There is an old Sufi parable that poignantly captures how people make bad decisions because of beliefs they hold on to that do not line up with common sense. Many of the “search strategies” that we use in attempts to improve our games seem “right”, in part, because we have always done things that way. The Sufi parable begins with a man, Nasrudin, crawling around at night looking for his house-key under a street lamp. Nasrudin’s friend appears and asks why he is looking for the key outside when it was lost inside the house. Irritated and frustrated, Nasrudin barks, “because there is more light here!”.
This Sufi parable reminds us that we do not always use the best approaches for finding what is lost, or for developing our skills based on what is known about how knowledge and skills are learned and retained.
Training that introduces desirable difficulties, variability, and unpredictability has been shown to be vastly superior to the most popular training conditions which general involve mindless repetition of swings without any clear goals or feedback. Popular practice strategies generally elevate the performance of learners by allowing the player to make a swing without having to “reload” the motor program, without the complication of having to perform other functions, like making adjustments for course and weather conditions, lining up properly and executing the exact motor program required to achieve success on the shot in front of us. Most practice is structured to be easy and effortless, and this comes at the huge cost of making the training “decontextualized” and seldom “transferable to the game situation”.
Recent neuroscience research has clearly demonstrated that in order to produce survival and growth of new neuronal pathways and connections, practice must be difficult, at the edge of what we are currently capable of doing. When practice engages both cognitive and motor solving problems, it is far superior to mindless, repetitive drills that are the steady diet of most golfers.
Steve Levitt, the author of the Freakonomics book series, and an award-winning professor of Economics at the University of Chicago, and I undertook a simple study of golf training to determine whether the most commonly used methods of practice to improve wedge play were effective in retaining the skills after a month of practice. The most common strategies of practice involve “blocking and massing” — that is, doing the same task over and over again and not mixing in other drills or tasks during the blocked period of practice. We discovered in our study that blocked and massed practice is inferior to training that makes practice more difficult by altering the target, the club, and the strategy.
Recent studies clearly show that variable, “interleaved practice” leads to improved retention and transfer. After matching two amateur golfer groups for skill, based on USGA handicaps, we instructed one group to hit 90 shots per day to a target 110 yards away with a wedge, the club they normally would use to hit that distance. A second group was asked to hit 30 shots to a target 70 yards away, 30 shots to a target 100 yards away, and 30 shots to a target 120 yards away each day. Each group then hit 90 balls per day for a month, so there was a control for the amount of practice. The results showed that, in spite of the fact that the first group had highly specific practice on exactly what they would be tested on a month later, that the second group was far superior to the first in hitting wedges to the 110 yard target. The second group had no specific training in hitting a wedge to a target 110 yards away (though they had experience with targets that were both shorter and longer).
Next, after describing the results of this study to another group of amateur players, we asked the group which training method they would use in preparation for the criterion test (accuracy at hitting to a target 110 yards away). 58% of the group ignored the findings of our study and chose the strategy of hitting in blocked/massed sessions (hitting exclusively to the 110 yard target), 24% chose the variable or interleaved practice, and 18% identified other methods that could not be characterized as predominantly variable or predominantly blocked/massed.
Most athletes consider “repetitions” of the same motion to be the best way to master new techniques. Recent studies contradict this assumption, and suggest that variability plays a very important role in the new learning. The variability in our subjects’ practice enabled them to outperform subjects who actually had much more familiarity with the task they were tested on. When we asked another group of golfers who were not involved in the study to predict which group had outperformed the other, they chose the group who had trained using the familiar blocked/massed training. Blocked/massed training makes up virtually all training for amateur golfers and continues to be the method of choice for most most professionals.
There is much evidence that substantial improvement in golf is very rare among players who have been involved in the game for a few years, in spite of the vast improvements in technology that have produced better balls, clubs, range-finding technology, innovations that have improved golf course conditions, and all of the advancements in teaching and coaching which enable golfers to get better feedback. Unfortunately, while science and technology have provided us with better tools, we have been largely unsuccessful in translating the potentially valuable knowledge coming from the learning sciences into tangible, improved play by most players.
We have no idea if Nasrudin played golf, but if he were a player in the modern era, he would be among the millions of golfers who desperately want to get better, yet show up at the range each day doing the same practice routines that do not produce the best effects for practice, namely improved learning retention, transfer to game conditions, and transfer in “altered conditions”.
Latest posts by Dr Fran Pirozzolo (see all)
- Improve Golf Performance, Resilience, and Human Character - 12th May 2016
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