Game Like Training’s Guide To Motor Learning

Lets get into it!

This guide is designed to educate you on key motor learning principles that will help you design better practice environments for yourself, design better practice environments for your students, or deliver your instruction more effectively. You will also benefit from learning what each principle means as well as its use in practice.

A little background, & history

This guide pulls from research completed in the realm of Motor Learning, Cognitive Psychology, and Neuroscience. Professors such as Dr. Tim Lee, Dr. Robert Bjork, Dr. Mark Guadignoli, and Dr. Richard Schmidt, and Elizabeth Bjork have completed lots of ground breaking research projects that can help the game of golf grow at a rate we could never imagine. Within this guide I make the research relevant to our specific needs of golf improvement.

Ultimately golf is a motor skill. It involves voluntary muscle contraction towards a goal-orientated task, which is the definition of a motor skill.

We all need to understand more about how the body moves. By knowing some important aspects of the movement process, and having awareness of aspects around this subject we enhance our chances of either doing it, or coaching it better.

This guide shares valid information and can serve as a helpful guide in the coaching process.

Lets cover some educational stuff first!

Classifying Skills

First up is classifying skills. To first classify movement skills one has to look at the environment, and how stable and predictable it is.

Skills can be classified as:

  1. Open
  2. Closed
  3. Discrete
  4. Serial
  5. Continuous

An open skill is where the environment is variable, and unpredictable during the action.

Example – driving a car in traffic, as the other drivers are unpredictable.

A closed skill is where the environment is stable and predictable during the action.

Example – Throwing a basketball at a hoop in an empty gym on ones own.

Classifying open, and closed creates two end points of a continuum. Different skills will lie between the continuums as they both have varying degrees of open, and closed characteristics.

Another scheme to take in to account within the open, and closed classification is the – discrete, serial, and continuous classification. These classifications also create another continuum as the many different skills have varying degrees of each classification.

A discrete skill sits on one side of the continuum and usually has a defined beginning, and end, often with a very brief duration of movement.

Example – Throwing a dart at a dartboard.

A continuous skill sits on the other end of the continuum and has no particular beginning, or end, and the behavior may go on for many minutes.

Example – Steering a car on the road.

Right in the middle sits the serial skills that are almost like a group of discrete skills strung together to make up a new, more complicated skilled action.

Example – A gymnastics routine, which is usually completed in X amount of time.

Now that you have an understanding of skills, and how we can further categorize them into different units we can move into another vital piece of the movement puzzle, which is Motor Programs.

Motor Programs

The motor program theory has been around a long time, and has most recently been advanced looking at synaptogenesis. However there is much to be learned from the ‘motor program’ theory.

A motor program is a set of commands that hold details of the skill that is yet to be performed.

When you watch an elite level golfer make a swing and hit a shot you see a fluid motion. That motion is a series of different movements yet they are perceived as one. It can lead you to think, “How does the skilled golfer do so many movements so quickly”

The golfer gives us the impression that the movements may be planned in advance, and then ran without much feedback control.

A fantastic book called ‘Motor and Performance’ by Richard Schmidt, and Tim Lee explains this concept beautifully.

The physics of golf tell us that there is very little time during a golf shot when trying executing a swing. Golfers start the backswing and then transition to the downswing beginning with a shift in pressure from the trailing side of the body to leading side of the body, and then from the ground up, the body starts to speed up, and slow down creating a sequence referred to as the kinematic sequence before the club collides with the ball sending it on its way.

Looking at the example below a golfer has multiple options to choose from regarding their response to hitting a golf shot. There comes a point when a golfer is set up, lined up and is about to make a swing, it is at this point they have these options:

  1. The golfer successfully inhibits the motor program, and the swing is never initiated.
  2. The golfer starts the swing but inhibits the completion of the motor program, resulting in the golfer stopping before the swing has completed the backswing.
  3. The golfer starts the swing, and completes the motor program without attempting to inhibit the swing.

When assessing the golf swing, and skilled movement it must be understood that the complete swing is a set of commands set in motion that is not under conscious control thus results in a golfer inability to alter moments after the swing is initiated. The age-old conscious adjustments at the top of the swing, or just prior to impact are false.


Synaptogenesis is the process that occurs in the brain when one nerve cell is connected to another. This facilitates the transfer of neurons forming different patterns resulting in different regions of the body firing movement. There are trillions of connections on a molecular level meaning the exact same swing can’t be reproduced, even if it looks like it can to the naked eye.

The connection from one cell to another is formed between the axon, and dendrites. The more these connections are used results in a fatty type substance been built around the axon called myelin sheath. The sheath acts like an insulator allowing the neurons that cause movement to travel faster and more precisely, hence the silky smooth golf swings of PGA Tour professionals.

In order to create a synapse, and initiate the above process, the brain must be challenged; otherwise no attempt to connect the cells will occur. This really relates to the blocked, and interleaved practice articles written about quite extensively nowadays. The interleaved theory provides more challenge for the golfer ultimately resulting in more synapses.

Often golfers engage in practice that does not support the building of more synapses. Practice that is challenging creates more connections, and the building of new pathways for neurons to travel. Synaptogenesis is much more like an in depth study of motor programs.

Real world example!

A motor program that we now know more about consists of a series of movements that have been created via the process of synapses. These synapses connect cells allowing neurons to fire in the trillions of different ways they can. It is these patterns of neurons traveling that create skilled muscle movement i.e. the golf swing


We have discussed the classification of skills, a motor program, and synaptogenesis. Now it is time to understand the internal workings of the brain, and body when it is in the act of building skill.

The Conceptual Model

The conceptual model is a basic model of how the human brain (motor region) formulates goal directed movement. It is explained using the simplistic model below so that individuals can understand the step-by-step process that happens when muscles are voluntarily engaged to perform tasks in line with what the same individuals desire (goals).

All that goes on around us that the human brain intakes via its sensory systems (sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste) can be categorized as ‘input’. This input then transitions through multiple stages in the conceptual model in which the residual outcome is movement.

Researchers have found it useful to think of the human being as a processor of information when it comes to producing skilled movement. We are far from computers but in this instance it may be easier to understand thinking in terms of a computer type term ‘information processor’.

Originally this information processing theory was presented in a more simplistic model consisting of:

  1. Input
  2. Human
  3. Output

A major goal of researchers interested in the performance of motor skills is to understand the specific nature of the processes labeled “human”. This is where a more complex system is at work.

Here is the conceptual model detailing the specifics of the human discussed earlier. When it comes to initiating movement the sequence of actions that happens inside the brain are highlighted here:

The conceptual model

We can break the conceptual model down even more so below:

Real world example!

A golfer finds themselves under a tree with low hanging branches to which the hole is positioned in an area that requires the golfer to shape the golf ball from left to right.

  • Step one: Golfer receives input (distance, trees, temperature, lie of golf ball, etc.)
  • Step two: Golfer Identifies the input
  • Step three: ‘Response selection’ where the golfer searches for a response
  • Step four: ‘Movement programming’ where the golfer specifies an appropriate sequence of movements
  • Step five: ‘Motor program’ where neurons are fired in a series, sequence, and pattern resulting in signals
  • Step six: ‘Spinal cord’ where the above signals are sent and directed towards different muscle regions
  • Step seven: ‘Muscles’ that the above signals have been sent to thus initiating movement

And that is how movement occurs regardless of what shot a golfer desires, the process individuals go through is this.

Now lets make things more Practical!


Blocked Practice

Blocked practice is becoming more un-favored in the coaching industry. Golf, and many other domains are seeing the problems and culture that has been created because of this blocked style of practice.

Blocked practice is when a training task is being performed and there is no change over a number of repetitions before switching to another training task.

As much as blocked practice has some benefits, it is not used appropriately and has caused more harm than help. The problem with blocked practice is that it causes an illusion of competence. Blocked practice actually shows results in performance almost instantly (in most cases), which means both coaches, and students admire. This unfortunately creates a false sense of confidence building an illusion of actual competence. I say competence because when tested later in the real time performance environment the results experienced in practice (under blocked conditions) always fail to present themselves.

Blocked practice can be beneficial for a new learner who is unfamiliar with the training task, or anything related to the training task. When learning is brand new to someone it is helpful to provide very little change so the learner can begin to formulate a mental representation of the skills they are trying to acquire. Gradually over a short period of time (under 50 hours) the blocked type of practice is less favorable, and should not be conducted.

Providing little change means the stimulation within the brain is low and slightly easier to grasp.

A blocked example of practice was show in the interleaving article, however here is another example:

First - Putts from 5 feet = 20 learning trials consecutively

Second - Putts from 20 feet = 20 learning trials consecutively

Third - Putts from 40 feet = 20 learning trials consecutively

Conducting practice in this order is only good for a learner of minimum experience and skill level.

Putting practice

Interleaved Practice

Interleaving practice is a concept becoming largely popular and recognized by many of the golf industries top teaching professionals.

Interleaving practice is very simple - it is when 2 or more tasks are completed during practice that are never in the same order.

Real world example!

Rather than hitting 25 putts, then hitting 25 pitch shots, one would complete the same tasks but by hitting 1 putt, then 1 pitch alternately until 25 of each task have been achieved.

By conducting practice this way we present a constant change, which stimulates the brain and forces the learner to think. This is what it means to be actively engaged in the practice task i.e. learning process.

The traditional way of practicing only seems logical however does not replicate how the game is played

The new way of practicing i.e. interleaving, seems far more complex, and time consuming, however represents the real time environment very accurately.

The Spacing Affect

The theory of spacing dates back centuries and simply means - Having some time of disuse between practice sessions, and or practice tasks. This research has been studied further in recent years by Dr. Robert Bjorks.

By spacing out practice sessions, or tasks, the learner is forced to try and recall what was learned in the previous session, which only makes that original learning stronger. The act of remembering strengthens the retrieval process meaning it is more accessible in the future, easier to remember, and easier to bring about.

Spacing can however been used incorrectly, or ineffectively. By having a serious amount of time between learning trials, or practice sessions it becomes almost impossible for the learner to bring about what was originally ‘potentially learned’ meaning the space was wasted time. And conversely having too little time between learning trials, or practice sessions can lead to burn out and overloading.

Coaching tip!

Spacing can be implemented extremely easily into a learners practice. All that is needed is a form of schedule, a willingness to regulate practice time, and time spent on tasks.

  1. Specify specific days of practice, including rest days
  2. Specify practice tasks, including breaks
  3. Review some weeks down the line

The unfortunate aspect of this strategy is that there is no evidence to suggest any exact times to implement the disuse, or downtime, between practice sessions or tasks, although it is noticeable when too much, or too little is done. Stick to the guide steps above and you’ll be pretty close to what’s needed!

The Testing Affect

The testing affect is a simple strategy that can not only bring about an idea of the current level of skill, but also enhance a learner’s current understanding & improve the current level of skill.

Testing is basically a set of activities geared towards providing a situation relative, and representable to the real time performance environment, or the actual performance environment itself, and is measured objectively.

This overarching label of ‘test’ can provide the psychological characteristics and processes that bring about stress, & anxiety. It is these conditions that most performance environments bring about inevitably due to the nature of competition meaning we should present it more often so golfers learn to deal with it quicker.

By creating tests for learners we can provide the necessary stresses that competition will provide, this way learners will actively be engaged with figuring out how to deal with such situations. The mechanisms that mediate skill in stressful conditions will only be learned if practiced under the same, if not more stressful conditions.

Rather than just using explanations and demonstrations in coaching it has been proven to be of more use creating appropriate tests. Any attempt to retrieve something learned earlier, even when no corrective feedback is given, can be considerably more effective in the long term.

Testing has been viewed mostly as a way of measuring, and assessing, rather than learning, and its now time to change that.

If a learner has been presented with a situation that a coach has provided knowledge on in the past, and the learner choses to execute a less than desirable and appropriate shot, then this highlights what was misunderstood or not learned opening the door for a fruitful coaching moment.

Real world example!

Prior to a short game shot, the coach provided the learner with suggestions as to the best possible actions (explanation/demonstration), however the learner in the ‘test’ situation choses a different action. You now know there was a lack of understanding, or lack of learning prior, which opens up a great opportunity to re-learn past information in a practical setting.

Challenge point theory

Challenge point theory is a relatively new concept published by Dr. Mark Guadagnoli, and Dr. Tim Lee. The central idea of this theory is to create practices that are appropriate for the learner. A large emphasis is about the difficulty of the practice task v’s the skill level of the golfer, and what is the most beneficial to optimally developing motor skills.

Dr. Guadagnoli, & Dr. Lee presented the idea with much research suggesting that a new golfer with a low level of skill is better off spending time in practice tasks that are slightly easier, and in a blocked style. Conversely the research suggests that golfers with a higher level of skill (typically more experienced golfers) are better off spending time in practice tasks that are slightly harder, and in an interleaved style.

There is no research to suggest exactly what practice tasks are too difficult, and too easy, however having the awareness will allow for a practice design that is more appropriate.

Coaching tool!

Use this model graph as a guide!

Here is an image derived from the research paper published on ‘Challenge Point Theory’ that visually shows the gradual progression of task difficulty relative to the gradual improvements of the player:

Challenge point theory


Feedback was once believed to be most effective when it is presented to the learner as quickly, and descriptively as possible. This also seems to be quite logical.

Most recently scientists have provided a helpful insight to the amount of feedback appropriate for the varying skill levels, and experience of learners. Research now suggests that providing feedback instantly, and extremely descriptively however is not always the best thing to do.

Feedback is relevant to the particular level of the individual receiving the feedback.

Coaching Tips!

For those golfers with less experience, who posses a skill level that is relatively low, you would be more susceptible to beneficially receiving feedback often, and descriptively.

Golfers with a lot more experience, who posses a skill level that is relatively high, this person would be more susceptible to beneficially receiving feedback less often, and less descriptively.

Here is a diagram to show the differentiation:

Feedback for practice

To Remember!

There are lots of scientific theories that strongly support a newer, and different approach to golf practice. These theories have been around a long time but have struggled to reach the mass market of golf coaches who spend everyday teaching in the trenches. It is only in most recent years that this information has become much more accessible for the bread and butter of golf, which is the golf instructors.

  1. Make practice more unpredictable for the better golfers, and more predictable for the beginner golfers. Follow the graph to adjust throughout the course of their development.
  2. Test more often, and use it as a learning experience, not just a measurement.
  3. Take some time between tasks, and practice sessions. Spacing things out can help.
  4. Consider the amount, and type of feedback based off of skill level. Sometimes what you think is right isn’t.

Final Note

Here at Game Like Training Golf we are committed to providing coaches relative, up to date information, tools, and education on the most current scientific findings related to golf.

Now that you’ve scratched the surface reading this document, try to implement it during your coaching sessions.