Today, Golf Digest, Newsweek, and The Daily Beast.