McMaster University, Hamilton, ON, Canada
Coaches give golfers advice to help them improve. But, did you know that how and when that advice is given will have a lasting impact on the golfer’s improvement?
In this brief post I will discuss some evidence from the area of motor learning – the science of how we learn, retain and transfer skills – about how information presented by TrackMan, and coach’s advice in general, can be presented in ways that can enhance the learning of golf skills.
Almost every golfer loves advice. Most are so desperate to get rid of a bad habit that they will try just about any tip. Advice offers hope that a simple, quick fix will solve the problem. And many times it does provide a solution, but only a temporary one. Often the golfer is left frustrated when the advice that worked so well on the practice range seems to disappear with the first swing on the course.
The cause of the “but-I-was-hitting-it-so-well-on-the-range” complaint is not likely the fault of the quality of advice given, or the skill of the coach giving the advice. Rather, the problem lies in how that advice is used during practice to improve skill in a manner that “sticks” and transfers from the range to the course. The problem is one that involves motor learning.
Beginning in the early 1980s, researchers found that advice, when given in practice, is only as good as the degree to which it helps prepare the learner to perform later – on the job, in the game, or for the golfer, on the course. Advice is what you receive during practice; it is not provided to the golfer on the course. In fact, it is against the rules. So, how does one best provide advice during practice such that it sticks and transfers to the course?
Researchers have found that numerous methods of providing advice lead to the same outcome. If the advice that follows performance is provided too often or too immediately it tends to guide the learner towards a quick fix. In this case the advice overwhelms the learner’s thinking, essentially blocking the learner from merging that information with his or her own knowledge and instincts. The learner is prevented from mentally working through the solution with updated knowledge. Later, when the learner is faced with performing alone, without the advice, the lack of having well-integrated knowledge – the knowledge that combines the learner’s own instincts with the coach’s advice – leaves learners frustrated and back to where they were beforehand.
TrackMan is a form of advice
It provides plenty of information for learners to use to help improve the golf swing. Remember however, that TrackMan provides information that: 1) is available only during practice, 2) cannot be used during game play, 3) must be integrated with the learner’s knowledge and instincts into a resource that can be drawn upon during game play, and therefore, 4) must be provided in such a way that can serve to achieve that integration process.
So, what ways can advice, and by extension, information provided by TrackMan, be used to better improve motor learning? Actually, researchers have found a number of solutions that help to make improvements that stick and transfer.
1. Don’t share information from TrackMan after each and every shot has been taken. Research has shown that withholding post-movement information reduces the negative “guiding” influence of advice. It reduces the dependency of the learner to make changes based solely on the advice. Providing opportunities for the learner to think about the outcome of the swing based on the feedback that their own bodies provide naturally is a good way to prepare the learner to use TrackMan information when it is given.
2. Don’t allow the learner to view the TrackMan results immediately after the shot is finished. Again, research has shown that providing information “instantaneously” after a movement is completed essentially blocks any thought process that might lead to integration of the advice with the learner’s mental representation. Delaying the delivery of advice gives learners some time to think on their own.
3. Do encourage the learner to think out loud about their own assessment of the just-completed swing before TrackMan information is shown. This delay period, after the shot is taken but before the TrackMan information is shown, is a productive time to actively encourage the learner to make that integration process. Ask the learner to predict what the numbers will be. This is an excellent way to understand what the numbers mean relative to how the swing that was just made felt and what the ball flight looked like. It is an effective method that has been shown to work well in making the effects of practice stick and transfer.
4. Do encourage the learner to have a clear plan in mind before a shot is taken. Information that is received from TrackMan will make the most sense, and hence will be better integrated with the learner’s mental representation if a specific goal is formulated in advance. For example, if you want to achieve a low ball launch angle into the wind, verbally say out loud what that goal number is (e.g., “25 degrees”), rather than say, for example, “as low as possible”.
5. Try setting successive goals that are different each time. Research is very clear in showing that repeating the same goals on each shot will result in quick fixes that do not stick or transfer. For example, try different goals on three consecutive shots – for example, one with a 0 club path, followed on the next shot with a -5 club path, and after that with a +3 club path. Only after the third shot would TrackMan data then be provided. The point here is not to try to learn to achieve a certain outcome as fast as possible with immediate and frequent feedback. Rather the goal is to learn how TrackMan outcomes merge with intentions involved in planning a shot and how the golfer’s body responded to those plans.
Good advice only goes part of the way in making real change in skill. Too often we view the golfer as a passive recipient in the learning process. Having the golfer be the recipient of advice without acting upon it plays into this passive-recipient viewpoint. A few simple changes in how information is presented can go a long ways in helping the learner become an active participant in the learning process. Active participation in decision-making during practice is critical to developing golf skills that will stick and transfer to the course.