How To Avoid the Learning Plateau
You are taking lessons. You’ve started playing better golf and you’re on the verge of achieving your goals. You’re hitting more fairways and greens. Your handicap is dropping. Your buddies are asking about your lessons. More importantly, you feel confident and content on the course. Then… the plateau arrives, and your development grinds to a screeching halt!
After a period of improvement, progress naturally slows. The final stretch is always the hardest. And when you’ve become accustomed to improvement, a plateau can feel like a brick wall you’ll never break through.
Happily, this isn’t the end. Here’s how to push past the plateau and take your game to the next level.
Get a Coach and Develop a Plan
If you’re seriously committed to getting better, the first step is to work with a qualified instructor. If you’re already working with one, continue to do so. If not, get started as soon as possible.
Apart from the obvious benefits of having a coach (swing tips, real-time feedback, advice on strategy), a key advantage of working with an instructor is the chance to formulate a personalized improvement plan that you can follow in your own time. Your plan should include basic drills for ball striking, short game and putting which, if performed properly and often, will turbocharge your development as a player.
Your improvement plan should form the foundation of your training routine, but don’t get too regimented or obsessive with it. Your training routine should be in a constant state of evolution, with an emphasis on addressing longstanding weaknesses and solving current problems.
Once you have a plan in place, follow it closely and check in with your instructor every few weeks to monitor your progress and make any necessary adjustments. Sessions with your instructor will not only keep your swing on track, but they’ll also keep you accountable and serve as important milestones along your journey to becoming a better player.
Stay the Course
Understand that progress takes time. The reality is that you won’t shave five strokes off your handicap by next week, but you might shave 0.05 strokes off in that time, and then another 0.05 the week after that if you do the work.
It is easy to become bored, frustrated and impatient when you’re training hard and not seeing any improvement. It is even easier to question whether your training routine is working, or to deviate from that routine, especially if your game regresses (which it is likely to do if you’re making big changes). These urges must be resisted if you want to get past the plateau and continue to improve.
In the words of Tiger Woods, trust the process. Some improvements might be invisible to the naked eye, but they are real and they add up over time. Remember that each round is different, and a few bad rounds don’t mean that you’re suddenly a bad golfer.
Increase the Intensity of Your Practice Routine
Plateaus occur when we fail to adapt to changing circumstances.
Take a body builder, for example. In order to grow his chest, he bench presses 200 pounds for three sets of eight reps. The workout is desperately hard, but it makes his chest muscles grow significantly. Eventually his chest muscles adapt, the workout becomes easy and his growth slows. If he wants to continue to grow, he needs to increase the intensity of the workout by adding weight, increasing the number of sets or increasing the number of reps (or a combination of the above).
The same principles apply to golf. The drills that helped you drop from a 10 handicap to a 5 handicap won’t necessarily get you from a 5 handicap to a scratch unless you increase their intensity.
There are three main ways of increasing the intensity of golf training.
- The first is to make your target more difficult to hit.
If you hit range balls toward a target (say, a green 150 yards away), you should limit your target to a certain half of that green, or perhaps hit toward a longer target (say, a green 180 yards away).
- The second is to increase your repetitions by setting a goal of hitting your target multiple times in a row.
If you previously accepted hitting the target once, aim to hit it three times in a row before allowing yourself to aim at another target. Once you consistently hit the target three times in a row, aim to hit it five times in a row.
- The third (and probably the most fun) is to use different clubs or different shots.
Instead of hitting a straight 8 iron to that green 150 yards away, try hitting it with your 7 iron. Better still, try to hit it with a low fade or a high draw. Challenge yourself to hit different shots on the range and you’ll soon become more adept at controlling your golf ball on the course.
Never allow yourself to settle into a comfort zone. To get maximum improvement, all drills should be difficult but achievable.
Compete on the course and off it. Keep records of all your rounds and try to reach specific goals or beat previous records. If your best score at your home course is 75, aim for 74 every time you tee it up and reward yourself when you get there.
Similarly, keep logs of your training drills and try to beat previous records. If your standard short putting drill is making 10 in a row from 3 feet, then next time you get to 10, keep going and see how many you can make in a row. Eventually your standard drill should grow to 15 or 20 in a row from 4 or 5 feet.
One of the best ways of getting over a plateau is to play with better players. Try to find a partner who plays at a slightly higher level than you and challenge yourself to beat him or her in a match or a certain statistical category (you don’t even have to tell them that you’re competing). Even if you don’t win, you might pick up some handy hints that will serve you well in your quest to get better.
Change It Up
An actively engaged player will improve faster than a bored one, so train creatively.
Visit a different driving range, play a new course and find a new short game area. Practice in the morning instead of the afternoon. Try a new drill you read about in a magazine. You’d be surprised at the big difference a small change can make to your mental state.
A key benefit of changing your surroundings is that it can introduce new challenges that expand your skillset. A different practice green will require you to brush up on your green reading skills and test your distance control. A different range will have different targets, which could help you improve with clubs you don’t often use. A different short game area might allow you to play shots you don’t often try.
Working on new skills in a new environment is unquestionably one of the keys to getting past a plateau. Best of all, a change of venue might introduce you to some new people, and who couldn’t use a new golf buddy?
Look For Improvements Away From the Range
One of the worst things about hitting a plateau is that no matter how hard you try, you can’t seem to improve. However, if you look closely, you’ll identify opportunities for incremental improvements everywhere that don’t include swinging the club.
You can probably find another few hundredths of a stroke per round by improving your body through enhanced nutrition and hydration, or engaging in golf-specific strength, flexibility or endurance exercises.
Most players can benefit from additional course research prior to each round (Google Earth is a great tool, as are course websites and traditional yardage books), or advanced statistical analysis of recent rounds to identify the areas which are holding you back.
Maybe it’s time to invest in new or properly fitted clubs, or to clean the grips on the clubs you’ve got. Are you using the correct balls for your game? Do you know your exact distances for each club? Do you know if you tend to play better in a cart or walking? Do you miss more putts short, left or right? Do you have a good pre-round warm-up routine? Do you engage in any mental training or reading about the game?
Regardless of your expertise, there is almost always something you can do to get a little bit better that doesn’t require you to hit more balls.
Perhaps the most important aspect of any golfer’s improvement plan is playing the game. Practice is only valuable if you can apply the lessons on the course. Play as often as your schedule will allow so that you can gauge the state of your game and know what areas of your game require the most work.
Chances are, if you’re practicing hard away from the course, the plateau is actually just another phase in the cycle of improvement, and you’ll soon be shooting lower scores once again. But if you truly are stuck in a rut, adopt some or all of the tips listed here and you’ll be back on track in no time.