This might be the most important article you read in relation to improving your golf game. The concept is fairly obvious, but how many golfers put it into practice (no pun intended)?
Let's quickly break down the difference between the two. Practice is usually on the driving range or short game practice areas. The focus is on implementing a new movement into our swing. We take the time to think about what our body and swing are doing; breaking it down and trying to make changes or fixes. We hit numerous shots and putts. We are swing focused.
Playing is on the golf course, the intention is to hit as few shots as possible. The focus is on the conditions and the objective of playing the game. We are process focused.
I would bet most of us golfers take a lot of our swing focus and practice thoughts onto the golf course when we set out to play a round. It is great to stay focused and committed to what you are working on, but we need to remember when to turn that practice mode off and switch our attention to playing mode, which has a very different objective.
When playing a round of golf the task is to get the ball into the hole with as few swings as possible, not trying to make a perfect swing. For some it might also be to laugh and enjoy time with friends or get some exercise. But if and when it starts becoming make a perfect swing, rotate those shoulders and come inside with your arms, or fretting over why you just pulled your approach shot, head back to the driving range. That focus and mentality is for practicing.
So, what is the focus needed when playing golf? On every shot we need to determine the wind, lie, distance, what club to hit, where to aim, how to hit it. Then we need to pay attention to our pre-shot routine; find an aiming point and focus on that; approach the ball focusing either on our imagined shot or watching it play in our head. That is playing golf.
When we are consistently doing that, where is their time or mental space for worrying about how you are going to hit it or what you have been working on during practice. Those thoughts are going to confuse your body and sabotage your focus.
When heading out to play golf, set your swing practice and swing thoughts aside. Mentally step off of the practice grass and onto the playing grass. You are now in playing mode. This means no more worrying about your swing fixes or that you just hit a ball a little left. The objective of the game is to get the ball into the hole and their are a million different ways that can happen, which means every shot need not be judged or criticized as it is still a part of the objective of the game.
Let go of the swing focus and replace it with faith in your golf abilities and uncritical acceptance of each shot.
Stay present and focused on playing the game, not trying to perfect a swing or outcome.
This will seem very foreign at first, but resist the urge to focus on, analyze or criticize your swing.
When Mark Vancil talked about Michael Jordan in THE LAST DANCE, he said "His gift was that he was completely present. And that was the separator.”
The PGA Tour and LPGA Tour players have great talent, but like Michael Jordan their great separator is their ability to institute a more present process oriented focus during each shot. PGA Tour players specifically focus on over 90% of their shots. The average golfer will focus on maybe 50% of their shots. That is a lot of wasted shots.
It will take dedication and practice, but if you can consistently step onto the playing grass and stay present and focused on hitting a ball towards a target, you will experience drastic improvements in your golf score and playing enjoyment.
This playing vs practicing focus is not something most golf instructors will teach, but when practiced (pun intended) it will bring you to a whole new level of playing golf!